The recent meeting of the SPD’s candidate for German Chancellor, Peer Steinbrueck, at Warsaw University took place in an atmosphere of optimism. The feeling was that the left is heading towards victory in the EU’s largest and most important economy. Speaking at the meeting, Aleksander Kwaśniewski remarked that the last time he had shared a platform with Adam Michnik was during a similar meeting before the election of Francois Hollande as President of France. He joked that he hoped they would bring Steinbrueck similar luck, and we were left anticipating a victory in Germany that would provide the European left with a new opportunity to shape the future of a Europe that remains in the economic doldrums.
Although Kwaśniewski’s remark was meant as a light-hearted quip, it reveals much about the current situation facing the European left. On the one hand, social democratic parties have the opportunity to take advantage of the unpopularity of many right-wing governments throughout Europe. This was certainly the case in France, where the electorate chose Hollande and his Socialist Party as an alternative to Sarkozy’s failed administration. This scenario may repeat in Germany, where an economic slowdown is weakening support for Merkel and her party. It is certainly probable that the British Labour Party will be able to capitalise on the growing unpopularity of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government at the next general election.
But move further into the peripheries of Europe, where the crisis has hit the hardest, and the picture does not look quite so rosy. In Spain, where support for the ruling right wing party has nearly halved since the last elections, the Socialist Party’s support still remains lower at just 20%. Support for Greek’s social democratic party slumped during last year’s parliamentary elections, with the more radical Syriza party overtaking them as the main representative of the Greek left. These centre-left parties lost support due to them implementing policies of austerity whilst in government, that helped to further erode the living standards of their populations.
A similar situation is recurring presently in France. Just a year after being elected as President, Hollande has suffered an unprecedented fall in popularity. Nearly 70% of society has declared itself as being disappointed with his performance and according to opinion polls Sarkozy would win a comfortable majority if an election were now to be held. Hollande and his party are losing the support of many of their core supporters, and worryingly many disaffected voters are now looking to the far-right Front Nationale (FN) as an alternative. For example, in a recent re-run election for a seat in the National Assembly, the Socialist Party candidate was defeated at the first round and during the second round of voting the centre-right candidate only narrowly beat his rival from the FN (gaining 51.4% of the vote against the FN’s 48.6%).
The reason for the slump in support for Hollande, has been his administration’s inability to reverse the country’s economic decline. France has just entered a ‘triple dip’ recession, after its economy declined by 0.2% in the first quarter of 2013. The French economy is now 0.4% smaller than when Hollande took office a year ago and unemployment is approaching 11%.
Despite being elected on a political platform opposing the austerity policies of Sarkozy, Hollande has essentially continued with the economic programme of his predecessor. He has argued that France has to undergo a period of public spending cuts and tax rises in order to make the French economy more ‘competitive’. Public sector jobs are being cut and their salaries frozen. Although these austerity policies are mild compared with that in many other European countries, deficit reduction has become the primary aim of the government. The lack of an alternative investment policy, to boost growth and jobs, is fuelling the increasing unpopularity of Hollande in French society.
The lesson for the European left is not only that austerity does not work, but that it leads to a rapid fall in support for left governing parties. As the left is a political movement that is supposed to protect workers and society’s excluded, when it does the opposite it tends to be severely punished. Furthermore, the combination of an economic downturn and an unpopular left creates the perfect conditions for the rise of xenophobia and racism upon which the far-right thrive.
The Polish left is not excluded from this general process, although its circumstances are indeed unique. The SLD has still not recovered from the failures of its last term in office, which led to such a large collapse in its vote, that two parties from the right have been able to dominate politics for nearly a decade. Support for the PO government is beginning to wane, driven by an economy that is now stagnating (GDP only rose by 0.4% in the first quarter of 2013). This is opening up a new period of uncertainty and unpredictability in Polish politics.
The likes of Kwaśniewski and Michink will continue to promote the idea that the left should seek an alliance with the liberal centre. The decline and political fragmentation of PO may lead to some desperate liberal currents inside the party to look for new alliances on the left. All such political projects (the latest being Europa Plus) have ended in political failure for the Polish left. Even if it were able to gain some political power (e.g. through the SLD entering a coalition government with PO) this shortcut to government would leave it tied to an economic programme that would worsen the living standards of the population. As the experiences of France and beyond have shown this would only harm the left, further erode its remaining social support and open up the way for the most divisive elements on the right to grow.