- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Throughout Europe, the left is in dire straits, being trounced in national elections and thrown out of office. Just five of the European Union’s 27 member states have governments led by the left, and the left appears set to lose power in Spain, the only large member state that has such a government.

In 2007, the French Socialists lost their third straight presidential election. In 2009, the German Social Democrats had their worst election defeat since the establishment of the federal republic. Last year, the British Labor Party suffered its largest loss in nearly 80 years. In Italy, the left is too divided and leaderless to put even an embattled and scandal-ridden Silvio Berlusconi in danger. The Polish Socialists failed to garner more than 13 percent of the vote in the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections, and opinion polls for this fall’s parliamentary elections predict they will gain little more.

The left’s misfortunes are all the more startling given the current economic climate. Voters could be expected to consider the financial crisis and the worst economic recession since World War II as repudiations of the free market and the parties that defend it. They did not. Instead, they deserted the left. Throughout Europe, voters are giving their support to the trusted, traditional parties of government, the parties of the right. They prefer cautious stewardship of the economy over grand stimulus spending plans.

The decline of the left started long before the financial crisis. Not only did it never overcome the fall of the Berlin Wall and the blow that delivered to socialist ideology, it never recovered from the economic downturn in the early 1980s and the resulting crisis of the European welfare state.

In that downturn, voters across Europe turned to the right. The leaders of the right moved policy away from the old welfare state that had failed to deal with higher production prices and increased international competition. They cut taxes, privatized state-owned companies and created a European internal market. Voters rewarded them by keeping them in office.

In 30 years, the left has failed to come up with a credible answer to the crisis of the welfare state. It has not managed to formulate clear ideas on how to preserve the European social model in a global economic environment.

The left worked its way back to power in the 1990s by moving to the center. Gone were the days when it sought to nationalize major private companies or planned to leave NATO and the EU. Its success proved to be short-lived, however. In moving to the center, the main parties of the left lost their identity. They pursued the policies of the right, without the rough edges, socially more liberal and often in a more media-savvy manner. They failed to present a substantively different alternative, however. And that is still true today.

The centrist policies the left pursued in the 1990s appealed to highly educated professionals but were less popular with the left’s traditional working-class base. In response, its base fled to the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Internal divisions weakened the left and kept it from power. In France, the main candidate of the left did not even make it to the second round of the presidential race in 2002, while the eight candidates to his left together garnered more than a quarter of the vote. In the 2009 German elections, the Social Democrats got just 23 percent, whereas the Greens and the Left Party together won more than 26 percent. In addition the left lost working-class voters to the extreme-right across Europe.

In the meantime, a new generation, including Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, took charge on the right. These leaders were well-known to the public and presented clear plans for reform long before they took control of government. The left has no such leaders. Who leads the left in Germany, France or Italy, and what are their plans?

To get back to power, the left will have to demonstrate leadership, overcome its internal divisions and present ideas that attract the support of its traditional base as well as centrist voters. This is particularly difficult because its base has a hard time adjusting to the global economic environment and the pressures that increased competition puts on the welfare state and the benefits it receives from such a state.

Alternatively, the left could just wait for the right to stumble. Governing during economic crises requires implementing unpopular measures, and at some point, the right may pay a price for them. The left already is doing well in opinion polls. Denmark is electing a new parliament this fall and may well be the first to turn to the left. If the left does not address its fundamental problems, however, its political recovery will be fleeting. For its recovery to last, it will need to overcome its internal differences and come up with a credible answer to the crisis of the welfare state, an answer that attracts voters from the center and the left.

Christophe Crombez is a national fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

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