Side Views

The sure thing in European politics is now anybody’s guess — Alistair Burnett

MAY 26 — French and Greek voters have spoken loudly on austerity measures, but perhaps not so decisively. In Greece’s case, the message was so unclear that its citizens return to the polls on June 17. Chances are that no matter how they vote, the tension between the market and democracy is here to stay.

This month’s election results can be categorized in three ways: The most common headline was a variant on the London Daily Mail’s “Au Revoir Austerity.” Another interpretation was that Europe kicked out another bunch of incumbents. A third variation — Europe’s mainstream parties are losing support to extremists on the right and the left.

An argument can be made that results in the French presidential and Greek parliamentary elections show that voters have had enough of the debt-reduction policies. In Greece, parties that campaigned explicitly on an anti-austerity platform did very well.

But the results may be a continuation of a trend under way since the financial crisis struck in 2008, with leaders of any party tossed out of office once their electorates had the chance to vote — the defeat of US Republicans that year, Gordon Brown’s Labour in Britain in 2010, Spanish Socialist Jose Luis Zapatero in 2011 and now Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then again, recent votes in France and Greece also saw increased support for parties of the far-right and far-left campaigning against the effects of globalization — the right took issue with immigration while the left oppose the power of financial capital and bankers.

There’s truth in all three explanations, which tend to feed off one another.

The most straightforward factor explaining the French and Greek results is that parties in power when the economic crisis hit four years ago got the blame for the consequences, including increased public debt, public spending cuts and tax hikes to pay for bank bailouts.

Sarkozy came to power in 2007, promising to reform the French economy for faster growth. He was a little more than a year into his presidency when the crisis hit. It derailed much of his reform programme and associated him in the minds of his electorate with rising debt and the euro crisis.

Sarkozy stood alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel in overseeing euro zone problems and the need to bail out Greece, Ireland and Portugal. He went to the French electorate asking for a second chance, and voters refused.

In Greece, socialist PASOK took power in 2008 but saw its support plummet, blamed for not preventing the collapse of the country’s finances and severe austerity measures that have spiked unemployment and reduced the standard of living. The support was for smaller parties opposing austerity measures. There is one exception to the trend of European incumbents since 2008 — Poland.

Last year, Poles re-elected the coalition led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk. This confirms that Europeans base their voting decisions on the state of the economy. Voters rewarded Tusk because the Polish economy escaped Europe’s suffering and continued to grow.

The economic crisis has spurred the rise of far-right and far-left parties in recent European elections.

In France, the new leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, achieved a record result for her party, with 18 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. Some credit that success to Le Pen distancing herself from more direct anti-immigration policies of her predecessor and father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and focusing her campaign on leaving the euro as much as on issues around integration of France’s Muslim population.

In Greece, the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party, considered by many to be neo-Nazi, managed to get MPs elected for the first time on an anti-immigration platform, while Syriza, a left-wing alliance, did well by blaming bankers.

But across Europe, voters are also rejecting conventional politics and politicians. In Italy’s recent local elections, the Five Star Movement, led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, who supports Italy’s leaving the euro, garnered almost a fifth of the vote in some cities, while in Germany the Pirate Party, which campaigns for Internet freedom, got almost eight per cent in the North Rhine-Westphalia state election in Germany on May 13.

Anti-immigrant parties, focusing on the growing Muslim populations in many European countries, attract more support, even in traditionally liberal Nordic countries. Last year, the Danish People’s Party scored 12 per cent in national elections, while the True Finns party got nearly a fifth of the vote in parliamentary polls. In Norway, anti-immigrant politics became linked with mass murder after Anders Behring Breivik described the killing of 77 people as a “political attack” to save Norway from Muslims.

So perhaps a neglected outcome of the French and Greek elections is the tension exposed between democracy and the interests of financial capitalism.

The markets have reacted negatively to the good showing of parties opposed to austerity. The value of the euro fell 15 per cent against the US dollar, and the cost of government borrowing in several countries is rising again.

History suggests that Greek voters cannot defy the markets, even if they vote against austerity again on June 17. Political leaders end up doing what they think the markets want.

Democracy in Europe is facing a challenge. Some see it coming less from parties of the far-right or far-left and more from the interests of financial capital as expressed in the markets.  — YaleGlobal

* Alistair Burnett is the editor of “The World Tonight,” a BBC News programme

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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