‘If anybody can transform the SI’
The people’s flag is palest pink
May 10th 2007
From The Economist print edition
At the hustings, socialism can be a drag
A few days before the French presidential election, Ségolène Royal received a rousing endorsement from her comrades in the pan-European left, delivered in the emotive terms that a socialist of the 1930s might have used to rally support for his cause in the Spanish civil war.
“What I have always seen in Europe is that the right wing favours the power of money and could not care less about the citizens,” the visitor to France declared. Hence his rousing appeal: “I call on those of you who get up early in the morning, and those who get up late…please, do not trust Nicolas Sarkozy.” This fiery fraternal message was brought to the barricades by Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, on behalf of the Party of European Socialists (PES), which groups centre-left movements from Norway to Bulgaria. The message was apparently ignored by voters, whatever their sleeping habits.
France’s diehard ultra-leftists may argue that Ms Royal failed because she was not true enough to her revolutionary calling. But comrades in many other parts of the world may well draw an opposite conclusion: the very word “socialism”, conceived amid the brutality of 19th-century industrialisation, may have become an electoral handicap in the 21st century.
Despite his rhetoric, Mr Rasmussen probably understands that as well as anybody. At a congress in Portugal five months ago, the PES—of which he is president—quietly changed its charter to embrace “progressive democratic” forces as well as socialist and Labour parties.
Another, possibly more significant move to jettison socialist baggage was made last month by Piero Fassino, a politician who has played a big role in the Italian Communists’ long march to a position only millimetres to the left of the political centre. Having just forged a new “Democratic Party”—out of the ex-communist Democrats of the Left and the centrist Margherita (Daisy) party—Mr Fassino mooted the idea of a change of name, and spirit, for the Socialist International (SI), a hoary old bastion of the centre-left which now groups over 160 parties in countries ranging from New Zealand to Mongolia to Burkina Faso. In other words, the movement might start to call itself, say, the Social Democratic International.
Could it ever happen? The SI’s current president is a Greek socialist, and former foreign minister, George Papandreou—a man with some experience of dragging stiff-necked socialists into the modern era. Formed by his father Andreas Papandreou whose feisty anti-Americanism placed him on the radical edge of European politics, Greece’s Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement, better known as Pasok, has turned into an advocate of worthy causes like European Union enlargement and the mending of fences with Balkan neighbours, including Turkey.
Since taking charge of the SI last year, Papandreou junior has cultivated better relations with America’s Democrats, who even at their most radical, never use the S-word; and with India’s ruling Congress party which has become less socialist over time. If anybody can transform the SI, it might be a man who can get along with stolid Nordic types—having spent formative years in Sweden—but also understands countries where for historic reasons “socialism” still resonates, such as Chile, the homeland of SI’s secretary-general, Luis Ayala.