The collapse of Romano Prodi’s centre-left government in January was a miserable end to the hopes of all those who had wanted to see an end to the sleazy right wing politics of Silvio Berlusconi.
Italy was the European country where the prospects of a renewal of the left seemed very real after the 2001 Genoa protests and the 2002 European Social Forum in Florence. But that was squandered when Rifondazione Comunista joined a government committed to neoliberal policies and the war in Afghanistan.
But one shouldn’t draw the conclusion that it’s all over for the European radical left. In Germany and Greece, the picture is very different.
The German political scene has been galvanised by the formation of Die Linke (The Left) in June last year. Die Linke brings together former members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in western Germany and the PDS, the old East German ruling party turned reformist.
In recent state elections Die Linke has been winning significant scores – crossing the barrier of 5 percent of the vote required to win parliamentary seats in Hesse and Lower Saxony and achieving 6.5 percent in Hamburg a fortnight ago.
The rise of Die Linke represents a rebellion by working class voters against the SPD’s swing to the right. Ruling under Gerhard Schröder in coalition with the Greens between 1998 and 2005, the SPD forced through Agenda 2010, a platform of “reforms” that slashed unemployment benefits.
Defeated in the 2005 elections, the SPD formed a “Grand Coalition” government with the CDU conservatives under Angela Merkel. The precursors of Die Linke won 8.7 percent of the vote and 54 seats in the federal parliament.
Under new chair Kurt Beck the SPD is running scared of Die Linke. It has dumped Agenda 2010, pushed through an increase in unemployment benefit for older jobseekers, and forced the Grand Coalition to introduce a minimum wage for postal workers that effectively scuppers plans to privatise the post.
Merkel has been leading a government campaign against the tax haven in Lichtenstein. “What you see happening is the SPD leading the CDU by the nose while Die Linke is leading both Greens and the SPD by the nose,” complains Guido Westerwelle, leader of the neoliberal Free Democratic Party.
Meanwhile in Greece there have been two massive general strikes in the past four months. The right wing New Democracy government is facing resistance to its policies of pensions “reform” and privatisation and has been engulfed in scandal.
But this isn’t benefitting the other big party, the centre-left Pasok. Pasok, which adopted New Labour-style policies under its last prime minister Costas Simitis is also in crisis.
When I was in Athens a fortnight ago, an opinion poll gave New Democracy 31 percent, Pasok 28.3 percent, left coalition group Synaspismos 16.2 percent, the Greek Communist Party 7.1 percent, and the far right LAOS 3.8 percent.
The most dynamic factor in the situation is Synaspismos, which originates from different fragments of the KKE, traditionally the dominant force on the radical left in Greece.
Until recently, Synaspismos struggled to pass the 3 percent barrier to win MPs. Now, together with the KKE, it has won the largest share in public opinion for the radical left since the 1950s.
The successes enjoyed by Die Linke and Synaspismos reflect a combination of two factors – the crisis of social democracy and militant workers’ struggles. Both countries have seen important strikes recently.
But both parties also face the same trap – coalition with the centre left. “I can assure you,” a top SPD leader told the Financial Times a few weeks ago, “as long as the chairman [Beck] and I have anything to say about it, there will not be an alliance with Die Linke at the federal level.”
But more recently Beck floated the idea of an SPD-Die Linke coalition in Hesse.
Die Linke and Synaspismos need to learn the lesson of the Prodi government. It’s the struggles from below that offer the way forward, not parliamentary manoeuvres and combinations.