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Posted on 9 June 2009 at 0:00 GMT

Euro elections 2009: Europe on the edge

Little or no confidence in governments, but no genuine socialist alternative

Last week's European elections gave a snapshot, albeit often distorted by low turnouts, of the continent's anxious mood and the distrust, if not hostility, to most governments. In a number of countries, like Britain, Greece, Ireland and Hungary, the ruling parties suffered dramatic reverses. But generally, with a few exceptions, this did not lead to a growth in support for the left or even green forces, instead it was expressed in a further drop in voter turnout and increases for right nationalist or far-right parties.

Robert Bechert, CWI

Europe is sinking into a deep recession, the worst since the 1930s. Just before the election the European Central Bank worsened its forecast drop in the 16 country eurozone's GDP to a fall of 5.1% this year.

This was the background to the general rebuff to most ruling parties and the search, amongst those who voted for an alternative. Even the record low turnout in these elections showed, alongside alienation from the EU and the correct understanding that the so-called European Parliament was powerless, a rejection of many of the established parties.

But while the gains for right nationalist and far right parties has captured most headlines the victory of Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) candidate who won one of Dublin's Euro seats, illustrated how it is possible to build conscious support on the basis of sinking roots in the working class, establishing a tradition of struggle and arguing for socialist policies. But unfortunately this was not the general experience in this election. Only the Left Bloc in Portugal and the "Peoples Movement against the EU" in Denmark, albeit on a weaker political programme, scored significant left successes.

From the onset of this crisis it has been absolutely clear that it is one caused by the capitalist markets themselves. At no stage has it been possible for the capitalist classes to blame this economic calamity on the working class, the trade unions or 'socialism'. Historically it would have been expected that this would have resulted, possibly after a pause, in a surge in support for parties that stood opposed to capitalism, or which at least offered a different vision of society.

Already there have been large scale protests, including both demonstrations and one day general strikes, in a series of European countries. Particularly in France these took the character of a rising tide of opposition both to the capitalists' attempt to unload the effects of the crisis onto the working and middle classes, and to the government. But other countries, like Belgium, Greece and Portugal, have also seen significant actions.

However, nearly all of the trade union leaders did not seek to build upon these first steps to create a wider movement. Instead the protests were left as isolated actions, often simply used as safety values to let anger be expressed or, in the case of some of the European Trade Union Confederation's May demos as an attempt to rally electoral support for the social democratic parties.

Lack of a workers alternative opens way for the right

This blunting of struggle was compounded by the fact that in a vast majority of EU countries there are currently no large or mass parties attempting to build serious opposition to the effects of this crisis. This is not accidental. The Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) has argued since the early 1990s that generally most countries no longer have any mass or significant parties which oppose capitalism. This is the result of a combination of the capitalists' ideological offensive after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the transformation of most of the former bourgeois workers' parties (parties with a working class base and a pro-capitalist leadership) into wholly capitalist parties.

This has been the capitalists' only 'silver lining' in this crisis. It has meant that, so far, the economic crisis has not given rise to large scale active opposition to capitalism itself. In many European countries workers, youth and sections of the middle class have proclaimed that "we will not pay for your crisis". This call is a good starting point for building resistance to job losses, falling living standards and social cuts, but it is only a beginning.

The capitalist crisis poses the issue of opposing the capitalist system itself and advocating a socialist alternative. But currently in Europe, apart from the CWI, there are very few forces in the workers' movement actively linking together to fight the onslaught of the crisis with building support for socialism. This opened the way for the right's election successes.

In a number of countries, but not Belgium, centre-right parties gained, or at least suffered fewer losses than others. Often this was a result, as with Sarkozy in France, of changing tack and criticising the excesses of capitalism or, as with Merkel in Germany, massively extending government funding for short-time working to limit job losses.

