What’s Left of Luxembourg’s Left?

By Leonie de Jonge
15 February 2018
Luxembourg Luxembourg
After dwindling support in recent European and local elections, Luxembourg’s social democrats face a challenging year in the run-up to the 2018 general elections.
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With legislative elections due to take place this October, 2018 promises to be an eventful year for Luxembourg. Generally known for its political stability, the Grand Duchy is home to just over half a million inhabitants – nearly 48 percent of whom are foreigners. The country has multi-party system that has long been dominated by three centrist political parties: the Christian democratic Chrëschtlech Sozial Vollekspartei (Christian Social People’s Party or CSV); the social democratic Lëtzebuerger Sozialistesch Aarbechterpartei (Luxembourgish Socialist Workers’ Party or LSAP); and the liberal Demokratesch Partei (Democratic Party or DP).

The government has been headed by the liberal prime minister, Xavier Bettel, since December 2013 – a tumultuous year by Luxembourgish political standards, as well as marking a significant social shift as Luxembourg became the first country in the world to have not only a gay prime minister, but a gay deputy as well. The political commotion began when early elections were held in October, after Jean Claude Juncker’s CSV-LSAP government was brought down by a scandal involving the country’s intelligence service. Although the centre-right CSV remained the largest party after winning 23 of the 60 parliamentary seats (and 34.1 percent of the vote), the party was excluded from forming a government when the LSAP (13 seats), the DP (13 seats) and the Greens (6 seats) opted to form a coalition. The formation of the ‘Gambia coalition’, so called because the colours associated with the governing parties match those of the Gambian flag, began the first period of leadership by a three-party coalition in Luxembourg’s post-war history, and only the second time that the CSV has sat on the opposition benches.

Upon taking office, the Gambia coalition announced its ambition to modernise the political institutions of the country, advocating increased participatory democracy. In 2015, Luxembourg held a consultative referendum, which asked voters to voice their opinion on several constitutional changes, including the extension of voting rights to non-nationals. Under the proposal put forward by the governing parties, the country’s large population of non-citizens would have been allowed to participate in legislative elections, provided they had resided in the country for at least ten years and participated in either local or European elections. The coalition suffered a serious blow when the proposal was rejected by nearly 80% of the electorate.

Despite this setback, the government put into motion a series of political and economic changes including tax reform; a reorganisation of the relationship between church and state (primarily by loosening ties with the Roman Catholic archdiocese); as well as a plan to reorient the country’s economy through a ‘third industrial revolution’ – a project inspired by the work of the American economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin.

In the run-up to the 2017 local elections, the Bettel government proposed a partial ban on wearing full face veils in public. Given that the need for such a ban is questionable in a country where fewer than a dozen women wear niqabs, the move has been interpreted as an attempt to appeal to Luxembourg’s conservative electorate by trying to co-opt the position of the Christian democratic CSV.

Return to the centre right

The attempt did not prove very successful; the local elections held in October 2017 resulted in a discernible shift to the right, marked by noteworthy losses for the DP and LSAP. The social democrats suffered a particularly hard knock; after losing nearly 5% (pushing the party down to down to 24% of the total vote share) in communes large enough to use a proportional electoral system, the LSAP was forced into opposition in their traditional stronghold localities of Esch and Mondercange in Luxembourg’s urban south.

If the 2017 local elections are any indication of voting intentions for this year, the future does not look too bright for Luxembourg’s social democrats. Having reached an all-time-low of 12% in the 2014 European elections, the party appears to have entered a downward spiral that mirrors the decline of other European social democratic parties. Like their European counterparts, the LSAP is faced with the disappearance of its traditional voter base – a trend that is perhaps more pronounced in Luxembourg, where most blue-collar jobs are taken up by commuters. In fact, more than 70% of the country’s workforce is composed of immigrants or cross-border workers, hailing from France, Belgium and Germany.

Recent electoral losses have sparked a wave of criticism from within the LSAP. In January, ten young social democrats (including four MPs) attacked the party leadership in an open letter for failing to integrate the views of junior members, indicating a generational divide within the party. One week later, a second letter was published in which the party was criticised by leftist members for placing too much emphasis on the nomination of a frontrunner instead of focusing on the formulation of a coherent party programme.

In a recent radio interview, the presumed frontrunner and current deputy prime minister, Etienne Schneider, refuted the criticisms, insisting the mood within the party remains upbeat. When asked whether his agenda could be deemed sufficiently ‘socialist’ to win back voters in the upcoming elections, Schneider admitted that his role as minister of the economy was, at times, difficult to reconcile with his socialist image, since he is often seen on the side of big business and economic elites.

With his suave demeanour and taste for luxury cars, Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister seems far removed from his party’s socialist ideals. Indeed, Schneider’s liberal, pro-market economic agenda bears more resemblance to that France’s Emmanuel Macron than to the traditions of European social democracy. Earlier this year, Schneider was named in Politico’s Class of 2018 list of influential European leaders for his ambitions to turn Luxembourg into an international hub for space mining. Whether his avant-garde policies appeal to his electorate, however, remains to be seen.

Despite recent negative trends, it is worth bearing in mind that the LSAP leads the polls when it comes to Luxembourg’s most popular politicians, including Mars Di Bartolomeo, the current president of the chamber of deputies, and Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s minister of foreign affairs. Di Bartolomeo and Asselborn are important assets for the social democrats, not least because Luxembourg’s voting system allows voters to either opt for a party list or to give personal preference votes to individual candidates of one or more parties. The latter practice, also known as panachage, has increased significantly in recent decades. In the 2004 national elections, for instance, half the electorate opted to cast preferential votes over list votes, suggesting that personalities are more important than party ideology.

The LSAP intends to present its 60 candidates for the 2018 election at its party congress on 25 March. While Luxembourg’s social democrats have frequently acted as coalition partners, taking part in governments since 2004, they have never held the position of Prime Minister. Though this seems unlikely to change in 2018, anything is possible in times of such electoral volatility.

Image: Xavier Bettel, prime minister (DP)
Image credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com