INCUMBENCY IS not good for political health. Not in Europe anyway. Just ask Brian Cowen, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jose Luis Zapatero, Silvio Berlusconi...to mention the leaders of just four of the ten euro zone governments – 17 in all – who have succumbed one way or another in the course of the last year, victims, no matter what their political persuasion, of popular anger at the economic crisis and austerity.
It is a high rate of attrition. Ireland, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Netherlands have all seen their governments replaced or collapse (the Dutch election is pending). In France, Slovakia, Holland and Italy, the right has paid the price. In Spain, Portugal and Finland, it was the left; in Greece, both centre left and centre right; and in Ireland, it was Fianna Fáil.
The impetus is not ideology or traditional politics, but, it appears, simple revenge for their respective stewardships of economies in crisis. In some cases the prize has gone to the traditional opposition, while in many to a plethora of far-left or far-right groups, some, like Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn or Finland’s True Finns, xenophobic with scant democratic credentials.
In Germany, Angela Merkel faces a general election next year. Though the opposition has improved its showing, the chancellor does not yet have to fear for her predominance electorally, a function perhaps of the reality that the crisis is still perceived as a crisis at one remove, other people’s problems. But even in Berlin “anti-politics” is thriving, manifest in the rise of the Pirate Party, with its emphasis on transparency and internet issues. It has drawn votes in equal numbers from its traditional rivals, and last weekend secured a place in a third regional parliament in Schleswig-Holstein. Its ascent could make coalition building very difficult next year.
In Italy’s local elections last weekend the Pirates have their counterpart in the remarkable success of the 5 Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo, a shaggy-haired comedian, campaigning against the political establishment.
Revenge, and alienation not from politics – abstention or low turnout does not seem to correlate with the widespread anger – but from the political class appears to be the common theme. From a democratic viewpoint that’s perhaps reassuring, but only in the short term. If anti-incumbentitis becomes endemic, long-term democratic politics itself will inevitably be the casualty.