For decades, the politics of southern Europe has closely matched that of the United Kingdom’s, characterised by two dominant parties of Left and Right competing with each other for power and influence. Events of the past few years, however, have called into question the survival of traditional two-party systems along the southern cone of Europe, and British policymakers should keep a close eye on these developments if they hope to avoid a similar development taking place on these shores.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008, austerity measures introduced across southern Europe have led to falling levels of support for traditional governing parties while precipitating the rise of populist parties opposed to the prolongation of such regressive policies. Although these developments have so far left the political systems of Malta, Portugal, and Cyprus relatively unscathed, they have fragmented the two-party systems of Italy and Greece and pose a threat to the entrenched political establishment in Spain, a reflection of the extent to which people are fed up with the old political guard in their countries and their failure to deal effectively with problems like poverty and unemployment.
In Italy, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (whose breakthrough in the 2013 Italian general election broke the country’s two-party system) has flexed its political muscles in parliament, influencing government measures such as a reform of party financing and a budgetary amendment enabling private businesses to withhold tax for unpaid, state-owed bills. The Five Star Movement’s legislative impact not only highlights the extent to which minor parties can effect change on a scale that far outweighs their numerical strength in a national parliament, but it also demonstrates the growing influence of populist parties across southern Europe in an age of austerity.
In Spain, the promise made by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy a few months ago to introduce a new benefit for the long-term jobless was attributed partially to the rise of Podemos, a relatively new left-wing protest party. Since its electoral routing in 2011, support for the PSOE (historically the largest party of the Spanish Left) has fallen while the nascent Podemos has seen its star rise, with many polls not only ranking it higher than both Rajoy’s People’s Party (or PP) and the PSOE, but as Spain’s most popular party. The promises made by Podemos are of an ambitious nature in an era of austerity, including a sharp rise in the minimum wage, retirement at the age of 60, a shorter working week, and preventing the sacking of employees at profitable firms. Apart from focusing on bread-and-butter issues, Podemos has also won backing for its strong stance against corruption, an emotive issue in Spain where the two main parties (together with bankers and members of the royal family) have become embroiled in a series of financial scandals. Nevertheless, it is uncertain that Podemos will win enough votes to form a government, as polls show that it would win less than half of all parliamentary seats in the December general election, raising the prospect of a “grand coalition” between the PP and PSOE. Such an outcome could benefit Podemos in the long run if the PSOE’s presence in a PP-dominated coalition fails to reverse the austerity policies of recent years, and attract support from PSOE voters in the same way that Syriza in Greece has done with former supporters of PASOK.
In Greece, PASOK and New Democracy (the traditional kingmakers of Greek politics) have seen their total share of the vote plummet from over 75% in in the 2009 general election to less than 40% in January this year. The radical Syriza party, by contrast, has seen its fortunes change dramatically, transforming from a minor political force winning only 5% of the vote in 2009 to a major political player attaining 36% of the vote in the early January election, enabling it to form a government for the first time. Elected on a staunchly leftist, anti-austerity programme, the promises made by Syriza are a clear rejection of the “shock therapy” that has been administered to Greece for the last five years. Apart from restoring previous abolished worker’s rights, these include free electricity for certain households with cut-off supplies, transport subsidies for the long-term jobless, food stamps for children, and the extension of healthcare coverage to the uninsured. It remains to be seen if Syriza will be able to keep such bold promises, given the continuing debt crisis the country faces, but one cannot deny the strong mandate that Syriza has been given to try to carry out its programme. The coming to power of a far-left government in Greece was an electoral outcome that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but like in other countries is indicative of how traditional dominant parties have failed to overcome the challenges of the time, with populist forces rising out of the ashes of austerity with promises of introducing major reforms and ending years of economic hardship.
Various observers have expressed concerns over Syriza’s victory, believing that the ascension to power of an anti-capitalist party strenuously opposed to the perpetuation of Greek austerity could result in other countries following the same pattern, with voters electing governments that could lead Europe down the path of fiscal recklessness and financial ruin, and bring about the collapse of the Eurozone. To ensure the survival of the Eurozone, lawmakers in the European Parliament could respond positively to the growing strength of the populist movement in southern Europe by shifting the overall economic strategy of the EU to one that it is more reflationary and redistributive in its aims. Not only would this be a progressive way of responding to the electoral breakthrough of populist parties across the Mediterranean, but it could also increase the legitimacy of the single currency in the eyes of disaffected citizens.
