LONDON — The shape of politics is changing in the world’s main democracies in a manner that Japan may find familiar. But the implications are only starting to seep through.
In the United States, the midterm elections last November, the recent replacement of the Senate majority leader and the installation of a new economic team have all underscored the dominance of President George W. Bush. In France, President Jacques Chirac’s center-right parties dominate the executive and the legislature, where by far the largest grouping is known simply as the Union for the Presidential Majority.
Though he has faltered at the opinion polls recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his New Labour government are still streets ahead of the Conservative opposition, which now has to worry about being beaten into third place in popular support by the Liberal Democrats. In Italy, the opposition is in disarray in the face of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, which stretches from the moderate right to regionalists and the heirs of fascism. In the nascent democracy of Russia, President Vladimir Putin has asserted himself. Even in Germany, the opposition is having trouble getting its act together.
If elections were held tomorrow, there can be little doubt that Bush, Blair, Chirac, Berlusconi and Putin would be returned without any difficulty. Each leader, of course, faces a degree of discontent, often arising from worries about the economy or, in the case of Britain, from the performance of the public services. But, for the moment, the traditional alternation of power, or the balance between the White House and Congress in the case of the U.S., has been suspended.
That may be a comforting position for those in power. But, as the example of the long dominance of the Liberal Democrats in Japan has shown, it brings with it a different set of challenges that are all too easy to overlook in the wake of electoral triumphs such as the Republicans gaining control of both Houses of Congress in November or Chirac ending five years of uneasy “cohabitation” with the left through his victories in the presidential and National Assembly elections last spring.
Factional clan politics within the leading party, rather than debate between parties with different ideologies, becomes the arena for determining policy. Thus, with the Democrats only now finding it in themselves to query the way the war of terror has been waged, the foreign policy and strategy debate has been between unilateralists and multilateralists within the administration, not between the two major parties. Discussion of economic policy revolves around tax cutters on one side, and deficit cutters on the other — with the Democrats floundering as they seek a policy that can rally their troops and attract swing voters.
In France, a trio of contenders bob and weave round the presidency to establish their claims for the future. In Germany, the discussion on the crucial issue of reviving Europe’s biggest economy is a matter between the traditional wing of the Social Democrats and the party’s modernizers.
The weakness of the Conservative opposition has helped to make Britain into a prime example of how vital debate is taken within the tent of the ruling party and, as a result, does not get its proper airing in traditional forums like Parliament. Whether Britain should enter the euro zone or whether taxes should go up to pay for better public services is, essentially, a tug-of-war between Blair and powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who is more cautious than the prime minister on Europe and keeps to a more traditional Labour view of the responsibilities of the state and the boundaries of private involvement in sectors such as health.
The debate, in most cases, is conducted through aides and press leaks — the ruling group still does not feel confident enough to admit to internal splits. This deprives voters of a proper debate from which to draw their opinions, and makes life difficult for the opposition. That, naturally, suits the dominant party since it is held less accountable and, as seen in the modulations of U.S. policy over Iraq, is able to trim its sails to events and public opinion without admitting that it is doing so.
The danger is twofold. If things go badly — whether over the economy or in a war against Baghdad — the rulers will find it hard to share the blame. They will be exposed, sometimes in situations where there should have been a broader consensus in the first place.
In addition, voters may well be even more turned off politics than they were already. Lower popular participation increases the importance of single-issue groups that can get out their voters, and distorts the magnitude of victory.
Look behind the Republican performance in the midterm elections and you see how narrow some of the races were. Abstention rates in European elections have been rising significantly. The climate of apathy surrounding mainstream politics has produced shock-wave performances by some extremist parties.
Of course, it is not the fault of ruling parties if they achieve dominant status — and the decline of Britain’s once mighty Conservatives shows how even the best-oiled machine can run into the buffers. Still, the dangers of turning politics into a small-circle activity divorced from the concerns of ordinary people are evident. Though many politicians seem to find it hard to accept, electoral success is not the end of the matter, only the beginning.
Few findings could be more symbolic of the way things are than an opinion poll in Britain at the end of 2002. This showed satisfaction with Blair falling from 51 to 38 percent during the year, and dissatisfaction rising from 39 to 54 percent. But, if there was a snap general election, it predicted that Labour would increase the number of seats it won over its sweeping victory in 2001. While voters may find fault with the men who rule them, they do not see a viable alternative — but isn’t that the essence of democracy?
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