The New European Phenomenon: The Decline of Centrist Parties
By Hamza Ali Shah
The results of the European Parliament elections provided an insight into the dynamics of the European political arena. There were several notable trends. The surge of the Greens and the rampant nature of the right wing nationalists were of the most poignant. However, it was the decline of the traditional parties that supplied the most astute inkling of the future direction of the continents politics.
The big centre-right and centre-left blocs in the European Parliament have lost their combined majority in light of an increase in support for liberals, the Greens and nationalists.
Results showed the grand coalition between the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialist and Democrats (S&D) blocs lost their majority in 751-seat legislature.
The results indicate the European Parliament will have a new balance of power, with the, far-right Eurosceptic parties and the Greens/European Free Alliance all making significant gains.
Although the EPP and the S&D still remain of the larger parties, both witnessed a decline in votes. The EPP remain in first place with 179 seats, but that is down sharply from the 216 they had after the last election. Likewise, the S&D have 150 seats, down from 185 from the last election.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group (ALDE) came third with 107 seats, a huge jump from 69 seats in the last election, although this was a case of voters flocking there from the traditional centrist parties, as opposed to a surge of new voters. Nevertheless, they were followed by the Greens/European Free Alliance with 70 seats, up from 52 spots in the last parliament. The European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) won 58 seats.
The two Eurosceptic blocs, Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) – the European Parliament political homes of the most stalwart nationalists, including France’s Marine Le Pen, Britain’s Nigel Farage and Italy’s Matteo Salvini – won 58 and 56 seats, respectively. Combined, the right-wing Eurosceptic parties picked up 33 more seats compared to the last election.
Thus, the two party politics system that everyone has become so accustomed to is clearly taking a hit. But it was not a temporary spanner in the works, but rather the beginning of the end for the middle ground politics that has historically dominated the European Parliament. The institutional embodiment of compromise no longer has the appeal it once did. Rather, a multitude of competing, alternative and reactionary factions are incrementing in influence.
The patterns that have emerged in the continent in the wake of the election results reinforce this. Andrea Nahles, leader of the centre left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, and part of the grand coalition government with chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), recently announced her resignation.
In October of 2018, during Germany’s regional elections in the state of Hesse, the SPD slumped to just 19.8% of the vote, which then was the worst performance for the party since 1946. This was indicative of the direction of German politics. Those same regional elections were also disheartening for Merkel who received 10% less votes than the previous election in the Hesse state. Such election setbacks prompted the chancellor to announce her decision to step down as leader of her party. But the European Parliament elections proved to be even more discouraging. The SPD’s performance was dismal, receiving just 15.8% of the vote, an 11.4% percentage point drop from 2014, which incidentally was its worst ever result in the nationwide poll.
To compound matters, the latest domestic polls in Germany see the SPD slip to a record low 11%, two percentage points behind the right wing populist Alternative for Germany (ADF). Their coalition partners, the CDU, are also at a low point in the polls, with a 24% approval rating, meanwhile the Greens are enjoying a wave of sturdy support, polling in first place at 27%, as it becomes clear that the popularity of those who occupy the centre ground is dwindling. Ostensibly, disparate outlooks from other parties are alluring voters and traditional parties are shrinking. But such trends are not limited to Germany.
The predicament in France is testament to that. President Emmanuel Macron has been crippled by the yellow vest protestors in France, who have taken to the streets in droves for the past 30 weeks to make their disgruntled sentiments known. What started off as a movement to voice public anger at the rise in tax fuel, developed into wider anti-government protests.
Consequently, the European Parliament elections, for French voters, became a referendum on their President, and the biggest indication of the rapid dissolving of the political centre ground was Macron’s performance – who’s, ironically, astonishing rise to power in the 2017 French elections came on the back of a campaign advocating for a change to the fracturing political centre, and was once labelled the face of a new centrist and liberal Europe – which saw him come second in France, on 22%, whilst the right wing Marine Le Pen’s National Rally came top with 23%.
