The Great Recession sent Europe’s social-democratic parties into a tailspin, exposing the contradictions of their political model. Now they face the pressure of another economic downturn, without having recovered from the last one or developed a convincing new vision.
It’s now almost a decade since the term “Pasokification” entered the political lexicon, as a warning that center-left parties all over Europe might suffer the same fate as the once-mighty Greek movement. Buzzwords come and go, but the phenomenon described by this neologism was no flash in the pan.
Some center-left parties have fallen as far as Pasok, reduced to single-digit vote shares, while others have fared somewhat better but still taken a major hit. The few parties that have managed to increase their vote in recent years are still in a much weaker position than before the Great Recession. They will now have to face another period of sharp economic turbulence without having recovered properly from the last one.
Historian Adam Tooze recently warned that the European economy is in an alarmingly weak position as it emerges from the coronavirus crisis:
According to the OECD, in 2020 euro-area gross domestic product fell by 7.6 percent. Far worse than the setback suffered in 2008–09 or the worst years of the eurozone crisis, that is also far worse than the US, where GDP contracted by 3.5 percent in 2020. . . . gross fixed-capital formation in the euro area fell by more than 10 percent, compared with “only” 1.7 percent in the US. . . . on current fiscal settings, the outlook for the European economy is nothing short of depressing. According to the OECD, at the end of this year, euro-area GDP will still be 3 percent down on 2019.
The European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde has brushed aside calls for eurozone debt cancellation to aid recovery, branding such a move as “unthinkable.”
The political fallout from a lasting downturn is impossible to foresee. But if we want to get a sense of what the next crisis is likely to bring, a close look at what happened last time should be a useful exercise.
A Broad Sample
There’s always a danger of forming a superficial impression from short-term electoral fluctuations in a handful of countries. To avoid that pitfall, let’s put together a sample of eight countries: Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, Sweden, and Portugal. This includes the EU’s four biggest member states, with a combined population of almost 260 million people, plus four others with a population of at least ten million each.
All of these countries have held at least two elections since the crash, and usually more than that. The sample excludes the EU’s post-enlargement East European member states, where postcommunist center-left parties had much weaker roots than their West European counterparts. It also excludes Britain, which has now left the EU, of course.
In all eight countries, the center-left vehicles were major, long-established parties of government when the Great Recession began. During the first decade of the century, all but two came first in a national election at least once. The exceptions to that rule — the French Socialists and the Dutch Labour Party — were still the second-largest players in their electoral systems.
Before looking at the impact of the economic crisis on these parties, we need to make a few general observations. First of all, these countries did not experience the crisis in the same way. Germany and the Netherlands belonged to the eurozone “core,” while France stood between the core and the periphery, with the latter made up of countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Sweden, which only joined the EU in 1995, has stayed out of the single currency altogether.
Secondly, the full impact of the crisis did not make itself felt overnight after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The eurozone debt crisis only came into play from 2010 onward, with Greece and Portugal forced into troika austerity programs, while Spain and Italy were also placed under tight supervision. In peripheral states, the humiliation of being dictated to by European officials compounded the impact of public-spending cuts; in core states, on the other hand, popular discontent often focused on alleged “handouts” for Southern European countries.
Thirdly, the immediate fortunes of center-left parties often depended on a quirk of fate: whether or not they were in government when the recession hit. For that reason, we need to take account of several election results after 2008 to get a balanced picture of what’s been happening.
Pasok gave its name to this trend, and it remains the most striking example of what can happen to formerly dominant parties (Table 1). In four elections between 2000 and 2009, the party won an average of 41.6 percent of the vote, returning to power in the last of those contests with 43.9 percent.
Three years later, it plummeted to 13.1 percent, dropping further still in the second poll of 2012. By 2015, with the electoral field polarized between New Democracy and Syriza, Pasok received less than 5 percent of votes cast.
Table 1: Pasok, 2000–19
*in alliance with other parties
In a second election held later that year, Pasok formed an alliance with another party and pushed its vote share very slightly upward. It repeated the trick four years later, but that still left the party in single figures, with barely a fifth of its average score in the opening decade of the millennium.
