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Dissenting vote

Published : Jun 15, 2012 00:00 IST

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In recent elections, people across Europe vote against the E.U.-dictated austerity measures.

THE results of the recent national elections in France, Greece and Serbia are an indicator of the deep distrust the European public has for the austerity measures that have been imposed by the governments in power. The biggest gainers in many of the elections have been anti-establishment parties.

In Serbia, the nationalist successors of the Socialist Party founded by Slobodan Milosevic are back in power, defeating the pro-European Union (E.U.) parties that have been in power since Milosevic's ouster. The candidate of the Progressive Party, Tomislav Nikolic, won the presidency in the elections held in the third week of May. Nikolic, who was a close lieutenant of Milosevic, had campaigned on a promise of reviving the economy. His upset victory came at a time when Serbia was poised to formally join the E.U. The incumbent President, Boris Tadic, had campaigned for re-election on further E.U. integration. In parliamentary elections held earlier, the Progressive Party won most of the seats.

In the State elections held in Germany in May, voters rebuffed the ruling conservative Christian Democrats. The Pirate Party has emerged as a new force, having crossed the 5 per cent mark in these elections. The party first made its mark in the municipal elections in Berlin. The Christian Democrats lost in North Rhine-Westphalia, the biggest State and the bellwether of German politics.

With unemployment continuing to rise, massive protests are being witnessed on the streets of major European cities. In the third week of May, more than 20,000 people participated in a demonstration in Frankfurt to protest against the economic and political policies of the E.U. member-states. With the rising number of protests, the police have started resorting to strong-arm methods. Among the banners on display in Frankfurt were Banks are killing democracy and The crisis comes, constitutional rights are ditched.

The opposition Social Democrats said that the results were a vote against austerity. According to many German commentators, the next federal government in Germany is likely to be a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party. General elections are scheduled to be held in September next year. With the Social Democrats and the Greens emerging as the main critics of the austerity policies of the federal government, the Left Party did not do well and in fact failed to clear the 5 per cent hurdle to get representation in the two States that went to the elections recently. But it is expected to bounce back in the general elections, when national issues will dominate.

The youth in Europe are trying to emulate the Occupy Protests against global capitalism, which first erupted in Wall Street last year. The area in which Frankfurt's banking quarter is located was declared out of bounds for the demonstrators. Germany's economy is often described as the engine that drives Europe. Cities in Spain, Portugal and Greece have been witnessing increasingly angry demonstrations as jobs and pensions disappear.

Greek barometer

Most analysts are of the opinion that the coming elections in Greece, to be held on June 17, could be a tipping point for the E.U. The results of the elections held on May 6 had reflected the anger of the Greek people towards the belt-tightening they have been forced to endure for the past two years. The conservative New Democracy and the social-democratic Pasok, which had alternated in power since the 1970s, were decimated in the elections. The political void has been filled by the left-wing Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which tripled the number of votes it polled compared with the last election. Syriza came second in the May elections, displacing Pasok. The two mainstream parties together polled less than a third of the votes cast.

French status quo

Syriza is politically close to the Left Party in Germany and the Jean-Luc Melenchon-led Left Front and the French Communist Party in France. Melenchon got more than 11 per cent of the votes in the first round of the French presidential election. The Left Front's vote, along with that of the recently formed New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), was crucial to the eventual victory of the Socialist Party candidate, Francois Hollande, over Nicolas Sarkozy. After Hollande's victory, Melenchon congratulated the four million voters of the Left Front, whose votes have now brought about the decision. He has vowed to use his leverage to ensure that the new Socialist government implements its demand for a radical reset of the neoliberal economic pattern implemented by the previous government.