Likewise, a breakdown of which demographic groups voted in favour of Macron, suggests what was once a party and a leader that represented the centre, is lurching towards the right. Surveys of voters exhibit that 27% of people who voted for the centre-right in the 2017 French elections, endorsed Macron in the European Parliament ones.
His highest score, 33%, was among those over the age of 70, meanwhile he lost substantial votes from the younger generation. He was down 6% among voters aged 18-24 and 11% for voters aged 25-34. In addition, 14% of Macron’s first time voters who backed him in 2017 cast their vote to the Greens and 11% with parties on the left.
Thus, even Macron, who robustly pioneered for the revival of the centre ground, and upon winning in 2017, vehemently dismissed the left and right ends of the political spectrum as irrelevant, appears to have realised in a polarised political climate, throwing weight behind a categorical side is what garners support.
In fact, he labelled the left and right as out of fashion, but the sequence of events in recent weeks illustrate that it is in fact the traditional political midpoint and the traditional political party system that is out of fashion.
Particularly in Europe, where issues such as climate change, immigration, security threats, new technologies of the fourth wave of the industrial revolution, a decade of austerity after the financial crisis and now to aggravate matters, the Brexit debacle and all the ambivalence it engenders, are at the forefront of the continents concerns.
Hence, people want unambiguous answers and resolute standpoints, which is what alternative parties are offering, rather than compromises, which the traditional centrist parties tend to present. It is why Matteo Salvini, of the Lega party in Italy, just entered the political scene recently and yet has risen to prominence instantly, claiming sweeping victories in the Italian general election and the European one too.
His anti-immigrant stance taps into the fears of the Italy’s citizens, which is a country feeling the effects of the severe migrant crisis, with a plethora of migrants fleeing the war-torn Middle East region landing in Italy.
Salvini’s nationalistic and exclusionary rhetoric, which includes an abundance of statements such as ‘we are under attack; at risk are our culture, society, traditions, and way of life’ in reference to the effects of the migrants, is divisive and inflammatory, and policies to back it up such as closing Italian ports to prevent more migrants entering, is insensitive, yet to the general population, shows a politician responding to and addressing fundamental concerns – a cornerstone of populism.
Accordingly, in Hungary and Poland, the right wing nationalistic parties whose leaders possess similar tendencies and disseminate the same unsettling rhetoric as Salvini, have also witnessed an upsurge in support, both in domestic and European Parliament elections. Notably, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, delivered a comprehensive victory, winning a staggering 52% of the vote in Hungary and taking 14 seats in the European Parliament, all inspired by his nefarious anti-immigrant sentiments.
By contrast, when German Chancellor Angel Merkel opted for the sensible endeavour, the compromising approach to the European migrant crisis when it was at its peak in 2015, and allowed more than 1 million refugees into Germany, it caused a split in her parliament and in her country, and she failed to recover.
In fact, in the subsequent years, the anti-immigrant ADF party rose in popularity and has played a monumental part in the slump for Merkel’s party and her coalition partners.
This accentuates the notion that the centre ground in politics is no longer able to cater to the needs of the population, or at least, the electorate feel there is no scope for the happy medium and the moderate approach that traditional centrist parties offer. Immigration is just one of many noteworthy issues in Europe, but palpably, those who offer robust and definitive approaches, who tend to be the right wing populists, are the ones garnering support, at the expense of the centrist old guard.
Nevertheless, those who still believe the centre ground and the traditional approach is the desirable direction to follow will point to the situation in Britain and the recent success of the Liberal Democrat Party as evidence.
Indeed, in the recent local council elections the Lib Dems were the big winners as they had a net gain of 703 councillors, reaching 1350, and controlling 18 councils. But they weren’t the only success story. The Green Party also won more than 130 councillors, a step up from the 86 they had in 2015.
