The rumors of the death of Social Democracy in Europe have not been exaggerated at all — an assumption the Social Democrats will hardly accept. Their own diagnosis is that though not very healthy and facing a crisis, they are still very much alive, while skeptics argue to the contrary: the strongest political force in Europe ever, the Social Democrats is dying out and their death may cause of a political paralysis in the continent.
The way the year starts the way it will be
A big election year has come to an end in Europe. It started in Mar 2017 with the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands and finished on Mar 4, 2018, in Italy. And in both cases, Social Democrats were the losers. In between, they lost power in Austria, the Czech Republic and France. The German Social Democrats were the only ones who recorded a victory, but it was more like a Pyrrhic victory as they are the weak link in their grand coalition with the Christian Democrats.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Socialist camp was a big blow not only for Communism but also for the socialist parties of Western Europe, who lost one of their strongest weapons — ideology — and faced a crisis of self-identity. In the 1980s-1990s, they stopped propagating equality and began preaching individualism and political balance in global economy.
In late XX, they deviated towards capitalistic reforms and new models of social relations. As a result, more and more Europeans waved them off. Today Social Democrats in Europe are regarded as parts of ruling elites as their present-day goals and values are very far from what they were in the past.
The existing European order was established after the Cold War and is based on the process of constant economic and political integration of liberal democracies. But it is on the line — shattered by Brexit and authoritarian tendencies in a number of Eastern European states. The possible rule of nationalists and populists in some EU founder states may accelerate the centrifugal processes in the European Social Democratic movement.
And much here depends on whether the mainstream politicians are able to regain the confidence of their voters. For this purpose, they will have to solve a number of problems, like economic inequality, uncontrolled migration and the ensuing sense of insecurity. In order to avoid nationalism, Europe needs to overcome the economic and migration crises as soon as possible as this is the key factor causing displeasure among ordinary Europeans.
For seven decades after the end of WWII, Social Democracy was one of the two pillars of European democracy, the second one being the right center. Experts warn that if the left pillar falls down, Europe will lose stability and predictability and will face growing populism in both camps.
Of course, the left center may survive and transform into some other format, but it will be just a shadow of the self-confident Social Democrats of the past. France and Greece have become good examples of what future awaits Social Democrats in Europe: PS and PASOK polled just 7.4% and 6% in their countries. In some states, including Germany, the extinction of Social Democrats may give birth to a one-party system.
Many say that the crisis of 2008 was the key blow for the European Social Democrats as for many governments it was a surprise. The subsequent policy of austerity was just the last straw, while the root of the problem was the fall of the Socialist camp. It was then that Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder suggested a third way — to mix the economic beliefs of the rightists with the social programs of the leftists. They managed to convince their Social Democrats to embark on the road of reforms and modernization and to adjust their values to new market conditions and that shift was a wake-up call for Social Democrats all over Europe.
That way was not covered in roses. The opponents called Blair, Schroeder and their supporters traitors and blamed them for exposing glass-raised European workers to the blood-freezing challenges of global economy.
Many economists admit that Schroeder’s Agenda 2010 program was the basis of Germany’s current welfare. On the other hand, the serious financial cuts stipulated by that program angered the Germans and cost the German Social Democrats elections in 2005. As a result, in Sept 2017, SPD polled just 20.5% of the votes against over 40% in 1998, and a big part of the lost votes have gone to Die Linke and the Greens.
No surprise that German political analyst and writer Albrecht von Lucke considers Schroeder as the key authors of the Social Democratic crisis in Germany and Europe.
But the key problem of the European Social Democrats is their disunity: lots of left-wing forces — from different greens all over Europe to populist Podemos in Spain — have chipped off the centrist core over the last decades. Most of them had common grounds with the Social Democrats but they all took votes from them.
In France and Austria, the key challenge to Social Democrats is the right-wing camp and it is their fault that that camp is gaining momentum: their support of immigration has lost them plenty of voters. Today millions of Europeans are choosing to vote for the rightists just because they are promising to deport illegal immigrants. Some of them fear that immigrants will grab their jobs, some are concerned for Europe’s cultural identity, others for its security. Those concerns were used by far rights like the National Front in France and AfD in Germany. «And the leftists have nothing to contrapose,» says Lucke.
Alive or dead?
One of the biggest losses was registered in France: the French Socialists first lost a presidential race and, a month later, parliamentary elections. After five years of rule, they polled just 7.4% of the votes and now have just 30 seats against almost 250 when in power. No surprise that after the elections Pierre Moscovici, the French commissioner for the economic affairs of the European Union, said: «The Socialist party? I don’t know whether it is alive or dead.»
