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Europe’s lurch to the right rolls on Only unity on the left can stop it

Recent polls in Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey and Finland tell the story of voters swayed by fear and prejudice. Progressive parties – take note Keir Starmer – need a clear, principled agenda to turn that tide

Why does the left keep losing? It’s not a question liberals and progressives particularly want to confront, but look around. Reactionary parties of the political right and far right are once more on the rise and on the march across Europe, as shown again by last week’s lopsided election results in Spain and Italy.

Each country is different, its circumstances unique. Yet a broad pattern is discernible – and it’s not difficult to trace. The banal common denominator is that parties of the European left, hard and soft, are too fractured and fractious to build winning coalitions that offer convincing alternative solutions to voters’ problems. Like Spain and Italy, recent election outcomes in Greece, Turkey and Finland suggest the dominant issues for electorates are the cost of living, energy and inflation. Other shared worries include security (foreign and domestic), migration, climate and environment, and national identity (loosely defined).

In all these polls, rightwingers won outright or surged ahead. And it’s not a new development. France’s far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, gained a record 41.5% support in last year’s presidential runoff. In Rome last autumn, Giorgia Meloni’s “post-fascist” Brothers of Italy swept to national power. In Germany, Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats cling on, trailing far behind the opposition.

It’s not as though rightwing conservatives, populists, nationalists and assorted radicals and extremists have all the answers. Anything but! Where they hold office, as in the UK, Hungary and Poland, they are often clueless and divided, too. But centrist and leftist parties are struggling to convince voters they can do any better.

In Greece last month, Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s scandal-hit centre-right New Democracy party appeared highly vulnerable. Yet by stressing economic stability and vowing implacable hostility to migrants, it won more than double the votes of its leftist rival Aléxis Tsípras’s Syriza, whose Keir Starmer-ish efforts to woo the centre ground flopped badly.

Hailing last weekend’s Italian regional and municipal poll successes as proof her 2022 victory was no fluke, a gloating Meloni proclaimed the death of the left. “The centre-right … confirms its consensus among the Italians, its entrenchment, its strength,” she said. “There is a rightwing trend throughout the country,” admitted Carlo Calenda of Italy’s liberal Action party.

How may this Europe-wide tendency be reversed? Maybe resurrection for the left will be found in the example of Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister and Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) leader. After crushing poll setbacks in regions and cities last weekend, he called a snap general election for July.

Sánchez hopes to force a showdown, offering mainstream voters a clear choice between a prospective alliance of the conservative People’s party and the far-right Vox party, and a moderate, progressive PSOE-led coalition. His message: back me or sack me. Even his supporters admit it’s a gamble.

His ultimatum also challenges Spain’s divided left to get its act together. Both the populist, anti-austerity party, Podemos, and the new Sumar alliance are struggling to be heard. Vox, the third largest party nationally and distorting echo chamber for the Francisco Franco fascist era, trebled its share of councillors last weekend. Vox’s success partly relies on a favoured hard-right tactic, used across Europe: the weaponisation of ethnic, racial, gender and regional difference. Its particular targets are Basque and Catalan nationalist parties. Guess who were among the first to congratulate Vox? Meloni and Hungary’s autocrat, Viktor Orbán.

In trying to rally the left, Sánchez seeks to expose his opponents’ divisiveness and hate-mongering. An alternative approach to neutralising the right is to absorb it – as attempted last month by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Turkish opposition’s presidential candidate.

A veteran of many battles to unseat Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Kılıçdaroğlu is known for his support for religious toleration, inclusive approach to a Kurdish minority often demonised by the president, and open-minded, secularist and reformist outlook.

Yet in a desperate, last-gasp attempt to defeat Erdoğan in last weekend’s second-round runoff, he ditched all that, cut a deal with an ultranationalist party and vowed to deport all 3.6 million Syrian refugees within a year. Kılıçdaroğlu also agreed not to reinstate elected Kurdish mayors deposed and jailed by Erdoğan – a startling betrayal of his Kurdish voters. Unsurprisingly, he still lost.

Erdoğan’s victory is largely explained by reliance on another rightwing electoral staple – the fear factor. Fear of foreigners, fear of the enemy within, fear of the other, of difference, apostasy, chaos, terror – it’s an ugly, catch-all tool exploited by far-right demagogues everywhere in lieu of honest argument.

In Finland’s April election, scare tactics worked well for the radical nationalist-populist, anti-migrant Finns party. With 20% of the vote, it came second to the rightwing National Coalition party and is again on the brink of power.

The highest-profile loser was the prime minister, Sanna Marin, darling of Europe’s social democratic left. But Finland loses, too. Its next government may be the most regressively conservative since 1945. As was the case in next-door Sweden after last year’s election, the far right makes the political weather these days.

The fact that Orbán’s law-breaking, minority-bashing, Russia-loving Hungarian regime is due to assume the rotating EU presidency next year dramatises the wider peril of the right’s pan-European resurgence. Standoffs, disruption and a divisive boycott of daily EU business loom. Eurosceptic Orbán would love that.

The radical right’s resilience should ring alarm bells in Britain, too, which, despite itself, is not immune to European trends. By shifting rightwards in hopes of winning power in 2024, Starmer’s Labour risks empowering its opponents. Better to draw a line like Sánchez, Spain’s socialist leader, then set one’s own agenda, offer a clear choice and trust voters to decide. It’s not that complicated. Unity, plus well-defined, principled policy programmes, is the way the left stops losing – and learns to win again.

Source: The Guardian