Cross-posted from Dispatches From The Edge
Now that the dust has settled from the recent elections for the European Parliament it is time to take a deep breath and see what really happened. No, Britain is not about to toss its immigrant population into the sea. No, France's Marine Le Pen is not about to march on the Elysee Palace. And, as repulsive as the thugs of Hungary's Jobbik Party and Greece's New Dawn are, it was the continent's left to whom the laurels went in last month's poll.
Parties that targeted unemployment, austerity and the growing wealth gap in Europe did well, and the dramatic breakthrough of right wing racist and xenophobic parties in France, Britain, and Denmark had less to do with a neo-Nazi surge than with the inability or unwillingness of the opposition in those countries to offer a viable alternative to a half decade of economic misery. Indeed, if there was a message in the May 25 EU elections, it was that those who trumpeted austerity as the panacea for economic crisis were punished.
Hence Britain's Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition took a drubbing, France's ruling Socialists were blitzed, and German Chancellor Andrea Merkel's lost eight seats, while her Social Democratic opponents picked up four.
Among the 28 European Union (EU) member countries, 751 seats in the parliament were up for election.
In contrast, where there was a clear choice between economic democracy, on one hand, and "let's blame it on the immigrants and Roma," on the other -- as in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and most of Central and Eastern Europe -- voters went left. As Srecko Horvat, Croatian philosopher and author of "What Does Europe Want?," commented in the wake of the election, "The European left is back in the game."
"Earthquake" was the metaphor most used in describing the triumphs of Marine Le Pen's National Front (NF) in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain, and Denmark's Danish People's Party. But, if there was a result that shifted the foundations of Europe, it was the victory of Greece's Syriza Party and the "out of nowhere" appearance of Podemos -- "we can" -- in Spain.
Syriza emerged from the wreckage inflicted on the Greek economy by the so-called "Troika" -- the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. For the price of a bailout -- most of it siphoned off by big European banks -- the Greek government instituted massive layoffs, huge cuts in pensions, health care, and education, and privatized government-owned property. The jobless rate rocketed to 28 percent -- over 50% for young people -- and millions of Greeks were impoverished. While Greece's creditors did well, the austerity did nothing to turn the depressed economy around.
Syriza took 26.5 percent of the vote May 25 to become the biggest party in Greece. That figure translated into a general election would net the party 130 seats in the 300 seat Greek parliament. In contrast, the two governing parties that oversaw the austerity program lost over 10 percentage points between them.
Much of the media focused on the neo-Nazi New Dawn Party, which won 9.4 percent of the vote -- a 2.4 percent jump over their 2012 showing. New Dawn will send three representatives to the European Parliament, where the Greek left will swamp their representatives.
Another rightwing Greek party, the Popular Orthodox Rally lost voters.
While Syriza focused on the Greek domestic crisis, it also consciously attached itself to other left anti-austerity movements throughout the continent. "What happened in Greece is not a success story but a social tragedy that shouldn't be repeated anywhere in Europe," Syriza's leader Alexis Tsipras said during a debate among candidates for the post of European Commission president.
That "anywhere in Europe" resonated in other countries entrapped in the Troika austerity formula or struggling to emerge from stagnant economies and long-tern unemployment. Beside Greece, the most conspicuous example was Podemos in Spain.
Podemos came out of the massive anti-austerity rallies that paralyzed Madrid and other Spanish cities in 2011, and which impelled similar demonstrations in Europe and the U.S., including the Occupy Wall Street movement. Podemos, says its leader Pablo Iglesias, is "citizens doing politics. If the citizens don't get involved in politics others will. And that opens the door to their robbing you of democracy, your rights, and your wallet."
The Spanish party consciously modeled itself on Syriza, not only in program, but also in its grassroots, bottoms-up organizing tactics. While Podemos has only been in existence four months, it took 8 percent of the vote nationwide and 11 percent in Madrid. Added to the success of left parties in Catalonia, Valencia, and the Basque Region, plus the votes for the Spanish Green Party and the Socialist Party, Spain's ruling rightwing Popular Party is suddenly a decidedly minority organization.
That pattern was repeated in several other countries.