- Created: Friday, 30 May 2014 09:30
- Written by FRFI
The European elections were a victory for xenophobic populist parties, UKIP, the French Front National and the Danish People’s Party, all of which topped the polls in their respective countries, being the most obvious examples. Their demagogic opposition to a corrupt political elite proved attractive to many, although an even greater number regarded the election as irrelevant – turnout across Europe was only 43%. The results do show that where there are significant movements of working class opposition to austerity, particularly in Greece and Spain, progressive movements received substantial support.
Greece: Syriza tops the poll
Following Syriza’s successes in the first round of local elections on 18 May, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras declared the results had become ‘the referendum that was never done in Greece for the loan agreements’. Those agreements have meant an acute descent into poverty and insecurity for millions of Greeks. Unemployment is the highest in Europe at 28%, with youth unemployment at least 60%, real wages have fallen on average by 25% and the economy has cumulatively contracted by 25% since 2010. In the 25 May European elections, Syriza were the clear winners, with 26.6% of the vote and gaining six seats. The governing New Democracy was second by some distance, with 22.7%, while the social democratic PASOK gained a mere 8%. KKE, the Communist Party of Greece took 6.1% and won two seats. The neo-fascist Golden Dawn won three seats with 9.4% of the vote. In the light of the success of anti-austerity parties, Tsipras has called for fresh general elections. The ruling class will resist such a move because of the political instability it may cause.
Spain: ‘We can win’
Left and progressive alliances performed well in Spain, with Podemos, representing the 15 May movement, getting 8% of the vote (1.2 million in all) and winning five seats in the European parliament. Much of its electoral support came from young people: this is not surprising given a youth unemployment rate of 54%. It was a stunning result for an organisation which had been in existence for only three months. Podemos was not alone: the United Left coalition of the Communist Party and Catalan Greens won 10% and blocs representing other progressive separatist forces (Catalan, Basque and Galizan) took another 6%. This meant that the bourgeois Catalan parties ended up with a minority of the Catalan vote. These are important results since they show the degree of disintegration of the old bourgeois parties: at the 2009 European elections, the combined vote of the ruling Partido Popular (PP) and the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) was 80.9%; in 2014 their support had plummeted to 49%.
France: Front National rampant
The right-wing Front National, led by Marine le Pen, won its predicted overwhelming victory in the European elections, taking 24.95% of the vote, the largest share of any party, and increasing its seats in the European parliament from three to 24. This follows the viciously anti-immigrant, anti-Europe party’s resounding success in France’s municipal elections in March, when it won 11 city councils.
The disturbing rise of the right in France has its foundations, as across the rest of Europe, in a harsh climate of austerity and the abject failure of any of the country’s left and social democratic parties to offer real opposition. The Partie Socialiste, led by François Hollande, may have been elected on a promise to tax the rich, but in reality its political and economic policies are virtually indistinguishable from those of the centre-right UMP, with new prime minister Manuel Valls making it clear in April that ‘We can’t afford to live beyond our means’ and that the PS now found it preferable to find €50 billion in savings by cutting public spending, rather than through raising taxes. The government has already frozen benefits, cut the amount it pays on health insurance and overseen a steep rise in VAT. Unemployment has risen and wages have fallen in real terms.
Even President Hollande’s imperialist adventuring in Libya and Mali has not prevented him from becoming the most unpopular president in French history. The left-wing coalition, Front de Gauche, meanwhile, is imploding, divided, in particular, over its relationship with the Partie Socialiste. (The UMP meanwhile is promising to slash public spending, end the 35-hour week and, in a particularly vicious racist move, stop covering the health bills of illegal immigrants.) In the face of the failure to confront the mounting economic crisis, which in France as elsewhere is always accompanied by racist rhetoric against migrants, in particular Roma and those from north Africa, the Front National has thrived with its populist anti-immigration tub-thumping and calls for ‘No to Europe! Yes to France!’
