EU Voters Lurch to the Right

Socialists and other left-wing political parties in Europe suffered humiliating defeats in continent-wide voting for the European Union's parliament. After four days of polling that ended on June 7, voters in almost all of the EU's 27 member states supported conservative parties, a clear sign that center-left parties have been unable to offer politically plausible solutions to Europe's worst economic crisis since World War II. Indeed, conservative parties across Europe said the results vindicated their unwillingness to spend more money on company bailouts and fiscal incentives to stimulate faltering economies.

Voters were selecting 736 deputies for the European Parliament, an institution with ever-growing powers. According to provisional figures, the center-right emerged as the clear winner, taking 265 seats, compared with 184 for socialists, 83 for centrist liberals, 50 for the Greens and 36 for the radical left. Overall, some 380 million people were eligible to vote, but the turnout was a record low 43 percent. Although some politicians correctly attributed the low voter turnout to growing ambivalence about the European Parliament, these elections were all about what voters think about their own leaders and politicians at the national level.

In all six of Europe's largest countries -- Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain -- voters rejected socialist claims that the global financial crisis represented a "crisis of capitalism" that justified a turn to the left. In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's center-left Labour Party registered its worst showing in any British election since World War I. Labour came in third place with just 16 percent of the vote, behind the right-wing eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in second place, and the opposition Conservatives in first place. The disastrous results are likely to increase calls from within the Labour Party for Brown either to resign or to call early elections.

In France, the governing center-right party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), led by President Nicolas Sarkozy, increased its share of the vote by 12 percent over 2004, with the socialist opposition, which dominated the vote in 2004, just barely maintaining second place.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's alliance of center-right parties suffered some losses (it won 37.8 percent, down from 44.5 percent five years ago), but still maintained a clear lead over her left-wing rivals. Indeed, the Social Democrats (SPD) suffered a historic defeat by getting only 20.8 percent of the vote, the party's worst showing since World War II in any nationwide election. The outcome may boost Merkel's hopes of replacing the current left-right "grand coalition" with a center-right government in general elections set for September 2009.

In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PDL) held a two-digit lead over the center-left opposition Democratic Party (PD) despite a deep recession and a scandal over allegations he had an inappropriate relationship with a young model. Berlusconi's coalition ally, the anti-immigrant Northern League, enjoyed a boost in support with 10.9 percent of the votes.

In Spain, the center-right conservative Popular Party (PP) drew its highest ever support in a European parliamentary election. With 42.2 percent of votes, it won two more seats than the ruling Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), a clear sign that Spanish voters are worried about Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's inability to stem rising unemployment, which is forecast to reach 20 percent in 2010.

And in Poland, the ruling Civic Platform party won 45.2 per cent of the vote, and 24 of the country's 50 seats, a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Donald Tusk's pro-business policies.