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European left struggles to win votes from crisis

Published on 06/05/2009

Brussels -- The financial and economic crisis and its fallout would normally mean votes for the left at next month's European Parliament elections, yet the conservatives remain the dominant power.

The latest opinion surveys suggest the European People’s Party (EPP) will dominate the assembly for another five years once the votes are counted after the June 4 to 7 polls.

Indeed their dominance over the Party of European Socialists (PES), which lost its relative majority in the house in 1994, is likely to continue, although the centre left is set to remain the second biggest faction.

At the same time, the anticipated boost for the radical, anti-capitalist left in a number of the EU’s 27 member countries is expected to be counter-balanced by gains for the eurosceptic parties of the right.

The trend is surprising, as the centre-left would in theory be expected to gain ground at a time of extreme economic crisis.

Indeed the socialists are suffering at the European level, leading fewer governments than the EPP parties; a decline that has continued since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A little more than a decade ago, socialists or social democrat parties were in government or ruling coalitions in 13 of the 15 nations that made up the EU at the time.

Now they only head governments in eight of 27 states: Britain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

The parties are part of governing coalitions — albeit often in the minority — in Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Romania.

Opinion polls suggest they could lose ground in future elections and possibly drop out of governments in Britain, Bulgaria, Germany and Hungary.

"People hold bankers responsible for the crisis, not the right," said Dominik Hierlemann, political expert at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany.

And "in times of crisis, voters are not going to launch into new experiments and will tend to prefer the teams in place" of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi or French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he said.

On top of this, the conservatives have turned to more traditional leftist tactics to confront the financial and economic crisis by nationalising banks, launching stimulus packages or regulating the markets.

Combine it all with the rise of the radical left in countries like Bulgaria, France, Germany or Italy — stealing away some votes — and the centre-left’s route to power may well be blocked for some time.

At the European level, divisions within the bloc have not helped their case.

The socialist parties were unable to come up with a credible alternative candidate for president of the European Commission — the EU’s unelected executive body — to the conservative incumbent Jose Manuel Barroso.

Finding one might have given their campaign a better focus but PES leader Poul Nyrup Rasmussen from Denmark could not stamp his authority, even though he was regularly mentioned as someone who might stand.

His chances essentially disappeared with the decision by the centre-left leaders of Britain and Spain to back Barroso — the former premier of Portugal.

The bloc’s diminishing chances of fielding a unifying candidate died when the head of the PES in parliament Martin Schultz — who is hoping to become an EU commissioner — decided not to derail Barroso’s candidature.

Yacine Le Forestier/AFP/Expatica