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Photographer: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Greece Turns Left, Europe Goes Right

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Why has Greece chosen a far-left government at a time when discontented and frustrated voters elsewhere in Europe have turned to the far right?

In northern Europe, the frustrated voters’ parties of choice are right wing and anti-immigrant. So how come frustrated Greeks made a sharp turn to the left, electing the near-communist Syriza party to lead the government? The choice of left over right is especially striking because Greece is a first port of call for so many new immigrants to Europe.

If Spain’s Podemos party continues to grow, then the contrast between northern and southern Europe will be even more striking.

A combination of economics, politics and history can shed light on the differences. The simplest -- and most surprising -- answer may be just this: the worse the economy, the worse for the far right and the better for the far left.

The southern European economies are in substantially deeper trouble than their counterparts in middle and northern Europe. This has two distinct political effects, which together explain the difference between a turn to the left and a turn to the right.

First of all, Greece is facing austerity demands that come from the northern members of the European Union, especially Germany. That means the Greeks perceive the main bad guy as external, not internal, and see the neoliberalism of Angela Merkel as the immediate source of the pain.

The resistance to reducing state employment, cutting budgets, and working harder for less money and shorter vacations becomes resistance to the market economy itself. The ex-communist radical left is the natural place for such resistance: The economic program of the left simply denies that such measures will actually help, and instead holds the promise of telling Europe to get lost.

In northern Europe, economies may be in the doldrums, but no external European political force is pressing for fundamental structural change. Frustrated voters who see their job benefits scaled down even moderately thus need a different target. Those who arrived recently -- immigrants -- are the traditional objects of blame. The social contract may seem to be breaking down as a result of neoliberalism, but because no one has forced this change on northern European societies, it’s much easier to blame immigrants for burdening the state and making the social contract too expensive. Never mind if it’s true: The point is to blame anyone other than yourself.

The second effect of the economic troubles in southern Europe is that voters are genuinely looking for a credible alternative economic policy. In post-war Greece, the hard left (defined as, say, left of democratic socialism) has a history of meaningful political participation in government. The predecessors of Syriza were part of a coalition government in the late 1980s.

In contrast, the northern European far right has no credible economic program, and no post-war history of participation in government. You might vote for the xenophobic Sweden Democrats or the Danish People’s Party because you’re angry about the way your country is going -- but you couldn’t vote for them in the belief that they have some economic program that’s going to make things better. All they promise is to shut the borders to new immigrants.

Put differently, the northern European far-right parties may be born in part out of economic frustration. But their politics are focused on social and cultural issues, not economic ones. Choosing these parties is a kind of luxury for voters who perceive their economies as troubled but not in freefall.

Then there’s the difference in history between northern and southern Europe. In Greece, as well as Spain, the far right has actually governed in the postwar period. The colonels who ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 relied on a hard right anti-communist ideology. In Spain, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was more or less the last living European fascist -- and he governed until his death in 1975.

That experience means Greeks and Spaniards don’t have to fantasize about what a right-wing government looks like: They actually know. This provides a powerful disincentive to vote for such parties in a way that might actually go beyond protest to governance. In Greece and Spain, voters know that the far right had no magic solutions to economic troubles. And they know that, whatever their limits, center-left or center-right governments brought greater economic prosperity than their more extreme counterparts.

In northern Europe, the story is more complicated. Germany, of course, had the experience of National Socialism -- but few people now politically active personally remember the Nazi years. Elsewhere, far-right parties played different kinds of collaborationist roles during the war years. But nowhere in northern Europe has the far right actually governed since World War II -- and this notwithstanding Cold War fears of communism.

A lack of real-world experience with far-right government helps fuel some northern European voters’ fantasy that things might magically be fixed if the far right were to have more influence in government.

In the middle of Europe lies France, half northern and half southern by geography and culture -- and as always a conundrum. The Gaullist economic program was neither liberal nor socialist but something in between: state directed and nationally oriented. The French Communists participated in the coalition governments of François Mitterrand and Lionel Jospin. This might suggest that the far left should gain the frustration vote in France. Yet the far-right National Front hasn’t participated in government; in this way France’s experience is more like that of northern Europe.

In the end, the most important factor is surely the economy: As long as France doesn’t go the way of Greece or Spain, expect some of the most economically squeezed and frustrated Frenchmen to vote for Marine Le Pen. If France’s economy declined severely, however, it wouldn’t help the far right, but hurt it.

Economic growth is almost always good. But if you’re an immigrant to Europe, the rebound would be bittersweet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net