EU Elections: Checkmate Conservatives and Social Democrats
R Arun Kumar
ELECTIONS to the European Parliament which concluded on May 26 show the continuing decline of the ‘mainstream’ political parties. In these elections to elect 751 members of European Union Parliament (MEPs), the EPP (European People's Party, a centre-right grouping consisting of the Christian Democrats of Germany) won 180 MEPs with 23.8 per cent of the vote; the S&D group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats won 146 seats with 20.3 per cent of votes. Both these major groups in the European Parliament, together lost around 10 per cent of the votes and 20 per cent of the seats they had held in 2014. Another conservative group, ECR, too saw depletion in their seats (76 to 59) and vote share. The vote share of the GUE/NGL group (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) consisting of some communist parties and Left/Green parties fell only by 0.9 per cent, the number of their seats fell from 52 (2014), to 39.
The gainers in these elections are mainly the Green parties, whose votes increased by 2 per cent and seats from 52 to 69. The newly formed, ENF, Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (consisting of Italy’s Salvini and France’s Le Pen), won 58 seats and 7.7 per cent votes. This is a grouping of right-wing nationalists of various countries, who have won 37 seats in 2014 (though not as a group). The ALDER, (Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, in which the party of French president Macron joined as a partner after 2014) also increased its votes from 7 to 13.98 per cent (and a commensurate seat increase from 68 to 105) and ‘Populists’ won 54 seats, up from 41.
Though we can arrive at a broad idea of the results from the above details, we cannot have a correct assessment unless we look into some country-wise specifics.
In Germany, the two major ‘mainstream’ parties, CDU (conservatives) and SPD (social democrats) lost heavily in these elections. The CDU lost around 7 per cent of the vote, while the SPD lost around 12 per cent (from the votes they received in 2014). The Die Linke, one of the major Left parties too lost around 2 per cent of the votes. The Green Party of Germany gained the most – around 10 per cent of votes and is responsible for the good performance of the Greens throughout the continent. On the other hand, the AfD, the far right party that is increasing its strength in the recent period, failed to put up an impressive performance, though its vote share also increased by around 4 per cent. Many had in fact expected the AfD to get a higher vote.
In France, Le Pen’s extreme right-wing Party won the largest vote share, pushing Macron’s party to the second position. Even in the 2014 elections, Le Pen’s party emerged first. The heartening feature in this election is, this party lost around one per cent of the votes, in spite of all its efforts. The major loser is the Socialist Party (social democrats), which lost around 7 per cent of the votes. In 2014, Melenchon’s party and the Communist Party of France (PCF) had contested the elections together as Left Front. They had won 6.3 per cent votes. In these elections, the PCF contested the elections separately, while Melenchon contested the elections under a new party, FI and won 6.31 per cent of the votes. The PCF won 2.49 per cent, which means together they had polled around 9 per cent. This is an impressive showing by the Left in France. The neoliberal Macron’s party, which was non-existent in 2014, polled 22 per cent of the votes in these elections, well below the votes it had won in the national parliament and presidential elections.
The impact of the ‘gilet jaunes’ (yellow vest) protests can be easily noticed in these elections and is chiefly responsible for the loss of popularity and votes for Macron. They are also the reason for the 9 per cent votes polled by both the Left parties.
In Greece, along with the elections to European Parliament, regional and local body elections too were held simultaneously. In the European elections, the ruling SYRIZA lost around 3 per cent of the votes and it fared further badly in the local bodies. The major gainer in these elections is the conservative ND, which increased its votes by 11 per cent. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was able to hold on to its two seats in the EU Parliament, though its vote share had marginally decreased by 0.5 per cent. The KKE was able to push the elections to second round in five municipal corporations, where it is contesting for mayorship. Apart from this, it won 48 seats in regional councils and hundreds of its members got elected as councillors in various other local bodies, cutting across all the regions. The major development in Greece is the setback of the far-right Golden Dawn. Its vote share was cut by half, from 9.3 to 4.8. This is a positive development, an expression of people seeing through its hollow, divisive agenda.
