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Photo Gallery: A Center-Left Meltdown

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End of an Era? The Slow Death of Europe's Social Democrats

Across Europe, social democratic parties are in crisis and on Sunday, the German SPD could slide to its worst result since World War II. What has happened to the once-glorious center-left parties on the Continent? And how can they recover? By SPIEGEL Staff

On a recent late summer evening, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern pulled into Illmitz, in Austria's Burgenland, in a tour bus not unlike those used by rock stars. He was greeted with cheers and a brass band before making his way through a throng of selfie-hunters at a local trade union festival to reach the stage, in front of which some 200 people were gathered to hear him speak.

His speech focused on the "Austrian Dream," and he outlined his own journey from a humble background to the very top. He talked about Austria and what people were telling him about their concerns, outlining a plan to turn the country back into a place where everyone "gets the chance to have a successful life." It was the kind of rhetoric you would normally expect from an American president, not an Austrian Social Democrat.

Yet despite him being a good candidate, despite running a good campaign and despite the country's solid economy, with unemployment at 5.7 percent and economic growth topping 2 percent, Kern and his party, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), are failing to gain traction. His country's economy is even better shape than Germany's, yet the SPÖ has been polling at 22 to 28 percent for months now -- far from enough to win the Oct. 15 general election.

Kern, 51, headed the Austrian national railroad before becoming chancellor last year. He was responsible for making sure that special trains were provided during the 2015 refugee crisis. And he forced the hapless former chancellor, Werner Faymann, out of office. Kern's team is young and motivated, with hardly anyone on his bus older than their late 30s, and he has multimedia experts to manage his social media presence. But absent a miracle, Kern will have to step down after the election.

One reason, of course, is Sebastian Kurz, Kern's 31-year-old challenger. Kurz has rebranded his party, the Austrian conservatives, and is betting on his youth and staunch anti-Islam stance. In polls comparing the two on an individual basis, Kern and Kurz are basically neck-and-neck -- but next to his young challenger, the incumbent chancellor nevertheless looks like the status quo. Despite everything, Austrian voters associate the current chancellor with old, sclerotic social democracy.

In 2000, social democrats or socialists were part of the government in 10 out of the 15 countries that made up the European Union at the time. These days, though, the picture is a drastically different one. There is a real chance that German Social Democrats will no longer be part of Chancellor Angela  Merkel's coalition following Sunday's vote and the same could happen in Italy after voters there go to the polls next spring. Were that to happen, center-left parties would only be part of six EU governments out of 28 member states, all of them on the European periphery: Malta, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The populist left-wing Syriza alliance heads the government in Greece. Elections are scheduled for October in the Czech Republic, but it seems unlikely that the social democrats will be returned to power.

There is even a new word for the social democratic swoon: Pasokization, as in PASOK, Greece's long-term governing party, which fell into insignificance in the 2015 election. A similar situation applies in the Netherlands, where the traditional Labor Party captured only 5.7 percent of votes in the last election. French Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon came in fifth in the recent French presidential election, with 6.4 percent of the vote, and his party went on to receive a miserable 9.5 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections a short time later. In Poland, the Social Democrats no longer hold any seats in the parliament.

It is a puzzling development given the desire held by many voters for greater social security. Indeed, that desire could help explain the rapid, yet brief, rise of Social Democratic chancellor candidate Martin Schulz  in the polls earlier this year. Indeed, the SPD came within a single percentage point of Merkel's conservatives -- only to plunge again . That dive certainly had something to do with the SPD's uninspiring campaign, and with Schulz's own apparent inability to win over voters . But there was also a bigger problem: No one knows what exactly social democracy stands for anymore.

This is astonishing. Weren't people proclaiming a comeback for strong state governance and the end of financial capitalism after the 2008 financial crisis? Isn't the gap between rich and poor widening almost everywhere in Europe? Don't voters have several good reasons to vote social democratic?

Social democrats have shaped Western Europe more than any other political movement. Their ideas are now taken for granted among large segments of the middle class: principles like the social welfare state; the notion that the strong bear some responsibility for weaker members of society; and the idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to participate in society. Those are the philosophical underpinnings of social democracy, yet social democratic parties are no longer benefitting from these ideas.

Splintered Electorate

Martin Schulz has made "social justice" the central issue of his campaign, but the working class, once the key constituency of social democracy, has been fragmented into a well-paid core workforce and a periphery of temporary workers who often do the same work for less money. Others are stuck in dead-end service jobs. Are social democratic parties still the parties of workers? Or is this just a distant memory to which educated, upwardly mobile public servants cling to? That, at least, is what the SPD factions in state parliaments and the Bundestag make it look like.

