Political opportunism and amnesia

Deep anger of voters becoming apparent across Europe


The Bourbons, as Talleyrand once remarked, learned nothing and forgot nothing. What was true of the rulers of France some two centuries ago seems true of voters in some countries in Europe, and elsewhere, today. Iceland saw its economy collapse in the 2008 financial crisis, and voters later rejected the centre-right government that presided over a national disaster. Now, after four years of austerity measures under a centre left government, its voters have again changed their mind. This time to favour a centre right coalition – elected on an anti- austerity programme.

For eight decades Fianna Fáil was the natural party of government, before it too was swept out of office two years ago. Fianna Fáil is not, however, a spent political force, as recent polls show. Indeed, the party can take solace from some aspects of Iceland’s unfolding political saga. Both Ireland and Iceland’s economies collapsed in spectacular fashion, and with broadly similar political and economic consequences. Except in Iceland, those parties that voters punished in 2009, they have now pardoned, and rewarded with power. Can Fianna Fáil expect a similar electoral volte face here?

What is increasingly apparent across Europe is the deep anger of voters. In particular, anger at the failure of newly elected governments to make their words in opposition when seeking power match their deeds in office when elected. Too often parties in their quest for office turn politics from the art of the possible to the promise of the impossible. Voter expectations raised by campaign rhetoric are, in austere economic times dashed by limited achievements in government.

In France, the satisfaction rating of the Socialist president, Francois Hollande, has fallen further and at a faster rate than any his predecessors since 1958. In large measure because he has failed to honour a campaign promise, to end austerity and to cut unemployment, that never seemed credible. Likewise some of the reckless political hyperbole Fine Gael and Labour used during the 2011 general election has proved counter-productive. Promises given on debt reduction, or pledges made to do things Labour’s way not Frankfurt’s way, later took their toll both on the Coalition’s credibility, and the ratings of both parties in government.

Fianna Fáil, in opposition, disagrees with some of the Government’s decisions on the economy. Nevertheless, Fianna Fáil too is constrained by the bailout programme that it negotiated when in office, and that the Government must operate. Fianna Fáil opposes a property tax, even though it favoured one in its National Plan, and accepted one as part of the bailout programme. For a party that in government presided over the property bubble and the banking bust, and that needs to regain the public’s trust, cynical acts of political opportunism for short- term gain will not suffice.

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