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The Current State of the European Left

Authors: Luqman Hakim bin Mohamed Yasin

Research Head: Sasthaa Gingee Babu (Uday)

Amidst the devastation wrought by Covid-19, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) won 25.7% of the vote in the latest German federal election, clawing out a narrow victory past the incumbent Christian Democratic Party and booting political icon Angela Merkel out of office. Simultaneously, a coalition comprising the social-democratic Labour Party and the agrarian Center Party won the Norwegian parliamentary elections, ending eight years of Conservative Party dominance. Some pundits proclaim these twin victories to be indicative of a burgeoning renaissance of the left, which they claim has been sparked by the increased dependence on government aid due to the pandemic.[1]

We thus broach the question: Does this spell anything for the future of European politics? This article explores the contemporary European left, from North to South.

Northern Europe

It is in Northern Europe that the left reigns supreme. In five of the eight countries comprising this category--Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Latvia, in addition to Norway--centre-left parties form the majority of their unicameral parliaments.

The “red block”, headed by the Danish SDP, has ruled Denmark ever since it came to power in the 2015 Danish general elections.[2] Throughout the pandemic, it has continued to poll far higher than the rest of Denmark’s parties.[3] However, the incumbent social-democratic parties of Sweden, Finland, and Latvia are all facing a resurgent right. For the Swedish SDP, this takes the form of an energized coalition championed by the far-right Sweden Democrats[4] [5]; the Latvian SDP has the center-right New Unity and Green Party[6]. The Finnish SDP is in especially dire straits as the center-right National Coalition Party has overtaken it in the polls and is steadily increasing their lead over it.[7]

Meanwhile, centrist to centre-right administrations hold the reins in Estonia, Lithuania, and Iceland. In Estonia, this is the Reform Party; Lithuania, the Homeland Union; Iceland, the Independence Party. Estonia seems unlikely to elect a centre-left administration anytime soon: The political vacuum left by the Reform Party’s internal struggles have been filled by the soaring popularity of the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia[8]. But there may be cause for celebration in Lithuania and Iceland. The Lithuanian SDP has recently overtaken the Homeland Union in the polls, and this lead appears to be increasing[9]; however, it remains to be seen if this will hold through to the 2024 Lithuanian parliamentary elections. As for Iceland, its Progressive Party won 5 more seats in the recent Icelandic parliamentary elections, increasing its holdings from 8 to 13 seats[10].

While it is too early to make any forecasts about the future of this trend, it is an encouraging early sign. Northern Europe continues to be a bastion of the left.

Western Europe

The Conservative Party has maintained their grip on the United Kingdom’s parliament ever since the 2010 general election, where they managed to eke out a 48 seat victory over the outgoing Labour government. This made them the single largest party albeit without a majority; a coalition with the Liberal Democrats circumvented this. It continues to poll higher than the Labour Party, although the gap appears to be somewhat narrowing. For its part, however, the Labour Party has been continually plagued by internal strife. Party members have accused leadership of being directionless in contrast to the nationalist agenda of the Conservatives, which has allowed it to forge a unified voting block cutting across various strata of the nation’s demography[11]. The party leadership’s attempt to appeal to the electorate’s centre has also proven controversial: It has adopted a business-friendly approach and introduced rule changes to head off any challengers to internal leadership that stem from the left. This has drawn ire from the party’s left-wing supporters, who claim that it is betraying its working-class supporters.[12]

In other parts of the U.K. however, left-wing parties have been rising in prominence in the wake of Brexit. The Scottish National Party won its fourth consecutive victory in the 2021 parliamentary elections, further asserting its dominance with a historic high of 64 seats.[13] Commentators both within and without the party have attributed this victory to Brexit’s deleterious impact on the Scottish economy, which was disproportionately larger compared to the rest of the U.K. [14]

