Europe: North And South

People's Party (Partido Popular) supporters wait for the results during the Spanish general election outside the party's head
People's Party (Partido Popular) supporters wait for the results during the Spanish general election outside the party's headquarters in Madrid, Spain, on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015. Spaniards are voting in the tightest election since the country's return to democracy, with four parties in the running and no clear winner in sight. Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It's been 11 months. Eleven months between the January elections in Greece that gave Syriza sweeping power, and the December elections in Spain that brought down the very last of the strong, unassailable bipartisan political regimes in Europe.

Back in January, the question was whether the rise of a left wing anti-austerity party in the country hit the hardest by the euro-crisis, Greece would create a sort of domino effect, challenging the European economic and political orthodoxy and the German-led austerity consensus. Many feared (while others hoped) that Alexis Tsipras might create a sort of copycat insurrection against Berlin's hegemony. And many wondered whether an ill-fated Greek attack on austerity would end all resistance to Dr. Schaueble's medicine.

European politics proved more complex than that.

In Greece, the Syriza-led government fought a lonely and poorly organized battle --lacking both in strategic clarity and in political adroitness-- against Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels. It lost and capitulated. The left won a new election in September, but with a muted anti-austerity rhetoric, and with the hope of getting some sort of debt forgiveness in return for full compliance with the terms of the new agreement with Greece's creditors.

" The center right People's Party won the elections, but it's far from having a parliamentary majority."

In the rest of Europe, the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks have tended to overshadow the economic crisis. In the north, in Finland, Denmark and Poland, elections favored the very opposite of Greece's radical leftists-- a blend of nationalistic, Eurosceptic, xenophobic right wing parties thrived. The National Front gained ground in France's regional elections. As the roller coaster of Greek negotiations seemed to be heading for a crash, it looked like Syriza had produced a sort of counter-revolution.

Again, European politics proved more complex than that.

In Portugal, the pro-austerity center-right coalition won the October elections but failed to achieve a parliamentary majority. The pro-Syriza Bloco de Esquerda (Bloco of the Left) managed to resist disappointment and double its votes to 10 percent. Portugal ended up with a government of the Socialist Party, backed by two competing left wing parties, promising to end austerity.

" Now, the question is whether Europe can resist the wave of dissent coming from the right and from the north."

In Spain, it seems we might be getting more of the same. The center right People's Party won the elections, but it's far from having a parliamentary majority. Two new political formations, the left wing anti-austerity (but pro-Europe) Podemos and the liberal, anti-establishment Ciudadanos, recieved more than 30 percent of the vote. Spain has tilted slightly to the left and, for the first time in post Franco history, is about to experience some sort of coalition government.

What, then, should we make of this strange and troubled year's 11 months-long electoral cycle? Is it just a number of local elections determined by local conditions or is there a common trend, a pattern that runs through them all? I believe there is indeed a common thread; I would call it the erosion of European political establishment. Newcomers, both in the north and in the south, disturb the established party system. But while the south gives rise to a sort of left wing, anti-austerity but pro-Europe movement that stands against the corruption and shortcomings of political elites, and resents the economic orthodoxy dictated by Brussels, in the north the power falls in the hands of the right end of the political spectrum, which is fueled by strong anti-immigration sentiments and challenges not just the economic policies of the European Union, but the Union itself.

It is a strange twist of the political tale: Last January, the question was whether austerity policies will resist the challenge from the left and from the south. Now, the question is whether Europe can resist the wave of dissent coming from the right and from the north. In this new game, what was considered dangerous to the European project back in January might now be considered an ally in the fight for the project's survival.