>CEE and the Euro-elections: Left behind?

>So the results of the Euro-elections are in.

Having missed out the chance of TV stardom on the BBC Euro-election results programme – half of SSEES seem to have been rung up by various BBC researchers looking for a pundit on Eastern Europe (in the end they did without one) – I can’t resist a brief bit of instant(ish) analysis.

The story as generally reported from a West European perspective is that centre-right incumbents have heldon; the centre-left – opposition or incumbent – has not made expected gains against the background of global recession and social insecurity; Greens, the far right and the anti-market left made modest gains, scooping what there was in the way of Europe-wide radical protest electorate.

A quick glance suggests that CEE suggests that region looses mirrors this trend: only Robert Fico’s Smer in Slovakia (as ever) has really bucked trend of social democratic under performance. Most surprisingly for me -was the performance of the Czech Civic Democrats who managed to avoid the predicted photo finish with the Social Democrats and win the Czech euro-election comfortably with 32% of the vote. The Czech Social Democrats (ODS), however, recovered from the electoral meltdown of 2004 and pulled in a more than respectable 24%, which should enable them to walk a bit taller in the depleted Socialist Group in Brussles. (They will, I suspect, be rather harder to beat in the October parliamentary elections, but, hey, this is the Czech Republic we’re talking about, so the smart money should perhaps be on political deadlock).
However, closer examinations suggests something of parallel narrative in CEE. Indeed, the much discussed erosion of Social Democracy in Western Europe does not seem (as yet) to playing out in the region. Although the Hungarian Socialists were predictably whacked (losing 4 MEPS) and the Estonian social democorats too seem to have lost a seat, other social democratic parties in the region seem to have more or less held their own: as noted, the Czech Social Democrats won’t be crying into their beer too much and leaders Slovakia’s Smer could reasonably crack open the champagne. The Bulgarian Socialists held their own as did the Romanian and Slovenian social democrats. Even the marginalised post-communist left in Poland has undergone a minor revival.

This may perhaps be because there are few if any centre-left parties in the region can really claim to authentically social democratic. But to my mind the regional disparity seems more to interpretable in terms of CEE’s less post-industrial, fragmented and multi-cultural societies posing less acute strategic dilemma.

The grand narrative of social democratic decline/crisis has been academically well set out in Herbert Kitschelt’s 1994 classic The Transformation of European Social Democracy and put across in more digestable form by academic commentators such as Simon Hix in commentaries on the Euro elections. The basic story is this: social change, globalization and economic restructuring are generating competition pressures in the political arena as the big centre left parties struggle to cope with the break up of helectoral coalitions that underpinned them: Greens eating into their support among left-liberal public sector professionals, the populist far-right (and in some places workerist radical left) making inroads among working class voters in deindustrialized, credit crunched former heartlands.

Central and Eastern Europe’s Greens – never a very strong electoral force – seem again to have bombed entirely. This was in part – but only in part – due to the smaller populations and hence smaller numbers of of MEPs elected in CEE states which raised the effective threshold of votes. But even in a largeish state like the Czech Republic where a mere 5% would have done the trick the Green Party (SZ) failed. The SZ gained miserable 2%, as internicine factional infighting seemed at last to have taken an electoral toll – although cynics will note that the political support of Václav Havel, which always turns out to the kiss of political death for any new party.

To get back to centre-left, CEE social democrats have it a little easier. They face little competition from eco-liberal parties – whose support is small and would probably not have gone to them in the first place – leaving economic populists and anti-establishment novelty parties as the main challenge. There is also perhaps a larger constituency demanding social protection making brusingly pro-welfare positions a safer political bet (at least when campaigning in elections). There is, I suppose, less of ‘core vote’ to fall back – the Czech Social Democrats’ vote, for example, has rollercoasted wildly over the past decades despite the engrained social market preferences of a huge chunk of the Czech population – but in sense the lack of one is perhaps almost an advantage. After all, what you don’t have can’t be eroded.

I am fed up being rung up by journalists and asked about the far-right in CEE, so I’m not going so say much about this particular dog that doesn’t bark (much) Given the very healthy vote for the Front National, Danish People’s Party, Austrian Freedom Party, Dutch Freedom Party and, of course, and our own BNP, I am eagerly awaiting Polish and Hungarian journalists getting onto the phone up to ask wave of right-wing extremism of sweeping Western Europe threatens democracy in the region.

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