The Greek and French elections have thrown up a result where the left has gained significant ground, but so has the extreme right.
The definitive verdict in both countries is clearly against the “austerity” programmes coming out of Merkozy EU leadership – Merkel and Sarkozy. There is little doubt that the neo-liberal policy of sharp cut-backs on public spending, welfare measures, employment and salaries is now going to see a serious challenge. The “confidence fairy”, as Paul Krugman would say, cut back state spending and the improved confidence will lift the economy out of depression is not happening with countries like Greece and Spain going into deeper depression.
The Greek Elections
While the left parties have gained a lot of ground in Greece, getting more than 35% votes, so has the extreme right – they have also polled about 20% votes.
The left secured a total of 35.5% – 17% for Syriza (51 seats), 8.5% (21 seats) for KKE (the Communist Party), 1.2% for the anti-capitalist left party Antarsya and some 6.1% (10 seats) for the Democratic Left (more social democratic in its positions) and 2.9% for the Greens. The Right, and by this we mean the hard right, as distinct from the two supposedly centrist formations, which have also been drifting rightwards, consisting of Independent Greeks, LAOS, and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, polled respectively 10.6%, 2.9% and 7%. The collapse has been of the two centrist formations who ran the brutal austerity regime – the centre-right New Democratic Party and Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), the social democratic formation of George Papendreou. While they had polled about 77% of the votes in 2009, this time they polled only 32% of the votes. New Democracy, has dropped from 33% in 2009 to 19% even though has increased its seats from 91 to 108 due to a bizarre provision in Greece that gives the largest party a bonus of 50 seats. Though the parties fight for 250 seats, the strength of the Parliament is 300 due to this strange rule. Pasok has lost more than 31% vote share, dropping from 44% to a meagre 13% and from 160 seats to a paltry 41.
The New Democratic Party has given up trying to form a government. With this, the baton to form a government passes on to Syriza as the next largest party. Given that KKE has stated it will not join hands with other left parties, Syriza is unlikely to succeed to either. Unless the Democratic Left joins with New Democracy and Pasok, the chances of a new government is dim and we may see another elections quite soon.
The Syriza has been the big gainer in these elections, apart from the neo-Nazi formation, the Golden Dawn. Syriza has its origins in Synaspismos, a coalition between the KKE, the Communist Party of Greece and Greek Left, an off-shoot of the Euro-Communist Greek Communist Party (Interior). After the fall of Soviet Union, the KKE underwent a major shake-up – a number of persons left KKE and the KKE itself moved away from a policy of coalitions with other left formations. At this stage, Synaspismos
converted itself into a new political party. With sections of ecological left and other groups joining it, it became an “umbrella” party, allowing different platforms (tendencies) to work within it. These platforms take positions, and publish their own literature advocating their positions, but may not work against party decision, once it has been taken. In the congresses, each platform proposes its vision of party strategy and presents its ballot of candidates for the National Committee. In the last Congress (2008), the rankings as per size in the National Committee are: "Left Stream" (mainstream western Marxism), "Renewing Wing" (radical social democracy), the "Red-green Network" (eco-Marxism) and the "Initiative" (Euro-sceptic Marxism). Since 2004 the Left Stream, the Red-greens and the Initiative formed the Left Majority and are credited with moving the party to a more radical position. It is lead by charismatic, 37-year old Alexis Tsipras, an engineer turned politician.
The KKE however, considers Syriza to be “revisionists” and believe that they are creating “illusions”, while Syriza would regard KKE to be a “sectarian” and a “dogmatic” party.
The KKE has been instrumental in not having an united left call for forming a government, which could repudiate the Greek debt and reject the austerity program coming out of Brussels. In Greece, as in most of Europe, this is the immediate issue. Instead, KKE's position of joining the other left parties only if they agree to immediately leave the Eurozone, does not appear a reasonable response. It can only lead to either its own marginalisation or shifting the focus away from the left as a whole in the next elections .