For decades, social democratic identity centered on the concept of work, out of which it derived its everyday pride and sense of self-worth. But changes in the working world and employment relationships, along with the rise of digitalization and the service economy, have thrown everything into disarray. To make matters worse, the party system as a whole no longer functions the way it used to. These days, those who want to become politically involved now tend to do so through citizen's initiatives than a party. This disproportionately affects social democratic parties, which have always been dependent on large membership roles organized in local chapters and led by local functionaries.

Nowadays, labor parties are primarily made up of retirees. The intricate network of clubs and organizations they once maintained, and that served to unify a wide range of different interests, is in shreds. Many working-class people now vote for right-wing and left-wing populists.

Center-left governments in the EU: 200 and 2017.

Center-left governments in the EU: 200 and 2017.

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

Take Italy, where the populist Five-Star Movement of former TV comedian Beppe Grillo, 69, is out-polling the Italian Democratic Party, as the social democrats there are called. To be sure, "manic fragmentation," as the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera describes it, has always been a feature of the Italian left. But the current situation is particularly exasperating because things had been looking so good for the social democrats until recently. But then, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, 42, gambled away his job with a referendum -- and now that he has returned as the Democratic Party's leader, he lacks grassroots support because its more traditional members view him as too progressive, economically liberal and anti-union.

Renzi had actually been a shining hope for European social democracy. He was the first of a new type of politician to come to power in European governments: young men in well-tailored suits, who combine good looks, excellent connections and organizational talent.

And now? It is quite possible that Renzi will not even lead the left in the upcoming 2018 elections, leaving the job to the incumbent prime minister, the relatively low-key Paolo Gentiloni, whose primary attraction is that he likely won't further exacerbate the antagonisms running through the rival camps on the left. But his prospects of winning the election are uncertain.

Corbyn's Army

On a Thursday in late August, Jeremy Corbyn is standing somewhat awkwardly next to an empty stage, having slipped into Glasgow's Drygate brewery through a side entrance, unnoticed by most of the roughly 400 guests. He tugs at his beard, takes a sip of water, scribbles a few words into a small notebook and looks anxiously at the stage, which is bathed in red light. He looks a little surprised when he is called up.

Corbyn is a luminary among the European left and in the brewery, people hang on his every word. They applaud when he condemns the austerity mandate under which his country is suffering. They hoot when he accuses the government of making a club of the rich even richer. And they cheer when he says it makes him feel ashamed. It is Corbyn's second appearance of the day in Glasgow, the first one being an afternoon speech to 1,500 supporters outside a mosque.

There actually isn't a campaign underway in the UK. The last election took place three months ago and ended with two surprises: The Tories, under Prime Minister Theresa May, lost their absolute majority, and the Labour Party, which had been written off, exhumed itself. Since then, though, Jeremy Corbyn has simply carried on in campaign mode. He wants to be ready for the next election, which could happen soon if May stumbles.

When May announced new elections in the spring, public opinion survey had predicted a landslide victory for the prime minister and her party. Labour seemed finished, reduced to a disorderly heap of infighting and incompetence. But then something remarkable happened. Despite being up against the superiority of the Conservatives, a large segment of the British media and key forces in his own party, Corbyn unexpectedly captured about 40 percent of the vote nationwide on June 8.

For the first time in many years, people in Great Britain are excited about politics again - or, more precisely, about a politician who had been written off by almost all parties. Young people, those who have been left behind, minorities and union members see Corbyn as the poster boy of post-capitalism. He appeals to all of them when he speaks of the widespread anger about a society that tolerates poverty and inequality even as a small number of people keeps getting richer.

The European left is playing close attention to Labour's rise. Corbyn wants to nationalize key industries. He is a socialist, not a social democrat.

So how could someone like him become the leader of the Labour Party? It was made possible by the hatred that large portions of the party base have for former Prime Minister Tony Blair, inventor of the "Third Way." Corbyn is everything Blair is not: He is not glamorous or cynical; he is the antidote to the greed of the neoliberal era. Labour's retro, socialist reinvention is mostly the result of Blair's departure.

Many European center-left parties have their own version of Tony Blair -- a leader that betrayed what social democracy once represented. Blair joined U.S. President George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq. In Germany, it was Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, passing deep cuts to the country's social welfare system in the 2000s.