Most observers predict that the honeymoon between the French Left and Hollande is bound to be short-lived. The new President is committed to slashing budget deficits through cuts in social benefits. Since taking office, he has been praising the German economic model and talking about implementing structural reforms. No change is being contemplated in France's foreign policy. The Socialist President has pledged support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) imperialist wars. With some of its former colonies like Mali in turmoil, there will be excuses for the new French President to get involved in the internal affairs of third countries. Sarkozy had a big role to play in the military interventions in Libya and Cote d'Ivoire. France has been the leading cheerleader for intervention in Syria. Philippe Poutou, the NPA's presidential candidate, said recently that the election of Hollande was the signal of austerity for the popular classes, in the name of balanced budgets.

Anti-austerity mood

The failure of the establishment parties in Greece after the recent election to cobble up a coalition government that was essential for the implementation of the draconian E.U.-mandated austerity measures is a big setback for Brussels (the E.U. headquarters) and Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy were the main authors of the austerity script, which was forced down the throats of the Greeks. In Greece, real incomes have been slashed by up to two-thirds and unemployment has tripled with more than 50 per cent of the youth without jobs. Poverty and homelessness are spreading at alarming speed. Syriza is going to the polls with a single-point agenda saying no to the austerity measures even if it means defaulting on the country's huge loans.

The Argentine model is becoming increasingly attractive to Greece and other E.U. countries groaning under the weight of huge debts. After Argentina defaulted on its huge international loans in 2002, the economy has been registering impressive growth. It happened because the Argentine government changed its most important macroeconomic choices on fiscal, monetary, and exchange rate policies. That is what took Argentina out of its 1998-2002 depression and turned it into the fastest-growing economy in the Americas, observed Mark Weisbrot of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington in a recent article.

Many observers of the Greek political scene say that they will not be surprised if Syriza emerges as the single biggest party and takes control of the government. Many Greeks voted for the Far Right parties with a populist platform, such as the Independent Greeks and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party. These parties won 11 per cent and 7 per cent of the vote respectively.

In the next round, according to reports in the Greek media, these parties will find it difficult to cross the 5 per cent hurdle necessary to find representation in Parliament. With the battle lines now clearly drawn between those for and against the austerity programme dictated from Brussels, Syriza seems all set to trigger tectonic changes in Europe. A recent poll conducted by the Greek newspaper Kathemerini showed Syriza winning an outright victory in the elections scheduled for June.

The Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras, the man tipped to be the next Prime Minister, visited Venezuela in 2007 and enquired about the possibility of getting oil at a cheap price. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been helping poor countries and even communities in need in the developed countries by supplying oil at highly subsidised rates. Venezuela has supplied oil and gas to poor communities in the U.S. It also struck a deal with the city of London when Ken Livingstone was the Mayor to supply petrol at a subsidised rate. Chavez has always been insisting that neoliberalism is an outdated ideology. Syriza has promised to nationalise the banking sector. Further nationalisation of key sectors of the economy is to be expected if the Greeks have to emerge from the deep hole that neoliberalism has dug for them.

The 37-year-old Tsipras said that Greece had become a model for the rest of Europe because it was the first country chosen as the experiment for neoliberal shock therapy and the Greek people were guinea pigs. He added that if the policies were allowed to continue, they would be pronounced a success and other European countries would also be subjected to them. That is why it is so important to stop the experiment. It will not be just a victory for Greece, but all of Europe, the Syriza leader told The Guardian.

A negative side effect of the economic and political turmoil in Europe has been the rise of the Far Right. In France, the xenophobic National Front won more than 21 per cent of the votes, coming third in the first round of the presidential elections. As economic hardships have risen for the common man, so has anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim paranoia in Europe.

A Greek academic, Neni Panourgia, currently in Columbia University, wrote that the neocons, neo-fascists and neo-Nazis have been selectively appropriating leftist discourses and practices, in order to obscure and obfuscate the distinction between Left and Right. Many of the strongholds of the National Front are in the depressed areas, formerly the stronghold of the French Communist Party. The French Communists were a force to be reckoned with in the politics of the country until the early 1980s.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 15, 2012.)

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