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Issue 40, July/Aug 1999

Euro-Elections: No-Vote Victory

    Fading illusions
    Protest vote
    The international 'Third Way'
    Glimpsing the alternative

NATO's 'victory' in the Balkans didn't help western Europe's political leaders in the June elections to the European parliament. TONY SAUNOIS, secretary of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), explains why, with an historically low turnout, the parties in government were generally rebuffed by the few who turned out to vote.

THERE WAS NO 'Falklands factor' for European leaders in June's elections. The absence of the kind of triumphalist turbo-charge which boosted Thatcher's electoral fortunes in 1983 following the Falklands/Malvinas war is due to the appalling character of the conflict in the Balkans and the deeply flawed nature of the victory. The leaders of the Nato governments have not been able to use the military victory to gloss over the social and political contradictions which are sharpening throughout Europe.

Despite the low turnout the elections give a glimpse of continental developments. The low level of participation is indicative of a trend towards the 'Americanisation' of European politics: with little to choose between the capitalist Republican and Democratic parties, most of the US electorate simply don't vote. The capitalist policies supported by all of the main parties in Europe, including the former traditional workers' parties, is leading to a similar pattern in the European Union (EU). There is little to choose between them. And the lack of a powerful socialist alternative is increasingly alienating the working class from participating in elections and the institutions of capitalism. Although this was especially pronounced in the European elections it is emerging as a general trend.

The mass of workers, young people and the most downtrodden sections of society see the European parliament as largely irrelevant. It appears to serve little purpose other than to allow those elected to board the 'gravy train' of inflated salaries and expenses. Even in Scandinavia and countries such as Greece and Italy - which have previously enjoyed relatively high levels of participation in European elections - the turnout slumped. Greece, where 30% did not vote, saw the lowest participation in an election since the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Italy's 70.8% turnout was an all-time low for European elections. Sweden's 38.1% turnout was the lowest ever, down from 41% at the last European elections in 1995. In Germany 45.2% voted, down from 60% in 1994. The 24% turnout in Britain was the lowest in any national election since the 1920s.

  This development can only fill the ruling class with trepidation about future developments. If workers, young people and other exploited layers increasingly conclude that their interests are not represented through parliamentary elections that 'change nothing', the alternative will be to take matters into their own hands. There exists the prospect of mass protests by students, workers and others who feel disaffected from capitalism and its institutions. This will be even more likely with the onset of an economic downturn. The experience of right-wing governments - Kohl in Germany, Thatcher/Major in Britain, and Juppé/Chirac in France - and what has followed them, is certain to drive more people onto the streets in protest.
  top     Fading illusions

INITIALLY, MANY PEOPLE looked to the new 'centre/left' governments with some hope and under the illusion that things would change. This is rapidly giving way to disappointment and anger at the continuation of the same conservative policies by Messrs Blair, Jospin, Schröder et al.

The elections give some indication of the underlying discontent that is developing towards these governments. Eleven out of 15 EU governments are now led by the 'left' - Socialist and Social Democratic Parties. Almost without exception these parties lost ground, some quite dramatically. In the main the mass of workers failed to turn out and vote for the 'gravy train', in contrast to the middle-class supporters of the traditional capitalist parties. In Britain the turnout in 'safe' Labour seats was about 20% compared with 30% in Tory seats.

Those countries, like Ireland and Austria, which saw the government parties largely maintain their support are those which have enjoyed the greatest economic growth and stability in recent years. In Ireland, despite a series of political scandals, the dominant force in the coalition government, Fianna Fail, won 38.7% of the vote, and the main opposition parties - Fine Gael and Labour - made no gains. This was mainly because the Irish economy has experienced the highest growth in the world this year, expanding by 10%.

Relatively strong economic growth also allowed the Popular Party (PP) in Spain to keep a 4.4% lead over the opposition Socialist Workers Party, PSOE. The latter increased its vote as a result of a 50% slashing in the vote for the Izquierda Unida (IU - Left Unity) coalition, dominated by the Communist Party. PSOE's increased electoral support reflects a protest vote from workers in the absence of a real fighting socialist alternative being offered by the IU. The massive fall in the vote for the IU is likely to accelerate its break-up and the Communist Party's withdrawal from it.

The working class throughout Europe has been robbed of a political voice as the former workers' parties have embraced capitalism and been converted into bourgeois formations. The ruling class is able to gently rock the cradle to the 'left' or right and achieve a change in government with no significant change in policy. In Spain it was therefore possible for PSOE to increase its vote as workers protested against the PP government. However, this does not signifiy that there will be an influx of workers joining PSOE. The pro-capitalist policies of the party are not being abandoned in favour of socialism. During this campaign PSOE increasingly dropped its association with the idea of socialism, included in its name, and presented itself as the 'progresista' party.

