In an Unstable Equilibrium: The European Partisan System at the Dawn of a New Term

This article follows on the heels of a series of texts published since 2010 that study the evolution of the European social democratic Left over the course of the legislative elections held in the European Union (EU). These elections continually reconfigure the balance of power in the Council, which is one of the legislative bodies of the EU along with the European Parliament. The results of the 2014 European Parliament election yielded results that fit well with long-term trends observed at the national level. It was also the first year that a new voting system was introduced in the Council.

After years of decline on the Left, far from being offset by several victories in 2012 and 2013, an analysis of the current balance of power reveals a paradox. The Party of European Socialists (PES) and its members find themselves in a state of persistent electoral weakness. They share power with the European People’s Party (EPP), a party that has equally seen a decline in their electoral success. The two major political parties, facing a continuous erosion of their popularity, have again succeeded in locking down a duopoly which marginalizes more than ever the other parties who are behind in the executive elections.

The contrast between the often mediocre and sometimes troubling electoral results, and the increasingly exclusive positions being held by the PES and the EPP, clearly indicates that the current balance is one of weakness. This fragility renders future developments uncertain.

The Balance of Power in European Institutions

The European Parliament: a snapshot of 25 May, 2014

The elections, that took place between 22 and 25 of May 2014, were the first where the major European parties all lined up behind a clearly designated candidate for the presidency of the Commission (according to the Spitzenkandidat system). This was a highly anticipated moment in the evolution of the EU towards a transnational, and somewhat federal, parliamentary system.

The PES hoped that they would emerge as the largest party in Europe so that their candidate, Martin Schulz, could regain the presidency that they lost in 1999. Despite the decline of the EPP and being the only pro-European group not to lose ground, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) did not manage to regain the territory they had lost during the previous election. Given that there were no other majority coalitions possible, these two large groups, accompanied by the decimated Liberals, resolved to negotiate a compromise between their respective platforms and pledged their support to the EPP candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The European Council: a slow evolution (2010-2014)

The graphics illustrate the balance of power in the Council and take into account the new definition of a qualified majority. For an ordinary legislative procedure to succeed, it now requires 55% of member states (16/28) corresponding to at least 65% of the population. The Council’s website publishes the current weighting coefficients which will evolve in accordance with changing demographics.

The first graph represents the heads of government. Three things can be inferred from it: 1) the equal shares held by the PES and the EPP, who both have 11 national leaders representing approximately 40% of the population; 2) the 5 liberal heads of government only represent a mere 6% of the total population, far from both a blocking minority and the possibility of being a strong ally to a larger party; 3) the third largest political group, that of the British Tories, has a demographic weight of 13% that cannot prevent their isolation.

The two other graphics refine the analysis by taking into account national coalitions and explain why the PES and the EPP cannot do without one another given the current balance of power. The graphics measure the presence of the EPP and the PES in national governments, distinguishing between those wholly formed by one party (including France, where several ministers are not from the Social Party but are also not aligned with another European party), those leading coalitions and those who are a minority partner in a coalition.

The balance is particularly striking. The EPP is part of governments in 15 states representing 61% of the population. The PES is part of governments in 19 states representing 62% of the population. Each leads 11 national governments, though the EPP does form more single party majorities. By way of a summary, these two dominant parties are involved in governing countries in 6 out of 10 cases, yet neither of the two can reach a qualified majority alone even if they mobilized their national coalition partners.

Conversely, both parties can easily form a blocking minority. Taking into account the weakness of the other political groups (the Liberals head coalition governments accounting for 6% of the total population and are minority partners in coalitions representing 18% of the population), and the number of coalitions where the EPP and the PES are partners (7 coalitions accounting for 36% of the population), it is possible to conclude that the two big parties, though they both enjoy precarious electoral positions, are condemned to work together – is this a balance of weakness?