There are two other cases of parties that have dropped below 10 percent, although in both cases we have to work with a more limited sample of election results. French electoral politics is an outlier in Western Europe because of the country’s presidential system. Ever since presidential and legislative elections were synchronized in 2002, with the former preceding the latter, the party of the successful presidential candidate has always swept the board in the National Assembly.
As a result, the best guide to a party’s health is the performance of its candidate in the first round of the presidential contest (Table 2). That benchmark isn’t strictly comparable to parliamentary elections in other European countries, but it should give us a sense of movement over time.
There was already a warning sign for the Socialist Party (PS) in 2002, when their candidate, Lionel Jospin, suffered the humiliation of being eliminated in the first round, losing out to far-right standard-bearer Jean-Marie Le Pen, albeit by less than two hundred thousand votes. However, they seemed to have recovered from that setback five years later, when Ségolène Royal had no trouble making the runoff against Nicolas Sarkozy, restoring the conventional duopoly.
In 2012, in the first post-crash election, the Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande was the front-runner in the first round and saw off the incumbent Sarkozy in the second. The PS won the presidential election that year for the first time since 1988 and the legislative poll for the first time since 1997.
Table 2: The French Socialists, 2002–17
|Vote share, first round
The shock was all the greater in 2017, when Benoît Hamon of the PS slumped to fifth place in the first round, with a Pasok-style vote share of 6.4 percent. The Socialist-led center-left alliance did slightly better in the legislative election that followed, but its combined score was still below 10 percent. It remains to be seen whether the PS can recover from this fiasco, with a presidential election due next year. In the European elections of 2019, the PS-led alliance won just over 6 percent of the vote.
The third example comes from the Netherlands, where the Labour Party (PvdA) seemed to be on an even keel from 2003 to 2012, with its vote share fluctuating between a fifth and a quarter, before collapsing in 2017 to less than 6 percent (Table 3). Again, it would be premature to write the party off on the strength of a single election, although signs of recovery have been patchy at best.
On the one hand, the PvdA came first in the 2019 European election with 19 percent of the vote; on the other hand, there were only two national opinion polls between the 2017 vote and the end of last year that gave Labour a double-digit score, and then only by a small margin. The election due on March 17 this year will clarify the picture.
Table 3: The Dutch Labour Party, 2002–17
Retreat and Recovery
Other parties have experienced sharp downturns in support without falling quite as far as Pasok or the French PS. The German Social Democrats (SPD) won the 2002 election and could still take a third of the vote in 2005 after eight years in government (Table 4). Since then, however, they’ve experienced a sharp contraction, dropping by more than 10 percent in 2009, then rising a little in 2013 before plummeting again. Their average vote share since 2009 has been 13 percent lower than it was in the first two elections of the century.
Table 4: The German Social Democrats, 2002–17
The Italian center left doesn’t have the same organizational history behind it as the SPD, which dates back to the nineteenth century. The Democratic Party has only existed since 2007, the product of a merger between the postcommunist Left Democrats and the Daisy party. Novelty has been no barrier to decline (Table 5). Between 2001 and 2008, the average vote for these forces was just under 32 percent. In the two elections since then, it’s fallen by almost 10 percent.
Table 5: The Italian center left, 2001–18
*Combined vote for the Left Democrats and the Daisy Party
**The 2008 election took place in April
Sweden is the flagship of European social democracy, with an impressive legacy of reform and electoral success. The Social Democrats (SAP) have come first in every election since 1914; from 1932 to the present day, they’ve been in opposition for less than two decades. Although the SAP’s loss of support hasn’t been as dramatic as that experienced by some of its sister parties, it still represents a clear trend (Table 6): since the crash of 2008, the average SAP vote share has been 7.5 percent lower than it was before. The party’s 2018 performance was its worst since 1911.
Table 6: The Swedish Social Democrats, 2002–18
Finally, we have two parties that actually managed to recover some lost ground after declining sharply in the wake of the crash. The PSOE in Spain seemed to be at risk of emulating Pasok during the early years of the Great Recession: having averaged more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2008, it dropped to a little over half that level in 2015–16 (Table 7). The party then clawed its way back to the high twenties in the two elections of 2019, although that still left its average vote since the financial crisis began a full 14 percent lower than it was before.
