Talking up the defeat of mainstream parties, the mainstream media justifies the move rightwards. But there is another side, writes Alastair Stephens
Much of the media seem to have made up their minds a long time ago about the story of the Euro elections: a right-wing landslide of Euroscepticism washing across the continent, sweeping all before it, and in particular besting the left.
The BBC’s comment that “Eurosceptic and far-right parties have seized ground in elections to the European parliament, in what France's PM called a "political earthquake"’ was typical of this school of thought.
A detailed look at the results of the elections, however, does not necessarily bear this narrative out.
That is not to say that nothing happened, or that it’s all just business as usual. There has been wide-scale rejection of the establishment parties, and some electoral upheavals. But this has been uneven across the continent. In particular, it has more pronounced in the bailout countries than the northern core of Germany and Scandinavia.
The most immediate example of a right-wing Eurosceptic party winning is of course Britain. Even here, though, the narrative of the “right-wing tide” does not explain everything. The main losers were the Tories rather than Labour, who of course also won the contemporaneous local elections.
Still, the commentariat weren’t going to let that stop them from projecting the right-wing insurgency story onto the whole of Europe. That there is popular fear of European integration and a rise of public concern about immigration is a line they have been pushing for some time.
It is the same explanation they are now putting as mass rejection of establishment parties across Europe. A move to the left is not something they are about to report. You only have to imagine the headline “Left-wing backlash against austerity sweeps the continent” to realise how unlikely you are to come across reports like this in our current media landscape.
The French shock
The media figurehead for the right-wing backlash is Marine Le Pen.
The situation in France is very worrying. The National Front came first, but with just 10% of registered voters expressing their support. Their first place is, as such, a reflection of the decline of the establishment parties as it is of the success of fascism in France.
Virtually every other party lost out. The Socialists continued their abysmal set of results, but the right wing UMP also lost votes, as did the Greens. Those parties that have implemented government austerity were punished.
Melenchon’s Left Front managed to maintain its vote, whilst the far left continued their electoral decline.
The Italian anomaly
The other, less report, big shock of the night was the centre-left landslide in Italy.
The situation in Italy is odd. The Italian Prime Minister is just 39 and is not, and has never been, a member of parliament. But then the other two main party leaders are not in Parliament, either. One is Silvio Berlusconi, kicked out for corruption, and currently doing community service in an old people’s home. The other leader is Beppe Grillo, a ranting comedian. All unusual by any normal standards. The Italian crisis occurring against the background of the European economic crisis, but with features very peculiar to itself.
The Euro election and the concurrent local and regional elections were a landslide for the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which took 40% of the vote. They also came top of the poll in every region of the country including the strongholds of the right in the North East and North West (including the rich regions of Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto). These were their best ever results in the local and regional elections. The PD again conquered Piedmont and swept through areas they had not won for years.
The right did badly, and in particular Berlusconi’s relaunched Forza Italia slumped to just 16%.
Grillo’s Five Star Movement (5SM) suffered what La Repubblica described as “an unbelievable, unexpected and devastating flop”. Having predicted victory, 5SM finished 20 points behind the PD. Grillo is now probably regretting his prediction that they would win and saying that if they didn’t he would “go home”. The defeat it has created is a first class crisis for Five Star.
The radical left, however, had a success after years of bad results and infighting. An alliance was created in January following an appeal published in Il Manifesto by seven veteran leftists, calling for a joint list in support of the candidacy of Alexis Tsipras for the European Commission. (Each of the main groups in the European Parliament had put forward candidates for the post.)
Running as joint list entitled “Another Europe - with Tsipras”, it brought together most of the parties to the left of the PD, including Nicchi Vendola’s SEL and Rifondazione Comunista, along with social movements. It elected three MEPs, the radical left’s best result in years. The campaign reinvigorated the left, and there is now talk of an Italian Syriza.
Though a clear victory for the left in general, the Italian result was full of ambiguity. The Democrats are fiercely pro-European, and are carrying out austerity in government. But Renzi is a Blair-like figure (the early Blair rather than the later warmonger), and is also pushing liberal measures such as the promotion of younger people, women and ethnic minorities - a shock to the Italian body politic, still dominated by elderly white men.
Rejection of Austerity
Whilst the result in Italy may represent a clear, if ambiguous, victory for the left, elsewhere the message was quite obvious. Parties supporting and implementing austerity were punished.
