By Chris Barry
Francois Hollande’s recent victory in the French presidential elections represents a welcome shift to the left in the balance of European politics. It has indeed been a very long time – thirty-one years – since the last election of a socialist French president. This fact, coupled with Hollande’s insistence that his victory represents a new, collective will to break with the logic of austerity, means that Europe may well be heading in a new direction.
This gradual move leftwards was reflected too in the UK local elections, in which Labour seized control of 32 councils across the country, making impressive gains in Birmingham and also managing to defend Glasgow in the face of strong SNP support. In a post-election interview with the Daily Telegraph, Ed Miliband, like Hollande, argued that his party’s success had to do with the fact that “there is austerity and things aren’t getting any better”.
However, one has only to scratch at the surface of these victories to see that the future may not be all red roses and responsible capitalism. In the local elections in Britain, just one in every three voters chose to make the trip to the polling booth. The last time participation was that low was in 2000. For sure, twelve years is not a very long time, though let it not be forgotten that at that time the economy was on the up, unemployment was relatively low and New Labour commanded a massive majority. Now, in 2012, with the economy having dipped into recession for the second time in three years and unemployment at over 2.7 million, widespread voter apathy becomes a lot more significant.
Furthermore, despite Hollande’s victory in the French elections, it is important to remind oneself that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National (CFN) recorded their biggest ever result in the first round of a presidential election, with 18 percent of the vote. Add to that the troubling statistic that over 2 million French voters, predominantly in strong FN regions, chose to spoil their ballots in the second round and we can see that in Europe there is a growing crisis of the
This widespread dissatisfaction with centrist politics does not manifest itself solely in gains for the far-right. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche, created in 2009 as a broad coalition of the left in France, polled the highest figures for a left party in over thirty years. Mélenchon’s policies, which included the introduction of a maximum wage and the fi rm rejection of neoliberal EU fiscal pacts, even polled around 16 percent in some cities. In the Netherlands too, despite continuing support for the Islamophobic Party for Freedom, it is the Socialist Party, a former minority in parliament, that is coming first or second in opinion polls.
This rejection of austerity reached its heightened expression in Greece on 6th May. In spite of the pre-election hope that the centre-right New Democracy (ND) and centre-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) could form a stable coalition and continue with the austerity plan agreed upon by Greece’s creditors, it was Syriza, the left coalition, who came second with 16.8 percent of the overall vote. Chryssi Avghi (Golden Dawn), a neo-Nazi movement, won seven percent of the vote and will also enter parliament.
The typical response of the mainstream media to Syriza’s huge vote share has been to downplay its significance, with many commenting that it is akin to a first round protest vote. Still others have been unable to look past its immediate effects on market stability. Such commentators would do well to look at some of Syriza’s conditions for a coalition. These include the immediate cancellation of all impending measures that will impoverish Greeks further, the cancellation of all measures that undermine workers’ rights and a full investigation into the actual causes of Greece’s public deficit.
Support for such demands shows that as the crisis has deepened and the central contradictions and iniquities of capitalism have become perceptible, many have begun to question the system as it stands.
Politicians of the liberal centre-ground should take heed of this development, just as they should be profoundly concerned with the growth of the far-right.
Yet so tied are Europe’s leaders to fiscal austerity and a centrist political economy that many predict Hollande will be unable to change the former ‘Merkozy’ consensus. Indeed, the Lisbon Treaty itself prohibits any sort of socialised economy. Meanwhile, politics in Europe is becoming increasingly radicalised and, for the moment, centrist parties are not delivering any answers. What is more, when a crisis becomes systemic and governments, no matter the level of public opposition, are unable to do anything but remain rigidly allied to the very same system, democracy itself becomes endangered. At present, Greece remains the focal point of this political and economic crisis. It remains to be seen how far this contagion will spread into the rest of stricken Europe.