The recent elections in Italy and the German government finally renewing its existing coalition government are two important events in a series of European political impasses and a general move to the right coupled with widespread rejection of the established political parties in several nations.
The new Italian bicameral legislature looks like a design for a stalemate.
The legendary Italian left is reduced to a small delegation of less than a third of either their assembly or senate.
The right made small gains, but the real news is a large shift from the traditional center right to a new hard right represented by the Northern League (La Lega) which is mostly hard right, originally regional separatist and the first political party to elect a black Nigerian immigrant as a Senator. The old Berlusconi right is still in the game, but La Lega is claiming the right to organize the next governing coalition.
Between the left parties and right wing ones is a populist movement called Five Stars.
A lot of commentators have spent a lot of time telling us that nobody in 5 Stars knows what they want. Funny that because one of the main 5 Star demands is for the leadership of the traditional parties to resign, for corruption to be investigated and controlled and for the politics of the country to be renewed. The Italian and world press should be able understand this.
Five Stars has the largest vote of any party, and they too are claiming the right for their very young leader to form the next government.
The traditional left took it on the nose with the ruling Democratic Party being reduced from government to minor party status in one jump. They are not talking about forming any government and have so far rejected any ideas of doing so with Five Stars.
This traditional left is the political movement that was once the Italian Communist Party which was the largest Communist party west of the Iron Curtain. It is mostly represented today by the Democrats. They are a large social and trade union movement that has deep roots in all of Italy today, despite their defeat at the polls this week. There are a couple other more moderate and harder line left groups that round out the small delegation left of deputies elected in 2018.
While the Democrats still had the name “Communist” and used the hammer and sickle as its symbol it was also the most liberal of the pro-Soviet parties being one of the two major developers of “Eurocommunism”, the pro-democracy, civil rights, anti-Soviet occupation of Afghanistan movement of the European left that was essentially moderate. The Europe they were talking about was WESTERN Europe of the then 12 member EEC, which we called the Common Market that became the European Union of 27 members today. There were some uneasy meetings in Moscow, especially when their gay youth wing leader turned up. They were center left before they took the name “Democratic Party of the Left” and after they became just the “Democrats’ and dropped the traditional icon from their party symbol, they became a party of both center left and grand coalition governments.
The Italian Communists plays a role in Italy similar to the one the Socialists and Social Democrats play in other nations of Europe and have joined the “Socialist Club” by having serious electoral defeat this year.
Nowhere was that defeat any worse than in France. While Macron and his new Republican Rally movement did well in the second rounds of their presidential and legislative elections, they did so with much fractured first rounds. In most cases, including the president’s election, the top two to come out of the first round represented well under 40% of the voters. It is one thing to pick the lesser evil candidate, it is another to have actively voted for a different party just weeks before. The turnout for the second round of the French election was a record low.
A French record low turnout is much higher than we ever get in the US.
Also, it is hard to tell how much support Macron had because of his own proposals and how much the French people were fed up with business as usual from the political parties that seemed to recycle idea and disappointing politicians. Macron is similar to Five Stars in that. The failed outgoing president was a Socialist.
As Macron’s original vote was not so large, that leaves the majority of French people allied with other political parties, all of whom seem to have decided to have a crisis at the same time. The Republicans and the Socialists have new leaders and new defections. The leadership decisions among the socialists is still not over really and there are many splinter groups. The ultra-right has the same leader, Marine Le Pen, new defections and are considering a new name. The new left seems to be on the same track as back during their unexpected better showing in the presidential first round. They are a smaller party, but they seem to be stable when others are not.
Altogether, all the traditional French political parties together don’t add up to even half of the legislature, so Macron and his people are doing what they want. Given the slowness of the German government to negotiate their renewal, Brexit, Italian stalemates, and the Trump lack of effectiveness, French President Macron has become a leader in European and international affairs. While our press has been discussing Stormy Daniels and Russians in the back room, Macron has been an effective negotiator with Russia in places like the Mid-East for example. His trips to China and India could use some better US coverage too.
If anything stands out for Germany it is the awkward slowness of their movement to the inevitable checkout line and the strangely poor ability of very skilled German politicians to act skillfully.
Six months ago they held an election. For all that time the long established existing Grand Coalition, which the Germans call GroKo, has run the country as a caretaker government.
In those elections the Free Democrats got a few fewer votes than expected, as did Merkel’s Christian Democrats in their two parts. The right wing AfD, Alliance for Germany, got more votes than expected in earlier polls moving from an expected 7% to an elected 13%. The Socialists were not doing well in the earlier local Landtag votes under Martin Schultz’ leadership and continued to do poorly nationally, but maybe not as bad as before, or as bad as expected. The Left and the Green parties got about the same percentages as before and as in the local elections, and like their French counterparts, they are small but stable parts of German political life. The difference in results means that the expected Free Democrat - Christian Democrat majority was short a few votes.
