Social Democrats in Iberia and Scandinavia Try Opposite Strategies

Social democrats in Portugal and Spain make deals with the far left. Denmark’s and Sweden’s try to win back voters from the far right.

Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal greets his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, in Lisbon, July 2
Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal greets his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, in Lisbon, July 2 (Governo da República Portuguesa/Clara Azevedo)

What is the future of European social democracy? Your answer to that question may depend on where you live.

If you’re in the Mediterranean, it’s cooperation with the far left. Social democrats in Portugal and Spain have come to power under deals with far-left parties. In both cases, unwieldy coalitions were greeted with skepticism, but now Prime Ministers António Costa and Pedro Sánchez are riding high in the polls.

In Greece, Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party has even supplanted the center-left altogether.

In Scandinavia, by contrast, social democrats are trying to win back working-class voters by taking a harder line on borders, crime and defense.

Both strategies appear to be working.

Up in the polls

Before Sánchez made a deal with the anti-establishment Podemos movement to oust his conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, support for his Socialist Workers’ Party had hit a low of 22 percent in the 2015 election. Now it’s edging up to 30 percent.

Costa is doing even better, getting up to 40 percent support in the polls. If the Portuguese Socialists can sustain their popularity, it would make next year’s election the most successful for them since 2005.

Denmark’s Social Democrats have managed to arrest their decline in the polls. They are now at 25 percent — below their peak performance in the 1990s, but nothing to sneer at.

Since the beginning of the year, polls have also consistently put the combined left ahead of the right, positioning the Social Democrats to lead the next Danish government.

In Sweden, support for the Social Democrats is still down from the last election. They are neck and neck with the far-right Sweden Democrats for the next election, in September.

But, just like the Freedom Party underperformed in the Netherlands in 2017, there is doubt the Sweden Democrats will make good on their poll numbers.

Climate-wise, the outliers are Italy, where some Democrats argue for accommodation with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and others favor pro-European centrism in the vein of Emmanuel Macron, and the United Kingdom, where Jeremy Corbyn has moved Labour far to the left.

Culture war

To me, this proves that social democrats need to pick a side. Any side.

The pertinent political divide in Europe is no longer between the left and right but rather between open and closed, or cosmopolitan and patriotic, or progressive and reactionary.

Because this mirrors the polarization in the United States, I — per Andrew Sullivan — call this Europe’s blue-red culture war.

You can’t please everyone

Social democrats long had supporters in both camps: liberal elites and the old working class. They were united in their economic policies.

No longer.

The socially and geographically mobile upperclass — well-educated and internationalist in outlook — reaps the benefits of porous borders and globalization. Older voters, especially in small towns and the countryside, feel left behind.

It’s impossible to appeal to both groups.

Campaign on liberal immigration laws, social justice and international engagement and you alienate blue-collar voters.

But campaign for border controls and deemphasize identity politics and you turn away college graduates.

Do both at the same time and you end up with with no supporters at all. Ask the Dutch Labor Party. Their support fell to 5.7 percent last year.

Time for choosing

The Dutch, French and German social democrats have yet to make the choice their Iberian and Scandinavian counterparts have made.

Germany’s at least understand they need to. An unforgiving analysis of the party’s disappointing 2017 election performance argued that the SPD had “failed … to find answers to fundamental questions” and position itself “clearly and unequivocally.”

Whether on the issue of refugees, globalization, internal security or the diesel scandal: the party leadership always tries to please everyone.

Under a new, more left-wing leader, Andrea Nahles, the party is likely to follow the Iberian example. The Social Democrats have already formed state governments with Die Linke, the successor to the former East Germany’s ruling communist party, in Berlin, Brandenburg and Thuringia. They once shunned such deals for fear of alienating centrist voters.

Dutch Labor is eying the Scandinavian route. It has argued for reform of European labor laws which allow construction workers and truck drivers from Eastern Europe to work at low pay in the West. It also strikes a populist tune in opposition to the incumbent center-right government’s business-friendly tax reforms.

The tradeoff is that this creates room for Green and liberal parties in the center. But this is not America. In a multiparty democracy, the center-left cannot count on the support of everybody who is not on the right. At least not anymore.