Table 7: The Spanish Socialists, 2000–19
* The 2008 election took place in March
Journalists have held up the Portuguese Socialists and their leader, António Costa, as a positive example for Europe’s center left in an otherwise bleak landscape. In the first two post-crash elections, their vote fell by a total of 17 percent (Table 8). Under Costa’s leadership, they have regained support over the course of two election cycles, and their best performance since the crisis began, in 2019, put the Socialists within shouting distance of their 2002 result. However, the party’s average vote with Costa at the helm is still 7 percent lower than it was in the elections held before 2008.
Table 8: The Portuguese Socialist Party, 2002–19
This survey of election results shows clear evidence of a downward trend, sharper in some countries than in others, but discernible right across the board, even for those parties that have staged a partial recovery. But how can we explain it?
At one level, this picture clearly vindicates the arguments made by left-wing critics of social democracy as it has evolved over the last generation. Parties like the SPD and the PS had long since abandoned the idea of replacing capitalism with socialism. After the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s and the defeats suffered by left-wing movements over the following decade, they also abandoned the idea of managing a capitalist economy in a fundamentally different way.
Instead of using the collapse of the Soviet Union to argue that their preference for regulated welfare-state capitalism had been vindicated, these parties succumbed to ideological fashion and accepted that public ownership and planning of any variety was now discredited. For a whole generation before the crash of 2008, new social-democratic reforms were few and far between.
At most, the center-left parties could offer the preservation of existing gains for their working-class supporters. In practice, it was usually a more gradual rollback of such gains that was on the agenda — if they could even promise that. Göran Therborn’s description of the Swedish experience applies with even greater force to countries where social democracy doesn’t have the same political weight:
The bourgeois and SAP-led coalitions that have alternated in power since 1991 have operated as relay runners in the promotion of inequality and profiteering. Together they have lowered taxes on inheritance, wealth, and residential property to zero, made capital income less taxable than labor income, and tightened the scale of social benefits, while making them harder to access. Two years ago, Forbes magazine declared that “Sweden Heads the Best Countries for Business for 2017,” referring to a country run by Social Democrats. Economic inequality has soared. The rate for disposable income has increased by 60 percent since 1980 — from a Gini value of 0.20 to one of 0.32 in 2013 — taking the country’s income distribution back to the 1940s, or perhaps even the late 1930s. Two-thirds of that increase can be attributed to political decisions with respect to taxes and social transfers.
Alongside this great leap backward in terms of policy and ideology, there was also a retreat from social engagement and mobilization to political institutions that were increasingly cut off from the mass of citizens. Peter Mair had already identified this trend before the crash of 2008. Parties of government no longer had mass memberships or close ties to social organizations like trade unions. The same phenomenon affected mainstream conservative parties as well as the social-democratic left, but it was especially important for the latter.
Although there was clearly more to this hollowing out of electoral politics than the subjective choices of party leadership teams, the effect of those choices was to reinforce it. Center-left politicians took every opportunity to dilute the influence of party members and distance themselves from social movements that might challenge the power of capital. They were happy to engage with voters through polling firms and the mass media, seeing no need for alternative channels of influence.
The Great Recession left the shortcomings of this political model painfully exposed. In government, center-left parties carried out programs of austerity — a euphemism for transferring the burden of the crisis onto the working class — sometimes forming “grand coalitions” with their traditional opponents to ensure those policies could be rammed through.
While most parties that took responsibility for the austerity agenda paid a stiff electoral price, the social-democratic ones were particularly vulnerable because their own supporters bore the brunt of public-spending cuts. Without deep reserves of loyalty or a supportive political ecosystem to call upon, Europe’s center left proved to be the biggest loser after 2008.
However prescient the radical left might have been in its analysis of latter-day social democracy, there was no guarantee that its own parties would be able to take advantage of this political crisis. The performance of the radical left in our sample of countries spans the full range from newfound electoral hegemony to complete marginalization.
Pasokification in Greece went hand in hand with the rise of Syriza’s vote share from less than 5 percent in 2009 to almost 27 percent three years later. By January 2015, the radical-left party was able to form a government, this time with over 36 percent of the vote. In the 2019 election, despite its failure to overturn the Troika’s austerity programs, Syriza’s electorate was still almost four times greater than that of the alliance led by Pasok.
