The Credibility Trap: Europe's Center-Left Parties Stuck in a Dead End

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Part 3: Competition for Votes

Today, social democrats are forced to compete for voters with green and far-left parties, which have long since established their positions in the European spectrum. In the European election in France, the Greens and the Socialists were practically neck-and-neck, capturing 16.28 and 16.48 percent of the vote respectively. In Germany, the left-wing Left Party, formed through the merger of western Germany's leftist WASG party and the eastern Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party to East Germany's Communists, has been stealing votes from the SPD.

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Photo Gallery: The Decline of the Left

In Germany, support for the left as a whole has remained about the same -- there has been no significant migration to the other side of the political spectrum, as was the case in Great Britain. Moreover, the German Social Democrats' lack of inspiring leaders isn't making their task any easier. The SPD's chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier may have gained respect as Germany's foreign minister, but most voters prefer their politicians to be more charismatic. "Steinmeier would probably make a good chancellor, but he isn't an optimal chancellor candidate," says Berlin political scientist Wolfgang Merkel.

Mediocrity currently dominates the political landscape. Power-hungry men stand in the way of a handful of more impressive candidates, particularly if they are female. For instance, former Swedish Prime Minister Persson bullied the popular Swedish EU Commissioner Margot Wallström out of the way.

The intrigue-filled infighting among the French Socialists demonstrates how difficult it can be for the beleagured center-left to bring about an urgently needed new beginning. As the magazine Le Point concluded in a cover story, Sarkozy has thoroughly "taken the wind" out of the Socialists' sails. The title of the analysis read: "Is Sarkozy Left-Wing?"

Sarkozy demonstrated that, even in France, a centrist conservative can cut the ground from under his opponents' feet. When Tony Blair congratulated Sarkozy on his 2007 election win, calling his campaign "phenomenal," Sarkozy coyly replied: "I did a Tony Blair."

Meanwhile, Sarkozy has clearly embarked on forays to the left of the center. He surrounds himself with Socialist luminaries like Jack Lang, whom he often meets for conversations, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whom he supported in his successful bid for the post of head of the International Monetary Fund. Sarkozy often quotes former Socialist President François Mitterrand. "The president borrows his words and his ideas from the left," writes Le Point.

Internal Strife

The Socialists are poorly equipped to oppose Sarkozy. The internal strife within the party was all too apparent during its recent summer convention in La Rochelle.

Ségolène Royal, 55, who lost to Sarkozy in France's last presidential election, held court at the city's maritime museum, where Loire Valley wines and soft goat cheese were served on wooden tables. About 300 supporters, including members of the party's youth organization and dyed-in-the-wool Socialists, jostled around the buffet, but this time they were there as informal members of Royal's personal fan club "Désirs d'avenir" (Desires for the Future). A few hours earlier, Royal had sought to portray herself as a model environmentalist by taken a short ride in an electric car.

Meanwhile her main rival, party leader Martine Aubry, hosted a cocktail party at the local museum of natural history, enticing her guests with a lavish spread in the former city palace. Over oyster, smoked salmon and fish pastries, the 59-year-old Socialist and her young party members demonstrated their understanding of liberty, equality and fraternity. "We are back, and the party is looking to the future," Aubry said. "We are united in solidarity."

It was a blatant lie. In fact, for weeks the Socialist Party has been running political ads to drum up enthusiasm among its own troops, a group that appears to be pursuing the principle of every man for himself. "There is a truce at the seafood buffet, but once the meal is over, the party infighting will start again," a German Social Democrat attending the event said derisively.

In October, the French Socialists plan to vote on a fundamental "revitalization of the party." But the party seems more interested in holding backroom debates about who will hold which posts than talking about what this revitalization will actually look like. At any rate, says Thomas Klau of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Paris, France's Socialists lost their reputation as the "better managers of capitalism" long ago. He could easily be talking about center-left parties all across Europe.

Boards for the Coffin

But what would a new beginning look like? Europe's social democratic parties are still being run by politicians like Brown, Aubry and Steinmeier, the same people who held government offices during the glory years at the beginning of the century and whose former bosses have long since been voted out of office. For this reason, it seems doubtful that they are capable of serving as their parties' great innovators. The social democrats' share of the political spectrum had not yet been eaten into by competitors further to the left, who have claimed the buzzword of "equality" for themselves, and the greens, with their claims to future-oriented policies, were not yet considered true rivals.

For now, social democrats are left with the fear that they still haven't found a way to stop the rampant decline of Europe's established center-left parties. "Maybe the coffin isn't quite ready yet, but the boards have already been planed," says Klau.

Perhaps a few more boards will be added in Berlin after the election on Sept. 27.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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