Across Europe, The Embattled Left Loses Its Clout

Pity Europe's Socialists. It's getting lonely on the left.

Just when you might think capitalism's global crisis would breathe new life into the left, it's looking increasingly divided and tired. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election a week ago is highlighting a conservative surge in her country and Europe's other powerhouse economies _ Britain, France and Italy _ where the center-right is either firmly in power or about to get there.

What happened?

Much of the answer lies in the nature of modern European politics, where even the most ardent conservatives can still embrace social welfare policies that would seem leftist to Americans. And in recent years, European center-right parties have mastered a certain political alchemy in co-opting some of the left's best ideas.

The result is that what would be hot-button issues in the U.S. _ abortion, gun control, gay rights or state-guaranteed health care _ have long ceased to rile voters in Europe.

Conservatives "have taken a page right out of Bill Clinton's playbook, and that's triangulation," said Heather Conley, a Europe scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Clinton brought the U.S. Democrats toward more laissez-faire economic policies, as did Britain's Tony Blair when his Labour Party ousted the Tories in 1997. Now European conservatives have done it in reverse _ "taken the socialist agenda and claimed it as their own," Conley said.

The left's slide began well before the global recession discredited the right's faith in free markets and light regulation. The surprise, to some, is that Europeans seem to have more faith in conservatives to solve the crisis.

"In times of insecurity, the right has credibility," said Enrico de Bernart, a 43-year-old man window-shopping near the Pantheon in Rome. "People trust the right or center-right even if you don't like their objectives."

The Financial Times of London had another explanation: The left was in power for a decade in Britain and Germany, and it was then, voters believe, that the seeds of the financial meltdown were planted.

"Instead of being trusted to provide answers to the recession, they are seen as part of the problem," it said.

The right has also profited by pounding hard on immigration and crime _ popular in times of economic uncertainty _ while sending out reassuring messages about preserving Europe's generous welfare systems.

Analysts insist the social safety net isn't in jeopardy. "The lesson that Europe has taken a year after the collapse of Lehman Bros. is that the safety net cushioned the most extreme effects of the recession," Conley said.

"Our social system is not under threat at all," added Ghislaine Robinson, a French national who is spokeswoman for the Party of European Socialists, the left-leaning bloc in the European Parliament.

The left can take some comfort from having been re-elected in Portugal last month, and it's expected to win Sunday's election in Greece. Socialists are also in power in Spain, a major European economy.

But conservatives have deposed the left in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. And in smaller countries where the center-left clings to power _ Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and Norway _ its hold seems shaky at best.

Its most dramatic humiliation was its trouncing in Germany.

The Social Democrats were swept from government after 11 years _ falling victim to Merkel's studied pragmatism and a campaign that made vague promises of modest tax relief while taking care not to do anything that might scare voters.

Merkel "succeeded perfectly in shrouding in fog what she wants," said Stefan Reinecke, a commentator for the left-leaning Tageszeitung daily.

The left, by contrast, had never really recovered from the labor reforms and welfare state cuts that ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pushed through in 2003 in his ownexperiment with triangulation. Like Blair, Schroeder had advocated a "Third Way" approach, only to be accused of dismantling the German welfare state.

Many Germans seem to think the conservatives, "because of their alleged or actual economic competence," are more capable of fixing the economy, said Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at Berlin's Free University.

Elsewhere, left-leaning politicians are caught in nasty party infighting and are up against populist conservatives.

In France, the once-powerful Socialist Party is in crisis for lack of a personality to rally around.

The party had its heyday under the 14-year presidency of Francois Mitterrand. But since losing to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 presidential elections, the Socialists have been unable agree on a program or a cohesive solution to the financial crisis.

Sarkozy has further undermined support for the Socialists by leaning left himself, talking of a more "moral" capitalism and leading a global push for tighter international regulations and limits on bankers' bonuses.

"Socialism isn't dead _ that is an exaggerated idea," said Ives Clemenceau, a 74-year-old Parisian retiree who worked in the hotel business and voted for Sarkozy. "But the party is flat now. They don't have a plan."

Italy's left also is badly fractured and fairly feeble in its opposition to conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Critics question the left's ability to deal with the problems posed by modern society, such as rising immigration, urban insecurity and a changing labor market _ issues Berlusconi has managed to tap into and stay on top in the polls despite sex and corruption scandals.

"The left governed three years ago and didn't do anything. We saw no results of what they promised Italians," said Costantino Alfredo, 46, an office clerk in Rome. "The right and the left are the same in Italy."

The center-left can't seem to catch a break in Britain, either.

The ruling Labour Party _ foundering under unpopular Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suffered another indignity last week when Britain's biggest-selling tabloid, The Sun, announced it was switching support to the opposition Conservatives after backing Labour for more than a decade.

"This government has lost its way," the newspaper declared.

Most predict Labour will be voted out next year. David Cameron, the Conservative leader campaigning to become Britain's next prime minister, said voters "see a regenerated, refreshed Conservative Party ready to serve."

Labour, whose governments have been in the thick of the Iraq and Afghan wars, portrays the Tories as having no experience on the world stage _ "a bunch of schoolboys," in the taunting words of Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

"I think the right wing has stolen quite a few ideas from the left and is pretending to sell them better than we do," said Robinson, of the Party of European Socialists.

"People are sick and tired of little battles between parties," she said. "What they care about is how they are going to pay their bills and feed their families. That's what matters to them."


AP correspondents Kirsten Grieshaber and Geir Moulson in Berlin, Alessandra Rizzo in Rome and Angela Doland and Rachel Kurowski in Paris contributed to this report.