The European Elections Should Be a Wake-Up Call for the Left

Left-wing parties like Die Linke and Podemos look set to perform poorly in this weekend’s EU elections. Working-class voters are far from happy with the current EU leadership, but the Left is failing to convince them that it can change things.

Sorting incoming postal vote envelopes for the European elections, Saxony-Anhalt, Halberstadt, Germany, June 6, 2024. (Matthias Bein / picture alliance via Getty Images)

As elections for the European Parliament get underway, the parties of the Left have little to get excited about. In country after country, forces that ten years ago fronted what looked like a European-wide revolt against austerity are barely keeping their heads above water. Podemos in Spain and Die Linke in Germany are both polling between 2 and 3 percent. La France Insoumise, which won 22 percent in the 2022 presidential elections, is at 8 percent. In Greece, once the epicenter of the revolt, a Syriza now shorn of any pretensions to radicalism limps on at about 15 percent; it is uncertain that any of the various left-wing splits there will even win seats. Only in tiny Belgium, where the Workers’ Party (PTB) is polling around 17 percent — double its 2019 score — does the Left seem to be decisively bucking the trend.

Doubtless, the polls can be wrong, and the EU elections have never been the Left’s strong suit. Turnout tends to be low and generally skews middle class, giving a natural advantage to parties like the Greens. But this time around, it’s not centrist liberalism that looks to win big, but the far right. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is still polling in the high teens, despite several scandals involving candidate Maximilian Krah and the moves by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen to ditch her German allies. In France, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National heads polls by a wide margin and could take one-third of the vote.

The parties that make up the two far-right groups in the EU’s parliament, Identity and Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), are likely to win something around 150 of the 720 seats. The Left, by contrast, already the smallest group, is likely to drop to the low thirties, marking a further decline from its high watermark of fifty-two seats in 2014 and forty-one in 2019. Until recently, rumors had swirled that a left group would not come together at all.

Given the European Parliament’s notorious democratic deficit (it has no power to introduce legislation), even a spectacular result would hardly give the European left a chance to make real changes to the architecture of the EU. Such overhaul would require left-wing majorities in the individual national parliaments, where practically all legislative victories have been won. Nevertheless, the Left’s poor European polling, paired with the right-wing surge, is further confirmation that its forward march has not only stalled, but is in danger of shifting into reverse. Syriza’s 2015 electoral victory in Greece briefly appeared to herald a new level of struggle within the halls of government before it meekly surrendered and implemented the austerity it was elected to oppose. Since then, the parties of the Left have faced a serious crisis of credibility that, at least in some EU member states, threatens to become terminal.

Stagnation and Fragmentation

The trajectory of the European left since 2007 doesn’t require much retelling. The financial crisis of 2007–09 plunged the political mainstream (and the center-left in particular) into turmoil, as ostensibly social democratic parties brutally squeezed workers and the middle classes in order to subsidize generous bailouts for banks and big corporations. Left-wing parties old and new — some of which had emerged just prior to the financial crisis in opposition to social democracy’s neoliberal turn — had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to capitalize on the emerging popular anger. They were soon registering double-digit electoral results not seen since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the era of mass communist parties in Western Europe.

So, what’s changed? On the surface, the economic crisis gradually subsided, and with it, the political mood that lifted the Left’s fortunes. By the late 2010s, GDP per capita had recovered in most of Europe minus Greece, Spain, and parts of southern Italy. Youth unemployment remained stubbornly high in Southern Europe, but could be at least partially absorbed through migration to Germany and other northern neighbors. Housing values — a crucial foundation of financial security for middle- and working-class people in those countries — also recovered and soon exceeded precrisis levels, further lowering social tension.

But even if the economic situation has improved compared to the height of the crisis, serious problems remain. Growth remains meager in most of Europe, and in the South, where left-wing parties registered successes in the 2010s, wages are far below the European average. Even if the Greek economy has posted exceptionally high growth rates for the last several years, the situation for Greek workers remains precarious, with unemployment still above 10 percent and most job growth in low-wage sectors.

In that sense, many of the issues that the Left campaigned around persist — but voters seem ever less convinced that the Left can do anything about them. This surely has something to do with the poisoned chalice left-wing parties were handed in a number of countries following their impressive electoral gains: too strong to be sidelined in negotiations, but not strong enough to govern alone, parties like Podemos or Slovenia’s Levica became junior coalition partners to the center left. They were assigned a few ministries and able to push through some symbolic reforms, but not in a position to dictate the terms of government or implement their programs in a comprehensive manner.

