Analysis Whatever yesterday held in store, the winner of the presidential election would be left to grapple with massive debts, and any false move would tempt an unforgiving electorate, when next asked, to inflict punishment.
Debilitating debt will cast shadow on France's winner Hollande
MARSEILLE, FRANCE // As the votes were counted from Paris and the country's small towns to the French outposts of the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and beyond, two certainties of modern political life would have occurred to Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.
Whatever yesterday held in store, the winner of the presidential election would be left to grapple with massive debts, and any false move would tempt an unforgiving electorate, when next asked, to inflict punishment.
Mr Sarkozy was the 11th European leader to face electoral rebuke since the continent began to suffer the effect of world economic crisis in 2009.
It has become part of the landscape. The piles of discarded political debris are growing higher in a junkyard of ditched politicians and governments. As Europe's economic problems have spiralled, so has the capacity of the voting public to exact revenge.
Fighting the disease of debt demands, according to conventional economic wisdom, the harsh medicine of austerity. Any sugar coating - such as Mr Hollande's call for measures to revive growth - is thin. In country after country, politicians have found the patients unwilling to stomach the prescribed remedy.
Whether there is a viable alternative, voters have shown no impatience to pay for their governments' records of living beyond their means. There is no clamour for longer working lives, poorer pensions, higher taxation, stagnant or decreasing income or the acceptance of reduced public services and benefits.
Governments or leaders have toppled from southern Europe - Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal - to the north, from Britain and Ireland to Scandinavia.
Other issues have been the principal or contributory cause of some government collapses; the 2010 election in the Netherlands, prompted by a row over Dutch troops serving in Afghanistan, is an example. But economic malaise is the central theme and politicians from both left and right have been the casualties.
In Britain, Gordon Brown won initial acclaim for his efforts as finance minister during the more successful early years of Tony Blair's Labour government when the UK was the envy of much of Europe.
After achieving his ambition to succeed Mr Blair as prime minister, he proved powerless to stop the economy becoming a mess. When Mr Brown was dismissed from office two years ago, the incoming Conservative-led coalition claimed the mess was even worse than feared, needing more drastic - in other words painful - measures. Last week's local-election results show the coalition, in turn, is being punished for the consequences.
In Spain, too, right replaced left after unemployment rocketed. But Mariano Rajoy's conservatives are still struggling - one adult in four, one in two among the under-25s, is out of work.
The collapse of property values and toxic debts incurred by banks drove the Irish Republic into severe recession, reducing the Celtic Tiger of the boom years into a feeble shadow of its former self.
As Greece also went to the polls yesterday, communist and neo-Nazis were among those vying for a share of the protest vote amid stringent belt-tightening after the country's debt threatened the euro's survival.
"We are seeing real punishment of those governments which were saddled with handling the economic and financial crisis," said Jorge Crespo, a professor of political science and public administration at Complutense University in Madrid. "And France is no exception. Whatever your political stripe, it is about punishment for how the crisis is being handled."
Germany is often held up as the prime example of a strong, prudent economy bucking the trend. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, seems a model of fiscal stringency, urging others to fall in line.
Prof Crespo has a warning, even for her: "People are disconcerted. They know what they don't want, but they do not know exactly what they want from whatever leaders come to power."
The evidence of the street offers support for the idea that even as they punish political leaders for what crisis means for their own lives and livelihoods, people are confused about how their choices can produce improvement. "The heart says Hollande, the head says Sarkozy,'' one French voter, still undecided, said yesterday outside a polling station in the Mediterranean resort of Le Lavandou.
Is the process exportable? Barack Obama could be forgiven for hoping the ill wind that has blown so many European leaders from power is not about to cross the Atlantic in time for November's US presidential elections.
Europe's booted leaders
Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to be kicked out of office in elections yesterday. If he goes, he’ll be in good company: Almost every crisis-hit European country that has held an election since disaster struck in 2009 has thrown out its leader.
Here’s a look at countries where political cadavers litter the landscape.
A burst real estate bubble also deflates faith in a Socialist government, which is nonetheless reluctant to admit Spain has problems. Blips of good economic news are seized upon as “green shoots” pointing to recovery. Wrong. Stimulus measures are enacted, then crushing austerity. Unemployment soars. The Socialists of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero are wiped out in last year’s elections; Mariano Rajoy’s conservatives take over.
Silvio Berlusconi, the long-serving leader accused of everything from bedding escorts to serial corruption, bites the dust in November last year as investors lose confidence in his ability to spur economic growth and rein in debt. Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner, is named to replace him and lead a technical government until elections in 2013.
Gordon Brown leads the Labour Party to defeat in the May 2010 election; Conservative Party leader David Cameron becomes leader of a coalition government. Mr Brown had boasted of ending the cycle of boom and bust – but as prime minister he presided mostly over bust.
Brian Cowen, promoted to prime minister in 2008 after being finance minister, doesn’t even get to run. He resigns as leader of the Fianna Fail Party weeks before the February election last year. It doesn’t help his party, which suffers its worst defeat.
Greek Socialist leader George Papandreou swept to power in October 2009 over conservative opponents, pledging to spend his way out of a deteriorating economic situation. Two years later, during Greece’s worst financial crisis since the Second World War, Mr Papandreou’s deputies force him out. He’s replaced by caretaker prime minister Lucas Papademos.
A month after Portugal requests a 78 billion-euro bailout, the centre-left Socialist government of Jose Socrates is voted out of power in June, 2011.
A centre-right government in Denmark loses power in September in part due to concern over austerity measures introduced amid the debt crisis. A centre-left coalition steps in.
Finland’s government is reconfigured after June elections following a sharp surge in support for nationalists who oppose bailouts for debt-struck eurozone countries. A conservative-led coalition spanning left and right is formed to keep the nationalist True Finns out of power.