Do Germany’s Election Results Signal a Left Turn for Europe?

Sunday’s election in Germany ended in victory for the country’s Social Democratic Party and its candidate, Olaf Scholz. It was a remarkable comeback for a center-left party, which like many of its counterparts across Europe has been bleeding support at the ballot box for the past decade or more.

So the question immediately arises whether Mr. Scholz’s victory in Germany may be a harbinger of revival more broadly for the center-left parties that were once mainstays of the continent’s politics.

Inside Germany, Mr. Scholz is preparing for negotiations to form a left-leaning coalition government with the Greens and the libertarian Free Democrats. After his centrist campaign, just how left-leaning remains an open question. And nothing is guaranteed: His conservative rival, who lost by just 1.6 percentage points, has not conceded and also wants to try to form a coalition.

Though the results have thrown Mr. Scholz’s conservative opponents into disarray, the landscape for the center left also remains challenging. Elsewhere in Europe, many center-left parties have watched their share of votes erode as their traditional base among unionized, industrial workers disappears and as political blocs splinter into an array of smaller parties.

But after a surge among right-wing populists in recent years, there are some signs that the political pendulum may be poised to swing back. Here is a look at the factors that will influence whether a center-left revival is possible.

Big-tent parties on both sides have shrunk.

The German elections have cast in sharp relief the continuation of a trend that was already visible across the continent: fragmentation and volatility in political support.

Only three decades ago, Germany’s two leading parties garnered over 80 percent of the vote in a national election. On Sunday, the Social Democrats received just 25.7 percent, while the Christian Democrats, together with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, received 24.1 percent — calling into question their legitimacy as “Volkspartei” or big-tent parties that represent all elements of society.

Inside a polling station, a gym at a secondary school in Berlin Neukölln, on Sunday.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times

The votes being lost by the once-dominant parties are going to parties with more narrowly defined positions — whether the Greens, animated by environmental issues, or the libertarian Free Democratic Party. If the German vote were broken down by traditional notions of “right” and “left,” it would be nearly evenly divided, with some 45 percent on each side.

On the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, a survey of 14 European Union countries in 2019 by the Pew Research Center found that few voters expressed positive views of political parties. Only six out of nearly 60 were seen favorably by more than 50 percent of the populations in their countries. Populist parties across Europe also received largely poor reviews.

The left has a lot of recovering to do.

It remains to be seen whether the Social Democrats in Germany will be able to lead a governing coalition. But if they do, they will join a relatively small club.

Of the 27 member states in the European Union, only Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Malta have distinctly center-left governments.

The old voting coalitions that empowered the center-left across the continent after 1945 included industrial workers, public sector employees and urban professionals. But those groups, driven primarily by class and economic needs, have fragmented.

Two decades ago, Tony Blair’s Labour Party cruised to re-election in Britain, promoting center-left policies similar to those of President Bill Clinton. Now, Labour has been out of power for more than a decade, and in recent elections it has suffered stinging losses in working-class parts of England where its support once ran deep.

In France, the center-left Socialist Party has never recovered from the unpopular presidency of François Hollande and its disastrous performance in the subsequent elections. Since then, France has moved increasingly to the right, with support for the Socialists and other left-leaning parties shrinking.

With an eye toward presidential elections next April, President Emmanuel Macron, who ran as a centrist in 2017, has been courting voters on the right. Polls show that he and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally, are the two favorites to make it out of the first round and meet in a runoff.

President Emmanuel Macron of France speaking at a police academy in Roubaix this month.Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor and Socialist presidential hopeful, has been losing support since declaring her candidacy early this month. According to a poll released last Thursday, only 4 percent of potential voters said they would support her in the first round next April.

And ‘left’ is not what it used to be.

In the aftermath of World War II, as money flooded into Europe through the Marshall Plan and industry boomed, those who opposed Communism but were worried that capitalism could stoke instability and inequality came together under a broad umbrella of center-left parties.

They favored strong trade unions and welfare states with generous education and health care systems.

In Germany, as in other countries, the lines between the center left and the center right began to fade some time ago.

But if there is one animating issue for many voters on the left and the right, it is the role that the European Union should play in the governance of nations.

Many far-right parties have won support by casting Brussels as a regulatory overlord stripping sovereignty from the union’s member states. Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, by contrast, are very pro-European Union — yet have been wary of deepening some fiscal ties inside the bloc. Many Social Democrats argue, however, that the European Union must be strengthened through deeper integration.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the top E.U. official Ursula von der Leyen and Mr. Macron during economic rescue discussions in Brussels in 2020.Credit…Pool photo by Francisco Seco

Europe’s bonds were tested in the pandemic, and that process may have ultimately helped the Social Democrats as Germany set aside its traditional abhorrence of shared E.U. debt to unleash emergency spending.

It was a plan that Mr. Scholz, who is Germany’s finance minister, drew up with his French counterpart. Ms. Merkel, who approved the deal, has since repeatedly pointed out was a one-off.

Mr. Scholz’s central role in crafting the deal put him squarely on the side of Germans in favor of ever-tighter connections with their European neighbors.

Personality counts for more than ever.

Another common denominator in the fragmented European political landscape is that personalities seem to be far more important to voters than traditional parties and the issues they represent.

There have always been outsized personalities on the European political stage. But whether it was Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl or Willy Brandt, they were more often than not guided by a set of ideological principles.

The failure of the leading political parties to address the problems confronting voters has led to a new generation of leaders who position themselves as iconoclasts. Mr. Macron in France and Boris Johnson in Britain could hardly be more different. But both are opportunistic, flout convention and have crafted larger-than-life personas to command public attention. So far, voters have rewarded them.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week.Credit…Pool photo by Eduardo Munoz

Angela Merkel was their polar opposite, a study in staid reticence who transcended ideological differences by exuding stability. Her party’s candidate, Armin Laschet, couldn’t convince voters that he was her natural heir, which opened the door to Mr. Scholz, who managed to cast himself as the most Merkel-like candidate — despite being in another party.

Norimitsu Onishi contributed reporting.

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