These governments were far from all disasters — most passed at least some meaningful protections for working people and helped to ameliorate the effects of the crisis. But politics isn’t fair, and most of the time — such as in Spain, or a bit earlier in Portugal — the dominant center-left parties took credit for the government’s successes, while the Left’s contributions were largely overlooked at best, or blamed for their failures at worst.

Die Linke faced a similar, perhaps worse, fate as it entered a series of regional governments in states that lacked the fiscal resources to implement a left-wing program, and sometimes even enforced austerity. The result, without exception, has been plummeting poll numbers. This is even true in the eastern state of Thuringia, whose charismatic Die Linke minister-president Bodo Ramelow had until recently appeared capable of holding things together through force of personality alone.

The political fallout of this stagnation has a process of organizational fragmentation. We have seen a series of splits from Syriza in Greece, divisions both within Podemos and between it and Izquierda Unida (now part of Yolanda Díaz’s left-populist project Sumar), the collapse of the NUPES (New Ecological and Social Popular Union) coalition in France, and Sahra Wagenknecht’s departure from Die Linke in Germany.

This is also expressed at the pan-European level. Ahead of these elections we have seen the reassertion of the “Now the People” coalition, somehow in competition with the Party of the European Left, founded in 2004 as an alliance between (mostly) communist parties that today encompasses some forty organizations. Originally formed in 2018 as a pact between France Insoumise, Portugal’s Left Bloc, and Podemos, “Now the People” has expanded to include the Scandinavian left-wing parties and, perhaps ironically, Die Linke — a party that for years allied with the French Communist Party (PCF) against France Insoumise. All these parties are still members, or at least observers, of the Party of the European Left. But this competing formation — among other things, a rebuke to communist parties considered “pro-Russian” in the eyes of their critics — suggests that the Party of the European Left’s days could be numbered.

Discipline and Opposition

If the overall trend is downhill, there are some notable exceptions. In Germany in particular, the aforementioned success of the Belgian Workers’ Party, along with the recent municipal and regional-level electoral advances for the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ), are increasingly being discussed as blueprints to reverse the Left’s decline. Their sustained community presence outside of election campaigns, focus on bread-and-butter issues, and internal rules mandating that functionaries and elected officials live off a workers’ salary are all regularly cited as factors worth emulating.

Certainly, adopting the aforementioned practices would not hurt any of Europe’s ailing left parties. This is especially true of Die Linke, whose parliamentary representatives often operate at great distance from the elected leadership, and where public spats between the parliamentary group and the party were the norm for nearly a decade. But this kind of projecting onto successful campaigns abroad — cherry-picking a few characteristics and holding them up as a model — often obscures more than it clarifies, and in the worst case can be used avoid a more fundamental reckoning with past mistakes.

Emphasizing shared material interests and avoiding “divisive cultural battles, identity politics, or symbolic gestures,” as two leading KPÖ members recently put it, is a basic principle of socialist politics. Subjecting elected officials to party discipline and expecting them to donate a large chunk of their salaries back to the party is also a practice with a long history on the Left, and is not in itself revolutionary.

Moreover, plenty of left-wing parties in Europe are rooted in their communities and campaign on social issues, and yet have nevertheless watched their fortunes dwindle — see, for example, the PCF under current leader Fabien Roussel, who has sought to steer the party onto a more “bread-and-butter” course replete with French patriotism. So far, the main concrete result was to divide the Left vote and stop Jean-Luc Mélenchon from reaching the runoff of the presidential elections in 2022.

Surely, there are commonalities between the Belgians’ and Austrians’ relative success. Firstly, their shared origins in the communist movement of the twentieth century and the political culture that comes with it, and secondly — perhaps much more importantly — the fact that neither have served as junior partners in broader center-left coalitions in recent years.

Concretely, the two parties’ shared communist heritage translates into a Marxist organizational culture characterized by political discipline and a focus on working-class constituencies. Controversial debates are kept within the party ranks, and once a decision is taken, members largely adhere to it. On the surface, this means that, unlike in, for example, Spain, France, or Germany, where public infighting seemingly never ceases, the KPÖ and PTB rarely make headlines for scandals, rumors, or internal wrangling. This helps keep press coverage focused on their politics, rather than personal drama, and projects the image of a coherent, stable force.