But it isn't easy to get rid of people like Blair and Schröder. They are the ones who most recently led their parties to victory, which means a lot in parties that have experienced nothing by electoral failure since. They are the protagonists of the grand narratives about social democracy. The departure from the old leftist ideals was the flipside of the great social advancements that were made possible since the 1960s by social democratic education policy. This reorientation could have been a great opportunity.

Unfortunately, not everyone came along: Many have stayed behind.

Changing Bases

The social milieus that supported social democrats in Europe for decades have dissolved. From the German cities of Hamburg and Bremen to France's coal-mining regions to the industrial regions of northern England, every country has its so-called social democratic heartland. But almost everywhere, those hearts have now stopped beating. It's not just social democratic ideas that can now be found across the entire party spectrum, but also the people who once belonged to social democratic parties. Some have moved away, to the neighborhoods of the new middle classes. Those who live in poorer neighborhoods are realigning themselves.

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 38/2017 (September 16th, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

No one really knows how to deal with these changes. But the social democrats in Denmark are experimenting with one possible model. In no other country in Europe has the center-left shown such a willingness to cooperate with right-wing populists  as in Denmark. The strategy could even bring them back into power. Mette Frederiksen, the 39-year-old who has been chair of the Danish Social Democrats since 2015, is not ruling out the possibility of forming a governing coalition with the right-wing populist Danish People's Party when Denmark holds its next election in two years.

The Danish People's Party, formerly a pariah of Danish politics, is successfully positioning itself as the voice of decisive conscientiousness. It combines a rigid policy towards foreigners with a social agenda promoting more humanitarian conditions in the workplace and lower taxes for low-wage earners, and it opposes an increase in the legal retirement age. It has, in other words, adopted several items from the classic social democratic platform.

Frederiksen, of course, knows that many on the left have a soft spot for refugees and are critical of her willingness to work with the People's Party. This is why she claims to be neither in favor nor against immigrants, instead insisting that she merely supports political realism. "In Denmark, you are entitled to almost all benefits from day one. It's a difficult system when large numbers of people come into the country," she says. Danish cohesion is her biggest concern.

Frederiksen's strategy is exemplified by her statement: "If Social Democrats are unable to appeal to those who are most strongly affected by the challenges of the future and the changes in our society, we are not a true social democratic party." She believes the same applies to other social democrats in Europe.

But is it true? Does the future of social democracy lie in protecting the people who have been left behind by globalization? Perhaps.

The Perils of the New Economy

Historically, though, it was the conservatives' role to slow down the pace of social progress and people's lives from changing too rapidly. It was the center-right that offered a home to those who felt unsettled by change, while the social democrats were interested in shaping that change and being at the forefront of progress.

That was true in the late 19th century, when the workers' movement believed it could create a new and better world through education, discipline, solidarity and struggle. It was true in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the massive increases in productivity among industrialized societies began trickling down to workers in the form of higher wages. And it was true the era of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, social democrats spent a few glorious years not just believing that they could effectively guide society and the economy with their policies, but putting their beliefs into practice.

It was even the case in the late 1990s, when Blair, Schröder and their cronies believed that social democrats could not stand aside as a New Economy developed. In hindsight, it would have been smarter for social democrats to have imposed stricter controls on the financial markets at the time, instead of deregulating them even further. But Schröder and Blair wanted to be at the forefront of the developments that were taking place.

Surprisingly, right-wing populists tend to be more of a presence in the richer countries of northern Europe. In Spain and Greece, where the financial and debt crises have led to poverty and economic stagnation in recent years, most populists are on the left, with Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

Podemos emerged from the 2011 protests, which were directed against austerity mandates as well as against corruption in the major parties. A giant real estate bubble had burst in Spain, threatening to drag down the country's banking system. The Socialist government prevented this worst-case scenario from becoming reality, but it was pressured by the EU to drastically reduce government spending. Podemos ("We Can") is opposed to European austerity programs, which makes the party the "new social democrats," according its 38-year-old leader, Pablo Iglesias, a political scientist at the University of Madrid.

The Socialist Workers' Party, which built modern Spain, established the social welfare state and fostered social renewal after the Franco dictatorship, are struggling with the new competition from the left. They wanted to bring Podemos into a coalition government last year, but Podemos wasn't interested because it hoped to overtake the Socialists in the country's parliamentary election. Now Podemos wants a coalition.

The Greens and the Left Party in Germany are also byproducts of the degradation of the social democratic left. The former emerged after the SPD, under then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, neglected to bring the peace movement and environmental activists into the party in the 1970s. The Left Party is not just the successor of the former East German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), but also of Labour and Social Justice - The Electoral Alternative (WASG), a left-wing West German political party founded by disappointed Social Democrats after Schröder announced his cuts to the social welfare system.