The one country where the extreme right-wing gained substantially is Italy. The vote share of the Northern League party of Salvini, saw a huge leap by around 28 per cent. It is this growth that is responsible for the increased numbers of the extreme-right in the EU parliament. This growth is achieved mainly at the cost of the social democratic party, which lost around 18 per cent of the votes. The other major losers are, the Five Star Movement, a major partner in the ruling coalition (lost around 5 per cent votes) and another nationalist party, Force Italy (lost around 8 per cent). There is a clear rightward shift in Italian politics. This is also one country, where the Left forces are very weak and failed to put up a decent performance, a factor well used by the extreme-right for its growth.
SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
Spain and Portugal are two countries where the ‘mainstream’ parties managed to maintain their pre-eminent position. While the social democrats in both these countries, more or less retained their vote share, the conservatives saw a fall of around 6 and 8 per cent respectively. The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) was able to maintain its strength in these elections, where it contested in alliance with the Green party. The PCP alliance, CDU, lost around 5 per cent of the votes and the beneficiary appears to be the Left Bloc, which increased its vote share by 5 per cent. In Spain, Podemos, which contested alone in 2014, contested these elections in alliance with communist parties, as united Left and were able to poll 10 per cent of the votes. The growth of the extreme-right VOX party in Spain with 6 per cent votes, though less when compared to its recent electoral gains in the country, is a worrying feature.
Initially, United Kingdom was not expected to take part in these elections as Brexit was supposed to happen before May 2019. With the inconclusive negotiations and the new ‘leave’ date agreed as October 2019, UK too participated in these elections. The major losers in these elections are the ruling Conservatives, who saw their vote share fall by around 15 per cent and slip to fifth position. The Labour too lost around 11 per cent of their votes. The Green Party gained around 4 per cent, while the major gainers are the Liberal Democrats, around 13 per cent. The nationalist UKIP, which secured around 26.7 per cent votes in 2014, secured only 3.5 per cent votes this time. The major reason for this shortfall is the emergence of a new ‘Brexit Party’, founded by Farage, who was the leader of the UKIP until a few years back. The Brexit Party won 30 per cent votes and emerged as a major player in UK politics.
The communists in Britain gave a call for ‘active boycott’ in these elections – meaning they called for people not to vote for any party, as these are elections for EU, a union that was rejected by the people in the Brexit referendum.
The AKEL of Cyprus was able to increase its vote share and retain its two seats. It had won over 27 per cent of the votes and stood in second position in their country. The KSCM, communist party in the erstwhile Czech region, was able to win only one seat in this election (it had 3 earlier) as it had lost around 3 per cent of the votes. The major gains made by the communist forces in the continent are in Belgium.
In Belgium too, elections to the national parliament and regional assemblies were held simultaneously with the EU elections. The Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB), which had no representatives in the EU and a marginal representation in its country, gained big. It has won 12 seats in the federal parliament, one in the European Parliament, 11 in the Brussels Parliament, 4 in the right-wing dominated Flemish Parliament and 10 in the Left dominated Walloon Parliament. In addition, the PTB has 4 senators. The number of PTB parliamentarians saw an increase from 8 to 42. At the national level, the PTB has become the 5th largest party, among the 12 parties with elected representatives.
The victory of the PTB assumes significance because it was achieved in a political atmosphere termed by that party as a ‘rightward’ shift. It is in this atmosphere that they were able to concentrate on working class struggles and other popular struggles for the last four years. Because of these efforts, Belgium had the first successful general strike in the past forty years. The party played an active role in this struggle by not only campaigning, but on the day of strike, its leaders visited more than 600 picket lines. The student organisation of the PTB, Comac is playing an active role in the ongoing protests against climate change led by school students. The combination of working class struggles and the struggle for climate attracted lot of attention in the country. As Peter Mertens, the general secretary of the PTB put it, ‘oxygen is needed for the planet, for the country’ and also ‘for the families’ – wage increase and protection of worker’s rights.
Throughout Europe, the results reflect the anger of the toiling classes and also the failure of the governments to tackle environmental crisis. The protests of the yellow vests and climate change activists are certainly having an impact. The space occupied by the centrist parties continues to recede. Wherever the real Left forces, the communist and workers’ parties are actively engaged in struggles, they are gaining. The extreme right forces in such countries appear to have plateaued, though their danger is still lurking. Any slackness on the part of the Left will once again bring them back to life and on a growth trajectory.