“In a constitutional state, the true ruler is the voter”, go the words of Ferdinand Lassalle, the champion of workers and intellectual force behind European social democracy. But in the meantime, the voter has – more than 150 years later – clearly lost faith in Lassalle’s political idea.
Almost everywhere in Europe, social democratic and socialist parties are losing support: last year, the German SPD saw a historic bad result in the parliamentary elections. Its sister parties in France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have even sunk to single digit shares of the vote.
European social democracy is fighting for its political survival: since the new millennium, its vote share has fallen in 15 of the 17 countries we examined – sometimes dramatically:
Major developments can be seen across Europe:
In Germany, the SPD result in 2017 federal elections was the worst since the end of the Second World War (at 20.5 percent). But, at the turn of the millennium, it was the strongest party: Gerhard Schröder led it into government in 1998 with 40 percent of the vote; in 2002 it won 38.5 percent and again named the Chancellor. Since then, however, it has gone downhill. Particularly after the Grand Coalition from 2005 to 2009, when voters punished the SPD, the junior partner; its vote share collapsed by more than ten percentage points. After a slight increase in 2013, the downward trend has resumed.
Last year in France, the Socialist Party (PS) entered its worst ever crisis. President François Hollande, the most unpopular person to hold the office in history, did not even stand for reelection. The party’s candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished in fifth place, with a mere six percent of the vote. A few weeks later came the vote for the National Assembly. In 2012, the PS became the strongest party, this time it fell by more than 20 points and won only seven percent of the vote.
In the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, the social democratic parties also scored in the single figures for parliamentary elections last year. In comparison to the preceding elections, they dropped by 19 and 13 percentage points respectively.
In Greece, the decline has already been underway for many years. After the start of the sovereign debt crisis, the ruling Pasok Party resoundingly lost its absolute majority in parliament. In the 2012 vote, it tumbled by more than 30 percentage points, in 2015 it lost even more trust, and today it barely plays any role at all.
In Austria‘s recent vote, although SPÖ was able to match its results of four years ago, it nevertheless left the government and has lost almost ten percentage points over the past 15 years.
In Italy, Spain and Portugal the social democratic parties were still scoring over 40 percent in elections held over the 2000s. They are far away from that today, with the Spanish PSOE reaching only 22 percent in the last election.
In Sweden and Finland, too, the election results of the social democrats have been steadily worsening since the turn of the millenium.
In Norway the workers party AP significantly recovered from its decline at the start of the millenium. In 2001, the AP lost more than ten points, winning only 24.3 percent of the vote and finding itself in opposition after more than 40 years in power. It was afterwards able to balance out those losses by shifting to the