Europe in no mood to abandon democratic ideal

Mon, Jul 30, 2012, 01:00

EUROPE’S ECONOMY and its geopolitical order are in crisis. Unemployment, austerity and tensions among states have led many observers to claim that political conditions across the continent are coming to resemble those of the 1930s. That claim is mostly wrong.

Thus far, the political centre has held almost everywhere. What is remarkable is not the rise of extremism, but how rare it has been given the depth and duration of the crises.

Nowhere have fears about the rise of extremism been greater than in France. In April during the first round of the presidential election the radical fringes made big gains. But as there was never the slightest possibility that anyone other than one of the two mainstream candidates would become president, there were no consequences of voting for extremists in that poll.

June’s parliamentary elections were different. If in that poll the extremists had replicated their performance in the first round of the presidential election they would have packed the legislature in Paris in unprecedented numbers. But voters shunned them when it came to the crunch. Marine Le Pen’s reactionary Front National won just two seats in the 577-seat lower house. The mainstream centre-left and centre-right blocs together won 560 seats.

South of the Pyrenees economic conditions have been very much worse than in France. In Spain one in four people is out of work and fresh austerity measures are announced almost monthly.

Yet last November’s general election produced a boringly straightforward switch from the centre-left to centre-right. With the exception of some increase in support (from 4 to 7 per cent) for the hardline United Left party, the extremes made no gains on the 2007 election.

More widely, regional autonomy disputes have not flared up, a large newly arrived immigrant population has not been scapegoated and when protesters have taken to the streets they have done so peacefully in most cases.

Iberia’s second state has been suffering more chronic, if less acute, economic pain than Spain. Portugal has been the slowest growing economy in western Europe for more than a decade. Its last election took place 15 months ago just as the country was reduced to seeking an EU-IMF bailout. The governing centre-left party shed nine percentage points of the vote compared to the previous election. The victorious centre right added 10 percentage points. There was no increase in support for the extremes or sign of any desire among the Portuguese for a return to old authoritarian ways.

The Republic’s economic shock has been greater than that which affected either of the Iberian states. But when the last general election took place just two months before Portugal’s and five months after an EU-IMF bailout, Sinn Féin’s support rose from 7 per cent in the 2007 election to just 10 per cent. It has since surged in opinion polls, but in polls that count Sinn Féin has been less successful. Its candidate in the 2011 presidential election was beaten into third place and voters roundly rejected its advice on the fiscal treaty.

Italy, unlike most of its Mediterranean neighbours, has thus far avoided external assistance. But much like Portugal, it had been suffering a protracted slump even before 2008. Now a weak economy is dipping back into recession. However, by far the biggest political effect of the economic crisis has been anti-political. The Five Star movement of internet activist Beppe Grillo came from nowhere in May’s local elections and is impossible to place on the political spectrum. But while Grillo advocates extreme economic options – exit from the euro and default on the state’s debts – there is no sign that he or his movement oppose democracy’s basic tenets.

And even in Greece, where economic and political failures have been most severe, there has been less violence than might have anticipated given the extent of the meltdown. Despite a long history of terrorism, there have been no political assassinations. Moreover, while there have been street protests, they have not been more violent than the rioting that beset the country in the year before the economy went into a tailspin.

In Germany – where there has been little sense of economic crisis and unemployment is at its lowest in decades – public grievance about the costs of bailing out weak euro-area economies is deep. Despite this, none of the three opposition parties in the federal parliament has broken with the Government on bailouts to take positions that could be electorally rewarding.

Extra-parliamentary opposition to the bailouts among business people and economists is growing. But there is no sign of any new anti-euro or anti-bailout grouping emerging to fight next year’s federal elections. As in Italy, the biggest political change in Germany has been anti-political – the Pirate movement has emerged (opposing protection of intellectual property on the internet).

The Dutch are even more aggrieved than the Germans at bailing others out because they are also enduring austerity. Their economy is suffering owing to bloated banks and households burdened by huge and very unGermanic debt levels (they are even more indebted than Irish households).

Elections are just weeks away. The right-wing Party for Freedom has been on the slide in the polls, with support now at 19 per cent. Though still above the 15 per cent share it won in the 2010 general election, it has almost no chance of overtaking the two big centrist parties, both of which are polling in the low thirties.

Finland provides one of the few examples where the centre has weakened markedly. The isolationist True Finns party almost quintupled its support in the general election 15 months ago. But even if the True Finns are xenophobia-tinged parochials, there is little that is anti-democratic in their isolationism.

Outside the euro zone, the picture is broadly the same, with the exception of Hungary, where democratic norms are being challenged, and potentially Romania more recently. But even these states have a long way to go before resembling a 1930s autocracy.

In understanding what is happening now, it is not the 1930s but the 1990s that provides the most relevant historical parallel. In the early part of that decade post-communist democracies in central and eastern Europe suffered massive shocks as they moved from state-run economies to market-based ones. Many industries that had been propped up during the communist experiment collapsed. Living standards collapsed and as a consequence unemployment soared.

The most significant political reaction was not a 1930s-style surge in support for the extremes, but a powerful, almost universal anti-incumbency swing. In dozens of elections in the transition countries throughout the 1990s almost no government won re-election.

That is what is happening in Europe now. Voters are rejecting incumbents, not democracy or its values. It would require a deeper and more prolonged depression for that to change for the worse; alas, all too possible.


Dan O’Brien is Economics Editor

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