Analysis: Social democrats in Europe face existential crisis
Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann latest victim as far right manipulates fears
Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) chairman Sigmar Gabriel: Called on his party, which is experiencing a low approval rating, not to rest on past social-political successes. Photograph: Wolfgang Kumm/EPA
Europe’s social democrats are facing an existential crisis amid the rise of fleet-footed populist parties, all pursuing hybrid social-national agendas.
Austria’s Social Democratic (SPÖ) chancellor Werner Faymann became the latest victim on Monday. His German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel insisted he wouldn’t be next. Though he leads a party in freefall, with just 20 per cent support, he was forced to insist that weekend rumours of his looming demise as leader were exaggerated.
Instead Gabriel, Social Democratic (SPD) leader and economics minister, hosted a “values” conference to discuss “new and old questions for social democracy”. But the biggest question went unanswered: what, in the year 2016, is the SPD for?
The same question is haunting centre-left parties around Europe as they grapple with a decline in traditional, class-based voter affiliation and the disappearance of the classic working class milieu.
As Jeremy Corbyn continues his campaign to reverse Blairite “Third Way” politics that, he says, catalysed Labour’s decline, Austria’s SPÖ has looked on helplessly as the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) now pitches itself as the new party of the working man.
A dramatic defection of SPÖ voters to the FPÖ has made the populists Austria’s largest party. The same defection could see Austria elect Norbert Hofer as its first populist president in second-round elections on May 22nd.
Observers of Austrian politics say the SPÖ and conservatives are tone-deaf to frustrations over economic stagnation and social cohesion fears in a time of inward migration and terror threats. SPÖ voters are particularly tempted by the anti-elitist stance on the FPÖ opposition.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the SPD is wheezing through another grand coalition, squeezed by Angela Merkel’s centrist CDU, the hard Left Party and new populists of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The SPD’s only growth area is voter frustration.
Onstage with Gabriel on Monday, cleaning lady Susanne Neumann described the legacy of the SPD’s decade-old labour and welfare reforms: “shitty contracts” that condemned workers to low-pay, casual work with few benefits.
“You ran us down,” she said. “Why should I vote for a party that did that to me and gives me no answers?”
Why indeed. A poll for the SPD showed just a third of Germans believe the party can deliver on its historical core competence: social justice. Under growing pressure to do a Corbyn, the centrist Gabriel admitted: “For social democracy, losing trust in social justice questions is existential.”
Back in Vienna, meanwhile, the populist FPÖ came out banging the drum for premature elections, knowing they could come out on top. Their options as junior coalition partner: the conservative People’s Party, reversing their ill-fated coalition of 2000, or Austria’s Social Democrats, a party one FPÖ spokesman remarked sadly, had “lost touch with the present”.