SPD debacle shows agony of European centre-left

September 28, 2009

sozisIt was a black night for Germany’s Social Democrats. Their catastrophic general election score of just 23 percent was by far the worst since the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949. It was more than 11 points worse than their result in 2005, and nearly 6 points worse than their poorest post-war showing in 1953.(Picture shows party activists at SPD headquarters watching first exit polls on television)

Their shattering defeat was the latest in a series of debacles for the European centre-left since the onset of the financial crisis. Just when the social democratic outlook of a strong state to regulate and curb the excesses of the markets and protect workers from the rough edges of capitalism has made a comeback around the developed world, its original proponents are in disarray.

Why? Partly because the centre-left is blamed by its own voters for having embraced deregulation and globalisation without taking care of the losers of such policies. Partly because it lacks charismatic leaders of the calibre of Helmut Schmidt, Francois Mitterrand, Tony Blair or Barack Obama. And partly because new social and economic forces — the services sector and the knowledge economy — and new ideas — ecology and communitarianism — have moved the political goalposts.

France’s Socialist party has been consigned to opposition since 2002 and is deeply divided over personalities, policy and ideology. The British Labour Party, after a record 12 years in power, is deeply unpopular and looks doomed to lose a general election next year. The Italian left has not managed to mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, despite scandals over the billionaire media tycoon’s sex life.

As in France, the SPD bled votes to the radical Left party, to the Greens, to the conservatives and to abstention. An estimated 2 million Social Democratic sympathisers stayed home. As many switched to the Left — a mixture of former East German communists and disenchanted former Social Democrats demanding red-blooded socialism and an exit from NATO and the European Union.

The SPD took the blame for unpopular curbs on unemployment benefits under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, as well as raising the retirement age to 67 from 65 under the grand coalition with conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel. An election-day opinion poll showed 67 percent of SPD sympathisers believed the party had betrayed its principles on these issues.

The party now has a chance to regenerate itself in opposition. But it will share the hard benches with the more outspoken Left party, which scored a record 12.5 percent on Sunday, and the environmentalist Greens, who draw a lot of young and educated voters. The SPD’s electorate is shrinking or dying out — pensioners, trade unionists, manufacturing and public sector workers. Whichever way the party goes in opposition, it stands to lose as many voters as it wins back.

Can the European centre-left bounce back in four or five years or is it doomed to a decade or more in the wilderness?  Sure, 10 years ago modernising socialists and social democrats were in office in most of Europe’s major countries. But the political pendulum won’t just swing back automatically. The mainstream left needs new ideas, new leaders and new voters in an increasingly crowded market. It may re-emerge only slowly as a rainbow coalition rather than an old-fashioned Volkspartei (mass party).


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