The perils of passing the political baton

Last week’s British elections and last year’s Greek ones have highlighted a common problem facing governing parties in democratic societies: How to pass on the reins of authority with maximum effect and minimum fuss. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s promise to hand over to his successor during this term, and former Greek PM Costas Simitis’s pre-electoral rejigging efforts, may have contrasted in means and manner, but both point to the temptations – and the pitfalls – of trying to pull off a leadership switch while dodging the purgatory of lengthy opposition. To political leaders (not to mention others), spells in government may seem like marathons. Frequently, though, they involve relays. Passing the baton of power is a tricky maneuver aimed at injecting new blood into a party, but if mishandled it can drain the life out of it. Countries used to regular elections may not have the imaginative options available elsewhere – Boris Yeltsin’s dramatic, millennium-eve handover to Vladimir Putin in Russia comes to mind – but there are plenty of ways for enterprising leaders to engineer changeovers in order, they hope, to perpetuate their party’s stay in office while shoring up their own legacy. The evidence, however, suggests that such attempts are fraught with difficulty. One problem stems from the dual nature of party politics. Parties are built like inverted pyramids, with the leadership laying down the law. Yet they are also collective enterprises, with cabinets, committees, and collegiality (real or feigned) the rule. Especially in Europe, successions are often slow and hard-earned, with little chance of outsiders gate-crashing the party, as can happen in the US. Patience required To most outsiders, last Thursday was all about Tony Blair winning an unprecedented third straight term in office for his Labour Party. To many Britons, however, the election was equally about a second figure: Not Tory leader Michael Howard but rather the chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. Brown and Blair have provided media fodder due to a long-running and ill-disguised dispute over fulfillment of a private deal cut long ago, by which Blair would have first go as prime minister, then hand over to Brown – at some unspecified point. Brown, the principal architect of Britain’s recent boom, clearly expected to be in 10 Downing Street by now. Instead, he has languished next door at Number 11, the chancellor’s official residence. The government’s sharply reduced majority (now at 67 seats) has renewed his hopes for an early changeover. Blair has declared that this was his last election and called Brown his successor. Yet he has also said he intends to fulfill his term, which runs for a maximum five years. This may not be deliberate double-talk, but it could invite a re-eruption of the soap-operatic tensions of their second term, which diverted attention from pressing issues like Iraq. Strikingly, Blair was fending off renewed calls for a changing of the guard within days of his historic yet somehow hollow victory on May 5. «Political twins» may not accurately describe these two, given the lack of love lost between them. Yet they have been chained at the ankle as the government’s and party’s bedrocks. They have a common Scottish heritage, but in political style they are a study in contrast, with Blair’s breezy, telegenic presence counterbalanced by Brown’s economic policy heft and his weighty (some would say dour) demeanor befitting a university rector-turned-politician. The fact that Brown is more of a party traditionalist and historian, and also two years older, must grate as well. With the Pandora’s box now open, the problem is not just when Blair hands over to his economic deputy (2007? After an EU referendum?), but how it will turn out for party and country. Pundits are already speculating about economic trouble ahead regardless of who leads the government, with deficits growing and growth slowing. That would be ironic as well as damaging for Brown, who has built his reputation on economic stability combined with judicious spending. Even before then, there is plenty of potential downside. Brown could tire of playing Job; he could chafe publicly, scheme and maneuver among party backbenchers, or force the issue in some way. Any resolution hinges on Blair’s good will and credibility, and on the wider political momentum. It could be a seamless transition, or it could get messy, as stubbornness is an underappreciated Blair trait. No one likes to get pushed. Just look at French President Jacques Chirac’s chafing at the presidential ambitions of Nicholas Sarkozy, his party’s leader. Unequal equals Other such cases, of friends and colleagues turning into bickering rivals, give little cause for long-term optimism on the Blair-Brown handover. Twenty years ago brought the curious case of the two Davids, Owen and Steel, who led Britain’s Social Democrats and Liberals, respectively, in an alliance prior to their formal merger. Of the same generation and similarly ambitious, the two were ill at ease in running a two-headed electoral dragon, and their once-promising movement floundered in the late Thatcher years. The lesson was that parties (or even alliances) need a clear line of authority to be credible. More recently, the White House duo of President Bill Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, soured over their transition. Unable to run again, Clinton passed the baton for the 2000 election. Yet the two, who cooperated closely during eight years in office, fell out over election tactics, with Gore trying desperately to distance himself from Clinton and run on his own merits, and Clinton exasperated that Gore refused to build his (losing) campaign around the 1992-2000 record. This points up still another problem for political twins: that of building on the partnership without being swallowed up by it, and of blazing a new trail without burning bridges. Putting on heirs The challenges are not necessarily diminished in cases of elder statesmen (or women) handing over to younger, fresher successors. Same-generation rivalry may not be at issue, but questions of loyalty still impinge. The Greek case shows similar difficulties in hand-picking successors, although the longer term still has to play out. A flagging Simitis government, far behind in the polls, hit on the novel idea, in late 2003, of a succession in stages. Simitis would remain caretaker prime minister while George Papandreou became PASOK head and, if the party won the March 2004 elections, would take over as PM. The maneuver did little for the cause of internal party democracy, and even less to save PASOK from its long-anticipated electoral battering. It did, however, have an air of certainty about it. It also cleverly sheltered Papandreou from blame for the party’s defeat and from a subsequent party backlash, sustaining his position no matter what happened at the polls. Could it serve as a model for Blair/Brown? Since then Papandreou has struggled in the unaccustomed role of opposition leader. He seems to regard time as on his side, which may be only natural given his family’s countrywide name recognition and his party’s presumptions about regaining office sooner rather than later. And unquestionably, he has been helped by Simitis’s sensible refusal to play the back-seat driver in retirement. Gordon Brown has no such comfortable heritage to fall back on and seems potentially more hostage to his country’s economic fortunes. Both he and Papandreou, however, could face future premierships that are nasty, brutish, and short unless they can show some exceptional sleight-of-hand in balancing fealty to tradition with a flair for new beginnings.

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