The radical Left in Europe and elections 2012/2013

Venue: The International Auditorium, International Trade Union House, Boulevard du Roi Albert II, No. 5 / 2, B-1210 Brussels
Languages: English, German
Organization: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Brussels
Contact: Klaus Sühl,

Since the collapse of the banking giant Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the beginning of the global financial crisis, the crisis, its effects and the attempts to overcome it, determine also in Europe not only the financial sector but the whole economy and politics. “I think from crisis to crisis”, on a daily basis, said Herman Van Rompuy, European Council President, in the fall of 2012. The way the crisis conditions public debate and public perception is as remarkable as the difference between its consequences. While in southern European countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, unemployment has risen to record levels and youth unemployment is 50 percent, particular consequences of the crisis in countries such as Germany or Austria are hardly worth mentioning. Quite the contrary: one witnesses record highs on the stock markets and the economy flourishes. The European Union finds itself in the midst of legitimacy crisis because of the very difference in the ways its members are affected by the financial crisis. The promise of a European Community, where the conditions of its citizens would converge at a higher level, is proving to be more and more an illusion. The austerity measures promoted also on behalf of the European Union have so far lead mostly to further impoverishment of wide population strata, particularly in the countries of the South, which have been hit particularly hard by consequences of the crisis anyway.

It is obvious that the European Commission and the national governments are not able to solve this crisis of capitalism in Europe in the short term, which is why their authoritativeness is deeply shaken. For this reason, Europe has been for years in a situation that would normally be considered favorable to the political left – capitalism experiencing a crisis whose costs are clearly dumped on the shoulders of working people through the cuts in social services and the dismantling of democracy, while the financial and the real economy continue to make good profits, the gap between rich and poor continues to open and neither the conservative nor the liberal, neither the social democrat nor the green parties are able to offer and implement solutions. The reality, however, as reflected in election results, looks different. With the exception of Greece and the Czech Republic, the election results of left parties are rather disappointing. The aim of our conference is, therefore, to examine the reasons for the rather poor election results of the left parties in the 2012 and 2013 elections. We will also discuss the responsibility as to the causes of success or failure of left parties in the elections and, finally, also ask if left parties, as we know them, still have a future or need to reposition or re-establish themselves in a fundamentally new way.
Conference programme

Tuesday, 25th June 2013

Public debate: Is there a Future for the European Radical Left?

18:30 – 20:00
Welcome and Opening Address
Klaus Sühl, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Brussels
Followed by a Public Panel Discussion
Is there a Future for the European Radical Left?
Gabriele Zimmer (Chair of the Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL);
Walter Baier (economist in Vienna and Coordinator of the network transform! Europe)
Hans van Heijningen (General Secretary of the Socialist Party, Netherlands)
Theodoros Paraskevopoulos (Syriza Member and Greek economist)
Klaus Sühl (Head of the Brussels office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung)
20:00: dinner in the premises of the international auditorium
Wednesday, 26th June 2013

09:30 to 11:00
Keynote Speech by Luke March:
The European Radical Left and the Crisis: Still looking for an Alternative Europe?
Helmut Scholz (MEP)
Klaus Sühl
11:00 to 11:30 - coffee break
11:30 to 13:30
Plenary: Why do Syriza in Greece and KSCM in Czech Republic succeed? - What are they doing so much better in contrast to their sister parties in Southern Europe and in CEE / SEE? What makes them so relatively successful?
Theodoros Paraskevopoulos (Greece)
Jiry Silny (Czech Republic)
Klaus Sühl
13:30 to 14:30 - Lunch Break
14:30 to 17:30 parallel working groups
Working Group 1: Left Parties in Southern Europe - What's different with SYRIZA?
Greece: Theodoros-Patapios Zarkadoulas, Theodoros Paraskevopoulos
Italy: Roberto Biorcio; Clarissa Tempestini, Norbert Hagemann
Spain: Lara Hernandez
Portugal: Joao Mineiro
Alexis Passadakis (RLS), Brussels
Working Group 2: Left Parties in CEE and SEE - What's different with KSCM?
Andrius Bielskis (Lithuania)
Hungary: Agnes Gagyi; Andras Istvanffy;
Poland: Joanna Gwiazdecka;
Czech Republic: Jiry Silny
Bulgaria: Mariya Ivancheva;
Slovenia: Anej Korsica;
Croatia: Marko Kostanic;
Serbia: Aleksandar Stojanovic.
Roland Kulke (RLS), Brussels
5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. - Coffee break
18:00 to 19:00
Plenary: Results of the afternoon working groups with common discussion
Klaus Sühl (RLS), Brussels
19:30: Dinner together at the wonderful Restaurant:
Bij den Boer
Quai aux Briques 60, B-1000 Brussels
Thursday 27 June

9:00 to 10:30
Plenary: The Dutch Socialists and the European Union or: is the EU the Achilles heel of the European left?
Dan Keith
Hans van Heijningen
Klaus Sühl (RLS), Brussels
10:30-10:45 Coffee break
10:45 to 12:15 parallel working groups:
Working Group 1: The Left in the "Capitalist center": Germany, France and the others ...
Cornelia Hildebrandt (Germany)
Elizabeth Gauthier (France)
Germany: Malte Fiedler, Thilo Janssen
Netherlands: Hans van Heijningen, Dan Keith
Israel: Dov Khenin
Austria: Walter Baier
Klaus Sühl (RLS), Brussels
Working Group 2: Party youth organizations: revolt, organizing, hegemony?
Spain: Lara Hernandez
Italy: Clarissa Tempestini
Germany: Malte Fiedler
Portugal: Joao Mineiro
Greece: Theodoros-Patapios Zarkadoulas
Alexis Passadakis (RLS), Brussels
12:15 to 12:30 - Coffee break
12:30 to 13:30
Plenary: The Experience of the Iclandic left in government: To be in government, but not in power?, or: what has gone wrong – with: Auður Lilja Erlingsdóttir (Iceland)
and a following common discussion on the Results of the morning working groups
Klaus Sühl (RLS), Brussels
13:30 to 14:30 – Lunch
14:30 to 16:30
Panel Discussion: Does the Left need to reinvent itself?
Fausto Bertinotti
Jiri Hudecek
Klaus Sühl (RLS), Brussels
16:30-17:00 - Coffee break
17:00 End of the conference meeting and departure of participants
Conference Report "The Radical Left in Europe and the 2012 Elections" in Brussels, by Dr Dan Keith, University of Exeter, June 2013

