Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fade to Grey

Last week, I was in Sevilla, the capital of Spain’s southern region, Andalucia, where a political earthquake is expected in March.  Recent polls suggest that the conservative Popular Party will win an absolute majority in the regional elections with 45% and hand the governing Socialists, the PSOE, a massive loss in the part of the country that has always been considered their stronghold and where they have governed continuously since 1982. This is on top of the PP’s big win nationally in November.

The mood among PSOE members in the south is rather grim. One former elected official told me he thought the party could disappear.  While such a fear is unwarranted – this is not a replay of the utter collapse of the governing UCD in 1983 – there are good reasons to be concerned about the state of the party.

The party is hemorrhaging members.  The latest party census shows that they have fewer than 220,000 members, about a fifth of what the PP has, a very different situation from Northern Europe where social democratic parties dwarf others in size as in Sweden or are roughly equivalent to their main conservative opponents as in Germany. Half of the PSOE’s members are between 46 and 65 years old while merely about six and a half percent are under thirty, suggesting that it is neither renewing itself generationally nor appealing to young people.

And while across Europe, the governing parties seen as responsible for the economic crisis have been thrown out of office, it is interesting that in Spain at least, the distribution of votes shows that the masses of unemployed Spaniards were just as likely to vote for the PP as everyone else.  Of course, maybe it's not surprising that the left, in this case the PSOE, did not get a slight bump as one would normally expect from those most affected by the crisis and cuts in social spending.  This is part of the prevailing 'throw the bums out' mentality everywhere on the continent.

Still, I think the implications of the crisis are somewhat different for social democrats in Southern Europe than in the North.  For the parties in the South, the road ahead, and back to power, is likely to be more difficult. The PSOE, the PS, and PASOK were formed after the democratic transitions of the late 1970s and do not have a history of being mass, class-based parties in the way, say, that the German SPD does.  Especially in Spain and Greece, where they came to power quickly, they have been electoral and patronage machines with few roots in civil society.  In Portugal, the PS's weak social ties are explained by slightly different factors but they nonetheless are a fact.

It is noteworthy in the Spanish data presented above that students are the one group where support for the conservative PP was well below average.  Students, of course, form one of the sectors hit hardest by both the crisis and potential cuts, given a high youth unemployment rate, rising university fees and a strongly dualistic labor market. But the PSOE did not pick up their votes either; indeed, students were also less likely on average to vote for the Socialists. Their votes went disproportionately to the communists and the recently formed UPD, a sort of liberal party. This rather highlights one of the problems the left in the south may face in terms of their social base. For reasons related to patterns of party formation and organization stemming from their transitions, the left in the South has a double task. In contrast to northern European socialists who must convince their members and supporters about the viability of a left program in an age of austerity, those in the South have the added complication of figuring out who their base is. 

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