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Across Europe, the left loses political clout

German election highlights surge of conservatives

Angela Merkel’s reelection as chancellor of Germany parallels the trend in Britain, France, and Italy. Angela Merkel’s reelection as chancellor of Germany parallels the trend in Britain, France, and Italy.
By William J. Kole
Associated Press / October 4, 2009

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VIENNA - Pity Europe’s Socialists. It’s getting lonely on the left.

Just when you might think capitalism’s global crisis would breathe new life into the left, it’s looking increasingly divided and tired.

The reelection of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany a week ago is highlighting a conservative surge in her country and Europe’s other powerhouse economies - Britain, France, and Italy - where the center-right is either firmly in power or about to get there.

What happened?

Much of the answer lies in the nature of modern European politics, where even the most ardent conservatives can still embrace social welfare policies that would seem leftist to Americans. And in recent years, European center-right parties have mastered a certain political alchemy in co-opting some of the left’s best ideas.

The result is that what would be hot-button issues in the United States - abortion, gun control, gay rights, or state-guaranteed health care - have long ceased to rile voters in Europe.

Conservatives “have taken a page right out of Bill Clinton’s playbook, and that’s triangulation,’’ said Heather Conley, a Europe scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Clinton brought the US Democrats toward more laissez-faire economic policies, as did Britain’s Tony Blair when his Labor Party ousted the Tories in 1997. Now European conservatives have done it in reverse - “taken the socialist agenda and claimed it as their own,’’ Conley said.

The left’s slide began well before the global recession discredited the right’s faith in free markets and light regulation. The surprise, to some, is that Europeans seem to have more faith in conservatives to solve the crisis.

“In times of insecurity, the right has credibility,’’ said Enrico de Bernart, a 43-year-old man window-shopping near the Pantheon in Rome. “People trust the right or center-right even if you don’t like their objectives.’’

The Financial Times of London had another explanation: The left was in power for a decade in Britain and Germany, and it was then, voters believe, that the seeds of the financial meltdown were planted.

The right has also profited by pounding hard on immigration and crime - popular in times of economic uncertainty - while sending out reassuring messages about preserving Europe’s generous welfare systems.

Analysts insist the social safety net isn’t in jeopardy. “The lesson that Europe has taken a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers is that the safety net cushioned the most extreme effects of the recession,’’ Conley said.

“Our social system is not under threat at all,’’ added Ghislaine Robinson, a French national who is spokeswoman for the Party of European Socialists, the left-leaning bloc in the European Parliament.

The left can take some comfort from having been reelected in Portugal last month, and it’s expected to win today’s election in Greece. Socialists are also in power in Spain, a major European economy.

But conservatives have deposed the left in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland. And in smaller countries where the center-left clings to power - Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Norway - its hold seems shaky at best.

Its most dramatic humiliation was its trouncing in Germany.

The Social Democrats were swept from government after 11 years - falling victim to Merkel’s studied pragmatism and a campaign that made vague promises of modest tax relief while taking care not to do anything that might scare voters.

Merkel “succeeded perfectly in shrouding in fog what she wants,’’ said Stefan Reinecke, a commentator for the left-leaning Tageszeitung daily.

The left, by contrast, had never really recovered from the labor reforms and welfare state cuts that former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pushed through in 2003 in his own experiment with triangulation.

In France, the once-powerful Socialist Party is in crisis for lack of a personality to rally around.

The party had its heyday under the 14-year presidency of François Mitterrand. But since losing to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 presidential elections, the Socialists have been unable to agree on a program or a cohesive solution to the financial crisis.

Sarkozy has further undermined support for the Socialists by leaning left himself, talking of a more “moral’’ capitalism and leading a global push for tighter international regulations and limits on bankers’ bonuses.

Italy’s left also is badly fractured and fairly feeble in its opposition to conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a conservative.