Down but not out, Europe's left begins a comeback

Germany's Schröder has improved his chances in Sunday's election with tough talk against war with Iraq.

For the past few years, the trend has not been friendly to Europe's socialists. Across the continent, right-wing parties have gained influence and some now share power, after winning support on promises to create jobs with liberal economics and talking tough on issues like crime and immigration.

Now, the political landscape could be shifting again. Just as quickly as Europe tipped right of center, recent events suggest the pendulum is slowly starting to swing in the opposite direction.

"It is too soon to say that this is a new trend, but the trend towards right-wing populism in Europe definitely has been broken," says Hajo Funke, professor of politics and culture at Berlin's Free University.

The first signs of trouble on the right emerged last week in Austria, when the ruling coalition that included right-wing populist Jörg Haider's Freedom Party collapsed. Then, on Monday, Sweden's Social Democrats scored an unexpected victory, beating the predictions of the pollsters by remaining in power.

In Germany, the largest member of the European Union, left-of-center chancellor Gerhard Schröder's decisive "nein" to Washington's campaign to oust Saddam Hussein with military force is striking a chord with war-wary German voters. Combined with public recognition of his deft handling of this summer's floods in eastern Germany, Mr. Schröder's categorical rejection of a war with Iraq has helped turn the tide on a floundering reelection bid against conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber.

Though he may have angered Washington, and though some observers say his hard-edge stance is simply to get votes, Schröder now stands an even chance of getting re-elected when Germans go to the polls on Sunday.

In isolation, developments in each of these countries could be seen as separate events responding to specific local issues. But analysts see broader significance in the turn away from the right: Many Europeans appear to be concerned about sacrificing too much of the social welfare state, and they are also eager for European leaders to take a more skeptical view of American foreign policy.

Says Mr. Funke of the Free University: "In Sweden people ... oriented themselves towards the Social Democrats because they promised to uphold the social welfare state."

In Germany, Mr. Schröder's insistence that the country must follow a "German way" in opposing the US regarding Iraq resonated with growing concern in Europe over what is seen here as a unilateral American foreign policy. Thus, Schröder's refusal to toe the line worked in gaining votes, while the traditional transatlantic loyalty voiced by his conservative rival did not go over well with voters.

"Partially as a result of Washington's rhetoric, public opinion is more negative about war as a means to deal with this problem. The public is overwhelmingly against war," says Karl Kaiser, head of research at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "Most Europeans are convinced that in the new international era in which we live, one of risk and uncertainty, we must not discard the international principles that guided us throughout the cold war era."

Yet a victory for Schröder is far from certain. And it's still unlikely, say analysts, that Europe will see a return any time soon to the days when the great majority of its governments were ruled by socialist leaders. Right-of-center governments have come to power in countries as diverse as Italy, France, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands. "We are not yet seeing signs of a shift in the party systems," says Ulrike Guerot, head of the European division of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "We're not seeing the return to the time when 14 of the 15 EU members were led by socialist governments."

Still, the nascent reawakening of the left could affect European policy, say experts. For example, Eastern European countries could more readily gain acceptance as new members of the EU. Mr. Haider had threatened to block EU expansion.

While Swedes and Germans appear to be responding to a desire for greater security, in Austria, Haider's troubles emerged when his Freedom Party was forced to make compromises in its program in order to deal with a fiscal challenge. Haider, who once referred to participants at a meeting of former SS officers as "respectable men," clashed with his party's leaders over their decision to postpone a tax cut to pay for repairing the damage from this summer's massive floods. The head of Haider's party and other members resigned, which brought down the government. Austria's conservative chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel of the Austrian People's Party, or ÖVP, called new elections for January 20.

The latest opinion polls published in the Austrian daily Der Standard show support for the Freedom Party has fallen to less than 10 percent from 27 percent at the last election. Mr. Schüssel and the Social Democrat opposition are neck and neck in the polls. "Anything is possible except that the FPO [Freedom Party] gain," Imma Palme of Austria's Ifes polling agency, told Der Standard.

In Sweden, the conservative opposition campaigned on a program of tax cuts and anti-immigration issues. But Swedish voters rallied behind Göran Persson, who promised to uphold the country's cradle-to-grave welfare system. Mr. Persson called the election a "victory for the welfare state" signaling the "collapse of the conservatives." He added that "hopefully our friends in Germany will repeat our success next week."

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