September 15, 2015 | by JUSTINE DOODY
In the eyes of many Europeans, centrist parties have failed to deal with the continent's economic crises and social challenges. As elections in Denmark and Spain have shown, voters are increasingly turning towards the edges of the political spectrum.
On June 18, Danish voters went to the polls to oust their first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, returning the center-right bloc led by Lars Lokke Rasmussen to power.
In May’s local elections Spain’s ruling center-right Popular Party was dealt its worst result in over two decades. The beneficiaries this time were the new parties, anti-austerity Podemos and centrist Ciudadanos — and the results spell trouble for the government in the general elections later this year.
Seemingly, Denmark is turning right while Spain turns left; one is looking to familiar faces, while the other embraces the new. But in fact, the two cases have much in common: In the context of a Europe that is torn by economic failure and the challenge of the crises in the southern neighborhood, both Denmark and Spain have decided that the status quo is not working.
The countries were both hit hard by the global economic crisis and the sovereign debt crisis that followed. According to the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators report, Denmark’s GDP declined by 5.7 percent in 2009, the first year after the crash that began in 2008. Registered unemployment has risen from around 2 percent before the crash to around 4 percent now — but the SGI report points out that “this concealed a much larger drop in employment. Roughly, the decrease in employment is twice the increase in unemployment. The difference is explained by a significant drop in the labor force, which is due to large inflows into education, increase in activation, as well as to the number of recipients of social assistance not ready for work.”
Thorning-Schmidt inherited the problem when she won power in 2011, and she hoped that her record of improvement would be enough to win voters. She could point to growth for 18 months and 30,000 jobs created. But her rivals’ promise to improve public services and offer tax breaks proved more appealing.
Spain too saw its incumbents punished for their inability to mitigate the results of the sovereign debt crisis, but Spain’s economic prospects are improving: the government projects 2.9 percent growth for 2015, and the economy is set to be the fastest-growing in the euro zone this year. But four years of deep spending cuts since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took office in 2011 have caused serious hardship, and corruption scandals have plagued his administration. As a result, the governing Popular Party dropped 2.5 million voters in May, compared to its support in the local elections four years ago.
Spain is an outlier in Europe on sentiment toward immigrants: SGI states that in this regard Spain is “the most tolerant country" in Europe.
Anti-immigration agenda drew Danish voters
The economy was not the only driver of the rejection of the Social Democrats in Denmark. As elsewhere in Europe, the crises in the Middle East and North Africa have brought more migrants across the borders. Denmark has reacted, like France, Finland, and Britain, by supporting nationalist movements. The anti-immigration Danish People’s Party received its best result ever in the June elections, coming second only to Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats (Rasmussen’s Liberal Party placed third overall, but with the assistance of smaller parties, his bloc will prove large enough to form a government).
Spain is an outlier in Europe on sentiment toward immigrants: the SGI report states that in this regard Spain is “the most tolerant country [in Europe] … no relevant xenophobic populist parties exist and violent attacks on immigrant groups are very rare.”
Perhaps the primary reason is that Spain’s economic woes have made it relatively unattractive to migrants. But things are changing as the number of people fleeing violence rises. In June, the Spanish government rejected the European Commission’s attempt to have it accept more refugees.
Podemos and Ciudadanos challenge Spain’s traditional two-party system
In Spain, the most popular new party, Podemos, has achieved its successes by speaking out against austerity. Often compared to Greece’s Syriza, the party has gained support among those who are dissatisfied with the country’s whole political system. Its strength in the local elections evidences the challenge that it poses, along with the other newcomer, Ciudadanos, to Spain’s traditional two-party system. Spain’s success or otherwise in building effective coalitions in the regions between old and new parties will tell much about the political system’s chances of adapting to the new four-party reality after the general elections later this year.
The rise of the Danish People’s Party and Podemos, together with the rejection of the incumbent governments in Denmark and Spain, are part of a trend across Europe. Syriza, the Front National, UKIP and Sinn Fein occupy different ends of the ideological spectrum — but their commonality is their position at the spectrum’s edges. The economic crisis was presided over by centrist parties, and the center has failed to address its effects to the satisfaction of European voters. People are turning away from the status quo — and in doing so, they are looking for new options, wherever they can find them. Let's see if this trend continues in Greece’s upcoming snap elections.