Whilst alternative voices like the Lib Dems and the Greens were rampant, the Conservative Party and Labour Party faced humiliating defeats. Especially the Conservatives, who lost 1334 councillors, meanwhile Labour, who were expected to win seats, also lost 82.
The battering of the British mainstream parties was again conspicuous in the European Parliament elections. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party won in every region but London, winning 29 seats in the European Parliament, making his party the joint biggest, as he grabbed 31.6% of the vote. The Lib Dems came in second place, winning 16 seats and 20.3% of the vote.
Labour again faced an underwhelming night, settling for third with just 10 seats and 14.1% of the vote, only slightly above the Greens who had 7 seats. Then came the disgraced Conservatives, in fifth place with 4 seats and 9.1% of the vote.
It was the first time neither of the mainstream British parties were in the top 2, which is symptomatic of the splintering and strained political climate.
However, these very trends demonstrate the waning appeal of the centre ground, as opposed to a renaissance. In the instance of the European Parliament and local council elections, it was the Greens, the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party who were the alternative voices. At a time when Britain is polarised on unprecedented levels because of Brexit, and the country is split right down the middle, the Greens and the Lib Dems endorsed one side of a sharp divide, staunchly championing remaining in the European Union and calling for a second referendum, meanwhile the Brexit Party represented the other side of the spectrum, robustly demanding Britain leaves the trading bloc by any means necessary.
Meanwhile the two main parties occupied the middle ground and tried to find a compromise to Brexit, with both former Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn looking to strike a deal with the EU that was neither a car-crash no-deal exit, but simultaneously still honoured the referendum result and allowed to Britain to withdraw but whilst maintaining a close relationship with the EU, in a bid to appease both sides of the divide. But their proposals were vigorously rejected. The longing for those offering middle ground solutions was dissipating, and the two man parties felt it.
Their combined vote share was just 23%, a major decline from the 82% amassed in the 2017 general election in Britain and almost half what they generated in the previous European Parliament elections. It was hard remainers and hard leavers that prevailed. The centre was significantly squeezed, evidently, to the advantage of the extremes on each side.
Moreover, the demand for conclusive ideas was again on display in the recent Peterborough by-elections, which took place to fill the cities vacant seat in the House of Commons. The city which possesses overwhelming leave tendencies, thus prompting commentators to predict a Brexit Party landslide, was won by Labour.
Labour and its activists focussed on radical left policies that were close to the hearts of the cities inhabitants, such as the soaring crime rate, the underfunding of schools and the surge in fly-tipping. As a result, the party that had occupied the middle ground on Brexit, yet adopted a clear-cut approach on all their other policies, emerged victorious, against the odds.
When issues other than Brexit were central to the debate, Labour’s radical progressive social justice agenda prevailed, whereas the Lib Dems viewpoints that seek to strike a balance failed to impress, causing them to end the night lower down in the pecking order, in what was becoming a common theme for centrist parties.
Veritably, the greatest indication of the collapse of the political middle ground is embodied in the swift rise, and equally as instantaneous fall of Change UK. 12 MP’s from the Conservative and Labour Party left their parties, citing the radicalisation – in other words, the adoption of hard right or hard left policies – as some of their fundamental reasons for launching Change UK, a new British moderate, centrist political party. Yet after a series of desolate figures in the polls, averaging a dispiriting 2% domestically, and disastrously winning just 3% in the European Parliament elections, the splinters splintered, as 7 MP’s left. That encapsulates the fate of centrist politics in the modern era. Incapable of inspiring.
Ultimately, radicalism is grasping the matter at the root, whereas centrism opposes radicalism, so at a time when the problems of the political world require engagement at a fundamental and systematic level, it is no surprise alternative voices with purposeful proposals are triumphant. Therefore, in a continent caught up in an era of urgent problems, there is no more scope for compromise. Radical outlooks on either side of the spectrum are wooing voters and concurrently prompting the demise of centrist political parties.