  In the majority of EU countries the elections have been a rebuff to the governing parties. The limited gains made by the traditional capitalist parties - which saw the European Peoples Party displace the Party of European Socialists as the largest group in the European parliament - registered only a superficial, electoral swing to the right, reflecting a higher turn-out of more motivated right-wing and especially anti-EU voters. These parties' gains were primarily a consequence of the disillusionment and disappointment amongst the working class with the pro-market policies adopted in the EU countries by the so-called 'left alliance' parties, and the high abstention rate.
  top     Protest Vote

FORZA ITALIA EMERGED as the leading party in Italy with 25.2% of the vote, gaining from the disappointment with a centre/left-led government presiding over an official unemployment rate of 12.5%. Unfortunately, the Partito Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) failed to gain from the disillusionment with the DS-led government and won only 4.1% of the vote. This in part was due to the right-wing split from the PRC, led by Cossutta, winning 2% of the vote, but also because of the failure of the PRC leadership to establish itself as an alternative with a clear and consistent alternative programme and policy.

Although the far-right did not make any significant gains in the majority of countries the danger of racism and the potential for the growth of the far-right must not be ignored. Such forces can get an echo for their poisonous ideas amongst a significant section of the population if a socialist alternative is not built.

In Belgium, where the European election took place at the same time as the general election, the far-right Vlaams Blok (VB) made significant gains. This followed a series of crises and scandals that rocked the government, including the recent 'chickengate' affair. The defeat of the government allowed VB to make headway because of the absence of a strong socialist alternative in the Flemish areas. However, this was also accompanied by an increase in support for the Greens who were viewed as representing a radical alternative. In French-speaking Walloonia there was a left move, with the Greens emerging as the third largest party with 17.9% of the vote, while increasing to 11% in Flanders. There was also a significant vote in Walloonia for the Euro-list put forward by the workers' leader, Roberto D'Orazio, which included Militant Links, the Belgian section of the CWI. This list won 46,069 votes (2%) in the French-speaking areas, including 4.2% in the town of Charleroi.

In France, the Greens won 9.7% of the vote. This also reflects an increased concern about the environment and related issues. In Britain, the Green Party capitalised on disillusionment with New Labour. As Caroline Lucas, the newly-elected Green MEP for the South-East Region of Britain commented: 'I lost count of the many, many traditional Labour supporters who have come up to me in the past few weeks and said that they did not spend 20 years fighting Thatcherism, only to have the Labour Party perpetuate those things'.

In other countries like Germany, however, the Greens lost support. This followed the swing to the right by the party leaders who have joined the new coalition government, supported the NATO war in the Balkans and the cuts proposed by Schröder. However, for the first time the former Communist Party of eastern Germany, the PDS, had candidates elected to the European parliament.

  In Greece the combined vote of two Communist parties, together with a small split from PASOK, reached 15%. This was clearly a protest vote for parties seen to be to the left of the 'socialist' government by a layer of workers and youth who are looking for a genuine socialist alternative. This was also seen in Sweden where the vote for the former Communist Party, the Left Party, rose to nearly 16%. Despite the fact that this party has carried through cuts in local councils and supported the cuts demanded by the Social Democrats some workers and youth still perceive it to be on the left.

Another feature to emerge in the elections was the question of opposition to and fears about the completion of economic and monetary union (EMU) scheduled for the year 2002. This has different features in different countries. In Britain, an element of this reflects a narrow nationalist outlook. This helped the Tories mobilise a section of their supporters as they adopted a more anti-EMU policy and was further reflected in the winning of a few seats by the right-wing UK Independence Party. In other European countries the introduction of EMU is far more associated with the cuts and austerity programmes that have been introduced.

Fears about EMU and the weak euro was used by the CSU in Bavaria. The German ruling class supports EMU at this stage. However, Wolfgang Schäuble, leader of the CDU, commented after the election: 'In the eyes of lots of people, the politicians have not kept their promise that the euro would be as stable as the D-Mark always was'.

This is a warning of increased opposition and obstacles emerging to EMU being completed. The conflict of interests between the different European states will deepen during the next two and a half years in the run-up to using the new currency.

In Sweden the Social Democrats got 26.1% of the vote, its lowest score since the end of the first world war. In Greece PASOK was relegated to second place with 32.9% of the vote. But the most dramatic decline was seen in Germany and Britain. Schröder's SPD suffered what he described as 'a massive poll defeat' after winning only 30.7% of the vote - 1.5% lower than in the 1994 Euro-elections and 10% lower than the general election held in September 1998. Schröder admitted that the expectations raised after the 'Red/Green' election victory last September have been dashed, declaring that, 'The voters are saying you have done well in foreign and security policy. We expect from you equally good results in economic and domestic policy. We have understood the warning'.

  top     The international 'Third Way'

YET WHAT WAS Schröder's understanding of 'the warning'? Not to embrace a socialist alternative to the market but to immediately announce a five-point programme that includes cutting taxes on large companies from 60% to 25%. The government is also aiming to cut spending by up to $16bn.

In addition to this Schröder is going ahead with plans to restructure the SPD to tighten his grip over it in the same way that Blair has done with New Labour. Proposals include reducing the influence of AfA (the SPD trade union group), and the party's youth organisation, Jusos. It is a German variant of the 'Third Way', capitalist New Labour, dubbed by Schröder, 'Neue Mitte' or New Middle.