No other radical-left force has been able to match the Greek party’s meteoric rise. The closest parallel was in Spain, where the postcommunist United Left (IU) took less than 4 percent of the vote in 2008. By December 2015, IU and the newly formed Podemos had a combined vote share in excess of 24 percent — two points ahead of the center-left PSOE. Six months later, the two parties ran a joint list, but their vote share went down, and PSOE inched back in front. By 2019, Spain’s center left had twice as many votes as the IU-Podemos alliance, Unidas Podemos.
In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon nearly doubled his vote share in the first round of the presidential election between 2012 and 2017, rising from 11.1 to 19.6 percent. Mélenchon also succeeded in leapfrogging his old party, the PS, winning three times as many votes as its candidate, Hamon. His party, La France Insoumise, then outperformed the Socialists in the legislative elections, albeit by a smaller margin. However, this reversal of fortunes was a function of center-left decline as well as radical-left advance, with much of the old Socialist electorate crossing over to Emmanuel Macron rather than Mélenchon.
In Sweden and the Netherlands, radical-left parties achieved their best results before the great crash, in 1998 and 2006, respectively. The Dutch Socialist Party did overtake its center-left rival in 2017, but only because support for Labour had plunged to less than a quarter of its previous level. The German Left Party had its strongest performance thus far in 2009, with nearly 12 percent of the vote, and has lost ground since then. Again, convergence with the SPD has owed more to the decline of the center-left party than to any Syriza-style breakthrough.
Portugal had one of Europe’s strongest radical-left movements before the crisis, with two parties represented in parliament, the Left Bloc and the Communists (PCP). Together, they won nearly 18 percent of the vote in 2009, but neither party was able to capitalize on the difficulties of the Portuguese center left. When the Socialist vote dropped by almost 9 percent in 2011, the PCP made no gains while the Left Bloc lost nearly half of its support. The Left Bloc recovered in 2015 and more or less held its ground four years later, but there was no question of the radical left overtaking António Costa’s rejuvenated party.
We also have to mention Italy, where Rifondazione Comunista had been one of Europe’s most successful radical-left parties in the 1990s and early 2000s. The radical left dropped out of parliament altogether in the 2008 election and has not reentered it since. Instead, the Five Star Movement (M5S) of comedian Beppe Grillo capitalized on disillusionment with the postcommunist center left, coming out of nowhere to claim a third of the vote by 2018.
Filling the Void
While it clearly won many left votes and put forward some traditional left-wing policies, the Five Star Movement claimed to be “neither left nor right,” railing against trade unions and immigrants as well as corrupt politicians and the strictures of the eurozone. It lurched around the political spectrum in search of allies, forming successive coalitions with the far-right Northern League and the Democratic Party after its 2018 breakthrough.
As the Italian example shows, the rightward march of social democracy will certainly produce a reaction, but it need not be one that the radical left feels comfortable with. By reducing political polarization within the electoral mainstream at a time when social polarization has been increasing, the center-left parties have created a vacuum. In the best of circumstances, challengers on their left flank can fill that space; at the same time, it presents opportunities for an eclectic, “anti-political” force like the M5S, or even the far right.
Right-wing radicals can certainly profit from a sense that politicians belong to a homogenous caste that is detached from ordinary people — a “cartel party,” as Peter Mair and Richard Katz had already dubbed it in 1995. By redefining themselves as catch-all parties and denying working-class identity a platform in mainstream debate, social democrats have also made it easier for the far right to articulate a bogus form of class politics, pitting native-born workers against immigrants, ethnic minorities, and the metropolitan elite.
The loosening of politics from its social and ideological moorings can also offer space for perhaps the most curious phenomenon of the last decade: the antiestablishment centrist. The most successful example of this political species thus far has been Emmanuel Macron. Despite having served in the government of François Hollande, Macron posed as an outsider and swept to victory in 2017 with an improvised electoral machine, En Marche.
