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Socialist conundrum

May 28, 2009

Banks are being nationalized, CEO's salaries are being curbed and the financial system is being restructured. Those policies were once associated with socialists. So why are left-of-center parties not sweeping elections?

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No big boost from the crisis for European socialists

The latest opinion polls ahead of the upcoming elections for the European Parliament paint a familiar picture. The European conservatives are expected to remain the strongest bloc in the assembly with the socialists again being relegated to second place, a position they have held since 1994.

It doesn't look much better for socialist parties at the national level either. Currently they lead governments in only eight out of 27 countries and the prospects for a reversal of that trend are not good. According to recent surveys, they face an uphill struggle in many upcoming elections, some of them in large European countries such as Britain and Germany.

Still, says Peter Mair, Chairman of the Political Science Department at the European University Institute in Florence, to state that socialists aren't benefitting from the economic crisis at all is incorrect. In some countries their showing has actually improved due to the global recession. "In the Dutch case, for example, the Dutch Labor Party was really in a trough before this crisis broke, but now it's riding not high in the opinion polls, but it's certainly riding better in the opinion polls. In the Irish case, a small country to be sure, the Labor Party is polling better than it's ever polled in its history before." Even in the European parliamentary elections the Social Democrats might still eke out small gains, adds Mair.

Neoliberal agenda

But the question remains why are socialists, in the midst of the worst financial crisis in decades, which has propelled states to become major economic actors, not scoring huge election victories instead of struggling to gain a few percentage points here and there?

John Maynard Keynes
Socialists are rediscovering John Maynard Keynes (left)Image: picture-alliance / dpa

"I would say that for the social democrats, for the moderate left, there is a return of ideas of a strong and interventionist state, which tries to have an influence on economic development and that's the old social democratic idea about Keynesian intervention", says Klaus Detterbeck, an expert on political parties in Europe at the University of Magdeburg. "The problem is that the social democrats themselves are not particularly convinced that these are the right measures for periods which are not characterized by crisis."

These measures - the nationalization of banks and other important economic entities, tight regulation of financial markets and instruments, wage and benefits limits for top managers - were advocated by the left. But that was back in the 1950's, the 1960s and the 1970's. From the 1980's onwards, argues Mair, the left moved away from its strong interventionist approach. "In the last 20 years the socialists have not really talked about things like this", says Mair. "The left embraced the neoliberal agenda and the hands-off agenda. So, when the ground shifts, they can't say we were right all along because they told us before that these policies were wrong."

Solutions instead of ideology

Therefore the socialists have lost much of their advantage on those issues and are pretty much in the same position as the conservatives. Both have to adapt to the new economic circumstances and change their strategies. And this is one reason why it is so hard for socialists to reap substantial profit from the crisis and win elections, explains Mair. "Partly because in all of the answers to the crisis there tends to be a consensus between center-left and center-right as to what might be done and the arguments are at the margins rather than at the core of the policies."

People expect practical solutions instead of ideological arguments. The party affiliation of politicians or the role of the party itself becomes secondary. "At the moment I would say that most voters will look whether the recipes of their national government will work and they will give credit to any government party which is able to save jobs and make the economy work again", says Detterbeck.

A red traffic light in front of Hypo Real Estate in Berlin
Nationalization is no longer just a socialist ideaImage: picture alliance/dpa

While this is a grim short-term perspective for European socialists who currently run only eight of 27 governments, there is light at the end of the tunnel. "There is nothing structural which is driving the socialists or the center-left out of power", says Mair. "If you look at the long history of post-war electoral developments in Europe, it's really like a pendulum." Right now it's the conservatives' turn, but the socialists will be on top again within 10 years, predicts Mair. All that is required in the meantime is some patience.

Author: Michael Knigge

Editor: Susan Houlton