The State of Social Democracy at the National Level

During the last round of legislative elections in the EU, the constituent parties of the PES dropped 7%, losing over 5 million votes. In total they received almost 66.1 million which, for comparison purposes, is how many votes Barack Obama received in 2012 – though bearing in mind sthat the American electorate is smaller. In 18 out of 27 countries the social democrats lost votes and in the 9 others, two of their most impressive victories were misleading (in that the socialists in Romania and Croatia ran on a single electoral list with the liberals), and the few limited advances made were barely enough to avoid repeating historic lows (Germany, Hungary and Sweden). Given that the period between 2010 and 2014 was preceded by large declines, a fragile picture emerges that is only partially tempered by the stabilizing influence of governmental participation, sometimes more endured than chosen.

Good Results: Both Rare and Precarious

Malta: the success story

The Labour Party returned to power in 2013 with 55% of the votes, an unprecedented result in an extremely partisan bipolar system where elections are generally decided by a handful of votes. That the Maltese Right is in crisis was confirmed during the European elections.

France: a giant with feet of clay

The Socialist Party has enjoyed an absolute majority in the National Assembly that ensures the continuity of the government until the end of its five year term. This victory, due to the majority system, should not overshadow the fact that, even when near the height of their popularity during the Fifth Republic, the socialists only surpassed 30% of votes when factoring in their allies and in a context of record abstentions. The current unpopularity of the President and the results of by-elections are very troubling.

Croatia and Romania: optical illusions

While the social-democrats triumphed in these two countries (40.4% in 2011 in Croatia and 58.6% in 2012 in Romania), it was only due to a combined electoral list with the liberals. These successes are more a testament to successful political alliances rather than an actual increase in those who voted for the social democrats, a number which remained stable in reality. For the moment the unpopular Croatian government remains in power. In contrast, the presidential election in the autumn of 2014 led to the implosion of the Romanian coalition – rendering the government, accused of nepotism, unstable.

Slovakia: an ambiguous triumph

During their 10 years as part of the PES, the Slovakian social-democrats have often been the source of controversy. Suspended in 2006 for having formed a coalition government with the far right, they regained power in 2012 with 44.4% of the votes and an absolute majority of seats. Although the Prime Minister did not manage to get elected as the President in 2014, the party remains an electoral powerhouse – but at what price? Recent constitutional reforms stigmatize homosexuals, their families and non-married couples as well as interfere with the independence of the judiciary – are these reforms compatible with the values of the Left?

Mixed Results

The Netherlands and Luxembourg: partners in liberal coalitions

There were no surprise results for the Dutch Labour Party or the Luxemburgish Socialists. Despite unpredictable polling results in the Netherlands, both parties achieved average results in their respective contexts with between 20 and 25% of the votes. Both parties are now partners in Liberal led coalitions that, in a rare turn of events, do not include the Christian Democrats.

Belgium: towards a solid opposition

The elections in 2014 saw the Belgian socialists excluded from the federal government for the first time in 25 years. It is a shake-up but not an alarming sign of weakness. The Belgian socialists, though a minority party in Flanders (14%), are still the dominant party in Brussels and Wallonia (31%). They remain, by a whisker, the main political party in the country with no serious contenders among the opposition.

Lithuania and Estonia: gaining and exercising power

The social democrats represented a little bit less than 20% of votes in these two countries during the last elections. At the head of a broad coalition that stretches far to the right, the Lithuanian social democrats are recreating an already before seen alliance. In Estonia, the social democrats have been on an upward trajectory even since the early 2000s and recently accepted to cross the aisle part way through the term and join the liberals in power.

Ireland: a precarious experience in government

The crisis created a favourable climate for Labour in 2011 that; traditionally, had been limited to third place and an ally for the dominant parties. While the party managed to double its number of votes, it did not surpass 20% or gain the coveted first place position. By accepting to be the junior partner in a coalition led by Fine Gael (EPP), a previously attempted alliance, the Labour Party did not manage to assume a central political role. The most recent polls and surveys indicate a decline in their popularity, whereas Sinn Féin is establishing itself as a rival party on the Left.

Latvia: a case study for the dilemmas facing the PES

The traditional Latvian member of the PES, the LSDSP, disappeared from Parliament a long-time ago. To ensure an electoral presence in both the national and European elections, the PES approached Harmony – the largest electoral bloc in the country with close ties to the question of the ethnic Russian minority but without clear ideological ties. Despite a decline, the party placed first during the elections in 2014. The relevance of the PES’s choices remains in question; however, as Harmony is rarely considered progressive and one of their representatives, though beaten in the 2014 elections, sat with another parliamentary group.

