x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Europe's election results are a challenge to fiscal stability

Anti-austerity voters in France and Greece were making a choice between oligarchy and populism, and in both cases the establishment came out the loser.

François Hollande's victory in the French presidential election on Sunday is part of a tectonic change in European politics that will have far-reaching implications. The defeat of France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, represents not just the failure of unpopular incumbents (he is the 11th European leader to be swept from power since the economic crisis struck in 2008). Rather, it marks a wider backlash against a self-serving elite that is detached from the people by wealth, and pushing austerity.

With mainstream parties unable to resolve the economic crisis, the populist extremes of the far left and the far right are progressing and changing the balance of power. In Europe and elsewhere, the dynamics of politics will be increasingly defined by the opposition between oligarchy and populism.

Over the weekend Europe faced a bumper crop of high-profile elections, whose outcome will determine the fate of the euro and the shape of the world economy for years to come. From national elections in France and crisis-stricken Greece to regional polls in Germany and Italy, the general pattern has been a repudiation of incumbents, as voters vent their fury amid economic turmoil and a growing sense of popular powerlessness.

In France, the new socialist president, Mr Hollande, has come to power on a wave of strong sentiment against the conservative incumbent. But this does not amount to a Europe-wide rejection of the centre-right that governs in most of the 27 EU member-states. Sunday's general election in Greece has seen the collapse of the ruling socialist Pasok party, with the conservative New Democracy party the largest in the new parliament.

Common to both polls is popular hostility to Europe's austerity drive since the onset of the sovereign debt crisis two years ago. Substantial stock-market losses on Monday underscore the urgency of sorting out Europe's economic mess.

Mr Hollande has promised to renegotiate the "fiscal pact" that enshrines balanced budgets at the heart of the euro zone, calling for a proper growth strategy. Likewise, Greece's prospective prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has pledged to amend the country's controversial bailout agreement with the EU and the IMF in order to escape the spiral of austerity-driven recession.

Mr Hollande's election shifts the balance away from draconian budget cuts in favour of measures designed to boost investment, consumption and thus economic output. The electoral verdict strengthens the hand of all those who favour a "growth pact", notably the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, and José Manuel Barroso, the head of the European Commission.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, are in a minority position and look isolated. Germany's position on austerity has been further weakened by regional polls at home and in Italy, with ruling centre-right governments and parties losing votes to the opposition.

But it is not the moderate opposition parties that are benefitting from the anti-incumbent anger. On the contrary, virtually all established parties on the centre-left and the centre-right are associated - rightly or wrongly - with upholding a system that serves the interests of the powerful and the wealthy.

When ruling elites are seen to defend millionaires, not the masses, it is hardly surprising that moderate parties are haemorrhaging support in favour of extreme parties on the far left or the far right. In France, the extreme right Front National has decisively shaped the presidential election campaign. In the forthcoming parliamentary poll and beyond, it seeks to replace the conservative centre-right as the main political force. The far-left Front de Gauche helped Mr Hollande's election and will influence government policy if the socialist party and its allies fail to win a governing majority.

In Greece, centre-left Pasok and centre-right New Democracy have seen their combined support collapse from over 80 per cent in recent decades to less than 34 per cent. As Pasok's share of the vote tumbled from 43.9 per cent to 14.1 per cent, the far-left coalition Syriza has taken 15.8 per cent to become the country's second strongest party. The ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement, has also entered parliament.

In each case, anti-austerity parties are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of voters.

Europe's economic woes and the centrally imposed spending cuts provoke so much popular opposition because they erode national sovereignty. That is why the question of immigration and national identity is moving to the fore.

Mr Sarkozy's strategy of co-opting the far-right by stoking fears about Islam and mass migration has failed. The electorate prefers the original to the copy, and many immigrants who voted for him in 2007 (because of his promised toughness on law and order) have either abstained or switched to Mr Hollande. Paradoxically, Mr Sarkozy's attempt to consolidate the centre-right conservative majority has weakened it in favour of the extreme right that preaches the new creed of Islamophobia.

Whoever rules in Europe will face economic turmoil and public rage. With the moderate middle in decline, the battle between oligarchy and populism looks set to shape politics for years to come.

 

Adrian Pabst is lecturer in politics at Britain's University of Kent and visiting professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille in France