The situation in Greece is unstable as can be seen from the enormous gains that extreme right has also made. Not only have the more right-wing parties also gained at the cost of the centre, their openly anti-immigrant and anti-islamic positions have gained considerable ground even within New Democracy and Pasok. In the dying days before the elections, huge security camps were opened where immigrants were held, virtually in concentration camp conditions. The urban centres, where a lot of homeless people and immigrants are concentrated, were held to be “unsanitary” and this anti-immigrant drive was sought to be cloaked in terms of a health drive.
The classic tactic of the right is to turn the anger of the people away from capital towards vulnerable sections that can be easily identified as the “other”. If it was anti-Jewish earlier, it is now anti-black, anti-brown and virulently anti-Muslim.
The French Elections
France has also shifted to the left, al beit less so than Greece. The victory of the soft spoken 57-year old François Hollande over Nicolas Sarkozy has been read again as a rejection of the austerity and high unemployment line of Sarkozy. Sarkozy's bellicose foreign policy, with macho posturing with military interventions in Libya and an attempted intervention in Syria did not help him get over the French electorate’s dislike of Sarkozy. If Hollande was bland, Sarkozy's in-your-face politics did not help him win too many friends either.
But the French elections was not about style – it was about economy just as the Greek elections was. What was rejected was the neo-liberal policies that in Europe benefits only finance capital. It is built on low deficits and deep cuts in social welfare and public spending. With mounting unemployment and a tranche of unpopular benefit cutting measures that saw French unions mobilise on a huge scale, Sarkozy's popularity was bound to fall.
The international press has focussed on the gains made by Marine Le Pen and her Party, the Front National. She polled 17.9 % of the votes, even higher than her father’s best showing in 2003, when he polled 16.9% of the votes, coming second and therefore entering the run-offs against Chirac.
However, if we take the gains made by the left in France, even after discounting the victory of centre-left Hollande 30 years after Mitterrand won the French Presidency as a Socialist Party candidate, they are considerable. The left together with the greens, won more than 15% of the votes, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left Front winning 11.1% votes. It is after a long time that a left candidate in France has got over 10% of the votes.
A part of the gain Le Pen made was due to National Front's position against the European Union. In this, the radical left and the ultra-nationalist both oppose European Union's economic policies, though for very different reasons. So a part of the anger against the austerity policies benefited Le Pen as well.
The key issue before Hollande is how far will he take his publicly articulated position against the austerity package coming out of Brussels? Will he cave in to Angela Merkel's rejection of his demand for a more growth oriented economic policy? Or will he become, as Pasok did in Greece, a care-taker of the neo-liberal regime in practice, while making critical noises? How far will he go in opposing Merkel is the key to his and France's future.
The more likely scenario is that Hollande will do what Mitterrand, his socialist predecessor did – succumb to global financial capital. Anything else requires much greater commitment than the Socialist Party in France has shown for a long time.
This leaves the entire centre open to contention. With Sarkozy's UMP under threat from Le Pen's National Front, the Left has to chart a course that will expand its base, while containing the right-wing threat from Le Pen. Who will gain how much from the centre if the centrist parties – UMP and the Socialists – continue with the current neo-liberal regime, is the key question in France. If Hollande succumbs as the right-wing is already crowing, the left has to take to the streets to stop France's slide down the austerity path. Otherwise, National Front will grow to become a long-term threat.
Both Greece and France have voted against the current neo-liberal orthodoxy that has been the hall-mark of the EU. Whether these policies can continue even after their rejection by the people will have to be seen. But it is clear that crunch time is approaching for neo-liberal economics in Europe. The people have spoken quite clearly. Whether bankers who control the politics of Europe today will let go, remains to be seen. For that, the people will have to take to the streets. In future, we will have to talk of European streets in the same way the international media speaks of Arab streets. 2012 could well be the beginning of a European Spring.