For me, the electoral breakthrough of Syriza, coupled with Podemos emerging as a serious contender for power in Spain, has sent out a clear message to policymakers in Brussels that many people are tired of the harsh economic medicine they have had to swallow in the form of cuts to wages and services such as health and education that threaten the fabric of the much-coveted European social model. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Europeans have questioned the economic wisdom of staying in the Eurozone, with four out of ten Italians in a recent survey, for instance, expressing their support for leaving the single currency. If the political gains won by protest parties across southern Europe have shown us anything, it is that many ordinary citizens wish for the state to provide them with greater security and prosperity, a sentiment that southern European populists have effectively tapped into.
Here in Britain, there are important lessons that Labour and the Conservatives can learn from the populist tide sweeping southern Europe if they hope to maintain their positions as the leading parties of British politics. For the Conservatives, a vital lesson for it to take on board is that voters will only tolerate a period of belt-tightening for so long, especially if they fail to see a brighter economic future appearing over the horizon. In Spain, where over a fifth of the workforce is still unemployed and where 80% of new positions are short-term, the governing People’s Party has seen its public backing slip away since its stunning election victory in 2011, with support for the party plunging from 44% to 20%. Much of this drop can be attributed to Rajoy’s failure to find a less painful solution to tackle Spain’s woes, with the implementation of unpopular austerity measures such as tax rises and sharp cuts in social spending that have eaten away at the PP’s support.
Although there remains the likelihood of Rajoy forming an alliance with other parties to stay in power after the December election, the fact that a quarter of upper middle-class Spaniards in a recent poll expressed their intention to vote for Podemos (almost ten points higher than the People’s Party, the traditional party of bourgeois voters) is an indication of the extent to which the party has been able to reach out to all kinds of different social strata in Spain.
The recent promises made by David Cameron to deliver tax cuts for 30 million people and exempt minimum wage earners working at least 30 hours a week from taxation are signs that he may be taking on board the lesson of what can happen to a party if it wrings out too many sacrifices from the electorate without offering much back in return. With many polls showing the Conservatives now tied and even ahead of Labour, Cameron’s tax promises are ones that he can ill-afford to break should he be elected to a second term. Failure to keep such pledges, along with failing to ensure that recent growth in real incomes is sustained, could have dire consequences for the Conservatives in future elections, with the possibility of a populist force like UKIP supplanting the Conservatives as the main vehicle of the mainstream Right in British politics.
With the next General Election less than four months away, and a recent forecast by election observer Professor Paul Whitely predicting that Labour could win a plurality of seats in parliament, there is a crucial lesson that the Labour Party can learn from the experiences of its Greek and Spanish counterparts; PASOK and the PSOE. The lesson to be learnt is that the failure to fulfil people’s hopes for change and a better life not only tarnishes a party’s reputation, but leads to it almost being wiped out of existence at the ballot box. In 2009, PASOK won the Greek election with an impressive 43% of the vote, with promises to hike public sector pay and benefits, and subsequently adopting restrictive economic policies aimed at bringing down the country’s deficit, cutting spending and reducing the tax-free threshold while witnessing the jobless rate triple from about 9% to 21.% Not surprisingly, PASOK’s dismal record saw its share of the vote collapse in subsequent elections, and has now been reduced to a rump party garnering just 5% of the vote in January. Similarly in Spain, the previous PSOE administration failed to halt the rising tide of unemployment in that country while implementing austerity measures towards the end of its term such as public sector pay cuts. In the election due to be held this December, Podemos looks set to replace PSOE as the largest left-wing party in Spain; arguably an indictment of the PSOE’s last few years in office.
If Labour scrapes through in May, and ends up implementing deep cuts to public spending and presiding over worsening levels of inequality, it may end up suffering the same fate as PASOK and, possibly, the PSOE. Inspiration can be found in the record of the Labour administration in Malta, whose leader Joseph Muscat enjoys a considerable poll advantage over his opponent Simon Busuttil. Although his government has not been without difficulties, it has managed to maintain a business-friendly environment while delivering positive changes to people’s lives via measures such as universal childcare and substantial child benefit provisions for those earning the minimum wage. As in the case of Joseph Muscat, Labour under Ed Miliband may need to carry out a strategy that strikes a balance between meeting the needs of business and families if it hopes to remain the leading progressive force in British politics.
The demise of traditional two-party politics in most of southern Europe is a geopolitical phenomenon that not only has implications for the survival of long-established parties in Spain and Italy, but also for the future of the two-party system of the United Kingdom. The rise of populist parties in the Mediterranean in response to public dissatisfaction with mainstream politics should be a wake-up call to supporters of continued austerity that a change of direction on the part of traditional parties is needed, not only in preventing greater political fragmentation both in Britain and in mainland Europe, but in securing a brighter future for all Europeans.