Socialist stumble, right-wing rise in the 2009 EP elections

, by Milan Pajic

Socialist stumble, right-wing rise in the 2009 EP elections

The recent loss of more than 50 MEPs in the European Parliament (EP) by the Party of European Socialists (PES) to far-right and radical parties has been dubbed by the PES leader Martin Schulz as a “bitter evening for social democracy.”

Nevertheless, there were concerns even before the election, in both the European Peoples Party (EPP) and the PES, that right-wing radicals could receive more support than in 2004. In the end both of them lost seats, but it is the PES that was significantly weakened, while EPP remained in majority. Therefore, we shall now look into the reasons why the PES has lost so many seats in the EP.

An important factor in these elections was the economic downturn. As Mendeltje van Keulen, of Clingendael, the Netherlands institute for international relations, mentions: “In times of economic recession, people are more negative about foreign workers. The story about the Polish plumbers stealing Dutch jobs resonates with people even if it isn’t actually true.” In this case it is easier to see people shifting their support to more conservative and protectionist policies rather than supporting free-market policies to bring them out of the economic downturn.

Along these lines Luc Van den Brande, a senior Belgian MP and president of the Committee of the Regions also mentions that “As long as there is a complicated and tense economic and hence social situation, we may expect an impact on voters’ behaviour." This was particularly so, he said, in eastern European countries which have seen years of economic expansion halted by the crisis.

A low turn-out for the mainstream political parties was something that would certainly work in favour for the fringe and extreme parties.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai also voiced his concern prior to the election: “The lesson from the 1930s is that an economic and social crisis, if it is not contained, can give ground to a significant strengthening of radical movements. We should stop that.”

On the other hand we have radical movements, such as the FPÖ in Austria, Lega Nord in Italy, and Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, which capitalized on the issue of both legal and illegal-immigration. This also meant prying on the fears that further integration would bring profound changes to cultures and demographics in their respective countries.

While others, such as the parliament’s outgoing president, MEP Hans-Gert Pöttering, and academics such as Simon Hix of the London School of Economics, and Professor Mark Franklin, chairman of the European election studies steering group, voiced their concerns that a low turn-out for the mainstream political parties was something that would certainly work in favour for the fringe and extreme parties. Given the lowest turn-out to day in EP elections, it can be assumed that this has affected the mainstream political parties.

PES group leader Martin Schulz personally blamed “domestic issues” for the Socialist failure. Especially in France, where socialists lost turf to Sarkozy’s UMP, Germany, where tensions arose between socialists due to an alliance with Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, and the UK, because of corruption charges in the Labour Party. Thus, for Schulz the result is “a bitter evening for social democracy”.

Bitter it was, but one thing is for certain: dire times produce dire measures, and if history can teach us one thing it is that resorting to radical and extremist ideologies does not mend the situation but only makes it worse.

Image: Party of European Socialists, source: google images

Your comments
  • On 19 July 2009 at 11:52, by Goldenhind Replying to: Socialist stumble, right-wing rise in the 2009 EP elections

    I see two main reasons for the weak outcome for the PES:

    1. Their target groups do not seem to be very interested in European politics so they do not vote at all. At least in Germany the SPD usually gets significantly better results at national elections when the voter turnout is nearly twice as high as in EP elections. Unfortunately, Europe still is kind of an elitist project. Therefore those parties which appeal to highly educated people like the Greens and ALDE get strong results.

    2. The demographics are generally shifting in a way that is a disadvantage for socialist parties. The share of blue-collar workers organized in labour unions who have been the traditional base of the socialists is decreasing. Efforts to to attract new voter groups, e.g. New Labour, have led to deep conflicts with the traditional socialist voters.

  • On 28 July 2009 at 12:12, by Maël Brunet Replying to: Socialist stumble, right-wing rise in the 2009 EP elections

    For reference, here’s an article I wrote just after the elections on the same topic :

    I pretty much disagree with most of your points. If anything, the economic crisis should have strengthened the socialists, because they have been pushing for quite some time for the regulatory measures that are now becoming popular. The obvious assessment that they have been unable to capitalize on this shows that the problems lie elsewhere. Also, radical movements aren’t really any stronger than in the previous legislature. The big winners are the EPP and the greens, not the extreme left or right. That being said, I agree that the low turnout was probably more damaging to the socialists than to other parties. But that’s in a large part their own fault, because their lousy campaign didn’t convince people to vote. Finally, even though domestic issues might have played an (important) role in some countries, especially the UK, it seems clear to me that social-democracy is going through a profound identity crisis, and concealing this fact behind supposedly ’momentary turbulences’ is extremely dangerous.

  • On 15 December 2009 at 06:44, by mark c Replying to: Socialist stumble, right-wing rise in the 2009 EP elections

    It’s not about losing the job the the joe from east europe...its giving free benefits to people outside the eu (asylum seekers) economic migrants really asylum was an housing etc..while we are unemployed etc.

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