Somehow Italy has the reputation for its proportional representation politics being a soap opera, but Germany is also a show worth watching. If NBC does not cover it, maybe Netflix should consider a miniseries.
A renewal of the GroKo would have made the anti-immigrant Alliance for Germany the official opposition. Martin Schultz opted out on a renewal of GroKo and said that he personally would not take a ministerial post. This would have been good for the Social Democrats because they would have not been part of the bad government to come and Martin Schultz could maybe rescue his career. It would be good for the country to keep the Alliance for Germany marginalized.
Then somebody came up with the idea of a “Jamaica” coalition of the Black, for the Social Christians, the Yellow of the Free Democrats and the Green of, well we know who.
Of course that was never going to work and it took a long time not to do so.
Finally Martin Schulz reversed himself and tried to become Foreign Minister, kicking aside the Social Democrats former leader Sigmar Gabriel who held the job. By the time the scandal of that was over Schultz had to resign as party leader and withdraw his name for any cabinet post but stays on as a member of Bundestag.
I would have asked him to resign as party leader just because he lost the elections so badly. That would be England.
But musical chairs was not over. The Socialists had to hold a party vote to join a renewed GroKo and then they still kicked Gabriel aside. A new Social Democrat has the foreign affairs job, Heiko Maas moving over from Justice ….
Six months later we have the same two parties in power, as everyone knew would have to happen, and both of them are weaker and less credible than they were. Alliance for Germany plays the opposition role.
Merkel now looks up from her desk to find Macron taking more lead around Europe. Macron looks up from his desk asking if Germany is finally going to help him advocate for the Europe that they both want.
And what a mixed up Europe it is. Prime Minister May seems able to do everything wrong with Brexit and is not on the road to a deal. The only good news out of the U.K. local politics is that the Corbyn branch of the Labor Party has stayed viable and in charge. Still no talk about political reform such as proportional representation or at least run offs instead of first-past-the-post voting. Germany, Italy and France may have their problems, but at least the public got to vote on it. We should expect the next government of the U.K. to continue to represent a minority of the people.
Spain still seems to be disjointed. The poor handling of the Catalan crisis has promised us continued crisis and obvious backlash. There are two Five Start type parties in Spain, one on the left and one on the right. They too had a long hard time to get the last center right government to continue in place and the final solution included some internal Socialist Party back stabbing.
Moving past Portugal, which has an old fashioned left coalition government we see problems in Greece being on the left but not able to do anything about it because their lives are run by the European Central Bank and private banks. Similar bank imposed post ‘07 austerity is happening in Ireland and Portugal, but Greece it is a crisis with another crises on top of it. That is the crisis of massive waves of immigrants fleeing the ever more catastrophic Mid East and other trouble spots of war and collapsed economies. This is happening in many other European nations, the difference in Greece is one of intensity and economic means to deal with it.
Merkel’s original “wir schaffen das” (we can make it happen) acceptance of a million refugees backfired politically inside and outside of her Christian Democratic movement as well as inside and outside of Germany. Public sentiment mixes the recent terrorism in France, Germany and Belgium with the refuge / immigration situation not matter how unrelated. Any crime involving these immigrants, especially sexual assault, has become part of the drumbeat of the right wing press. Acts of violence against foreigners has become common and is also a staple of local press reports.
Such are the real economic results of globalization and the real after effects of expanded western influence in the political and military spheres. One political cartoon shows a conveyor belt bringing refugees to Europe from the Mid-East, while carrying weapons back.
That wave of immigration is part of what sent Germany and Italy to the right, affects France and has been part of the xenophobic right wing shifts in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. The shift to the right in those three places is pronounced, but hardly exclusive to them in Eastern or Western Europe, and only partly related to immigration issues. The refugee crisis has been a boon to right wing opportunists.
And good old democratic, liberal Austria finds itself with a Green for ceremonial president, a very young conservative for prime minister in a government that has a large contingent from a right wing party that has roots going back to the original German speaking fascists.
At the risk of generalizing about what is too complicated to make general understandings of, one could call the overall trend in Europe to be to the right, and the left that survives is tending more left. It is no wonder that there are so many people who are just fed up.
The free trade miracle that did not happen in the Mid-East and Africa, did not happen in Europe either. For over a generation, too many people have lost their established and stable employment the way US auto workers did. Working people in Europe would not be turning to the ultra-right if they had job security and basic welfare for themselves. In their real lives, they have watched their comfortable lifestyle turn into an aggressive competition with a lot of people ending up selected against.
Liberal politics and liberal free trade is failing working people and they know it.
European politics is a mess because they do not know what to do about it.