Syriza, Le Pen and the Power of Big Ideas

Europe's mainstream parties have become indistinguishable, leading to the rise of radicals like Syriza.

The end of history is over.

Photo by Guido Bergmann /Bundesregierung via Getty Images

It may seem ironic that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's extreme right Front National, rooted for the extreme left Syriza in yesterday's Greek election and rejoiced at its landslide victory. Yet there's nothing unusual about it: Syriza, Front National and other European anti-establishment parties are partners in a political revolution that appears to be about to sweep the continent, giving back the original meaning to political terms such as "left" and "right" -- and helping Russian President Vladimir Putin in the process.

For much of the post-World War II era, European nations have been ruled by two-party systems, in which a center-right and a center-left political force alternated at the helm. In France, it was the Gaullist center-right party (now known as the UMP) and the socialists, in Germany the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), in the U.K. the Conservative and Labor parties, in Spain the People's Party and the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, and in Greece New Democracy and the socialist PASOK. As they fought their increasingly ritual political battles, they came to be almost identical in their policies -- at least as far as voters were concerned. 

Francois Hollande's socialist government is now so pro-business, its reform proposals are wholeheartedly backed by the national employers' association. Angela Merkel's CDU evidently feels quite comfortable in a coalition with SPD. When the Labor party last ruled in the U.K., it was almost indistinguishable politically from the Conservatives.  In these countries and throughout Europe, the convergence of centrist parties into a kind of colorless sludge has led to huge decreases in party membership:

Screenshot 2015-01-26 12.45.46
Economist Intelligence Unit, BBC

There is "a gaping hole at the heart of European politics where big ideas should be," the Economist Intelligence Unit wrote in a research paper prepared for the BBC. 

You may disagree with the ideas of far-right parties like the Front National or UKIP, far-left ones like Syriza and Spain's Podemos, or "post-ideological" ones like Italy's Five-Star Movement with its set of common-sense demands focused on the environment and information freedom. But they are definitely big ideas -- big as in simple, bombastic, charismatic, crowd-pleasing. Big as in adversarial, not collaborative. Big as in Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street. There's nothing middle-of-the road or technocratic about these political forces. Unlike the current European establishment, they stand for something and make no secret of it. That, in itself, is a common denominator.

There are two other ones: disdain for the Eurocrats in Brussels who impose the same recipes and standards on European nations in all their diversity, and sympathy for President Vladimir Putin's Russia. All the populist parties, regardless of their place in the traditional political spectrum, blame Europe's economic sluggishness on the EU and the European Central Bank. And since sanctions on Russia are an EU project -- and part of what's causing the continent's economic woes -- the parties' leaders have all criticized them, too. 

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has said that "the economic war on Russia makes no contribution to a Ukraine crisis settlement but creates numerous negative consequences for the entire European Union that are catastrophic for southern Europe, especially Greece." Podemos spokesman Pablo Iglesias has been quoted as condemning Europe's "double standard" on Russia and Israel: The latter, he claimed, is allowed to do what Russia is doing in Ukraine, where neo-Nazis, according to him (and Putin), have become part of the government. Le Pen's pro-Putin stand is well known, and her party has even taken out a large loan with a Russian bank. Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five-Star Movement, has often praised Putin -- and his handling of Ukraine -- in his blog.

So far, Syriza is the only one of these parties that has been given a chance to govern, and even that has given rise to much discussion of threats to the euro and to European Unity. The common currency dropped to its lowest level since 2003 on the news of the Syriza landslide. It could be just the beginning. Podemos leads in the polls in Spain, and if it wins the general election next year, Europe will have even more cause for shock and uncertainly: Spain is the continent's fifth largest economy, and Podemos has a more radical leftist program than Syriza, including so-called citizen audits of public debt and a ban on profit-boosting layoffs. Le Pen, for her part, is a leading candidate for the French presidency, though the election is not until 2017, and her victory, or even her party's strong showing in the parliamentary elections that will occur at the same time as the presidential vote, could be a major threat to European unity as the integrationist bureaucrats led by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker see it.

The populist political forces are modern, often young and active on social networks. They are livelier and they try harder to win votes than traditional parties do. So far, establishment politicians have only managed to define themselves against these new, feisty adversaries by demonstrating that they offer a saner, middle-of-the road, status-quo alternative. That may be enough in deeply conservative and relatively well-to-do Germany and perhaps in the U.K., that citadel of common sense, but the mainstream has been dealt powerful blows in Scandinavia and is now getting trounced in southern Europe. Traditional parties have to recall what they stand for and re-learn how to sell those ideas to voters. 

Sure, Syriza might help them by falling on its face as a governing party or by compromising with Greece's Eurocrat creditors and thus joining the establishment. It would be wrong to count on that, however. Given Greece's current situation, almost any purposeful and spirited effort by Syriza is likely to improve the status quo. If the party is even partially successful in cutting Greece's debt and restoring some of its dignity, radicals throughout the continent will be invigorated, just as Podemos is already: Its electoral test will come too soon for any disappointment in Syriza to rub off on its performance. It may be time to prepare for Europe's next political earthquake.

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