"Frankly speaking, the Social Democrats do not really know what they are standing for"
Interview with Robert Misik, prolific Austrian journalist, writer and political commentator. You can find him at misik.at
by Nikos Tzanetakis, Policy Coordinator @Bridging Europe
1. Heading towards the German elections, SPD candidate Martin Schulz seems to cover distance with Chancellor Merkel and increase chances for win. Do you believe that the dynamic of his candidacy can keep up until September and give the win to the Socialists?
It is very difficult to predict the turnout at this stage of the campaign. Nonetheless, there are some drawbacks for the Social Democrats: Chancellor Merkel is endorsed by voters identified in the centre of the political spectrum, while generally there is no mood for "change" as it was for example back in 1998, the year Helmut Kohl lost the elections.
At the same time, the situation is very tricky for the Social Democrats, especially as they were and still standing governing party alongside CDU/CSU in the grand coalition, to brand themselves as "those who bring change" or the ones proclaiming themselves as the "anti-establishment".
On the other hand, the advantages are also very obvious. People are sick of the political landscape, where no realistic political alternative is at hand. Schulz as a person relatively from the edges of the political establishment - as somebody who is at least not part of the mainstream political scene in Berlin - and can brand himself as a kind of "established opposition figure". His whole personality is aligned with this image: a man coming from the lower middle class, leaving school without degree, having some alcohol-related problems, working as a bookseller and afterwards as a mayor of a small city, making his way out of the mess and up to the top. This personal image is congruent with the political message the Social Democrats will have or want to deliver.
For Merkel it is difficult to react. Her personal image and her role on the political field is defined, so she has little possibilities to re-brand herself. Therefore, considering all circumstances and facts, there is a good chance that it is more than a hype about Schulz. That this is the beginning of a dynamic course that favors the Social Democrats and can bring them first in the election run.
2. How possible is a grand progressive coalition between SPD, Die Linke and the Greens in Germany? Is there space for collaboration after the elections?
It is difficult. These three parties do not only have differences, but there are strong animosities inside their flanks. Especially for Die Linke, the party is internally split on the question to "govern" or remain a "radical opposition party against the system". These two wings inside the party cannot reach a compromise. For sure, if such an alliance brings majority in Bundestag the day after the elections, from that moment on there will be pressure to take advantage of this majority. If it is only a tiny majority with only a handful of seats, it will be highly improbable. But to be realistic, if SPD wins the elections, the most possible scenario is a grand coalition with CDU and Martin Schulz becoming Chancellor.
3. In the European Parliament MEPs from the Socialist group, the Left and the Greens have formed the Progressive Alliance. How possible is to see this endeavor signaling shifts in member-states, for instance in Greece or Italy?
I am not so sure if alliances at the European Parliament’s level signal something different to the member-states, although we definitely need some progressive alliances also in the level of the European Council. We have progressive governments - or governments led by progressive forces - in Sweden, Austria, still in a way in France, in Italy, Portugal, Greece and some signs of such a shift in other countries. This is a minority group in the European level and the cohesion of this alliance could be better. There is the possibility of building a nucleus, but at this stage it is nothing more than a possibility. It is a necessity to strengthen this nucleus, and it is primarily the task of Prime Ministers or party leaders to do so. They have to put this as a top priority.
4. In Austria, we have witnessed a surge of a populist far-right challenging the Presidency last year. How worrying is the rise of far-right in other EU member-states as well, like France or Germany?
In Austria, the far-right had the real chance to win the elections. We clearly saw it during the presidential campaign. Similar parties are already leading in Hungary and Poland, they can win in France and in the Netherlands. In Germany the situation is different. There is no chance for far-right to perform better than securing the third place.
Generally speaking, the rise of the far-right is extremely worrying, although I also witness very strong reactions against them, mainly in activist level.
5. Since 2010, the socialists parties across Eurozone have failed to articulate an alternative against austerity. According to your opinion, what is the main reason behind the lack of political pro-growth alternatives?
There are a lot of reasons. Firstly, and since the 1990s, the Social Democrats in a way have surrendered themselves to the neo-liberal doctrine, so it was difficult for them to prepare an alternative economic agenda. The result of this was a deep identity crisis that it is not yet addressed and solved. Frankly speaking, the Social Democrats do not really know what they are standing for.
Secondly, in most political environments, the Social Democrats operate within the context of a neoliberal / conservative hegemony which does not make it easier to articulate a progressive agenda.
Thirdly, the European integration makes it even more difficult. At the time one wants to favor a more Keynesian-like integrated economic model, there will be somebody within the national political scene advocating for "Austria First", "Germany First" et.c. These reasons create a toxic cocktail that makes it very difficult for the Social Democrats to gain ground.