Macron’s success helps illustrate why the radical left has struggled to convert electoral advances into a genuine break with the status quo. Macron only took 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 election — less than the combined vote share for Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon. His landslide victory in the second round depended on the fact that his opponent was National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
It was easy for Macron to follow a strategy that relied on people voting against Le Pen rather than in favor of his program, because nothing that he planned to do in office would bring him into conflict with big business or the people who control the state machine. Imagine that it was Mélenchon who had qualified for the runoff against Le Pen instead. Even if he had won the second round by the same margin, he would have faced unrelenting hostility from the same actors who were happy to accept Macron as president. Mélenchon would have been in office but not in power — much like Syriza after its capitulation to the Troika in the summer of 2015.
In much the same way, it’s easier for the far right to influence the political mainstream than the radical left, whether or not its parties enter government, because politicians can accept some of its demands without having to discomfort anyone who has real power. A crackdown on refugees, a campaign against minority religions, or an extension of police powers — all of which Macron has done since becoming president — will encounter much less resistance at the national and European levels than the slightest deviation from neoliberal orthodoxy in the economic field.
No Enemies on the Left?
This brings us back to the only countries in our sample where center-left parties have made gains, however modest, in recent years: Portugal and Spain. In both cases, the social democrats have returned to power by forming a governmental alliance with the radical left: the Left Bloc and the PCP supported António Costa from outside the cabinet, while Unidas Podemos insisted on a formal coalition deal.
Before clearing that hurdle, Costa and his Spanish counterpart Pedro Sanchez had to overcome pressure from within their own parties to form a Greek- or German-style “grand coalition” instead. Costa and the Portuguese Socialists gained popularity while in government, though not by enough to win a majority in 2019. Sanchez and his party would need a huge increase in support to do so without a coalition partner.
This Iberian model, if we can call it that, of left-wing coalitions can’t be exported to states like Italy where the radical left is marginal, or to countries where the center-left parties have lost too much support for it to be viable. In Germany, the numbers were there on paper after the 2005 and 2013 elections for a “red-red-green” coalition between the Social Democrats, the Left Party, and the Greens, but not after 2017. Any revival of France’s late ’90s “plural left” government will be off the table, even if Jean-Luc Mélenchon were amenable to it, so long as the Socialists remain in such an enfeebled state.
This model, in its original sites, also relied upon a particular set of circumstances that may not hold for very long. First of all, it required the radical-left parties to lower their sights and accept the kind of policy agenda with which their social-democratic partners would be comfortable. That meant there would be no real break with the economic paradigm of the last forty years.
Stathis Kouvelakis criticized this approach with reference to the Portuguese experience:
It’s a fundamental mistake for formations of the radical left to agree to a line that is merely complementary to social democracy. We don’t need radical-left parties to make deals with social democracy to limit foreclosures, raise the minimum wage by €50, cancel some redundancies in the public sector, and so on. If we really think that’s the best we can get, we should operate within the framework of social democracy, and try to obtain some concrete improvements. But for a political current that supposedly has an alternative vision for society, accepting this as the horizon can amount to giving up on that vision.
This is a serious point that should not be dismissed as sectarian or “ultraleft.” Even if they reject such arguments, the radical-left groups need to deliver something tangible from the experience of supporting a government and then hold on to their electoral base, with the latter obviously dependent on the former. If they suffer a wipeout or a sharp decline, they won’t be any use as a partner, no matter how accommodating they may be.
If there’s no question of a radical turn in economic policy, the ability to deliver small-scale reforms hinges on the existence of favorable conditions to create some fiscal breathing room. The post-pandemic downturn has already caused serious tensions between the government partners in Portugal and Spain. The European Commission has added to the pressure by attaching unpopular conditions to coronavirus aid in a bid to circumvent electoral democracy.
For all these reasons, it would be unwise to present Spain or Portugal as examples for the European left to follow, especially if the gloomiest predictions about the regional economy prove to be accurate. However, the experience of these two countries should remind us of an old lesson: left parties of any kind will only succeed if they offer something distinctive to their supporters, with the prospect of real improvements in their lives.
Put as simply as that, this may seem like a banal truism, but it’s something that Europe’s social democrats have forgotten in the last generation. Even in the Iberian countries, it required pressure from the radical left to push them back onto the most timidly reformist path. Although it lies outside our electoral sample, the experience of Jeremy Corbyn’s movementin Britain shows how determined the old guard in such parties will be to resist any serious project of renewal from within its own ranks. This doesn’t augur well for their future in the difficult years to come.
This post was originally published on Jacobin.