This year's International Workers' Day comes as the eurozone is facing unprecedented levels of unemployment. According to the European Union, unemployment in the 17 countries that share the euro reached a record level of 12.1 percent of the active population in March — from the previous record of 12 percent in February — meaning that more than 19 million people are out of work in the eurozone.
There is a clear north-south divide in terms of unemployment. The three countries with the highest levels of unemployment — Greece (27.2 percent), Spain (26.7 percent) and Portugal (17.5 percent) — are in southern Europe, while the lowest levels of unemployment are registered in the north: Austria (4.7 percent), Germany (5.4 percent) and Luxembourg (5.7 percent). Only six years ago, unemployment was 8.3 percent in Greece and Spain and 8.9 percent in Portugal.
As the European crisis changed from a financial crisis to one of unemployment, popular support for mainstream political parties fell in the eurozone countries most affected by the economic downturn. Moderate parties managed to stay in power, but with each electoral cycle their popularity declined. As with unemployment, there is also a north-south divide in the eurozone regarding the popularity of different types of political parties. Since the beginning of the crisis, countries such as France, the Netherlands and Finland have seen nationalist, anti-immigration parties strengthen. In the periphery, however, there is increasing support for left-wing parties, which lack the nationalistic and Euroskeptical elements of their right-wing peers.
Memories of recent dictatorships are still fresh in Spain, Portugal and Greece, and support for the European project is still strong despite the crisis. Opinion polls suggest that most people in the eurozone periphery still support the euro, since the crisis is more often seen as the result of wrong policies applied by national governments than of structural shortcomings in the currency union.
These parties criticize austerity measures and demand a complete shift in the policies applied by the current governments; they want to increase state spending and foster a more equitable distribution of wealth. They also share a critical view of their countries' debt positions, often proposing strong haircuts or even defaults. Most of these parties are critical of Germany's leadership during the crisis and demand massive monetizations of public debt without major spending cuts. However, most of them still defend their countries' EU membership and want to remain within the eurozone.
Their strategy has proved successful; support for the common currency makes these parties more acceptable to independent and moderate voters who believe that eurozone countries could return to their pre-crisis situation without leaving the European Union or taking other drastic measures. However, the strategy could also lead to a public perception that the left-wing parties are linked to the moderate, mainstream parties, which are largely pro-European. Most right-wing parties have already addressed this dilemma by adopting a strong Euroskeptical stance. The left wing is debating its stance internally, with some factions demanding a shift to anti-EU platforms.
Political Cycles in Spain, Portugal and Greece
Center-left parties governed Spain, Portugal and Greece when the crisis began. The conservative opposition replaced them as the economic situation worsened, and center-left forces lost votes to left-wing parties.
In Spain, former Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero from the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party resigned six months before the end of his term in the midst of rising unemployment and constant popular protests. He was replaced in November 2011 by Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the center-right Popular Party. Something similar happened in Portugal, where the Socialist government led by Jose Socrates, after being forced to request an unpopular bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, lost the April 2011 elections to conservative candidate Pedro Passos Coelho. In Greece, George Papandreou, the leader of the center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement, was forced to call early elections in November 2011 amid growing social unrest and massive unemployment. After several weeks of political uncertainty and two rounds of elections, a national unity government was formed, led by the conservative New Democracy party.
Now, however, the electoral growth of the left is noticeable, especially in Greece. The Coalition of the Radical Left, commonly known by its Greek acronym, Syriza, received 26.9 percent of the vote in the June 2012 general elections, making it the second-largest party in parliament and forcing the country's traditional parties to form an awkward grand coalition to preserve power. These elections were also marked by the relative success of the far-right Golden Dawn party (6.9 percent), highlighting the political polarization of the country. Recent opinion polls show that Syriza is still Greece's second-most popular party after New Democracy, with some surveys even putting it first.
In Spain, popular support for the United Left political coalition almost doubled from 3.8 percent in 2008 to 6.9 percent in 2011. Similarly, support for the left-wing Union, Progress and Democracy party grew from 1.2 percent in 2008 to 4.7 percent in 2011, coinciding with a 15 percent loss of support for the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party as some of its voters shifted from the center-left to the left. This trend was confirmed in the snap elections held in the autonomous region of Catalonia in November 2012, where support for the Republican Left grew from 7 percent in 2008 to 13.7 percent, making it the third-largest party in the regional parliament. As a result, the ruling Convergence and Union coalition was forced to enter a difficult alliance with the Republican Left, making it harder for the regional government to apply the austerity measures requested by Madrid.
The electoral evolution of the left in Portugal is more mixed. The left-wing Democratic Unity Coalition repeated in 2011 its performance of 2009, obtaining 7.9 percent of the vote in both elections but securing one more seat in the parliament in 2011 (from 15 to 16 seats in the 230-seat parliament). Recent opinion polls show that popular support for the Democratic Unity Coalition is around 12 percent. In contrast, support for the Left Bloc fell from 9.8 percent to 5.2 percent, mostly because of its partial cooperation with Socrates' unpopular government. However, opinion polls show that support for the Left Bloc is currently slightly more than 8 percent.
Challenges Ahead for the Left
While support for left-wing parties is likely to remain strong in the eurozone periphery, they will face the challenge of defining their position on the common currency. The upcoming elections for the European Parliament in mid-2014 will give left-wing parties the opportunity to test their strength as they get ready for the next cycle of general elections in the periphery — all of which are currently scheduled between 2015 and 2016, but they could be held sooner if the current governments fall early.
Even if they are unlikely to win the European elections in 2014, a strong performance for left-wing forces would be a starting point for a serious competition in the general elections. The unemployment crisis will remain a key factor in domestic politics in the eurozone periphery, and leftist parties are likely to be significant actors in the coming years.