More fundamentally, though, this organizational culture — previous generations would have called it democratic centralism — also means that the parties can count on the membership to carry out campaigns and implement strategic shifts. Contrast this to personality-driven organizations with little space for membership input, where disagreements between individual leaders quickly lead to organizational splits, or the chaotic mess generated by an excessive, “anything-goes” pluralism, which nearly tore a party like Die Linke apart. As Marxists, the focus on working-class constituencies has also inoculated them against the temptation to pivot toward nebulous “movements” — in parts of the Left, often a byword for social-media or NGO-driven campaigns — whose staying power is often vastly overestimated.

Yet if discipline is an important factor, their record in government (or rather, their separateness from it) is arguably what sets them the most apart from their European counterparts and what has ensured their steadily rising popularity even amid the Left’s general retreat. Neither the PTB nor the KPÖ have entered a center-left coalition as a junior partner — a seemingly sure recipe for electoral oblivion, as recent experiences in Spain and Germany suggest.

The PTB for its part defines clear red lines as a precondition for governing, while at the same time regularly appealing to the rest of the center left to form a government. After the last national election in 2019, for example, when the PTB more than doubled its result to over 8 percent, the party called on the Socialists and the Greens to create a coalition focused on lowering the retirement age, defending the welfare state, and ending privatizations in the public sector. Both parties declined to even negotiate with the Workers’ Party, lest they be expected to actually live up to their campaign pledges, and its public credibility has only gone up since. It is likely to double its result again in the national election being held parallel to the European elections this Sunday, and, perhaps luckily for the Belgian comrades, the Greens and Socialists have both already ruled out a coalition with the PTB.

Polling at 4 percent across Austria and only now bidding to enter the national parliament for the first time since 1959, the KPÖ has yet to translate its regional success into a meaningful federal-level presence. But if the last few years are any indication, it will soon face the same dilemma as the PTB and other larger parties of the European left. So far, the Belgians have navigated these treacherous waters much more deftly than their European sister parties, but sooner or later, they will also have to govern. Given their impressive organizational growth over the last decade and strong presence in the unions, they will hopefully be better positioned than most to mobilize support from outside the halls of government for its program — and show, for once, that a left government truly can make a difference.

A Little More Marxism Wouldn’t Hurt . . .

As grim as the polls might look, Sunday’s election will not be a total knockout. The Left group in the European Parliament will most likely remain intact, albeit smaller than ever. Still, for some of its constituent parts, most notably Die Linke and Podemos, the election will deliver a humiliating blow that ought to prompt some serious soul-searching. It’s clear that the path taken for the last decade has led to a dead end.

Too often, strategy debates on the Left are reduced to aesthetic and technical questions like knocking on more doors or improving a party’s TikTok presence, as if these constituted the substance of political success. Upping the Left’s social-media game certainly wouldn’t hurt, but it won’t answer the more fundamental question of how to wield power as socialists in a capitalist democracy.

Given the Left’s defensive position and spotty track record in government, not to mention the sheer institutional impracticality of “transforming Europe” (whatever that means), left-wing parties struggling to cross the electoral threshold would be well advised to focus on a few core material issues at the domestic level. Nowhere in the last two decades has the Left managed to bolster its electoral success or influence by appealing to decency or common sense. Where it has expanded its base, it did that by identifying a couple of wedge issues and polarizing the electorate around them. Doing this will not bring parties like Die Linke back from the brink of oblivion overnight. But they could have better medium-term prospects than positioning themselves as the conscience of mainstream politics, or the voice of nebulous “social movements” that rise and fall with the seasons.

The ongoing rise of the Right, most recently in its “populist” guise, also points to the Left’s failure to relate to popular frustration, leaving the field wide open for right-wing forces, who can direct it against migrants or other scapegoats. The often emotionally charged, angry rhetoric of the Right clearly strikes a nerve, and the parties of the Left must come up with more effective ways to respond to it. Standing above it or joining a broad alliance of democrats in the name of democracy hasn’t cut it, so far at least. The Left needs its own ways of tapping into anger and directing it against the rich and powerful — but that means embracing it, rather than shying away from it.

In a recent interview with Jacobin, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said that the Left, “if we’re lucky,” gains a majority once every fifty years during an acute phase of crisis. One can never know in advance when such a major crisis will come, but if the Left is to avoid fumbling the ball as badly as it did last time around, in Europe it must work to root itself in the working class and build out durable, mass organizations. That way, when the opportunity to govern presents itself again, it will be able to make good on its promises.