A long list of historic lows

Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Czech Republic and Sweden: power but in what state?

In these seven countries, representing a quarter of the EU, the social democrats find themselves in a paradoxical situation.

In Germany and Finland, the SPD and the SDP are faced with very poor results approaching historic lows – something unheard of since the middle of the 20th century. They are in government; however, due to a collapse of the partisan system which, in turn, makes them essential for forming a majority.

In Austria, Denmark, Italy, the Czech Republic and Sweden, the situation is even more paradoxical. The members of the PES all managed to take or conserve control of their respective governments during the last elections despite historically bad results, ranging from 20% in the Czech Republic to 31% in Sweden. All manner of coalitions abound.

In Denmark and Sweden the social-democrats head leftist coalitions despite being in vulnerable positions. Moreover, the lack of a majority in Stockholm almost led to the dissolution of Parliament and an election in early 2015. This was ultimately avoided following the “December Accord” signed with the centre-right coalition whereby they agreed that the opposition would abstain from voting on the most important bills. In an unprecedented move, the coalitions in the Czech Republic and in Italy include right wing parties due to the atomisation of the political landscape and the lack of other viable options in forming a majority.

The traditional grand coalition in Austria, that has seen their electoral base shrink from 70% in the mid-1990s to a mere 50% today, has in a way become a paradigm of the trends affecting a large part of the EU.

Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, Portugal and the United Kingdom: sanction and opposition

In five other countries the situation is, simply put, troubling. It is characterized by leftist parties being relegated to the opposition with electoral results as bad as, or even worse than, their previous historic lows.

In the United Kingdom and in Portugal the Labour Party and the PSP have admittedly been equally worse off in the past (during the 1980s). The polls in the lead up to the 2015 elections suggest that the pendulum may swing back.

In contrast, the Spanish PSOE, the Hungarian MSzP and the Bulgarian BSP all managed to remain the main opposition party despite receiving their worst results ever. The volatility of the political landscape – spanning the entire political spectrum – immerses these parties in situations of total incertitude that affects their ability to head up a progressive opposition capable of presenting a valid alternative.

Parties on the verge of being marginalised

Poland, Greece and Slovenia: near the end of an era?

In 2011 the marginalization of the Polish SLD, which began with the elections in 2005, was confirmed. With 8% of the vote the party lost almost half of the support it had in 2007 and, for the first time, faced competition from a conservative defector (Jan Palikot) for a share of the progressive vote. In 2001 the SLD obtained 40% of the votes.

With the death of PASOK, forced as they were into managing the crisis of 2009 to 2012, the situation in Greece is similar. The general elections in 2012 brought this dominant party to a low-water mark of 12% and constrained them to a supporting role in a right wing coalition. On the left it’s the Eurosceptic SYRIZA party that now embodies the main alternative, despite competition from several smaller parties including PASOK.

The Slovenian social democrats have had their ups and downs. They were initially a minor party on the centre-left before emerging from the 2008 elections as the dominant party. Even if they remain in government, their support has since plummeted with a mere 6% projected in the run-up to the 2014 elections.

Cyprus: a case apart

In Cyprus the social democrats (EDEK) are also of minor importance and remain consistently at around 9% of the votes. Unlike the previous cases, the situation is stable as the political landscape of the island is dominated by the DISY (EPP) and AKEL (Communists).

Joël Le Deroff

Co-responsable de EuroCité Bruxelles - Pôle « Analyses électorales » Joël joined ENAR in September 2014. He previously worked for 5 years as Senior Policy & Programmes Officer with ILGA-Europe, the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, where he led advocacy strategies on policies and legislation related to equality, hate crime and asylum at OSCE, Council of Europe, EU and national levels. He also managed projects supporting national and local civil society organisations to build and reinforce their capacities. As an activist, Joël was one of the founders of Rainbow Rose, the network of European lesbian, gay and trans social-democratic activists. From 2006 to 2009, he worked as a civil servant in the French Employment and Social Affairs Ministries. Joël holds a Masters Degree in European Geopolitics and International Economy, as well as a Bachelor in History and Arabic language.