Friday, June 25, 2010

After Two European Elections

I came to Great Britain and The Netherlands so that I would be there just after their national elections, and to observe both how the results would be managed by their politicians, and more importantly, how those results would be received by their voters.

Unlike the United States, where a two-party system with a three-branch executive-legislative-judiciary system usually brings a clear winner (the exception, of course, was the 2000 presidential election which was not resolved for several weeks), the European parliamentary system has many political parties, and elections often end with the creation of coalitions to run the country. Great Britain usually does not have such a situation, but it did happen this time, with the result that the new prime minister, Conservative (Tory) David Cameron, had two choices. His first choice was to govern with less than a majority, but no interparty compromises with his conservative program. This almost certainly would lead in time to a no-confidence vote that would bring down his government and lead to immediate new elections. He chose his second alternative, a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a left of center party. Technically, this coalition by written agreement stipulates that the two groups will not prematurely bring down this government for four years. Many Tory voters, I found, are skeptical this coalition government can last, as do many other voters, but Cameron’s move may be more shrewd than many think, giving Liberal Democratic leaders cabinet posts and making their leader Nick Clegg the deputy prime minister. I suspect that Clegg and his colleagues will enjoy their share (albeit small) of power, and be disinclined to end what is probably their only chance to have a real say in the Great Britain’s public policies.

Already, Mr. Cameron has presented a budget with severe public spending cuts and many increased taxes. (As one might expect, the Tories have lowered corporate taxes help British small business.)

Although the Tories did not win an outright majority, the previous ruling party, Labour, which had run the country for 13 years, did lose clearly. Most voters did not like the Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, nor Labour economic policies. Many Britons, including traditional Labour voters, now want their government to bring self-discipline to the nation, and are resigned to the short-term hardships that will be necessary to enable the country to get past the current economic crisis. Only some seem content with the “coalition” approach, however, and think it will unravel long before the agreement’s time. Mr. Cameron and his colleagues will almost certainly will need to continue and expand their austerity measures. At some point, Mr. Clegg’s party will have some of their fundamental political views challenged and questioned.

In The Netherlands, which has a 150-seat parliament, the previous ruling party (CDA) a left liberal party, led by Jan Peter Balkenende was reduced to 21 seats by the election. This was fourth place behind the more conservative liberal party (VVD) headed by Mark Rutte who by virtue of winning one more seat (31) than the labor party (PVDA) led by former Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen, will be the likely next prime minister. In third place, is the Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, the super-controversial anti-immigration figure. The PVV went from 9 seats to 24. Two smaller left wing parties, the D-66 (10 seats) and the green party Groenlinks (10 seats) now could be included in a new coalition after the CDA refused to join a coalition. Thus, what is called a “purple-plus” coalition of the two moderately liberal parties and the two largest left-wing parties could run the country. This will seem hopelessly complicated to Americans, and not that clear to most Dutch voters, but that is the result. (The move to exclude Wilders and his PVV from the coalition is popular with most liberal Dutch voters of all parties, but it might be a political mistake in the long-term in that it will enable Wilders to continue to run and speak as an outsider, further expanding his volatile base.)

(Another nearby country, Belgium, also held its national elections recently, and a Flemish separatist party did much better than expected, raising the possibility that tiny Belgium will be divided even more. I did not go to Brussels, so I only mention this in passing, and because it further signals the disintegration of political allegiances on the continent.)

The European Union is facing its worst crisis. Its relatively new currency, the euro, faces very serious problems. Great Britain, a major member of the EU, but which did not accept the euro, is now even less likely to do so. Predictions of the collapse of the EU, however, may be premature. After all, its members are economically interdependent on each other in any circumstance. But the ambition to kick the EU up to a higher level of political unity (and more loss of national sovereignty) has been dealt a serious blow. Many have argued that Europe’s different languages, religions, and customs, as well as its centuries-old rivalries and wars, make any true political union impossible. Separatist movements in Scotland (UK) , Flanders (Belgium), Catalonia (Spain), The Basque (Spain), and elsewhere, indicate that unity is still not on the European mind.

Europeans, at least those in Great Britain and The Netherlands (and Belgium), are unsettled. The fabled welfare states of Europe, with their large government bureaucracies, no longer seem to be working and are being cut back. But I think one has to be careful about drawing too many conclusions from recent elections, other than there seems to be some acceptance on all sides that a new austerity lies ahead.

Europe has clearly turned to more conservative and younger leaders. Mr. Cameron, Mr. Clegg and Mr. Rutte even look alike. But even as Europe turns rightward (it’s still to the left of most U.S. politics), the U.S. seems at a crossroads between its right and left as the American midterm elections approach. I think it’s time to come home and look again at those prospects.

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