Far right gains

But across the EU, parties further to the right gained, if not in actual votes then in percentage shares. Migration became a key issue with right wing parties exploiting workers' fears of migrants, from both within and outside the EU, taking jobs and 'overloading' services. Racism, hostility to Muslims, gypsies and, in Austria, semi-veiled anti-Semitism were either significant factors or simply used in this election. Added to that, often it was only the far-right parties that expressed the popular anger against the EU itself, both its undemocratic essence and its domination by the big European powers.

The result is that, generally on the surface, this election appears to show a rightward shift in Europe, and in some countries, definite advances for far-right parties. The most striking example of this was the 769,000 votes, 17%, that the far-right PVV gained in the Netherlands in its first Euro election, which made it the second largest party. But right wing nationalist and far-right parties also made significant gains in Britain, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Romania and others.

However in Germany where the Left Party, despite its weaknesses, is still seen as the major opponent of attacks on living standards, the total national far-right vote hardly changed although they did make gains in some of the local elections that took place simultaneously.

Capitalist commentators are partly able to describe the election results as a rightward shift because the official 'socialists', who often suffered losses in this election, were the former workers' parties. They have carried out neoliberal policies and are increasingly seen as little different from the centre-right. Where these parties are in office, as in Austria, Britain, Germany and Spain, they suffered losses. In the first three of these countries they scored record low votes, in Germany despite the fact that the SPD tried to present a slightly more 'worker friendly' image. In some countries where these parties are in opposition, they gained, as they are seen as a 'lesser evil'. Thus in Sweden they came top with 24.6% and likewise in Greece with 36.6%. However the Socialist Party (PS) in France, although currently out of office, suffered from the memory of what it had done while in government and, with 16.48%, were only 0.20% ahead of the Greens.

In three countries the main right wing government parties came top of the vote, but this was often with low numbers. In France, Sarkozy claimed success with 28% of the vote, ignoring the fact that 72% of those who voted opposed his party. While in Germany, Chancellor Merkel's CDU, despite retaining top spot, polled 1,343,000 less votes than in 2004. The Polish government got the highest incumbent vote, 44%, but only 24% bothered to vote, meaning it had the active support of less than 12% of the electorate.

Very few governments retained their support. The Italian government was one of those that did, winning 45%, a vote that showed Berlusconi's new PdL falling compared with the April 2008 general election while gaining a little compared with the last European election in 2004, but with a near doubling for the far-right Lega Nord to over 10%. Italy is one of the countries that illustrated a theme of this election, the weakness of a genuine socialist alternative, despite the raging capitalist economic crisis.

Berlusconi's strength is fundamentally the result of disappointment with centre-left governments, most recently the late 'Olive Tree' coalition, and the failure of the Party of Communist Refoundation (Prc). Founded in 1991 the Prc previously had significant support, not just electorally but in workplaces and society, but this was squandered as its leaders joined capitalist governments instead of fighting to win support for socialist polices. The result is that the Prc is near to extinction. Compared with 2004, the total 'communist' vote fell from 2,757,000 to 1,032,000 (8.47% to 3.37%), while the 'soft left/green' vote fell from 1,467,000 to 955,000 (4.51% to 3.12%). But there is still a significant left bloc within Italy. The Prc itself, in alliance with the Italian Communists and European Left, won 1,032,000 votes, while the Communist Workers won 166,000. This support still provides a powerful basis for a party based on the genuine ideas of Marxism, within Italy.

Left gains in some countries

Against this general background, the Socialist Party (SP) victory of Joe Higgins in Ireland was in marked contrast to what happened in the rest of Europe. The SP won 50,510 (12.4%) first preference votes in Dublin, more than doubling its vote compared to its 23,218 in 2004. This was a conscious vote for the SP, based on its programme and record, because it was running in competition with the opposition Irish Labour Party whose Dublin first preference vote also rose, from 54,344 to 83,741 and Sinn Fein whose outgoing MEP's first vote fell from 60,395 to 47,928.

Joe's result was only comparable to the Left Bloc (BE) in Portugal that more than doubled to 381,000 votes (10.7%), just overtaking the Communist Party led CDU alliance's 379,500 votes, and the "Peoples' Movement against the EU" in Denmark that increased its vote from 97,986 to 168,035 (7.18%).

