When Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann stepped down this week, it was not only one of the biggest symbols yet of a Europe-wide erosion of confidence in mainstream politics.
His resignation also points to the particular failure of Europe’s center-left, which has struggled to navigate an era of economic insecurity, record migration, and terrorism threats.
Mr. Faymann was forced to step down as leader of the Austrian Social Democratic Party after being thrashed by the far-right in the first round of presidential elections last month.
Like much of northern Europe, far-right populists in Austria have attracted the blue-collar vote as they’ve paired a leftist economic platform with a right-wing rejection of migration. And in southern Europe, socialists have been tested by upstart leftist parties who say the old left has become indistinguishable from the center right. Nowhere is that clearer than in Spain, which is bracing for new elections in June after inconclusive polls in December.
Social democracy has been a driving force of European politics and identity since the end of World War II. But political loyalties have changed with restructured economies, and the left has been forced to shift right amid financial crisis. Many fear that the weakening of the center left is a boon for fringe parties. It also shifts the continent further to the right overall.
“All over Europe and everywhere, there's a crisis of social democracy because neoliberalism politics have triumphed,” says Jaime Ferri Durà, head of the political science department at Complutense University in Madrid.
The Socialists of Spain (PSOE) saw their poorest performance in history in December, garnering only 22 percent of the vote as Spaniards flocked to new parties on the left. Those parties wooed voters with promises to end corruption scandals that have plagued both mainstream parties, and with leftist policies that they say have evaporated in the age of austerity.
Eduardo Kaczinski’s family has long been part of Spain’s Socialist bastion. “My parents were working class. They always knew at which side of the political spectrum they stood,” says Mr. Kaczinski, who at 27 is unemployed, like 45 percent of young people in Spain.
But now their loyalties have shifted, as they’ve watched their two children graduate from college and struggle to find footing as adults, says Kaczinski, who now runs Oficina Precaria, an organization that helps young Spaniards in precarious work. His parents left the Socialist party, casting votes for Podemos, the far-left party that has helped undo Spain’s two-party system.
The PSOE's challenges mirror those of socialists across Europe. In Greece, Pasok, one of the major forces of Greek politics since the 1970s, garnered just 6 percent of the vote in September elections. The space of the left was instead occupied by the ruling Syriza bloc, which appealed to Greeks exasperated with austerity cuts. Denmark's Social Democrats lost their hold on the Danish government last year, while Britain's Labour Party was roundly defeated in elections in May.
Socialist French President François Hollande, meanwhile, is the country’s least popular president in history. There, the far-right National Front has managed to gain support among the working class who are languishing in rust belts and feel increasingly unsettled amid restructured, globalized economies.
The role of refugees
Reinhard Heinisch, a professor of political science at Salzburg University, says that political identities once formed around workers on the left and business and capital on the right have shifted. The far-right has appealed to workers in Austria who, as in other Western countries, no longer feel that their place is secure.
“It’s an erosion of economic security, particularly of the middle class, who are no longer as well off as they used to be,” he says.
Faymann’s fate owes in large part to his U-turn on the refugee crisis. The now-former chancellor helped foster the so-called “Willkommenskultur” in Austria, aligning the country with Germany’s embrace. But a backlash and new terrorism threats prompted him to put an upper limit on the amount of asylum claims Austria would take and effectively shut down the “Balkan route” into Europe.
At a Vienna May Day celebration – a resonant holiday for the left – Faymann was booed, setting the stage for this week’s resignation and bringing uncertainty less than two weeks before the second round of presidential elections May 22.
“The electors on the left are more demanding than the electors on the right,” says Mr. Ferri Durà in Madrid. “A right-wing corrupt minister is awful, but a left-wing corrupt one is much worse because of the so-called moral superiority of the left. Because of that, left-wing electors are more prone to punish their parties.”
As the Social Democrats in Austria scramble, other leftist parties around Europe are trying to offer new alternatives, including cooperation with socialist parties. The Socialist-led coalition in Portugal, formed with the Left Bloc and the Communist party after elections last fall, has pledged to “turn the page on austerity” while at the same time abiding by the fiscal discipline required of eurozone countries.
João Galamba, a deputy for the Portuguese Socialist party, says the new coalition has proven that there is a viable path from the neoliberal policies that dominate in Europe.
“If we had joined forces with the right wing instead, we would have lost ground. This way we’re showing there’s an alternative,” he says.
New face of the center?
The ascent of the far-left parties in southern Europe might mean that they become the new face of the center, says António Costa Pinto of the University of Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences.
“The center-left is being emptied out of its traditional parties in southern Europe, but that doesn’t mean it will remain empty. It means they’ll be replaced by new socialist parties,” he says. That’s already happened with Syriza in Greece, which entered the stage as a radical left party but has since moved to the center.
The stalemate in Spain has led to new elections in part because the new left has not been able to form a coalition with the PSOE, who ended up in second place in the December race.
“We don’t want to replace the Socialists, we want to change the political game,” says Miguel Urbán, one of Podemos' co-founders. “If Podemos becomes the first party on the Spanish left, it’s up to PSOE to decide if they want to form a coalition that continues the conservative politics or if they want to form a coalition of change.”
Across Europe, the challenges facing the left have put voters into uncharted territory.
“My parents are hopeful, but they’re also scared,” Kaczinski, the unemployed activist, says. "They feel that if Podemos wins, Spanish politics will be changed forever. It will be a transformation as deep as the one that occurred when the country became a democracy.”