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A red carnation lying on the pavement
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

How are Europe's Social Democrats faring?

Christoph Hasselbach
March 5, 2018

Social Democrats are losing support almost everywhere in the EU, sometimes so dramatically that they have lost their role as center-left mainstream parties. DW looks where they've been losing influence.



There is hardly any other country in Europe that has seen such a decline for the Social Democrats as France. In 2012, the Socialist Party (PS) still had an absolute majority in the National Assembly and, with Francois Hollande, provided the president of the Republic. In 2017 elections, its presidential candidate received just over 6 percent of the votes, coming in fifth. Then, in the parliamentary elections, the party barely managed to achieve much more.

The PS is traditionally a particularly left-wing party, much farther left than Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD). It had its heyday in the 1980s, but nowadays it is being crushed between forces that are still further to the left, and the right-wing populist Front National. With policies opposing foreigners and globalization, and favoring economic isolation instead, the Front National also appeals to many French people who are afraid of downwards social mobility.

Read more: France: Marine Le Pen charged for posting images of Islamic State atrocities

French President Emmanuel Macron standing on a red carpet, with former French President Hollande.
Former French President Francois Hollande and his social democrats lost a significant amount of supportImage: Reuters/P. Kovarik

The Netherlands

The Dutch Labor Party, PvdA, fared similarly last year. The once proud party, which provided three prime ministers in the postwar period, achieved the worst result by far in its 70-year history. It fell to 5.7 percent, a loss of 19 percentage points compared to 2012.

Read more: Netherlands: Coalition deal reached after 209 days

For the PvdA, the traditionally strong diversification of the Dutch party system has been disastrous. It has had to share its center-left position with the Socialist Party, the Left-Green Party and the D66, which all appeal to similar voters. Nevertheless, the PvdA was the left-wing leader in 2012 with 25 percent of the vote. But by 2017, it had been significantly overtaken by all three other left-wing parties. The rise of Geert Wilder's right-wing populists has proved a struggle for the Dutch Social Democrats.

The United Kingdom

The British Labour Party's resurgence shows that the story of Europe's Social Democrats is not just a tale of woe. In the 1990s, Tony Blair set the then far left-wing party with its "New Labour" label on a course of modernization and, after many years in the opposition, led it to government. Blair believed in a "third way" between Thatcherism and old school socialism. This was a successful and popular policy for years. The British involvement in the Iraq war, however, brought the Labour prime minister much criticism and a loss of credibility.

The British Labour party conference, with Jeremy Corbyn standing at a podium.
Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in winning over a large percentage of Britain's youth voteImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot/H. Yan

However, since leftist politician Jeremy Corbyn became party leader in 2015, some of the older recipes  —such as nationalization of key industries and heavily taxing the rich — have been revived. Since then, there has been a sharp rise in the number of members, which has reached levels unheard of for almost 40 years. Young people, in particular, are joining the Labour Party. The most recent elections for House of Commons in 2017 were once again won by the conservatives under Theresa May, but only just ahead of Labour.

Read more: Does Labour's Jeremy Corbyn show Germany's SPD a way forward?


Sweden also offers a glimmer of hope for Social Democrats, but this seems almost self-evident. Sweden is the model country for social democracy. In no other European country have Social Democrats had such success.

The strongest political force in every federal election since 1917, the Social Democrats have used their long tenure to create a comprehensive welfare system which is still a model to this day. However, by the 1990s it became so expensive that Social Democratic prime ministers have since been forced to make cuts. The party subsequently suffered from a heavy loss of votes and spent several years in the opposition.

Despite gains by the right-wing Swedish Democrats, who have repeatedly criticized the country's relatively liberal refugee policy, the Social Democrats have managed to gain the lead ahead of fall elections. However, their polling numbers — less than 30 percent V are catastrophic by Swedish standards. 

Read more: Sweden to deport 'world's oldest refugee'

Viennese Mayor, Michael Häupl walking down a street.
Austria's social democrats have suffered from being in a grand coalition Image: picture-alliance/APA/H. Neubauer


The Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ) have also seen better times. Much better, in fact. Until 1990, they received more than 40 percent of the votes in national assembly elections. For some years now, the SPÖ has stabilized, getting around 25 to 30 percent of the vote. This is not exactly heady stuff, but the SPÖ has so far been spared the kind of downfall suffered by Germany's SPD.

What's notable about Austrian politics are the frequent grand coalition governments with the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). The grand coalition with its politics based on consensus is regarded as synonymous with the second Austrian republic, and there is often talk of an "eternal grand coalition" and of graft. This has also promoted the rise of the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ). At the moment, the FPÖ is the junior partner in a coalition with the ÖVP. The SPÖ was forced to take up the unfamiliar position of being in the opposition. As in Germany, the Austrian Social Democrats have been left wondering whether being part of a grand coalition resulted in their fall from power.

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