Opinion and Editorial

KT Opinion: Has the pandemic recalibrated politics, priorities in Europe?

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli/Dubai
Filed on October 6, 2021

Just a few years ago, it seemed Europe was ready to take a sharp turn to the right.

Just a few years ago, it seemed Europe was ready to take a sharp turn to the right. With the continent hit by waves of refugees even as it still struggled to recover from a Eurozone debt crisis, populist right-wing parties in France, Germany, Italy and other countries appeared to have a realistic chance of taking power.

Yet a lot happened instead – most of all a health crisis that seems to have recalibrated sensibilities. The pendulum has swung in the other direction, most recently in Germany, where the Social Democratic Party (SPD), not the rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD) or even Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), took the majority of votes in elections late last month.

Has the pandemic reset priorities and triggered a revival of social democrats in Europe, though in a hybrid form?

The outcome in Germany follows elections in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland that put social democrat prime ministers simultaneously in power in Scandinavia for the first time since 2001.

Center-left parties also lead coalition governments in Spain and Portugal. In Italy, an appointed government headed by former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has the earmarks of the social democrats yet some of the muscle of more authoritarian governments. It recently mandated the most stringent vaccination rules of any Western country.

Like Draghi and President Joe Biden in the US, traditional progressive European parties will need to offer a hybrid, more centrist approach. German SPD leader Olaf Scholz will have to find a compromise between the left and center as his election was certainly not driven by an unyielding dedication to a cause or ideology, rather it is the result of the Realpolitik of today.

The pandemic and its aftermath demonstrate that times have changed in Germany and elsewhere. Catastrophic floods in Germany that left entire towns and villages flooded last summer reinforced the perception that a reset is needed as the country and the wider world face the reality of climate change.

So does that mean the glory days of free-spending and taxing liberal social democrat parties are back? Not really. The Western social fabric has not only been altered by Covid-19, but also by Brexit, a fractured America, competition from China, and a flirt with the hard-core right.

The SPD recently won in Germany by increasing its vote just 5 points to 25.7 percent — perhaps strong by recent standards but hardly a clear mandate. Twenty years ago it took about 40 per cent of the vote in national elections.

In France national elections are still seven months away but the campaigning and criticism are already gearing up. Protests over vaccination are grabbing headlines as some citizens express outrage over violations of their liberté.

Yet a strange thing happened on the way to the protest: Support for incumbent President Emmanuel Macron rose over the summer. Pollsters found his approval ratings grew due to his government’s handling of the latest phase of the Covid crisis when it increased vaccination levels by introducing a required health pass.

Under previous sensibilities, this would have been the time for Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally), the remodelled right-wing successor to her father’s National Front, to take centre stage.

But instead of gaining traction, she has faltered. Polls show that support for her party has fallen from 25 percent last November — one point better than Macron — to about 18 per cent today, some seven points behind the incumbent.

A survey conducted last year, the first full year of the pandemic, showed how much opinions about populism had already changed in Europe. Fewer of those polled agreed with populist statements, with support falling 11 percentage points in Denmark and 9 points in Great Britain and Germany, eight in France and six in Italy.

It should be fertile ground for the progressive center-left, but the dynamics that drive support have changed since the social democrats’ halcyon days immediately following WWII. Structural reasons include the decline of industry, aging populations and a lapsed alliance between the working class and liberal middle class.

It seems neither the centre-left nor centre-right will again enjoy the majorities they once did. The story of European politics these days is fragmentation, with a larger number of smaller parties battling for negotiating clout in post-election coalition talks. Germany’s SPD declared victory with just a quarter of the vote.

Certainly, anyone’s “green” credentials are all-important today. In the run-up to the election in Germany, the SPD’s Scholz emphasised he “would like to govern together with the Greens”.

The SPD and the Greens both want to raise the national minimum wage, increase taxes on the super-rich and accelerate the shift towards renewable energy to meet climate goals. They both also want closer European integration.

Yet the right-wing is still alive and well. In mayoral elections in Italy on Monday, Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi from the Five Star Movement lost a re-election bid, while a lawyer supported by several parties on the right, Enrico Michetti, had about 30 percent of the vote and Roberto Gualtieri, the candidate of a centre-left coalition reached 27 per cent. Mr. Michetti and Mr. Gualtieri will compete in a runoff election on October. 18.

Mayors elected for Milan, Naples, Turin and Bologna all come from the center-left. Incumbent Giuseppe Sala will be mayor of Milan for another five years.

Yet whatever challenges, social democrats can still take heart from the recent shift. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, citizens turned to the state to protect and support them.

To widespread approval, governments pumped money into services and intervening on a scale never seen in peacetime. With so many hit by illness or its consequences, indeed it seems people are no longer as interested in the lowest possible taxes or austerity.

Wherever it is, they want to live in a kinder nation.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Milan

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