Mayday Distress of Europe’s Anti-Austerity Left

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A collective howl of protest and despair will resound through Europe's streets and squares on Wednesday at the annual May 1 rallies, which, in happier times, celebrate the dignity of human labor.

It is difficult to be festive when 26 million Europeans are jobless and economic recession blights the continent. For the first time in generations, numerous parents fear that the future living standards of their children will be lower than their own. Their sense of powerlessness is all the greater because, in or out of government, Europe's center-left parties – once the formidable political voice of the organized working classes – no longer appear capable of fulfilling their historical mission as protectors of jobs, welfare and social cohesion.

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Five years of financial crisis, fueled by the excesses of reckless capitalism, might have crippled the electoral fortunes and ideological credibility of conservative, laissez-faire parties on the European right. Instead, the left comes armed with solutions that voters mistrust as impractical, expensive or out of step with the times.

Perhaps the right benefits from the shortening political memories of modern electorates. Iceland's voters ejected the Social Democrats last weekend and returned to power the same center-right parties that presided over the island's financial implosion in 2008. Fianna Fáil, the Irish right-of-center party destroyed in a February 2011 election because of its responsibility for Ireland's collapse into a debtors' ward, is once more climbing up the opinion polls.

But what goes around comes around. The shortcomings of center-right governments doubtless guarantee that the center-left will one day return to power in economically struggling European countries, just as the Socialists did one year ago in France thanks to depleted public confidence in Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president.

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For the moment, France is the exception. The center-right rules the roost across the European Union, governing four of the six biggest nations – Germany, Poland, Spain and Britain. It shares power in Italy's new ruling coalition, and in any future election it looks well-placed to exploit the lacerating internal quarrels of the Italian center-left.

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Having cruised to electoral victory in 2009, the center-right is also the largest political bloc in the European parliament. In Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, it holds the EU's two most important posts: the presidency of the European Council, which groups EU heads of government, and the European Commission presidency.

Part of the left's problem is that it is fatal, in hard times, to present itself in traditional fashion as an engine of high public expenditure. Such a stance leaves the left, as in France, open to the criticism that it is skilled at increasing taxes but less skilled at framing the conditions for business to generate jobs and economic growth. Besides, if one message is drumming itself into European heads during the euro zone's troubles, it is that responsible nations keep public debts and budget deficits under control.

(Read More: Merkel: Euro Members Must Be Prepared to Cede Sovereignty)

Winning a reputation for sound management of the public finances is essential for the left's long-term success. Unfortunately, it may not reap immediate rewards, as is being discovered by Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark's premier. Her Social Democrats are down in the polls precisely because they have reduced welfare programs and the public sector workforce.

Other center-left parties acknowledge that the "tax-and-spend" model is finished, but some cannot resist dangling false promises before voters. The European parliament's socialist group recently drew up an anti-austerity "social progress pact" that would set binding targets for governments such as a 5 percent unemployment rate, 6 percent of gross domestic product to be invested in education, and 3 percent in research and development. For good measure, it calls for "a social protection floor with universal access to health care, income support, subsistence security and portability of all workers' social rights".

(Read More: Spain 'Throws In the Towel' on Austerity)

The next big test for Europe's center-left, and its anti-austerity crusade, will be the 2014 elections to the EU legislature. Defeat at the right's hands would be bad enough. But if a large part of the anti-austerity vote drains off to eurosceptic parties and populists of various stripes, the left's road ahead will be harder than ever.