Asharq Al-awsat English https://aawsat.com/english Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper http://feedly.com/icon.svg

Look, the Center-Left Can Still Win Elections

Look, the Center-Left Can Still Win Elections

Wednesday, 12 June, 2019 - 09:45
Much has been written about the decline of Europe’s center-left political parties in the face of a populist onslaught. But this year, forces from this part of the political spectrum have already won elections in three countries: Finland, Spain and, most recently, Denmark. The lesson? Social democrats can come out on top in countries where voters are worried that welfare cuts have gone too far.

In Denmark, the leftist coalition led by Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democrats won 92 out of the 179 seats in parliament as support for the nationalist Danish People’s Party collapsed and the center-right failed to capitalize on it.

Frederiksen didn’t win by attacking the nationalists on hot-button issues such as immigration. In fact, under her leadership, the Social Democrats have backed proposals such as the infamous “jewelry bill,” which lets the government take away asylum seekers’ possessions to cover the cost of supporting them while their claims are processed. She also favors a cap on what she calls “non-Western” migration to the country.

These are rare positions for a European center-left party, but most of Denmark’s political mainstream has adopted them so wholeheartedly that voters apparently see little further need to support the People’s Party. Besides, the inflow of asylum seekers has subsided since 2015, and other issues have come into focus – for example, the now-obvious deterioration of the country’s vaunted welfare system under a string of liberal governments. The formerly egalitarian country has seen a sharp increase in the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality.

Frederiksen didn’t win by attacking the nationalists on hot-button issues such as immigration. In fact, under her leadership, the Social Democrats have backed proposals such as the infamous “jewelry bill,” which lets the government take away asylum seekers’ possessions to cover the cost of supporting them while their claims are processed. She also favors a cap on what she calls “non-Western” migration to the country.

Since the financial crisis, Denmark has capped benefits and introduced stricter means-testing. This has helped to reduce the number of unemployment and social assistance claimants by almost a third in the last seven years – but it has also eroded the sense of security to which Danes had grown accustomed.
Frederiksen campaigned on promises to raise taxes on the rich and on companies, boost spending on health care and education, and provide early retirement for those who have worked for 40 years. She also pushed for a stronger response to the climate emergency.

Over in Finland, the Social Democrats, who succeeded in forming a governing coalition late last month after securing a plurality in the April parliamentary election, won by pledging to end the previous center-right government’s austerity program. The coalition led by Antti Rinne, the victorious party’s leader, intends to raise alcohol, tobacco and fuel taxes, expand compulsory education, roll back cuts to spending on universities, and raise the lowest pensions.

Just as in Denmark, Finnish voters have been worried about the erosion of what economic liberals would call the nanny state. Rinne now hopes to expand it without increasing Finland’s national debt, an achievable goal if the economy grows at about 2% a year.

One could argue that pampered Nordic voters are particularly sensitive to the slightest cuts in welfare spending, and this low tolerance threshold keeps the center-left alive in countries used to extensive social security systems. But then Spaniards are anything but pampered or entitled, and they gave Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Party a strong enough plurality that he feels comfortable running a minority government if needed.

The ruling center-right People's Party had been brought to its knees by a series of corruption scandals, culminating in Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's loss of a confidence vote last year. Sanchez won the election by promising to spend more after boosting the minimum wage by 22 percent earlier this year.

The Socialists’ platform included traditional pledges to increase taxes on the rich and on corporations, just as the center- and far-right parties proposed cuts. Sanchez also wants to strengthen labor market regulation after Rajoy relaxed it to combat Spain's high unemployment after the financial crisis. In a country where 26% of the workforce is on temporary contracts, that strikes a chord with voters.

What this year’s center-left victories have in common is voter fatigue with governments that don’t pay enough attention to social agendas. Whether in Denmark and Finland, where the unhappiness becomes manifest before most people feel any pain, or in Spain, where voters have been incredibly patient since the global economic crisis, parties of the moderate left can offer just enough tax-and-spend relief to be electorally attractive.

That’s a hopeful sign for center-left parties elsewhere, especially Germany’s floundering Social Democrats. When most voters are happy with their living standards, there's little social democrats can do to increase their support, but they shouldn't worry about it. It might, though, be worth their while to pay more attention to environmental issues, because they are growing in importance to voters.

A cyclical downturn, or too many years of little progress on social issues, will automatically play into the socialists’ hands. Then they will just need to do what they do best – offer to make society a little fairer and more equal.


(Bloomberg)

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks

Multimedia