Meanwhile, Welsh Labour extended its winning streak in the recent Senedd election, gaining a seat and retaining its plurality, although the Conservatives also gained 5 seats in the same election.[15] Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland is topping the polls as the Democratic Unionist Party is slumping[16]; in Ireland proper, its widening lead in the polls portends the strengthening of its tenuous plurality in the Dail Eireann.[17]

The picture in mainland Europe appears much more bleak. In the 2021 Dutch general elections, all major Dutch leftist parties (Dutch Labour, GreenLeft, and the Socialist Party) lost seats to the incumbent centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.[18] In France, the Socialist Party continues to struggle for relevance in the national spotlight, with only 6% of voter share in the recent French elections.[19] In Belgium, no left party holds a plurality in the national parliament, whilst election polls are divided amongst the three officially recognised regions of Belgium.[20] For Brussels and Wallonia, the green left Ecolo and the Socialist Parties are polling the highest respectively, but in Flanders, the far-right Vlaams Belang dominates instead. The Swiss SDP holds no plurality in the Swiss National Council[21]; neither does the Social Democratic Party of Austria in the Austrian National Council. However, for the latter, polls put it on track to overtake the Austrian People’s Party.[22]

Central Europe, Southern Europe and the Balkans

Elsewhere in Europe, the left is as moribund as ever. Aside from the German SDP’s recent victory, the political landscape is dominated by right-wing administrations ranging from Law and Justice in Poland, to Hungary’s Alliance of Hungarian Solidarity, through to the dictatorships in Belarus and Russia. For our purposes, it is more useful that we look at the 5 countries with ruling left-wing parties: Spain, Portugal, Romania, Albania and Macedonia.

In Southern Europe, a progressive coalition led by the Socialist Workers’ Party has led Spain ever since its major victory in the April 2019 general elections. Troublingly, political crises over such issues as labour reform and electricity prices[23] have seen its poll numbers plunge below that of the right-wing People’s Party.[24] The Socialist Party in Portugal is faring no better. Although its poll numbers nationally are still well above any other parties’[25], it has been rocked by left-wing infighting over the state budget[26] and the unexpected loss of Lisbon to the Portuguese SDP.[27]

In the Balkans, the Romanian SDP has a plurality in both houses of parliament. Surprisingly, even though its members have recently toppled the minority government and ousted the prime minister[28], its poll numbers have surged.[29] Similarly, the Socialist Party of Albania rules the Kuvendi, having recently secured its third consecutive mandate in the recent April 2021 Parliamentary elections[30]. Only the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia appears to be facing any real challenge, with results from ongoing local elections indicating a surprise victory for the right-wing Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization.[31]


Thus far, this supposed renaissance appears to be a phenomenon that is confined solely to Northern and Western Europe. It remains to be seen if this trend will continue.

Footnotes [1] How coronavirus saved the European left [2] Danish Parliament [3] Denmark Poll of Polls [4] Results in the Swedish Parliament Election [5] Sweden’s Far Right Takes a Step Closer to Power [6] Support up for Greens/Farmers and New Unity [7] YLE: National Coalition widens advantage over other Finnish parties [8] What to watch in Estonia’s upcoming local elections [9] Lithuanian social democrats take lead in polls [10] Iceland ruling coalition holds majority election [11] The Labour Party is Britain’s lost opposition [12] Keir Starmer seeks to push Labour to centre [13] Scottish Parliament Election 2021 [14] The real cost of Brexit [15] Election results 2021 - what’s changed? [16] Support for pro-Brexit DUP slumps [17] Sinn Fein opens up 10-point lead [18] PM begins coalition talks [19] French election polls [20] Europe Elects - Belgium [21] Groups in the chamber [22] Europe elects - Austria [23] Tensions flare up over labour reform [24] Spanish popular party would win today [25] Portugal poll of polls [26] Portugal’s government pushed to brink by budget woes [27] Portugal’s ruling socialists lead local elections, lose Lisbon [28] Romanian Social Democrats undecided on backing PM [29] Romanian Social Democrats gaining ground [30] Albania’s socialists win election [31] North Macedonia opposition celebrates comeback in local polls


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