Blair's New Labour scored a mere 28% of the votes cast. This was lower than 'Old Labour's' worst ever post-war result - 28.3% in 1983, with Michael Foot as leader, following 'Thatcher's victory' over Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas war.

This rebuff came just after Blair and Schröder had launched their joint platform for the 'Third Way'. The application of 'Third Way' policies has met with disappointment and anger amongst the working class in both countries. Blair and the Millbank machine (New Labour's central apparatus) attempted to portray the low turnout in May's local council elections as an endorsement of his policies. They invented the new 'theory' of 'the politics of contentment'. But the European elections revealed the 'politics of mass discontentment' with the 'Third Way' capitalist policies throughout the EU. Even the decline in support for the 'centre left' governments does not reveal the full picture. In Sweden a mere 8% of the registered electorate voted for the Social Democrats; in Britain, 6.5% voted for New Labour. Support on this level is hardly a ringing endorsement of government policy.

These results, however, would not be repeated if general elections were held today. Euro-elections do not have the same character as national elections. Many people treat them more like an opinion poll, feeling that because EU institutions are so remote the outcome has little practical effect on their lives. The low turn-outs in most countries also gives disproportionate weight to more highly motivated groups of voters, in this case those who incline towards nationalistic, right-wing, anti-EU sentiments. Opposition to returning to a CDU or Tory government would ensure that New Labour and the SPD mobilised a higher vote in a general election. However, this revival for the Tories and CDU is a warning to the working class not to conclude that the traditional parties of capitalism cannot make an electoral comeback after their defeats in recent years.

  Some, such as the British Labour MP Ken Livingstone, have pointed to the fact that the French Parti Socialiste (PS) held its core support. Implicit in this is the idea that Jospin, who was reportedly 'furious' at the 'Third Way' initiative of Blair and Schröder, is adopting more radical policies. Yet, although Jospin has not embraced all the terminology of Blair and Schröder, it is a question of 'the same wine in a different bottle'.

Jospin's government has been in power for two years. During that time he has carried through more privatisation than the former right-wing government of Juppé had in the same period of time! Moreover, the relative success of the PS in the European elections was due to the catastrophic disarray amongst the traditonal parties of the French right. Even so, Jospin won the vote of only 10% of the registered French electorate!

The disastrous result of President Chirac's Gaullist party, the RPR, reflects the undermining of the party's base, which has been steadily eroded over many years. They received a mere 12.7%. This result may well drive the final nail in the RPR coffin and bury it in its current form. After the elections, the aged right-winger and RPR founder, Charles Pasqua, whose alternative list polled 13%, launched a new party, Rassemblement pour la France, in a bid to lay claim to the heritage of the conservative, nationalist and populist tradition of Gaullism.

Following a bitter feud and subsequent split in the Front National, no less than five lists of right-wing capitalist parties were presented in the European elections. It was this disarray and fragmentation of the traditional right that allowed the PS to maintain its electoral lead. The dismal vote for the Communist Party (PCF), 6.8%, is a further rebuff for its policies and its participation in Jospin's government. The PCF spent more on this election than any other party - £4 million to win six MEPs!

  top     Glimpsing the alternative

THE NEED TO build a viable socialist alternative to all the parties that now defend capitalism - including the former workers' parties - is posed urgently by these elections. The potential to begin this task has also been illustrated. A pointer to the possibilities for the re-emergence in support for socialist and Marxist ideas has also been seen.

In France the potential to win the support of a significant minority to a socialist alternative was illustrated by the support for the joint slate of Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR). This list received almost 5.2% of the national vote (914,680 votes) and five seats in the European parliament. Although less than anticipated, it represents significant support for a socialist alternative.

This shows the potential that exists in France and other countries for the building of new workers' parties committed to fight for socialism. Following their electoral achievements, LO and LCR could begin this task by taking the initiative and establishing a new broad, open and democratic workers' party committed to struggle and the fight for socialism, and in which all socialist/communist organisations could defend their ideas and produce their own publications. A conference to launch this new party should be called, with the campaign taken to all workplaces, colleges and universities and combined with an appeal to the rank-and-file of the PCF and the unions to join. Such an initiative would get enthusiastic support from the politically fresh generation of workers and youth who are looking for an alternative. It would begin the task of building a new working-class socialist alternative. A bold initiative to launch such a party could attract many previous supporters and even members of the PCF to its ranks.

Unfortunately, this opportunity is going to be lost as it was following the 1995 presidential elections when LO won over one million votes. Neither LO nor LCR is prepared to take such a step. Tragically, they have, in practise, concluded that it is 'business as usual' despite their new successes.

The prospects of winning support for socialist ideas was also seen by the credible vote for CWI member and candidate for the Irish Socialist Party, Joe Higgins TD, who received 3.8% of the vote in Dublin (two local council seats were won) and the support for the Scottish Socialist Party which won 4% of the vote throughout Scotland.

Following these elections the necessity of building a fighting socialist alternative that will defend the interests of working-class people and establish a democratic, voluntary European confederation of socialist states is more urgent than ever.

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