Division doesn't have to be a weakness. The Greens were able to reach groups of voters to which the SPD alone would not have gained access. Together, the two parties were able to form a governing coalition in 1998. But to make that kind of a governing project a success, all participants must know what they want and where they stand.

New Constellation

Political scientist Wolfgang Merkel has developed the theory that the difference between right and left in Western democracies is becoming less important while that between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism. The difference between proponents of an open society and those of a closed one. Between those who have had positive experiences with globalization, profit from it and value the freedom it gives them, welcome the flow of goods and capital and favor immigration. And those who see all of this as a threat.

If taken to its logical conclusion, this could mean that the era of right-wing and left-wing big-tent parties alternately holding power is simply over. Perhaps the future belongs to different constellations of movements for and against an open society.

Until recently, the traditional discrepancy between the left and the right was more pronounced in France than in almost anywhere else. After all, it was invented there. But France's party system was dramatically reorganized in the last elections and it is no accident that the Socialist Party was the first victim of this shift. Only a feeble remnant of the party has remained, after losing 249 of its 280 seats in parliament.

Social democratic parties have always had to accommodate many different movements, but now they have become too contradictory. The conflict between those who want more openness, more European and more reforms and those opposed to such progressivism has destroyed the French Socialists.

This is why the party's heirs could hardly be more contradictory. On one side is Emmanuel Macron, the new president, a social liberal who won the election on a message of change and a commitment to European values. On the other is the de-facto leader of the French opposition, former Trotskyite Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He is in favor of a bloated social welfare state and economic protectionism, which he combines with resentment against Germany and Brussels. On economic issues and questions of national identity, Mélenchon is much closer to right-wing populist Marine Le Pen than Macron, who also emerged from the Socialist Party.

One reason Macron scored such a significant victory over Le Pen in the presidential election is that he was able to bring together opponents of nationalism and isolationism. Macron was the candidate of those who wanted to prevent Le Pen from winning the election.

He managed to make the mainstream attractive again by using an optimistic tone about the future that was uncharacteristic for France. Macron represents the faith that an economically failing country can become successful again by simply reforming itself. His recipes are not classically leftist, not unlike Schröder's welfare and labor market reforms, but rather push back the state and facilitate growth, and aim to reduce unemployment by making it easier to hire and fire people.

This is the gist of Macron's labor market reform. From the standpoint of the classic left, any rollback of workers' rights is betrayal. But from the standpoint of a social liberal like Macron, it is more important that companies are successful, and that new jobs can be created despite the transformation of labor.

What is the Story?

By 2030, automation will have replaced about half of all jobs in Western countries, according to a study by the University of Oxford. What does this mean? Will other jobs arise - or not? Where will the profits from this jump in productivity go? Doesn't social democracy have to come to terms with the idea of an unconditional basic income?

There are many unanswered questions. The labor-market reforms of past years are likely harmless compared to the social upheavals the Western world is facing.

During election season, party strategists love "storytelling," a term that has migrated into politics from advertising. Success requires a story, an emotional message with which voters can identify, and consistent images and symbols. Martin Schulz is a likeable man whose life, like that of many people, hasn't always been easy. "Time for More Justice!" is his campaign slogan. No one is likely to contradict him. But is anyone shouting enthusiastically: "Yes!"?

In many European countries, it is becoming clear that social democratic parties have no future as broad melting pots. The ones that are succeeding are positioning themselves on the far left, as opponents of globalization and the EU, like Corbyn and Mélenchon. Then there are those who have bid farewell to the left and, like Macron, are capturing the political center. The German Social Democrats are trying to resist this trend. They want to remain a big-tent party, but they lack the right story.

Social democrats were once the protagonists in one of mankind's greatest stories. In Germany, they vowed to improve the lot of workers and lead mankind into a new era. They breathed life into German democracy and, by forming a coalition with the Green Party, eventually made their way into the Chancellery. The battles it fought took place in a young, optimistic society.

We no longer live that way. Like other European nations, Germany has become an older, post-heroic country. Most German fears relate to threats from outside: climate change, new wars, crises triggered by unpredictable dictators and refugees flooding into the country unchecked.

Such issues have not thus far been the domain of social democrats. Social democrat want to jointly pursue a better society. But they need to be able to explain what that means. If they manage to find that story, they could still be one of the most powerful stories in politics.

By Walter Mayr, Dietmar Pieper, Tobias Rapp, Mathieu von Rohr, Jörg Schindler and Helene Zuber

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan