Norway's digital radio, Italy's privatised railways and the far-right in Germany.
Two years after the part-privatisation of Italy’s national post service, its railways are headed down the same track. Ferrovie dello Stato, the 112-year-old state-owned system, will have at least 30 per cent of its long-range services listed on Milan’s stock exchange this year, a move that will see the high-speed Frecce and Intercity networks partially privatised.
The sale is part of a plan to double Ferrovie dello Stato’s revenue by 2020. Other steps being considered include a potential expansion into public municipal transport and road infrastructure; CEO Renato Mazzoncini isn’t ruling out a further sell-off of the freight system either.
As Norway embraces digital audio broadcasting (otherwise known as DAB), the country will be getting rid of FM radio region by region throughout 2017. First up is Nordland county in the north.
In late 2016 a miner sent shockwaves through Germany’s political landscape. After 26 years as an active member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Ruhr Valley, union leader Guido Reil announced he was shifting allegiance to the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD). With the upcoming May state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, considered to be something of a dress rehearsal for the autumn’s general election, Reil’s position shows just how fractured the country’s political sphere has become.
The Ruhr Valley is Germany’s rust belt: once heaving with heavy industry and dominated by unions, it was for decades a stalwart for the SPD. The party has been running the state government for all but one legislative period since 1966 and often in coalition, as with the Green party since 1995. Yet membership has declined: since 1990 it has halved to 118,000. Unemployment across the region’s cities has risen to between 11 and 16 per cent. When people in the area’s poorest neighbourhoods felt that they were expected to take in a disproportionate number of refugees, tensions came to a head – and provided an opening for the AFD.
“What the AFD is trying to do in North Rhine-Westphalia is poach the SPD’s core voters, namely union members,” says Marcus Bensmann, who covers AFD for the investigative journalism non-profit Correctiv. To do that the party has been defying its neoliberal roots to speak out about workers’ rights, the minimum wage and unemployment benefits. “It’ll be interesting to see if it manages to see this through: workers’ politics for German workers, the national-socialist route. If that strategy is successful in North Rhine-Westphalia we’ll have a different republic.”
In 2016’s five state elections the SPD lost up to 14 per cent of voters to the AFD, according to a Die Zeit report. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the loss could be starker. “The Ruhr Valley is a magnifying glass for wider problems,” says Rainer Bovermann, who teaches politics at the Ruhr University Bochum and holds a seat for the SPD in state parliament. He cites the fragmentation of the electorate into smaller groups with individual interests as one issue and the SPD’s growing distance from its core constituencies as another. “It has become a party for those who still have jobs,” he adds. The Ruhr Valley’s high unemployment rate and the AFD’s efforts to court workers could spell trouble for his party.
The move from a Social Democratic left to a populist right isn’t as radical as it might seem says Simon Franzmann, professor at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Debates about economic inequality have been replaced by debates about liberalism and nationalism, which can frustrate voters whose priorities haven’t similarly shifted. “That’s a problem for parties whose core competence used to be economic analysis,” he says, adding that if the SPD wants to have a future it has to focus on economic inequality again – a shift that will take more than one election campaign.
The political left’s hope for success in May’s North Rhine-Westphalia’s state elections hinge on a power struggle within the AFD. In order to gain ground in the Ruhr Valley, the party has had to tone down its anti-immigrant rhetoric; it’s a multiracial area and workers’ solidarity is strong among miners. If the AFD’s more nationalist forces prevail, it could cause a backlash.