Confessions of a Political Animal

August 27, 2008

Left behind in Europe

I have a great interest in European politics. That’s not the same thing as having a great knowledge, mind, because as with most things the interest boils down to a scatter-gun approach to picking up pieces of random trivia. Broadly speaking, I develop a fascination with the politics of wherever I go on holiday, which will extend to attempting to read the papers, working out the mathematics of possible coalitions and deciding what advice I could give from my vast experience of electoral politics in the unlikely event of my being stuck in a railway compartment with the leader of the local socialist party. Thus, a couple of years ago, I could have written a post on the minutiae of contemporary Slovenian politics. Now, I couldn’t tell you who the President is. My current knowledge of European domestic politics is, to all intents and purposes, limited to:

a) an ability to discuss at great and tedious length the quasi-authoritarian nature of the governorship of the Svalbard archipelago;

b) the ability to look moderately interested and nod meaningfully in discussions of the future directions of the SPD and Die Linke; and

c) a host of very useful and rather outdated facts about the electoral politics of the Languedoc-Rousillion region, aimed largely at proving my contention that rural areas don’t have to be rightwing.

I realised how hopelessly out of touch I was when I stumbled across the imminent nature of a general election in Austria. Last I heard, a grand coalition had been formed between centre right and left after an inconclusive election and all was going to be sweetness and light (and most importantly, Jorg Haider’s mob weren’t going to be in government). Of course, all hadn’t been sweetness and light, but the British media had neglected to tell me that.

So, I thought, time for an update of the fortunes of our socialist and social democratic colleagues.

One of the occasional excitements of being a member of the Labour Party is the knowledge that you by default hold some sort of fraternal membership of the Socialist International, the direct descendant of the Second International. For those of you in the know about such things, you’ll realise that really isn’t that great a boast. After all, the Second International was the one that decided that World War I probably was in the worker’s best interest after all, what with all those jobs in armaments and so on. Some ne’er-do-wells by the names of Lenin and Trotsky took umbrage at this decision. Of course, no members of the Socialist International would consider taking part in questionable imperialist military adventures nowadays. Ahem. As our local representatives of the Socialist International, I do have a wonderful mental image of Gordon Brown and Mark Durkan standing shoulder to shoulder in Downing Street having a good sing of The Internationale, but I guess they’ve both been a bit busy.

The Google map above shows the current status of the main Socialist International member party in each European nation (Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus don’t have full member parties). Red pointers represent a party in government on its own or as the senior coalition member, purple are for parties who are the junior members of coalitions and blue pointers represent those in opposition. Austria gets its own special yellow marker to represent the impending elections.

So, what trends emerge? The centre-left is the dominant force in thirteen European nations. It is part of the government in a further six countries (although this does include San Marino!) and in Northern Ireland. Put together, this just about outnumbers the 17 nations without left involvement.

In Eastern Europe, the barren years of the anti-left post-communist backlash do seem to be nearing their end. Nine former communist nations (or ten if including the GDR) now have centre left governmental involvement, mainly as a senior partner. However, there are significant exceptions to this rule. In Latvia, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party has no seats in parliament, whilst in Poland the Democratic Left Alliance received just 11.5% of the vote in 2005.

A growing trend has emerged in Central Europe towards the formation of ‘grand coalition’ governments of the major centre-left and centre-right parties. This has largely been in response to traditional left and right coalition groupings no longer being able to form majorities due to increased vote splintering to smaller parties. This has occurred in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Austria, along with the perennial grand (or ‘magic formula’) coalition of Switzerland. However, in all of these cases the centre-left is currently a junior partner and few of the coalitions are proving particularly effective.

Overall, these results show that around 58% of Europe’s population live in countries where the centre-left has some representation in national government, but only 34.5% where a Socialist International party is the main party of government. It would take only the increasingly inevitable defeat of Labour in 2009/2010 to drop the headline figure well below the 50% mark.

European Election Watch

The Political Animal will be keeping an eye on European elections and profiling them as they happen – whilst keeping the map up-to-date. A calender of the scheduled domestic European elections for the remainder of 2008 is below – but new ones could of course be added where non-fixed term parliaments exist.

21 September: Slovenia (National Assembly)  Social Democrat led coalition defeats incumbent right-wingers – post here and (more up-to-date) here.

28 September: Austria (Nationalrat/parliamentary lower house) Final outcome unclear with Social Democrats ahead but far right surge – post here.

12 October: Lithuania (Seimas/parliament) Social Democrat-led government defeated, with likely coalition of centre right parties – post here.

17/18 October: Czech Republic (one third of Senate) – first round

24/25 October: Czech Republic (one third of Senate) – second round Czech Social Democratic Party are big winners, increasing from 13 to 29 seats mainly at expense of centre right Civic Democratic Party. However, Civic Democrats remain largest party. More info here.

28 November: Romania (Bi-cameral parliament)


  1. […] the early life of this blog, I promised to keep a watch on the electoral fortunes of Labour’s sister parties in Europe. And whilst it isn’t big […]

    Pingback by European Left Watch: Breakthrough in Slovenia « Confessions of a Political Animal — September 22, 2008 @ 11:06 am | Reply

  2. […] for an update of the European left map below (see the original Leftwatch post for explanation). We are still awaiting a final outcome of the government formations in both […]

    Pingback by European Left Watch: Out of office in Lithuania « Confessions of a Political Animal — October 27, 2008 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

  3. […] International Since the Animal started tracking the fortunes of Labour’s sister parties in August, there have been four elections in Europe, which have led to centre-left parties entering […]

    Pingback by European Left Watch: Looking to 2009 « Confessions of a Political Animal — December 23, 2008 @ 12:12 am | Reply

  4. […] With 2010 now well underway, and with one election under it’s belt already, it is high time for a quick look ahead at the prospects for the Socialist International’s member parties over the course of the next 12 months (an overview of what European Leftwatch is about can be found here). […]

    Pingback by European Leftwatch: The year to come « Confessions of a Political Animal — January 13, 2010 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

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