The clearest example of this is Greece, where Syriza topped the poll beating the conservative New Democracy by four points. The poor showing for ND’s coalition partner, the formerly dominant social democratic party Pasok (now running as the “Olive Tree”), will weaken the government yet further. Pasok scraped 8% of the vote, down from 40% five years ago.
Syriza also won in the regional elections in Attica, which contains Athens and 30% of the population of Greece.
The result was an extraordinary victory considering the propaganda war which Greece’s and Europe’s ruling classes have mounted against the party. After the victory Alexis Tsipras said that “Tomorrow Europe will be talking about Syriza. The Europeans celebrate the defeat of austerity in the country that the European leadership chose as the guinea-pig of the crisis.”
He couldn’t have predicted that the British media would ignore Syriza’s victory to talk about the growth of the vote for Golden Dawn, up to 9%. This is of course of great concern, but they are still far behind Syriza.
In Spain, rejection of austerity meant both that both the governing conservative Popular Party and the opposition Socialist Party lose votes. The Socialists were of course swept from power in 2011 after inflicting a massive program of austerity on the country that saw unemployment rise to Europe’s highest level at 25%. The two parties used to take 80% of the vote between them. On Sunday they took just 60%. The biggest winners were the radical left.
A new left party to emerge out of the Indigñados movement called Podemos (“We Can”) took 8%, despite only having existed for three months. The United Left, based on the Communist Party, saw its vote go up six points to 10%, its best result since the 1990s. The far right had no impact in the election at all.
So in Spain the picture is of no far right, big losses for austerity parties and 18% for the anti-austerity left. Not the picture reported here. In neighbouring Portugal, the ruling conservative party lost votes to the Socialists.
In our neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, the ruling Fine Gael was beaten by Fianna Fail. Fine Gael, traditionally a liberal party of business was always going to be less affected by austerity than its smaller partner in coalition, the Labour Party. They slumped to just 6%, a tremendous reversal compared to the general election in 2011 when they took 20% and for the first time beat Fianna Fail into third place.
They achieved that historic peak in a backlash against austerity. Following this by implementing austerity and attacking their own voters has proved disastrous for them.
The space they have left has been filled by Sinn Fein, which sits with the radical left GUE-NGL group in the European Parliament. They took 17%, a big step up from the 7% of the vote in the 2011 general election.
Another success for the left was the victory in a parliamentary by-election for Dublin West of the Socialist Party candidate Ruth Coppinger who now joins the five other radical left members of the Dàil.
A right wing north?
In Germany, the conservative CDU had its worst ever result in European elections, and the Social Democrats made up some lost ground, but the surprise of the night was the Alternative for Germany, a conservative anti-single currency party which took 7%. The vote for Die Linke, the Left Party, fell marginally to 7.39%, but was otherwise consistent. The German Greens, who a significantly to the right of their UK counterparts, saw their vote fall by 1.4% to 10.7%.
Whilst the far right Danish People's party topped the poll in Denmark, the Geert Wilder’s Islamophobic, far right Freedom Party in the Netherlands slipped compared to previous elections.
In Sweden, the Green Party beat the main conservative party, the Moderates, into third place with Socials Democrats coming top.
A different story in the East
The former Eastern bloc countries, having very different party systems as a result of their different history, have also in general continued in their own political cycles, not unrelated to the world economic crisis, but different from the rest of Europe. Here nationalism remains dominant.
The politics of Poland, by far the largest of the new EU members, have remained fairly stable partly as a result of its economic growth, which continued through the global slump.
The situation is different in Hungary where the ruling Fidesz have continued on an increasingly nationalist line. The fascist Jobbik have maintained their growth but without a major breakthrough.
The problem in both countries, as across much of Eastern Europe, is the lack of a genuine left. Where there should be one there is usually a former Communist Party mostly supported by elderly nostalgics.
Forecast: continued instability across the continent
As the Great Recession struck commentators were fond of telling us that this would mean defeat for the left as people turned to a selfish and hard-nosed right. Indeed, recent years have been hard. However, the discontent caused by years of hardship, and continuing demands for sacrifice with precious little reward, is now bubbling to the surface.
Different parties are channelling this in different places. But it is not true that this represents yet another step to the right. In many places it is the left that is again reviving. Across the board though it does represent a major crisis for the establishment parties, of both left and right, who have united for three decades in their pursuit of neoliberalism. They now face long term decline and increased political instability as a result.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.