THE RISE of the populist right across Europe dominated the discourse of the late 2010s.
Nations across the continent saw hard right wing parties make substantial electoral gains – be that the Lega in Italy, the Front National in France, the Sweden Democrats, or the AfD in Germany.
It looked like the spectre of a new far-right was descending upon the continent.
Yet if the late 2010s were the years of a right wing surge, the early 2020s could represent a swing back to the left.
The collapse of centre-left parties over the past few years – often dubbed ‘Pasokification’ in reference to the fall of Greece’s PASOK – seemed to suggest that the centre-left was increasingly being locked out of power in Europe.
But in Ireland, Sinn Fein gained the most votes in the 2020 election. On the Iberian peninsula, Spain and Portugal both maintain left-leaning governments. In Norway this year, the left-of-centre bloc was returned to power after years of conservative rule.
And now in Germany, a centre-left led coalition is set to take the reins of Europe’s largest economy.
Angela Merkel, who has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005, did not seek another term in office at this year’s federal election – marking the end of an era for both the nation and Europe as a whole.
Often described as a stabilising figure for both her country and the EU, her departure raised numerous questions about what a post-Merkel Germany might look like.
Polling for a long time suggested her centre-right CDU/CSU would comfortably maintain power following the election. But following the negative reaction to designated successor Armin Laschet from the electorate, the union collapsed in the polls and the election became competitive.
In the end, Olaf Scholz led the centre-left SPD to victory, securing the most seats in the Bundestag – albeit only with 25.7 per cent of the vote.
Unlike 2017, where months of fraught coalition negotiations followed the election, the government formation this year was somewhat drama-free, with the widely predicted traffic-light coalition of the SPD, Greens and pro-free market FPD reaching a deal within a matter of weeks.
While a coalition involving the FDP was never going to be a leftist’s dream – especially with leader Christian Lindner in charge of the finance ministry, this new government suggests that a leftwards trend in Europe could be taking shape.
After all, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of government in everyday life has vastly increased. People who may have once been sceptical about big-government may now be turning away from the laissez faire orthodoxy of the centre-right, recognising the need for a strong state with the means to invest in public health.
Most of all, with the climate emergency rapidly making its presence known, the need for progressive government – especially one allied to the Greens – will likely become ever more apparent to voters.
Of course, the future is never certain. Current opinion polls suggest that the left’s prospects in the French election next year are dismal. New Democracy still holds a substantial lead in Greece. And Labour shows few signs of being able to claim majority rule the next time Britain heads to the polls.
But for a country like Germany, in which the centre-right dominated for over a decade under Merkel, to so suddenly switch to the centre-left is remarkable.
It proves the European centre-left is far from defeated. Pasokification could be on the reverse. And the more and more national governments head the way of Spain, Norway and Germany, the more this progressive wave would look like a surge.
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