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Monday, May 7, 2012, 5:30 pm

Europe Rejects Austerity at the Ballot Box

By Bhaskar Sunkara

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On Sunday, Europeans went to the polls, and the results could not have gone worse for continental elites. Austerity plans drafted by the European Central Bank, largely under German auspices, have encountered stiff resistance across the continent. But in countries like Greece, Spain and France, these measures have been pushed through by ruling parties in the legislature against popular sentiment. Voters punished these politicians yesterday. The consequences couldn't be more significant.

In France, the Socialist Party candidate François Hollande defeated incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Many of Hollande's campaign promises were progressive. He called for withdrawal from Afghanistan, legalized gay marriage, and a new government department tasked to safeguarding women's rights. He also proposed sharp increases in the marginal tax rates for the rich and an end to Sarkozy's cuts to the social safety net. On key issues, Hollande was pushed leftward by the emergence of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far left candidate backed by the French Communist Party and other disaffected socialists.

Still, it seems unlikely that Hollande can drastically reduce French debt, expand the social safety net, and keep Europe's ruling class happy at the same time. Many fear that his pledge to balance the national budget by 2017 means a milder version of Sarkozy's austerity package is on the way.

The Left Front will be decisive here. Mélenchon and his supporters seek to transform their election campaign, which placed them forth with over 11 percent of the vote, into an opposition movement capable of keeping Hollande oriented towards the interests of working people. 

The far left scored an even more impressive victory in Greece. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) nearly quadrupled its vote to reach 16.8 percent, making it the country's second leading party. Led by Alexis Tsipras, a charismatic 37-year-old, the group ran on a strong anti-austerity campaign, winning more votes than the incumbent Panhellenic Socialist Movement, a social democratic party that had presided over wave of European-backed cuts. The radical climate also favored leftist formations like the Communist Party of Greece and the Democratic Left, who made gains, as well.

With Greece’s conservative leader Antonis Samaras unable to form a government, many hope that Tsipras will be able to form an anti-cuts coalition of the broad left. The sectarian stances of groups like the Communist Party who aren't keen to concede that SYRIZA now has hegemony over the Greek left will make such an effort difficult. But if SYRIZA does manage to stall $14 billion in pending budget cuts, it may throw the Eurozone into crisis, forcing a resettlement on terms more favorable to workers.

There's a dark side to the present European mood, however. Right-wing parties have taken up the mantle of anti-austerity, blaming immigrants and other minority groups along with bankers and technocrats for the economic disorder. In France, the National Front scored more than 6 million votes in the first election round, a much stronger showing than the Left Front could muster.

To the east, an even more insidious threat has been growing in Greece. After winning 7 percent of the popular vote on Sunday, the fascist Golden Dawn organization will enter parliament there for the first time. As Richard Seymour explains

[The] emergence, almost out of nowhere, [of] a mass fascist organisation with actual Third Reich-style paraphernalia, shows how perilous the terrain is, and how much danger awaits Greece's most vulnerable communities. Recently, the state has been stoking up racism toward immigrants and planning a crackdown on the grounds that they 'spread diseases.' In this toxic, unpredictable climate, any gains made by the radical Left are likely to be subject to new tests on a routine basis.

As encouraging as yesterday's results were, the European right remains a threat. With the legitimacy of major center-left and center-right parties in free fall, the coming months presents openings for both a renewed radicalism and a toxic barbarism.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.

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