May’s European elections showed the growing crisis for the mainstream parties after their introduction of austerity policies in response to the economic crisis.
Worringly, far right parties made significant gains. In the UK the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (UKIP) outpolled both Labour and the Conservatives. In France it was the fascist National Front that got the biggest vote and a third of France’s seats in the European parliament. There were also big votes for far right and fascist parties in Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Greece and the Netherlands.
But in Greece and Spain, the countries where union and social movement struggles against austerity have been strongest, there were significant votes for the far left. In Greece Syriza received the biggest vote with over 26 per cent by campaigning uncompromising against austerity.
In Spain, the two mainstream parties saw their share of the vote fall from 81 per cent of the total in 2009 to just 50 per cent between them.
The four month old Podemos (Yes We Can)—born out of the indignados mass movement against austerity—won 8 per cent of the vote and five MEPs, while the Communist Party-led United Left won another 10 per cent.
Podemos organised local circles involving 33,000 people across the country in a grassroots process to select candidates.
Alienation breeds despair
The electoral success of the far right is a product of the deep alienation of voters with mainstream social democratic and conservative governments and their pro-market neo-liberal agendas. This has accelerated since the economic crisis began in 2007.
The National Front’s vote has gone from 10 per cent in the 2007 Presidential election to 18 per cent in 2012 to just under 25 per cent in the recent European elections. This period saw both right and left mainstream parties force through cuts and attacks on workers. Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy was booted from office in 2012 after raising the penion age and attempting to impose a “fiscal compact” limiting government spending. He was replaced by the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande (the equivalent of Labor) who, after promising to tax the rich, delivered tax cuts for business but welfare and services cuts for everyone else.
The National Front pose as opponents of austerity and the political elite by denouncing the European Union from a nationalist perspective.
A similar trend has been seen in the UK where people were already disaffected with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s pro-market and pro-war “New Labour” governments when the crisis hit.
But the vote didn’t automatically go to the Conservatives. People still remembered the neo-liberal reforms of Margaret Thatcher, forcing Conservative leader David Cameron to portray himself a “modern compassionate conservative”. The Liberal Democrats picked up a record 23 per cent of the vote due to the disaffection with the two major parties.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has been anything but compassionate in government. To pay for the bank bailouts they have clobbered workers with pay freezes, tax increases and cuts. Their approval ratings collapsed but rather than the Labour Party benefiting, most of the vote went to UKIP.
But just as importantly the use of racist scapegoating by both social democratic and conservative governments have made the politics of the far right respectable.
Sarkozy ran a vicious campaign against Muslims and Roma, banning the burqa and niqab in public and deporting Roma in their thousands. During the 2012 election he made a direct appeal for National Front votes saying, “I’ve heard you. The French don’t want to be dispossessed”.
Following a dismal result for the Socialists in local council elections in March, Hollande moved sharply to the right by appointing Manuel Valls as Prime Minister. Valls has a reputation for being tough on migrants, saying they should “return home” if they won’t integrate. This not only failed to shore up his support base but only legitimised racism further.
Cameron in the UK too attempted to deal with the rise of UKIP by beating his own xenophobic drum. On the same day as the fascist English Defence League held a major march in Luton against Muslims, Cameron announced an attack on “state multiculturalism” which he claimed had “failed” and was producing extremism.
Labour hasn’t opposed this racism. “It’s not right-wing for us to talk about immigration”, said Labour leader Ed Miliband after UKIP’s recent success through attacking migrants.
But the right’s significant gains were partly a product of the fact that only 45 per cent of those eligible actually voted.
The results in Greece and Europe show that the left can also benefit from the disillusionment with the political mainstream. Doing so will depend on building new movements to combat the growing respectability of racism and raising the general level of struggle against austerity.
By Mark Gillespie