Spain turns to the right – but are the voters rejecting ‘the left’ or incumbents?

by Stephen Tall on November 21, 2011

As the polls had predicted, Spain has a new government: Rajoy’s right-wing Partido Popular (PP) defeated Zapatero’s left-of-centre Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). The only surprise was the large margin of victory, 16%, the worst defeat for Spain’s socialists in their electoral history.

So yet another right-wing government takes power in a European nation. On the face of it, it seems almost perverse that at a time when confidence in the deregulated capitalist system associated with the right is at its lowest ebb that those parties which champion it are winning elections. As I noted here on LibDemVoice back in August:

That societies tend to move to the right at times of economic and social uncertainty is not new. But the retreat of the left across Europe is significant, as the Guardian noted a couple of weeks ago, and as their maps show. With Portugal having elected a right-wing Social Democrat government in June, and Spain likely to elect the right-wing Partido Popular in November, only four out of Europe’s 27 nations will have left-of-centre governments.

The point was also made by Labour’s David Miliband a few months ago in a lecture self-explanatorily entitled ‘Why is the European left losing elections?‘:

The right is seeking to emulate the electoral strategies of the left in the 1990s; and the left in the last decade has not been able to decide whether to disown them or embrace them, when the key is in fact to build on them. So it is losing elections again on a grand scale.

Look at the facts.

The British General Election 2010. The second worst result since 1918. Sweden, also 2010. The worst result since 1911. Germany, 2009. The worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic, with a greater loss of support than any party in the history of the country. France, 2007. The worst result since 1969. Holland, 2009. A traumatic transition from junior coalition partner to opposition. Italy. A yo-yo in and out of power, with personal and political divisions disabling opposition to Berlusconi.

These six countries, with good claim to represent the historic heartland of European social democracy, the homes of heroes from Bevan to Gramsci to Brandt to Mitterrand to Palme, the place where revisionism as a credo was created, are now run by the centre-right.

And yet look more closely and it’s clear the picture is more complex than the binary ‘right advancing / left retreating’ meme allows.

In Denmark, in September’s election, the left’s coalition of Social Democrats, the Socialist People’s party and the Red-Green Alliance did well enough to form a new government (though we should note the liberal Venstre party gained a seat and remained the single largest party). In France, also in September, an alliance of French Socialists and Greens took control of the French Senate, and, for the moment at least, François Hollande is well-placed in the polls to defeat President Sarkozy. And in Germany, too, though elections are still almost two years away, Angela Merkel’s coalition of the centre-right CDU/CSU and the liberal FPD is polling well behind a likely alliance of Sigmar Gabriel’s left-of-centre SPD, the Greens and the hard-left Die Linke.

It is, therefore, simplistic to point to Spain as another nail in the coffin of the European left. It is at least as likely to be a reaction by the voters against incumbency. Now is not a time when being popular and being in government are an easy combination. Governments of left and right across Europe are having to implement austerity measures, whether voluntarily or because they’re compelled to by their own indebtedness; the severity varies, but it is an inevitable consequence of sluggish growth in the west.