LONDON – Voters in democratic countries are increasingly disenchanted with traditional party politics and regard most politicians with skepticism at best and as generally untrustworthy.
In Europe, fringe parties are attracting increasing support. The principal focus of disillusioned voters is the austerity regimes that, the malcontents allege, have been forced by Germany and her close allies in northern Europe on other member states in the European Union.
Despite strong opposition, the countries that have built up the largest debts have so far managed to impose austerity measures on their reluctant peoples, but opposition to austerity is growing.
Ireland was the first to accept a European bailout. Greece was a more difficult problem, and a full scale-debt default was only avoided as a result of unprecedented pressure from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. A technocrat became prime minister and the necessary measures were approved by the Greek parliament in the face of serious rioting by opponents.
With the Italian economy under pressure from rising borrowing costs, the discredited Berlusconi regime was forced to resign and Mario Monti, another technocrat, was installed as prime minister. He has been successful in getting essential austerity policies adopted by the Italian parliament, although much still needs to be done to free the Italian economy from bureaucracy and restrictive practices.
Portugal knuckled under pressure and agreed to an austerity package. In Spain, the socialist party lost the elections at the end of last year and a conservative party government was installed. It has undertaken to cut Spain’s deficit to levels acceptable to the EU, but Spain has an unemployment rate of some 25 percent and Spanish regional banks are under pressure following the implosion of the Spanish property boom. Unrest is likely to grow fiercer unless economic growth can be promoted and unemployment, especially among the young in Spain, lessened.
The French economy has been stronger than those of the Mediterranean countries, but reforms such as the 35-hour working week, instituted by President Nicolas Sarkozy, are unpopular. Francois Hollande, the socialist president-elect, has called for the European fiscal stability pact to be amended to put the main emphasis on economic growth rather than austerity and has threatened to take steps to roll back Sarkozy’s reforms. The fact that the rightwing National Front, as well as ex-communists, garnered an unexpectedly large share of the votes in the first round of the French presidential elections shows the extent of the disillusionment of French voters with the main political parties.
The Netherlands has been one of the strongest backers of fiscal discipline, but the Dutch government was recently forced to resign when a rightwing party, led by the extremist Geert Wilders, withdrew its support for the government, when it proposed additional austerity measures. A package has since been worked out with the support of other parties, but Dutch support for further austerity cannot be guaranteed
Even in Germany, there are rumbles of discontent with the main political parties. A new party calling itself the Pirates is fielding candidates in state elections with demands for a government that is more responsive to public opinion.
In Britain, the Labour Party is pressing hard for more effective measures to promote growth. The coalition government says it recognizes the need for growth but is reluctant to relax any of the measures taken to cut government expenditures, arguing that capital markets will not allow the government to borrow more.
However, without economic growth, the debt burden will inevitably become heavier rather than lighter. The U.K. Independence Party, which demands British withdrawal from the EU, is shown in some opinion polls to have the support of 10 percent of voters and there is little enthusiasm in Britain for the EU and its institutions.
The United States has a major advantage over Europe in that it controls the most important world currency. But the U.S. economic recovery is fragile and the Republicans seem set on economic austerity and spending cuts that could reduce U.S. growth with consequences for the rest of the developed world.
Malcontents in Western countries are generally critical of globalization and are protectionist. They do not understand the importance of expanding world trade as a motor for economic growth.
The fringe parties also tend to be nationalistic and xenophobic. They call for greater restrictions on immigration especially from Islamic countries. In Western European countries, they object to EU rules on freedom of movement within the EU and complain of immigrants from Eastern Europe allegedly “stealing” jobs from locals and undercutting wages.
These complaints are exacerbated by general disillusionment with the present generation of European politicians, many of whom are thought to be involved in sleaze and too close to media moguls and the rich.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, though not accused of corruption, are thought to be “toffs” out of touch with the problems caused by unemployment and rising prices. (“They do not know the price of a carton of milk.”) They are also accused of favoring their rich pals. They, as well as leading opposition politicians, are seen to have been far too chummy with the Murdochs of News International Corp.
These rumblings and discontent do not mean that the EU or the single currency is about to break up. Nor does it mean that austerity measures to curb deficits will be discarded, and it does not mean that Europe is necessarily moving closer toward protectionist trade policies or will try to close its borders and discriminate against immigrants.
But at a time when voters generally are disillusioned with their politicians, Europe’s leaders need to do more to stimulate economic growth. They also must be more vigilant against right- or leftwing extremism and ensure that the highest possible ethical standards are maintained in public life.
Hugh Cortazzi served as British ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.
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