I was delighted to be invited to give a keynote presentation at a three-day conference on The Radical Left in Europe and the Elections 2012-13 held by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Brussels in June. The conference aimed to assess the reasons behind the rather poor election results of radical left political parties in Europe since the 2008- economic crisis. The conference also gave a timely opportunity to question whether radical left parties need to (or can) reposition themselves to find electoral success.

The conference began with a lively panel discussion on the question ‘Is there a Future for the European Radical Left?’. Gabriele Zimmer (Chair of the Confederal Group of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament) outlined several challenges for European left parties. Most significantly, she argued that the left is weakened by the unwillingness of some parties to cooperate at European level. It was noticeable that a number of important Left parties did not attend this event. It was also clear that left wing politicians are increasingly frustrated with the orthodox Portuguese and Greek Communist parties. These parties remain unwilling to look beyond their ideological doctrines and outright rejection of European integration to work with other parties at European level.

I explored the obstacles that the radical left faces in developing links at European level in a report commissioned by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The report analysed the challenges that the left faces in constructing an ‘Alternative Europe’. It asked whether the left’s Euroscepticism or, on the other hand, calls for more integration in the form of a ‘Social Europe’ are the reasons for its disappointing election results in recent years. It is clear that the radical left has a long way to go to present a united and coherent vision of an alternative Europe. Moreover, while the radical left’s Euroscepticism often finds significant support from European citizens in opinion poll data this is not the foundation for electoral expansion. It is clear that Europe is usually a non-issue in parliamentary election campaigns, while even elections for the European Parliament are generally contested on domestic issues. Analysis of opinion poll data also paints a very mixed picture on whether there is support for a social Europe. My advice to the left was to focus on other issues in election campaigns.

A highlight of the conference was an engaging speech on ‘The European Radical Left and the Crisis’ by Dr Luke March (University of Edinburgh). Luke’s talk gave an excellent outline of the reasons why some left parties have found greater levels of electoral success since the collapse of Communism in East Central Europe in 1989. He argued that the major weaknesses of the left can be found in the lack of a vision that is compelling with voters. Internal divisions, weak links to social movements and a relative lack of support in East Central Europe were also shown to be major weaknesses of the radical left. Luke’s arguments were well received by the conference and the discussant Helmut Scholz (MEP).

My presentation focused on the Dutch Socialist Party and the 2012 Dutch parliamentary election. It outlined how the Socialist Party enjoyed a huge surge in opinion polls. For a while it looked as if the party could become the largest party in the Netherlands and trigger a major realignment in the left. However, the Socialist Party peaked too soon and it faced a collapse in support in the final weeks of the election campaign. I discussed how the Socialist Party had enjoyed electoral expansion through sacrificing radical policies and seeking inclusion in governing coalitions and explanations for the collapse in support. There has been considerable debate as to how the Socialist Party should respond to the disappointing election result. My research is based on interviews with Socialist Party politicians. It shows that the party is likely to stick to its office seeking strategy. The party’s leaders still promote a form of ‘social democracy from the 1970s’ rather than retuning to a revolutionary or explicitly theoretical brand of left wing politics. My presentation was discussed by Hans van Heijningen (General Secretary of the Socialist Party) who outlined the party’s efforts to engage in direct activism during the economic crisis. Hans spoke of the party’s efforts to ‘practice what it preaches’ through organising food drops for those in need. He also outlined how the SP has found increased influence in Dutch trade unions during the economic crisis.

Two other presentations at the conference also stood out. Auður Lilja Erlingsdóttir (Secretary General of the Left Green movement in Iceland) discussed how her party faced organisational challenges as it found inclusion in coalition government 2009-13. Her fascinating presentation explained how the Left Greens coped with the need to take austerity measures in Iceland’s economic crisis and negotiations with the IMF. The party claims to have been successful in ensuring that cuts to health and education budgets were minimised. Auður Lilja argued that the party was pleased with what it achieved in office as a junior coalition partner but was punished by voters in the 2013 election. The conference also welcomed Fausto Bertinotti (former leader of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista in Italy) and Jiri Hudecek (Party of Democratic Socialism, Czech Republic) who discussed the question of how the left needs to reinvent itself. Bertinotti claimed that the left had been wreaked because of changes in the nature of global financial capitalism. He added that the left is failing to expand because it lacks the charismatic leaders of the past and gave his thoughts on how it can construct a new theoretical vision. He ended by telling us how his background in the Italian Communist Party had taught him that the ‘quality of a great revolutionary is to organise pessimism’.

Rosa Luxemburg conferences provide an excellent opportunity to hear a range of perspectives from left wing politicians, trade unionists, activists and academics. I thoroughly recommend them to other researchers studying the left. The presentations were very interesting, entertaining and provided me with a chance to gather a lot of information on the political parties that I research.

Source: Electronic Newsletter of the ECPR-SG on Extremism and Democracy, September 2013 Volume 14 Number 3