The European radical left will face in 2015 the most important electoral cycle of its recent history. Over one third of the EU electorate will be involved in regular or early legislative elections.
The date of the first challenge in Greece is already set for Sunday 25 January; at least seven other countries will follow, with expected dates in March (Estonia), April (Finland), May (the UK), September (Denmark and Portugal), October (Poland) and November (Spain). More than the sheer number of European citizens called to the polls, however, what makes the vote a crucial test for this party family are its political implications. Radical left parties are currently topping the polls in two of the eight countries: SYRIZA in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain – an unusual event in the post-1970s landscape, where communist and radical left forces have traditionally been dwarfed by mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties.1 A victory in these two countries would therefore represent the second opportunity, after the unsuccessful experiment of the Cypriot Christofias cabinet in 2008-2013, to see a party of the European radical left at the helm of an alternative governmental coalition, thereby testing the validity of its anti-neoliberal socio-economic programme and the permeability of the European Union to its demands.
The background data on the eight upcoming elections are summarised in Table 1. In aggregate terms, the radical left looks set to build on the momentum of the 2014 European Parliament election and double its vote share (from 7.13% to 13-15%). Both expected results and expected gains, however, are very unequally distributed. Present indicators point to no sign of life (below 1%) in the traditionally weak UK, Poland and Estonia, overall stability at medium levels (8-17%) in Denmark2, Portugal and Finland and a spectacular growth in Spain (above 30%) and Greece (above 40%). The attention of all observers is set on the Greek election this Sunday, where a success of the radical left might have serious repercussions on the governance and policies of the whole European Union.
Table 1. LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS TO BE HELD IN 2015 (EU COUNTRIES)
Latest opinion polls *
Current trend vs. 2010-2012
Note:* estimates based on the latest opinion polls (10.2014-1.2015).
In Greece the radical left party SYRIZA3, which in 2012 suddenly transformed from a small and fractious coalition into the main opposition force of the country, is trying to consolidate its lead over Samaras’ conservative Nea Dimokratia and to win a parliamentary majority for its programme of anti-neoliberal change (see Table 2).
Table 2. GREEK ELECTIONS
Valid votes on the total electorate
Note: * estimates based on the latest opinion polls (1.2015).
On the first account, the latest opinion polls suggest a stable and relatively clear margin of 2-6 percentage points. Political scientist Gerassimos Moschonas sees the Greek public opinion as oscillating between contradictory feelings of “hope”, “rage” and “fear”; the seating prime minister Antonis Samaras, in particular, hopes to pull off a surprise come back by capitalising on the fear of a leap in the dark and of the reprisals of the financial markets and of the European partners. On the second account, the sizeable premium attributed by the electoral law to the first party (50 seats out of 300) makes it possible to form a parliamentary majority with as little as 35-38% of the valid votes.
In the other countries the partisan radical left seem to be roughly stable around the values of the preceding election, with one major exception: Spain. Here the opinion polls indicate a clear surge of the radical left, by now clearly the first party family of the country. The main beneficiary, however, is not one of the traditional forces of the fragmented Spanish left (the components of the IU alliance, radical regionalist groups, minor far-left parties) but a completely new organisation: PODEMOS. The party, established in January 2014 by the confluence of a group of left-wing intellectuals around political scientist Pablo Iglesias and the far-left organisation Izquierda Anticapitalista, has stunned the Spanish establishment by winning 8.2% of the votes in the European Parliament election in May and rapidly rising above 20% of the voting intentions, competing with the conservative PP for the first place. These events are likely to lead to a temporary gridlock of the political system, already weakened by a series of corruption scandals and the rise of Catalan (and Basque) independentism.
Tabele 3. SPANISH ELECTIONS
LATEST POLLS *
Valid votes on the total electorate
IU + allies
Note: * estimates based on the latest opinion polls (12.2014-1.2015).
The future of the European radical left now clearly rests on the electoral victory of SYRIZA on Sunday and on the concrete results of its subsequent governmental experiment. A moderate success in departing from austerity and reviving growth and the welfare state is likely to embolden the radical left across the whole European periphery: PODEMOS in Spain, the Sinn Féin in Ireland, ZD in Slovenia, PCP and BE in Portugal, and even the troubled Italian scene. A failure, however, might have devastating consequences on the credibility of an alternative to neoliberalism. Crucial for both outcomes will be the capacity of the radical left of the core continental countries (Germany, France, the Netherlands…) to find a way to break the glass ceiling of 13% of the valid votes and to become truly credible alternatives to both mainstream parties and a dangerous far right.