Alexis Tsipras, the leader Syriza, delivers a speech during a congress of the party in Athens on Jan. 3, 2015. (AFP Photo/Angelos Tzortzinis)

Why 2015 Could Be Year of the Political Left

JANUARY 10, 2015

2015 will be a major election year across the globe with many key countries holding legislative and/or presidential ballots. Contests will be held in some five continents from Asia-Pacific (including Myanmar and Sri Lanka); the Americas (for instance Canada, Mexico, and Argentina); Africa and the Middle East (including Nigeria, Israel, Turkey and Egypt); and Europe (for instance the United Kingdom, Greece, and Spain).

In developed countries in the Western world, a key trend to watch for will be a potential pick-up in performance of parties of the left and center left that have generally failed to capitalize electorally, at least to date, on the most acute period of economic crisis since perhaps the 1930s. In the two years after 2008-09 alone, for instance, parties of the left and center left lost ground, or were jolted by significant electoral losses in countries as wide-ranging as Australia and New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Moreover, the Democratic Party in United States lost badly in the 2010 US mid-term elections in Congress, whilst retaining the presidency.

But, the fortunes of these and similar parties may now be on the turn, spearheaded by a new generation of politicians. In the United Kingdom, Labor Leader Ed Miliband, 45, hopes to win office in May on a platform of voter discontent over stagnant living standards and has led most opinion surveys since 2011. Moreover, after almost a decade of Conservative rule in Canada, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, 43 and the son of former long-serving prime minister Pierre Trudeau, is championing a narrative of the struggling middle class in advance of the 2015 ballot and has enjoyed a poll lead for much of the period since he became leader of the opposition in 2013.

While Miliband and Trudeau are championing center-left platforms, more radical left-wing parties may also be on the cusp of power, too. In Greece, Alex Tsipras, 43, the leader of Syriza (the coalition of the radical left) could become prime minister as soon as Jan. 25 on an anti-austerity mantle that would see tensions with Brussels and potentially see the country leave the euro zone. He has promised an end to “the regime that sank the country into poverty, unemployment, grief and desperation” that has seen the economy shrink by over a fifth since 2008.

Meanwhile, the governing Spanish conservative People’s Party faces a complicated re-election battle in Autumn 2015, including from insurgent left-wing party Podemos (“We Can”). Podemos was founded in 2014 by Pablo Inglesia Turrión, 36, in response to the festering social crisis in the country following economic turmoil in recent years which has, for instance, seen youth unemployment rise to almost 60 percent. Despite being such a “young” party it has led numerous national polls in recent months.

In Spain, the other principal challenger for power is the more moderate and longstanding Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) which elected 42-year-old Pedro Sánchez in 2014. PSOE is currently a close third in national polls behind Podemos and the People’s Party and could yet become the principal challenger to the government if the rise of Podemos falters in 2015.

While the ascendancy of Podemos in Spain in the last year is especially striking, economic inequality is a salient issue across much of the globe right now. And, it is not just politicians, but also other prominent figures, including Pope Francis, who are championing this broad-based agenda.

Professor Johannes Lindvall’s research on the political consequences of the 1930s Great Depression, and the post-2008 “Great Recession”, is potentially illuminating about the left’s prospects in coming years. He has shown that the electoral implications of these defining historical moments were similar to begin with right-of-center parties generally performing stronger in ballots soon after the economic crises began than the left and center left.

As Lindvall asserts, this could be potentially explained, in part, by the fact that the initial trauma of both the Great Depression and Great Recession were widely perceived as so significant that many middle class voters cast their lot in with conservative parties which were seen as better able to tackle the crisis.

However, Lindvall found that once the Great Depression was no longer seen by voters as a major continuing threat, the political pendulum tended to swing back toward parties of the left and center left. Of course, it is by no means certain that history will repeat itself.

Lindvall, for instance, notes that politicians of the left and center left today have less new agenda setting ideas and policy options than in the 1930s when an era of expansionary fiscal policies and welfare programs blossomed. Today, some leaders of this ilk have still not developed coherent or persuasive responses to the economic downturn of recent years, nor the growing salience amongst many national electorates of a range of other issues, including immigration.

Nonetheless, history shows that income and status differences can be a powerful source of appeal to the disaffected. And the longer the legacy of the post-2008 crisis prevails, including stagnant living standards, the greater the opportunities could be for the left and center left to benefit.

In 2015 as in the 1930s, economic hardship is being felt in many countries not just by the poor, but also middle classes. And, it is this discontent that politicians of the left and center left will seek to tap into in coming months to win power against conservative incumbents.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics and a former UK government special advisor