The challenge for Social Democrats is daunting

Since the Second World War, the centre-right and centre-left parties have played a crucial role in rebuilding democracy in Western Europe. They are also responsible for the highest growth rate and redistribution of wealth in Western European countries. But of late, things are changing: in election after election, the political discourse is gradually moving to the populist right. A significant change in traditional political system is marked by a shift from left-right political rivalry to a battle between the forces of globalisation and anti-globalisation.

The resounding victory of populist parties – the conservative People’s Party and far-right Freedom Party, which was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s  – in Austria last week is yet another major jolt in a series of setbacks for the centre-left socialist parties in Europe. Coming on the heels of stunning gains made by the far-right Alternative for Democracy (AfD) in Germany last month, nationalist, anti-globalisation and anti-immigrant forces are bound to feel vitalised by the surge of right-wing forces increasingly gaining ground in several European nations.

Apart from Germany and France, in several nations – Italy, Netherland, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Greece, Norway, Scandinavia and Poland – the far-right parties have scored unexpected electoral success. In less than two decades, Europe’s far right as whole is not only a much more muscular and established force, but the rise of popular extremists is a threat to European Union’s stability, as magnified by Brexit. However, six months ago there was hope and optimism. A backlash against the far right’s advances in Europe was exemplified by pro-European Union Centrist Emmanuel Macron’s emphatic triumph over right-wing Euro-sceptic Marine Le Pen in France. It was celebrated as a victory for liberal democracy in Europe and elsewhere where liberal values are cherished, though the loss for the then ruling Socialist Party was severe. Later in Dutch election also, nationalists fell short of expectations. In Austria too last year, a liberal candidate narrowly beat the Freedom Party’s front-man for the country’s presidency.

But these victories, though important, appear only brief events in Europe’s lurch to the right. Among the many worrying consequences of the rise of anti-establishment parties is the sharp decline of the centre-left, or social democrats, as they are known. In France and the Netherland, for instance, the socialist and labour parties did so badly that their future existence is under question.  In Germany, the reformist-left Social Democrats gave its worst performance in over six decades. In Italy too, the once formidable Italian Socialist Party is no more. Britain is however, the only exception where the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is a resurgent force, thanks to the declining support for the Conservative Party for its weak leadership and uncertainty over Brexit.

Experts believe that the sharp decline of socialist parties is directly associated with the rise of the far-right. One of the reasons for this is the change in focus from core issues such as social justice and fair wages to immigration and security. The last two years have seen bigger erosion in voter base of social democrats across several European nations as the immigration debate picked up momentum and many social democratic parties refrained from discussing it. As social democrats mostly remained silent, voters shifted to the raucous right-wing parties and, in many cases, also to the outspoken far left parties.

There are other reasons too. Historically, according to publisher-editor of Die Zeit Josef Joffe, social democrats rose to power in tandem with a rising working class. “Now, this once mighty force is shrinking along with manufacturing as a share of GDP. In the past 50 years, that portion has roughly dropped from 35% to 15% throughout the West. To put it brutally, the reformist left is losing its customer base, and it shows in all recent elections,” Joffe wrote recently.

The financial crisis of 2008 in US made things worse for Europe: it went through a troublesome period of recession and is still not out of the woods. The contagion effect of the financial crisis made people view globalisation as the cause of their suffering. Sovereign debt crisis, rising unemployment, crisis in the banking industry and anaemic economic growth of the past decade has made people lose faith in established parties, particularly the socialists. Not only people want growth, they also want less inequality and instability.

The centre-right and centre-left parties are important for sustenance of democratic values and social stability in Europe. But the sheer decimation of the social democrats should be a cause of concern. Unlike the Communists in the erstwhile USSR and Eastern Europe who focused only on class conflict, social democratic parties in Western Europe accepted capitalism as an engine for growth, prosperity and social good. This led to a healthy competition between the centre-left and centre-right parties for a dominant role in Europe’s electoral politics.

The sharp decline of the centre-left has larger implications. It has created political space for the populist right. Right-wing parties have succeeded in weaning away support base of social democrats by playing on fears of globalisation and immigration. Unlike the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties, the far right is an ideological confusion: neither left, nor right, but anti-establishment, anti-minorities, populist and ultra-nationalistic. People don’t vote for them out of conviction but disappointment with established political order.

Their rise can be explained by the fact that they offer an alternative to the ‘status quo’, though their commitment to democracy and liberalism is questionable. Political analysts are of the view that the electoral success of right-wing parties will lead to blurring of lines between centre-right and far-right parties. With conservatives adopting a much tougher line on immigration and domestic security, it could eventually lead to convergence of the far-right and centre-right political parties’ views on various issues. Although differences on economic policies will remain, analysts fear that shifting positions on both sides on issues like migration and threats to exit the EU or the euro currency will make centre-right and far-right indistinguishable in some countries at least.

The challenge for social democrats is daunting. They need to reinvent themselves and go beyond the old issues – like social justice, redistribution and welfare state etc – as solution to people’s problems. They need to develop a vision for their own survival as well as for their respective country’s future.

The author is an independent senior journalist

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