Crisis opens the way for more conservative politicians in European governments

On 21 November 2011, Katrine Fangen was interviewed in the biggest newspaper in Brazil, Correiro Braziliense, in connection with the recent election in Spain. She fears an increased discrimination of immigrants and a recurrence of the job-stealing discourse due to the rising unemployment. In addition she sees the danger of a backlash of social reforms, because of the reemergence of conservative politics. The full article is located here. Please see below for an English translation of the article.

English Translation of the Article

The landslide victory of the Popular Party (PP) in Spain’s general elections represented not only the end of eight years of the Socialists in power. The historic victory of Mariano Rajoy, to succeed Prime Minister José Luis RodrÍguez Zapatero, signaled a shift to the right in Europe and laid the weight of unrelenting economic crisis on the political system. Since May 2010, the United Kingdom, Holland, Ireland, Portugal and Denmark have changed the course in government. The leaders of Greece and Italy have also been ousted.

With unemployment affecting 21.5% of the population, the Spanish chose a conservative government, following the examples of Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy. Rajoy of the Popular Party won 186 seats in parliament—more than the absolute majority of 176. The Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) of Prime Minister Zapatero were represented by the candidate Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, won 110 seats. The turnout at polling stations was 71.69%. In 2008, the PSOE received 169 seats while the PP received 154 seats.

Rajoy preferred to contain the euphoria and emphasized facing your challenges with realism. “Spain is a great nation and the best she has are the Spaniards themselves, 46 million Spaniards who will fight the crisis,” said the new Prime Minister, who takes office on December 20. “The Government is at the service of Spain and all the Spaniards,” he added. At the same time, he warned that “there will be no miracles,” urging people to make a “united effort” and welcome the PP’s absolute majority in Parliament. “Nobody has to feel uneasy, there are no more enemies, during this period of economic crisis,” he said. Rubalcaba, in turn, conceded defeat and promised to work “with all the forces” in favor of economic recovery.

For the German Jan Techau, Director of Carnegie Europe and an expert in European integration, the mastery of center-right in Europe demonstrates the electorate’s belief that the conservative parties enjoy greater credibility to deal with recession. “According to surveys, the Europeans believe that conservatives have the power to manage economic and business issues better than the socialists or social democrats. In fact, the center-right seems to profit from the crisis,” he told the newspaper via email.

Cycle

But this explanation adds to another, simpler one. “It is a cyclical political phenomenon,” suggests Techau, for whom the Old Continent experiments with new ideologies from time to time. He recalls that in the 1990s, Europe was almost entirely governed by center-left governments—such as the Prime Minister’s Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, Tony Blair in Britain, Romano Prodi in Italy and Felipe Gonzalez in Spain. “This trend has shifted right,” he says. Techau warns that the area of the center-right in Western Europe cannot be equated with the popularity of extreme right-wing ideology. The analyst considers the center-right hegemony more theoretically than practically. In his opinion, “in reality, Europe is governed by a pragmatic center, which implies a balance in opinion between social democrats and conservatives.” He explains that the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy (France) and Angela Merkel (Germany) are more concerned with social cohesion, economic constraints and welfare reform than with a more conservative agenda. “Both changed their postures to more nationalist and market-oriented,” he says.

The Norwegian Sociologist Katrine Fangen from the University of Oslo, believes that the right turn in European politics can be seen in context that many believe that the state must be more cautious about spending money on social welfare and other reforms due to the economic crisis. “We have seen the dominance of conservative governments in most of Europe, except the north, where social democratic policies still remain strong,” she says, noting that Denmark recently shifted from right to left and that Norway still has a Social Democratic government.

With the influence of right-wing politics in Europe partially fueled by the economic downturn it has raised fears of increased radicalization and xenophobia. According to Fangen, the scarcity of jobs is usually blamed on immigrants since they are accused of stealing jobs by accepting to work for lower pay. “The crisis in the Euro zone drives the recruitment of populist parties that are against the integration of Europe and for the emphasis of national divisions. We have seen a recurrence of nationalism, often accompanied by anti-Islamic views,” says Fangen. Techau agrees and understands that Europe is facing a major dilemma. According to him, the crisis has strengthened extremist factions, with some impact on government policy. This phenomenon leads to xenophobia. For now, the center-right parties do not seem tempted to move further to the right.

By T. Sarin
Published Nov. 22, 2011 9:40 AM - Last modified Nov. 22, 2011 9:47 AM