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It's Good the Far Left Imploded

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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If Alexis Tsipras is the loser of Greece's snap elections on Sunday, he will be remembered as a terribly unsuccessful politician. Tsirpas will have endured  eight painful and humiliating months as prime minister, only to lose to Vangelis Meimarakis, the unexpectedly dynamic stand-in leader of the center-right New Democracy party. which seemed on its last legs as recently as January. Win or lose, however, Tsipras will have achieved something important: a major setback for Europe's radical left.

QuickTake Greece's Financial Odyssey

The victory of Tsipras's Syriza party in national elections in January was seen by some commentators as the beginning of a leftist resurgence that could sweep Europe. The radical left had been in decline since the late 1980s, demoralized by the end of the communist project in the Soviet Union and its satellites. With the 2008 financial crisis and the anti-capitalist sentiment it bred, the movements revived somewhat: Across Europe, the electoral performance of hard-left parties modestly improved, as University of Edinburgh's Luke March pointed out in an article earlier this year. 

To some, Syriza's triumph looked like the decisive breakthrough. If Tsipras managed to roll back austerity in Greece and achieve debt reduction, his allies elsewhere -- especially in southern Europe -- would be able to ride on his coattails. It was a high-stakes game, however. March wrote, presciently:

On the other hand, if the EU continues playing hardball and the ‘Grexit’ scenario ensues or Syriza ends up capitulating to EU demands, this risks undermining almost all the achievements Syriza has made to date and reinforcing the mainstream view of the radical left as an economic pariah. But the radical right may be the chief beneficiary, not least in Greece itself.

That's what's happening now. 

While Tsipras was riding high, pushing European leaders for a debt restructuring deal and resisting the dictates of international creditors, his Spanish allies of the Podemos party challenged the ruling center-right People's Party in the December national election and displaced the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party. In Portugal, which has elections in October, there was no comparable force, but Livre, a party founded in 2014 on an anti-austerity, hard-left platform in line with Syriza's, hoped to make some headway. Then European Union leaders rejected Tsipras's protest tactics, denied support unless he relented and forced his government to introduce capital controls in July. Greeks were only allowed to withdraw 60 euros ($68) from ATMs. 

That experience is probably why Meimarakis has caught up with Tsipras, making Sunday's election too close to call. The New Democracy leader has branded his rival "the prime minister of the 60-euro limit," and his electoral promise is "no more experiments."

It's probably also why Spanish and Portuguese voters are now highly unlikely to hand big victories to hard-left parties:

Now, even if Tsipras wins and remains prime minister, he will have to form a coalition with less idealistic political forces. He is too center-left for many of his former Syriza allies, who have split from the party to form a new political force, Popular Unity. Tsipras is no longer the European left's great hope. 

Podemos will still do relatively well in the December elections in Spain, but establishment parties will continue to control the parliament. The leftist party has tempered its demands, too: it no longer calls for a debt renegotiation, figuring correctly that would work no better in Spain than it did in Greece.

Portugal, too, will remain dominated by traditional, centrist forces. 

Even the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in the U.K. looks like a belated echo of this fading hard-left resurgence. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has greeted Corbyn as an "ally," but even Labour supporters in the U.K. are bitterly divided about him. According to a recent YouGov poll, 26 percent of them wouldn't trust him to run the economy, and just 23 percent would. 

As March predicted, the failure of the leftist revival could benefit the opposite flank -- the far right. The popular dissatisfaction with politics as usual remains, as does the demand for simple solutions to complex problems. If the capitalists are proving hard to beat, immigrants may provide an easier target. 

In Greece, the refugee crisis is helping the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party hold on to the third place it won in the January election. It's polling around 7 percent but is likely to get more: Supporters of such parties often don't tell poll-takers the truth about how they intend to vote. Right-wing populists are on the rise in Scandinavia, which has had an especially strong increase in immigration. In Hungary, the popularity of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party was sliding before the country was flooded with refugees from the Middle East. Now, Fidesz is clawing back points.

Angry people who vote for far-right parties may need to be inoculated with the same kind of disillusionment as left-wing supporters. Orban's nasty performance, which includes tear-gassing refugee children and the construction of useless walls along borders, appears to be doing the trick for Germans, mobilizing them in support of refugees and dampening the kind of xenophobic sentiment that drove mass anti-immigrant rallies in Dresden a year ago. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net