Did the Pandemic Reverse Pasokification? Are the left-wing parties in Europe ready for a comeback?
Most of us probably do not remember the Greek political former hegemon PASOK. Instead, some of us may be inclined to skip over the letter “S” and think of another kind of Greek hegemon, the football team PAOK. However, PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) made its way in the history books by dominating (in an ideological sense) the political landscape of Greece. On the other hand, its downfall became a textbook case of the loss of popularity of the left-wing political parties, not just in Greece, but in all of Europe. This trend is called “Pasokification” and refers to the failures of socialist parties in the West to attract members and gain votes in the last decade. Will this trend remain relevant in the current pandemic context?
What is Pasokification?
Pasokification is an important concept when describing the European political scene, but what does it mean exactly? In short, Pasokification refers to the recent downfall of social democracy in the polls. We may think of the Labour Party which governed the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2010, after which the Torries quickly scored one victory after another. This may also be the case in France where left-wing parties have failed to secure the presidency since the 1995 Chirac victory, the only exception being the short-term election of the socialist François Hollande in 2012 which only brought down the Socialist Party even further. After the 2017 election of Emmanuel Macron, his liberal party “La République En Marche!” has almost single-handedly governed the country. The textbook example of “Pasokification”, nevertheless, is Germany, whose main social democratic party (SPD) has been forced to turn to a long-term coalition with its old rival, the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) (and its sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria), in 2005. After a long stint of securing around 20% of the votes, the SPD managed to win the last elections in Germany, in 2021, with 25.7%. However, it should be noted that this so-called Grand Coalition, which is a feature of German political life, was formed also as a sanitary cordon to prevent another left-wing party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party, from entering government.
More European countries follow this trend, most notably countries like Austria, Sweden, The Czech Republic, Ireland, Hungary, Poland, The Netherlands and Greece (for obvious reasons). Some may argue that Italy is an example of Pasokification, although it is much more complex due to the recent “big tent” coalitions and the fact that the populist movements which surpassed the socialist ones find themselves closer to Marx than to Hayek. Moreover, the political scene in Italy is much more diverse and is susceptible to changes every now and then. In fact, Southern Europe is an outlier in this category as Spain was regarded as an example of Pasokification; however, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party managed to recover after the disastrous 2015 elections and are currently leading the majority in the Spanish Congress of Deputies (although not solely).
Southern Europe even manages to bring one of the most straightforward counter-examples of Pasokification, that of Portugal, where the first four political parties are all left-wing, showing no sign of losing popularity among the voters.
The causes of this phenomenon
The main failure of the left-wing parties in Europe is considered the lack of a well-defined and consistent ideology. Social Democracy rose in Europe as a more “watered down” version of Marxist thought. This new version aimed at protecting the working class by “playing by the rules”, encouraging capitalism, not fighting it or trying to change the fabric of society overnight. They would go and try to achieve a more egalitarian society using the “weapons at their disposal”, such as minimum wages, subsidies and the welfare state. In fact, left-leaning figures such as Tony Blair or Bill Clinton were more market-oriented than most of their modern liberal counterparts. This “Third Way” became the standard all over Europe at the beginning of the century, socialist movements slowly moving away from their “red” origins. This may be the reason why the left-wing decreased in popularity as the working class lost faith in the ones who promised to protect them, especially when tax breaks were offered to businesses, such as the case of the Tony Blair Cabinet in the UK.
Moreover, Europe moved away from industry and embraced the tertiary sector of the economy, that of services, eroding the social classes at their electoral base through the fall in blue collar reliant industries. This, in turn, made most of the ideological arguments of socialism obsolete in this new era, and their ideas not resounding with the population. One may also counter that, in the case of developed Western democracies (even the UK), with the naturalization of cradle-to-the-grave social spending regimes, regardless of the party in power, the traditional socialist parties, with their economic focus, lost too much of their platform and were not able to offer anything new, in a case of “too much success”. This is why Social Democracy in Europe is in a state of “limbo” where it needs to reform and change in order to keep up with the modern world. This is how the new “progressive” movement has started to become the norm regarding left-wing political parties, concepts such as social justice and fighting climate change slowly replacing the obsolete socialist dogma centered around social classes.
Furthermore, the “Third Way” and “Limbo” eras, combined with the financial crises and inconsistent fiscal and welfare policies saw an increase in the immigration rates and austerity measures, thus fueling the populist and nationalist movements that secured electoral victories at the expense of social democratic factions, since the former confiscated what would otherwise have been socialist talking points. Whether we talk about the UK Independence Party, the Brexit Party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) or Movimento 5 Stelle, the fall of socialism in European politics tends to be a constant.
Here enters COVID
The past few years have been tumultuous for politics as governments saw themselves forced to restrict rather than unfasten. The controversial responses of the world’s states to the pandemic were met with criticism and unrest from the population as those measures were highly unpopular. From quarantines and business closures to vaccine mandates, the displeasure towards the ruling class rose and may pose difficulties to the current political hegemony, which, as mentioned above, is mostly made up of free-market, liberal or nationalist-populist entities who succeeded at the expense of the left. Therefore, we may argue that those parties found themselves to be in charge at the wrong moment, being forced by the uncertainties of the global and pandemic situations to implement unpopular measures. Will they take the fall even if every other party would have done the same? Will they lose elections and will the left rise like a phoenix?
The social democratic parties have a systemic problem that they will need to address in order to become relevant again. Their ideology will likely borrow elements from their American counterparts, namely the Democratic Party. Social justice, equity and fighting climate change will become the new dogma, thus securing votes from mostly urban communities, slowly drifting away from its industrial historic background. It is possible that this “rebranding”, combined with the ruling parties’ response to the pandemic, might give way to reversing Pasokification.
In spite of that, the people’s response to crises is complex and not straightforward, simply electing “the others” not being a viable option for most of the voters. The Great Depression in America gave rise to the “New Deal”, a progressive and complex program that aimed at rebuilding the economy with the help of government intervention and the welfare state. One may argue that it was a natural response to a crisis. Even so, research shows that it may have been the exception, rather than the rule, as the 1918 flu pandemic slowed down progressive reforms in America, and the crises of the 1970s (Watergate, Vietnam, energy crises) prompted the election of Ronald Reagan, one the fiercest opponents of socialism. (Kenworthy, 2020)
However, as we have seen in Spain, social democracy is gaining small momentum, their biggest win being in Germany, where the SPD secured 25.7% of the votes in the 2021 Federal Election and managed to give their first chancellor in more than 16 years. Yet, they are part of a coalition that many see as fragile. Therefore, it is not clear whether we will see a resurgence of left-wing politics in Europe. For all we know, we may even see a further rise in populism and nationalist movements at the expense of both liberalism and socialism.
One variable will remain constant, that of the ageing ideology of social democratic parties, an ideology that hardly resonates with the modern urban middle-class voters. In whatever way, the movement’s existence is not threatened and only time will tell if the pandemic helped or eroded it further. We may even witness a complete “rebranding” of social democracy, substituting red with a much more “modern” green.
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