Social democracy is back, according to jubilant SPD officials. And after Germany’s oldest political party scores the weakest victory against conservative rival CDU / CSU, it can be tempting to believe that Europe’s center-left is in turmoil.
Not everywhere, however: in France, the Socialist Party shows no sign of resuming its near-erasure in 2017, when it failed the second round of the presidential election and collapsed from 280 deputies to 30 and only 7.4% of the vote. .
The Dutch Labor Party (PvdA), another traditional center-left government party that collapsed to historically low levels in 2017, winning less than 6% of the vote and losing three-quarters of its MPs, failed no better success in the legislative elections last March. year.
And in next month’s elections in the Czech Republic, the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), which has won four of the last six elections and finished second in the others, may not cross the 5% threshold needed for parties return candidates to parliament. .
In Norway, however, after eight years in power, Labor is in talks to form a left-wing coalition, having comfortably become the largest party in this month’s election, a result which means the five Nordic governments are expected to soon be led by Democrats.
The German SPD made its comeback on Sunday, recovering from a catastrophic 20.5% score five years ago – its lowest since 1949 – to narrowly beat the conservatives of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel with a oscillation of more than five percentage points.
Center-left parties run coalition governments in Italy and Spain and lead what increasingly looks like functional opposition in Hungary. Reports of the death of the European center-left may have been somewhat exaggerated.
Reports of her rebirth, however, may also be premature. The 2008 financial crash and its fallout (high unemployment, low standard of living, austerity and reduced public spending) combined with longer-term trends (globalization, automation, immigration) eroded traditional center-left support, in particular for parties who are unlucky enough to find themselves in government.
The far-right populist parties, meanwhile, have played on precisely these concerns, attracting historically center-left voters. On the other end of the spectrum, a new anti-capitalist, anti-globalization and anti-establishment far left has proven to be an equally great threat.
But while all of these factors may help explain the decline of the center-left in recent years, the reasons for this cautious and uneven return – if so – seem as varied and equally ambiguous.
After 16 years of conservative government in Germany and eight in Norway, the center-left (but also other parties) clearly benefited from the voters’ desire for change. “There is turnover, you know,” said Tarik Abou-Chadi, a political scientist at the universities of Zurich and Oxford. “It happens.”
It is also happening against a backdrop of continued fragmentation of European politics, with the small parties getting bigger and the traditional big parties in government – which once reliably obtained 40% of the vote and now struggle to exceed 20% – decrease.
With many more parties in parliament, relatively low scores can guarantee victory, but also make government more difficult. In Norway, Labor may have finished first, as in every election for nearly a century, but it did so with its second worst score since 1924. The SPD vote was barely half of what ‘he won steadily in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Sweden’s Social Democrats clung to power in 2018 with their lowest share since 1908.
âIn fact, the parties of the dominant right lost,â said Abou-Chadi. âThe center-left won, but it did so with historically low scores. In Germany, the left bloc has developed for the first time since 1998, so we may be seeing an underlying change. But it is above all the dominant right that is hitting its own structural crisis.
In the midst of such fragmentation, he said, what matters is “who becomes the left challenger party.” And it may not necessarily be the left center. In Germany, until June it was clearly the Greens, but they slipped. In the Netherlands, it turned out that it was the D66 â, the progressive and socially liberal party that finished second.
Some center-left politicians, including SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz and Norwegian Labor leaders, saw a theme in the pandemic, which they said heightened voters’ sense of social justice. Better wages and conditions for key workers in essential and low-profile jobs have been at the heart of the successful center-left campaigns in both countries.
Analysis of US and French election results suggests the pandemic has boosted traditional party candidates by up to 15 points, in what academics call a “flight to safety” in times of anxiety, center parties -left being more likely to benefit from voters’ desire for strong government institutions, high social spending and social unity.
Covid may also have helped roll back right-wing populist parties in Europe, half of which saw their support plummet during the pandemic – if only by small amounts – as they struggled to adapt their message anti-institutional to the realities of the pandemic.
Some of this can be useful, in some countries. But the overall picture remains one of ever greater fragmentation, unstable and difficult to form coalitions and fickle voters. This will inevitably favor some parties, but probably only temporarily.
“I think it’s a bit early to start celebrating the return of social democracy,” said Jonathan Hopkin, professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics. “These are mediocre results by historical standardsâ¦ and correspond to what we know about party politics today: volatility, fickle voters, growing interest in voting for what were once fringe parties.”
To maintain his lead, Hopkin said, he saw little choice but for the SPD in particular “to embrace fundamental economic change.” Staying with neoliberal policies plus âa few gestures for post-material concernsâ¦ will not get them very far. They must act like a party that exists to challenge capitalism, not to dilute it slightly. “
With barely 25% of the vote and in what shows all the signs of a messy coalition, it may not be easy.