Voters in France and Greece are preparing to give the big finger to austerity overnight Sunday (New Zealand Time).
I say good on them!
In France, opinion polls show the Socialist Francois Hollande narrowly ahead of the right-wing incumbent, President Nicolas Sarkozy. The gap has narrowed between the two as France heads into the second, decisive round of the presidential election. I am feeling a bit nervous for the French Left today (as no doubt Hollande would be) given the narrowing of the gap but given that both the revoluntary left challenger from the first Jean-Luc Melenchon and the centrist Francois Bayrou have both endorsed the Hollande.
I also say that Hollande will win because the biggest winner in the first round was actually the hard National Front's (FN's) Marine Le Pen who garnered nearly 20 percent of the vote. Le Pen (as did her father Jean-Marie before her) campaigned on a xenophobic, fascistic platform of restricting immigration amongst other things. Sarkozy has pitched his campaign towards Le Pen's voter base making a series of policy announcements around further restricting immigration. It is true that for this reason, Sarkozy will carry a substantial majority of her voters in the second round but there also remains one critical problem - that a significant minority of FN voters will still decide to stay away thus denying him victory in the closest presidential race in decades.
A Hollande victory would bring though about a shift in the economic policy debate in Europe. Clearly, Hollande is a radical neo-Keynesian social democrat who believes in higher taxes on the wealthy, a significant slowing down (and even reversal in places) of spending cuts and more expenditure on critical areas such as health and education. If Hollande wins, the UK-French-German pro-austerity alliance driving current European fiscal and economic policy will be broken. It's little wonder then that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have more or less openly backed Sarkozy's re-election bid to the extent, for example, that they have refused to both meet Hollande when he has visited their capitals. If Sarkozy scores a surprise win later today, then the blatant interference of the UK and Germany in France's domestic politics will be held up as one of the key reasons for any possible Hollande defeat. And the French Left will never forget that.
But in France, the smart money is still on Hollande and I'd back that call and his election.
As for Greece, well the conservative right-wing New Democracy Party of Antonis Samaras is expected to win the most seats in the Greek Parliament. However, a group of left-wing green and worker's parties will stymie the formation of another pro-austerity coalition. It seems likely that the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) will be nearly annihilated thanks to its initiation of the most severe neo-liberal austerity and reform programme ever seen. This programme, which has seen wages and salaries as well as pensions severely slashed, public services closed or reduced, mass privatisations, tax hikes and labour market deregulation has hurt Greece severely. The programme imposed by the European Union/International Monetary Fund/European Central Bank troika in return for financial bailouts has driven the country into a massive depression with unemployment soaring to over 20 percent (and that's just the official figure). The country has in fact been compared to pre-Nazi Weimar Germany in many respects and this could be confirmed tomorrow with the possible election of the neo-Nazi sympathising Golden Dawn (Chrysi) Party which, besides running a virulently anti-immigration platform, also campaigns on a strong anti-Semitic, anti-Marxist and anti-liberal platform.
I hope that the left parties do stop the right parties (and I would include New Democracy, PASOK and Chrysi amongst them) from gaining outright power or influence. Greece needs a change of direction and even if it exits the Euro as a consequence, then it might be better off running a reflationary policy underpinned by a strongly devalued new national currency. Evidently, the current austerity measures are not working and, if anything, are serving to widen and not close the government deficit there. A strong showing by the left tomorrow in Greece is important for that country's future.
Above all, French and Greek voters could start the ball rolling on a popular swing to the left internationally tomorrow. The right have had their chance to deal with the crisis and their unpopular austerity-based measures haven't worked. It's time for an even better, more just alternative - radical social democracy/democratic socialism. And with the simple turn of a finger, the electorates of two significant European nations could do just that!
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