Thursday, 10 May 2012

Europe: Anti-Austerity and Extremism at the Ballots

The global recession has put pressure on governments all over the world. We have seen incredible rises in unemployment and poverty, while seeing huge declines in industry and production. There has been civil unrest the world over as governments try to tackle the economic downfall in various ways. The European Union has not been immune to these problems and while individual countries have been shaken, the EU has for most part kept relatively strong. Over time though, cracks have begun to appear all over and it seems the EU gets shakier by the day with no solution in sight. In countries across the entire bloc, populaces have fought while governments have stayed their course, but with elections across a number of countries some of these governments are no more. What does the future hold for Europe? With the rise of extremists parties on both sides are we seeing a repeat of the economic instability of the 1930s or is this just a passing phenomenon that a more unified Europe will brush off over time?

Nicolas Sarkozy
Since the 16th of May, 2007 France was run by Nicolas Sarkozy and the Union for a Popular Movement (French: Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP) party. By the 15th of May 2012 he will be gone. He became the first one-term president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing was defeated in 1981 (d'Estaing was also beaten by a Socialist, Francois Mitterrand). The person that will replace him is Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate. The final vote was incredibly close. Hollande won by just 3.26% with a voter turnout of 80.35% (a slight increase on the turnout for the first round of votes). What we had here was a very pro-austerity candidate kicked out in favour of one who wishes to end austerity. Hollande isn't too radical though. He has no plans to make rash changes, but he made an effort to be clear that he will be moving away from austerity from the start. It is unsurprising that he got the edge in the vote as it is clear to see across Europe that people are fed up with cutbacks and the lack of immediate results they are giving.

What is also interesting is the results of the first round of votes. Here we saw, as in the second round, Hollande just poke ahead of Sarkozy (by 1.45%), but neither of them got over 30% of the vote. What we did have though was Marine Le Pen's far right party, the National Front (Front national) get a staggering 17.9% of the total vote. The far left party, Left Front (Front de gauche) also gained a decent sized 11.1% chunk of the vote. Just five years before these parties were not getting anywhere close to that. The question is though, is whether this swing to the extremists is ideological or purely in protest against the government. At this time it is hard to tell, but with upcoming regional elections in France the picture will become much clearer. It could very well be that the National Front and the Left Front will make up nearly 30% of the government.

Greece has also recently seen elections, but has had a lot more internal conflict than France due to the EU bailout that was accepted by the government of the time. The Greek people have not been happy with protests and violent riots being a regular occurrence. There have been days where cities have been so ill-affected, that even picking up a parcel would have been impossible due to the traffic gridlock and protesters blocking the roads. Greece has also seen its citizens commit self-immolation in protest. It has been a country of serious turmoil for some time and it seems their elections have reflected that. The two parties that have been running the country since the 70s have been decimated. Both of them are in support of the bailout, while the left-wing bloc, Syriza, are opposed to it and ended up doing extremely well. At this time though there seems little hope of any party being able to form a viable coalition to run the country. If no solution can be found then a new election will be held. We saw in this most recent election extremists again gaining ground with communists getting more support and also the party Golden Dawn getting a 7% share. This neo-Nazi party who sieg heil each other is a sight that has caused worry to many people. They are the extreme of the extreme and have now been given political legitimacy.

There are varying views of what all these elections mean. Some see it as the 1930s repeating itself, with extremists on both sides taking advantage of a bad situation to further their aims. This is a common occurrence when things aren't in a good way, but it seems this time that it may have a significant effect. It is likely, if the recession is to continue and the EU zone face more peril, that countries will begin to lurch to the left or right. This will threaten the entire structural integrity of the EU zone itself. It is hard to say how all of these effects may pan out. We could just be seeing populaces letting off steam with protests votes, or we could genuinely be seeing a mass move towards extremists politics. Either way, a close eye has to be kept on the European Union as it seems the next few years may shape it for decades to come.   


  1. Good post. Yes, there are worrying things on the political horizon, and where there is chaos there is no knowing what will pan out as yet.

  2. The interesting paradox about the EU is that one of its stated aims was to rid the continent of the sort of extremism that punctuated the first half of the 20th century.

    Though it's far from solely responsible there is an extent to which the Eurozone has prevented countries within it from managing the crisis they have found themselves in.

    Were Greece to default, leave the Euro and re-adopt the drachma on Monday the recovery would start immediately - the road would of course be long but at least they'd be looking the right way!!

    I used to think the European project would end in a serious war, now it seems the federalist dream could spawn the very curse it was (supposedly) designed to stop from taking root.

  3. That's a really good comment Daz! Yes, the unifying of very different countries in a single bloc could be doing the very thing it was hoping to prevent; how ironic that is! But what's the answer? I wish I knew.