New left formations

Since the early 1990s the CWI has argued that the transformation of the former social democratic and 'communist' parties means it is necessary to argue that, alongside building the forces of socialism, steps are also required to rebuild independent workers' political parties. Such parties could provide both a focal point for opposing the capitalist offensive and an arena in which socialist ideas can be debated.

Recent years have seen a number of attempts to form new left parties. This election saw in Britain a significant step towards this when the main rail workers' union sponsored an election alliance, "No2EU, Yes to Democracy", which involved the Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales), the Communist Party of Britain amongst others, that gained 1%.

But many of the new parties have not had the combination of serious activity and clear policies that are needed to construct real, lasting forces. It is a struggle to build new parties, particularly when the habit of voting for the former workers' parties still exists and when they appear to be a 'lesser evil' or something which may be able to gain some concessions. However a combination of events, experience and a new party's activities can lay the basis for a significant new force, something Dublin showed in outline.

But, generally speaking, the new left parties did not make a dramatic impact. Partly this was because many had moved rightwards, refusing to campaign as socialists and did not present their programmes and demands in a clear, determined fashion.

In Germany, the Left Party, in comparison with the former PDS in 2004, gained 390,000 votes and a small percentage increase to 7.5%, but this is around half the opinion poll figures it had been receiving a year ago and below its own "10 plusx%" target. Similarly in Greece, the left alliance Syriza scored 4.7%, slightly up on its 4.16% in 2004, but way down on the 18% it had reached in opinion polls in 2008.

Unfortunately a similar situation developed with the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France, which received 4.8% of the vote, compared with the 9% it registered in opinion polls when it was formed in January 2009. A key force in forming the NPA was the former LCR, and the NPA's percentage vote was a rise on the 2.56% that the LCR won in 2004 in alliance with the LO (the LO was at 1.2% in this election). But this 4.8% is disappointing compared to the 4.25% that the effective leader of the NPA, Olivier Besancenot, won for the LCR in the 2002 Presidential election which also saw the LO gain 5.72%.

Some of the 'older' left formations stagnated, like the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, partly in this case because of the party leadership's move towards the right, especially its participation in local government coalitions with capitalist parties and a nationalistic opposition to the EU. Such developments can spell doom for these new parties, whether it be in terms of virtual collapse as appears to be occurring with the Prc in Italy or in these parties simply becoming small formations with little prospect of developing as mass forces.

In some countries the weakness of these new parties meant that Green parties picked up support from potentially left voters, especially in France, where Europe Ecologie gained 16.2%, and also in Britain, Netherlands and the Walloon part of Belgium. The 7.1% won by the Pirate party in Sweden, a party against state surveillance and defending free internet file sharing, was an indication of the anti-establishment mood, especially amongst young people.

Opportunities ahead for genuine socialists

Overall, these elections give an indication of the instability developing in Europe. The victory of the Socialist Party in Dublin and the doubling of the Left Bloc's vote in Portugal, although with the more modest increases in left votes elsewhere, indicate the possibilities. The SP's Dublin result shows that it is possible to win support for socialist ideas even when many workers and youth are voting for a 'lesser evil', while the Left Bloc's result shows what is possible when an apparent 'lesser evil', in this case the Portuguese 'Socialist' Party, is in office and carrying out capitalist policies.

Many European workers, youth and members of the middle class are fearful of the future and at the same time hope that this economic crisis will soon pass. Unfortunately that will not be the case. As it becomes understood that high economic growth rates will not return, that mass unemployment will remain and that the capitalists will demand further cuts in living standards, the necessity to struggle will begin to be understood. This will create real opportunities to build significant forces that can struggle for socialism. But this will not be automatic. It will require a clear programme and a conscious strategy to build. The significant far-right votes in this election are a warning that if this not done, reactionary forces will try to gain from the social turmoil that lies ahead.

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