News Analysis: As Norway Goes: Old Europe Tilts to the Left By CONN HALLINAN Special to the Planet

Friday September 30, 2005

Following Norway’s Sept. 12 elections that saw a green-red coalition turn out a pro-business, anti-immigrant center-right government, the German daily, Die Tageszeitung, mused that “perhaps people in Germany could learn something from this.” It appears they did, and what they learned is likely to be repeated in Italy and France next spring. 

While the U.S. press is spinning the German elections as “inconclusive; no clear winner,” as the New York Times put it, the figures show a solid victory for the Left, and a defeat for neo-liberalism. While the Right took 45 percent of the vote and 286 seats, the Left won 51.1 percent and 327 seats in the 613 seat Bundestag. In short, there was a “clear winner,” the Times not withstanding. 

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/ Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) party won just 35.2 percent, losing 23 seats. The only silver lining for the Right was that Merkel’s coalition partner, the neo-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), won 9.8 percent of the vote and 61 seats. However, most observers think the FDP’s success is fleeting, the result of rank and file CDU/CSU members jumping parties. 

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) took 34.3 percent of the vote, marginally better than it was supposed to get, but losing 29 seats. The Greens dropped half a percentage point to 8.1 percent and lost four seats.  

The real winner was the Left Party, a coalition of the eastern-based Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the former Communist Party, and the western-based Election Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG). The latter is an alliance of left Social Democrats, trade unionists, young people, and environmentalists turned off by the Green Party leadership’s turn to the right.  

The Left Party won 8.7 percent of the vote and 54 seats, vaulting it past the Greens to become Germany’s third largest party. It also took 25 percent of the vote in the east, and close to 5 percent in the west. In four western states it reached 5 percent, the point that makes it possible to serve in the Bundestag. If it does well in upcoming state parliamentary elections, it will fundamentally alter the political balance of power in Germany. 

As it did in the 2002 German elections, Iraq loomed large. While Merkel said she would not send troops, the CDU/CSU strongly supported the invasion, and voters were clearly nervous about where that might lead if she assumed power. For instance, the Bush Administration has been pushing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to assume combat operations in Afghanistan, a move the German Left strongly opposed. The CDU/CSU was evasive about the proposal. 

Indeed, Merkel ran a largely stealth campaign, that was deliberately vague about everything from taxes to foreign policy. The Economist opined that Merkel was not revealing her program because “she must be elected before she can do anything, and being too candid would diminish her chances.” It would appear German voters figured this out. 

Merkel started out with a 21-point lead that partly reflected widespread disenchantment with the SDP/Green coalition’s Agenda 2010, which favored business while cutting jobless benefits and social services. However, the Left Party’s platform of raising minimum wages, restoring benefit cuts, and questioning the presence of U.S. bases in Germany drove the campaign to the left. It was clearly what the voters wanted, and they responded by tanking the right, spanking the SDP and the Greens, and rewarding the new Left Party. 

What the government will eventually look like is by no means clear at press time. The voters appear to want a red-red-green alliance. But for the time being, Prime Minster Gerhard Schroder of the SDP and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens are ruling that out. The most talked about formations are the so-called “Grand Alliance” between the SDP and the CDU/CSU, or an odd-fellow alliance of Greens and the Right. 

Whatever the final outcome, the ripples started in Norway are spreading south.  

France’s right-wing Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy latched on to Merkel’s brand of neo-liberalism as the salvation of France and the European Union. Her defeat will certainly put a crimp in his drive for the French presidency, giving the inside track to the more moderate candidacy of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. But, more importantly, the outcome of the German elections may further bolster the French Left that was recently energized by its successful “no” campaign to torpedo the European Union constitution. 

Lastly, there is Italy. Next spring’s Italian elections will most likely see a united Left coalition, L’Unione, drive the right-wing, pro-American coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from power. L’Unione candidates took 12 out of 14 regional elections last spring, and the parties that comprise it have been at the core of street demonstrations and social actions around everything from globalization, to ending poverty and homelessness, to opposing the Iraq War. 

The most recent poll shows L’Unione at 49.7 percent and the right at 45.2 percent. 

L’Unione is a merger of the Partido della Rifondazione Comunista, Left Democrats, the left-center Margherita Party, and a host of smaller regional and social action parties. The Berlusconi government is presently trying to ram through a series of electoral changes in an effort to dilute the power of the smaller regional parties, but the maneuver is so patently undemocratic that it has even caused tensions within his right-wing coalition. 

Nor does the Italian Left see itself as just a national movement. Fausto Bertinotti, Rifondazione’s current general secretary and a moving force behind L’Unione, is giving up his post to work on organizing a party of the European Left. 

Oh, and shortly after the elections, Norwegian Labor party leader Jens Stoltenberg announced that Norway will withdraw its small contingent of troops from Iraq.  

Ya’ gotta’ love that old Europe. 

New Europe, on the other hand, still has a way to go. 

Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, Poland’s former prime minister and Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) candidate, withdrew from the Oct. 9 race for president because of corruption charges. His withdrawal leaves the Polish Left in disarray, and will probably mean that Donald Trusk of the neo-liberal Civic Platform (PO) will win the presidency (although his party took a hit in last Sunday’s election). 

Trusk has been heavily supported by foreign investors and Polish business for promising to reduce regulations and for his plan to impose a 15 percent flat tax. Trusk has been close to Angela Merkel and advocates rapid privatization of state assets.  

The SLD won the 2001 parliamentary elections, but corruption scandals brought it down. 

Trusk is popular, in part because he has publicly challenged neighboring Belarus about its treatment of its Polish minority. Nationalism—always a winner in Poland—may sweep him into office. Whether the majority of Poles want a heavy dose of neo-liberalism is another matter. PO was favored to win the Parliamentary elections this past Sunday, but came in second to the center right Law and Justice Party that opposed the tax and a number of other neo-liberal schemes.  

And whoever wins, the Poles will probably withdraw their 1,500 troops from Iraq.  


Conn Hallinan is a journalist and an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.