And one more example of PS’s decline: last year, one of the oldest members of the party, former IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn enraged his comrades when he said that the party had to self-disband as it had done nothing to modernize itself.
PS’s candidate Benoit Hamon recorded the worst result during the presidential race — just 6.4% of the votes. The loses provoked internal clashes. Hamon’s supporters blamed their comrades for voting for Emmanuel Macron, the latter said that it was Hamon’s fault. On July 1, 2017, Hamon broke away from PS and established his own movement.
The crisis of the French PS started in 2002, when its presidential hopeful, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin failed to qualify for the runoff vote. It was then that the French Socialists decided to change their policy and that was the beginning of the end. The victory of neo-liberal Francois Hollande was just a breather. In 2017, the party faced a disaster.
In Sept 2017, PS even put up for sale its headquarters, a residency located just a few hundreds of meters far from the National Assembly and having a symbolical meaning for the French Socialists. They bought it in 1980 — a year before the election of France’s first Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.
But they don’t look happy, do they?
Last Sunday, Germany overcome the political crisis of the previous five months, but the Germans do not look happy. As many as 66% of the SPD members voted for a ruling coalition with CDU/CSU.
They did that even though they knew that their previous two coalitions with the Christian Democrats had ended in lost elections. During the April congress, the party is supposed to elect a new leader. The most probable candidate to replace Martin Schulz is Andrea Nahles, the former leader of the party’s youth wing.
In the previous Cabinet, Nahles was labor minister. She will not be in the new Cabinet. Instead, she will use her eloquence in the Bundestag, where the SPD will face AfD, the first truly nationalist party elected into the German parliament over the last half a century.
Very soon we may witness the first conflict between the new allies: on Mar 2, SPD submitted a bill suggesting no longer criminalizing «propaganda» of abortions. Their Christian allies will hardly like this initiative.
Former finance minister of Germany, SPD member Peer Steinbrueck said last Friday: «Like the Socialists in France, the SPD is in danger of caring more about anti-discrimination and lifestyle issues than the concerns of the majority of the population.»
SPD’s electorate is quickly shrinking, with more and more voters turning their eyes towards the far-right camp. For example, in 2014, in Cottbus, the German-Polish border, the Social Democrats won a land-sliding victory, while in Sept 2017, they polled just 17% against 29% carried by AfD.
«Every recent grand coalition has weakened the SPD and strengthened the far right», says the Cologne-based film-maker and SPD member Steve Hudson. «The next one could end in the death of the Social Democratic party in Germany.»
The young Germans are also skeptical about SPD’s future and are joining either the Left Party (Die Linke), an expected winner 2021, or the Greens.
«The SPD’s problem is that it is no longer the strongest party in socially relevant circles,» said political scientist and SPD expert Gero Neugebauer. «It has ceded ground to Die Linke and the AfD among the workers, and is losing votes to the Greens amongst the bourgeoisie.»
The falling star of Matteo Renzi
The elections in Italy have become one more nail in the coffin of European Social Democracy. Even the most ardent optimists had no hopes left: Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party was too far behind the 5-Star Movement. The winner was a Silvio Berlusconi-led-center-right coalition. The populists polled almost twice as many votes as the Social Democrats did: 32.2% against 18.9%. And there also was the far-right Lega led by Matteo Salvini, who received as much as 17.7%.
As a result, once a model of future European Social Democrat, Renzi is now going to resign. He may be foxing as he knows that the coalition talks may drag for months and he will be able to use this time for preventing his comrades from allying with the 5 Stars.
«If anybody wants to support the right or the 5 Stars should make this public. I believe that this will be a big tragic mistake,» Renzi said on Facebook.
But there are lots of Democrats who think otherwise. They believe that PD might restrain the Eurosceptical 5 Stars in the new Italian government. Before the elections, the 5 Stars were going to organize a referendum on Italy’s exit from the EU.
In 2014, Renzi polled over 40% of the votes due to his promise to reanimate the Italian economy. Millions of Italians believed him in hope to see old good times back. But Renzi failed to keep his promise: the economy improved a bit, but few people felt the difference.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of Italians rushed to join the populists. Now the Italian Democrats are losing the center — old educated Italians. Since 2009, the party’s membership has almost halved to just 400,000 people.
The victories of young Emmanuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz have inspired the Social Democrats.
Michael Bröning, Head of the International Policy Department of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, believes that the European Social Democrats still have a role to play. «Their problem is that they have forgotten how to mobilize their resources for a struggle. Once they remember it, they will have to do a lot,» Bröning says.