Italy: Renzi’s third way or Italy’s dead-end
The European elections on 24 May were the first political test for recently-appointed Prime Minister Renzi. The Italian ruling class could draw some comfort from the performance of Renzi’s Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) performance – it took 40.8% of the vote, winning an extra ten seats, comfortably defeating Berlusconi’s Forza Italia coalition (16.8%). However Beppe Grillo’s maverick Movimento 5 Stelle took 21.2% of the vote and 17 seats in all, demonstrating the degree of popular contempt for Italy’s political system.
Grillo’s performance shows that the political vacuum left by Berlusconi is creating mounting problems for the discredited Italian political class. On the right, Berlusconi is fighting tooth and nail to keep his leading role, even though his closest allies have left him following his conviction for tax fraud. His sentence of four years in prison was commuted, due to his age, to a year’s community service in a care home for the elderly who suffer from dementia. On the left, great manoeuvres started with the US-style primary organised by the leading centre-left PD. This became the defining moment for Renzi, until then the mayor of Florence and overnight champion of the centre-left, dubbed the Italian Tony Blair.
For a law graduate who made a short stint at his family’s marketing company, the continual opinion polls conducted by the Italian media and his frequent TV appearances were crucial to his rise to power. Many Italians, irrespective of their political leanings, saw Renzi as the only credible alternative to the appalling prospect of having a fifth government led by Berlusconi.
Like any proper neoliberal apologist, Renzi’s first priority after taking office was to ‘reform’ the labour market. One of the key changes of a new ‘Jobs Act’ relates to fixed-term contracts that enable employers to renew temporary workers’ contracts five times over a three-year period. This, according to Renzi’s economic cookbook, is supposed to boost hiring, especially among young people aged 15-24 hit by a 42% unemployment rate (over 50% in southern regions). As far as trade unions are concerned, there are no plans to attack this decree and there is no sign of industrial action. Renzi is safe for the moment.
Eastern Europe: European elections an irrelevancy
Across crisis-ridden Eastern Europe, in the breeding ground of mass impoverishment created by EU-imposed structural reforms and market liberalisation, openly reactionary and nationalist parties – the Fidesz government, and the even more extreme Jobbik party in Hungary, Ataka in Bulgaria, the Slovak National Party – have gained in popularity. Racism against the Roma and Sinti populations remains violent and extreme: 30 people in the Czech Republic and Hungary alone have been killed in witch-hunts in recent years. Across Eastern Europe, more than 60% of Roma people are unemployed, illiteracy has increased in just two decades to 30%, life expectancy has dropped to 57 years. The governments of France, Germany and Italy have openly targeted the Roma population for systematic abuse, removals, and ‘special registers’ reminiscent of their treatment under the Nazi Third Reich. In 2005, the EU called for a Roma Decade and set aside $18bn to ‘resolve’ the problem. However, the problems facing the Roma are not ‘Roma problems’: they are poverty, unemployment, a miserable education and under-funded health care systems.
The European elections offer no solution, and were largely treated with the contempt they deserve by the people of the region. Turnout was less than a quarter in Poland (22.7%), Czech Republic (18.5%), Slovakia (13%), Slovenia (21%) and Croatia (24.3%). In Hungary it was 28.9%, down from 36.3% in 2009; Jobbik took 14.6% of the vote; in Bulgaria the vote was down from 39% to 35.5%; Ataka took 3% of the vote.
Glimmers of hope amidst the despair can be seen on the streets. Last year, a rise in electricity prices saw months of unrest which brought down the government in Bulgaria, while, throughout the summer, barricades were erected around parliament and thousands of demonstrators trapped MPs in the building to shouts of ‘Mafia!’ and ‘Resign!’ In Bosnia and Herzogovina, riots and protests erupted earlier this year, led by impoverished workers demanding their salaries and pensions and an end to the privatisation process. From this, not the EU ballot boxes can change come.