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 EU, especially Germany. That means the Greeks perceive the main bad guy as external, not internal, and see the neo-liberalism 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 programme 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 neo-liberalism, 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.
In post-war Greece, the hard left 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 programme, 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 they have some economic programme that will 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 and Spain, the far right has governed in the post-war period.
So Greeks and Spaniards don’t have to fantasise about what a right-wing government looks like: they know. This provides a powerful disincentive to vote for such parties in a way that might actually go beyond protest to governance.