Political fallout from crisis is still unclear

We are living through the biggest financial crisis the world has ever known. The wider world economy is also now going through the deepest and longest downturn since the Great Depression. Decisions are still being made that will determine how bad the crisis will be for most of us. At the very least, our medium-term economic futures have been thoroughly overturned. Some forecasters are beginning to see the end of the recession, though views vary. Nevertheless, the fiscal consequences and the cost in unemployment, especially for the young, are huge. Yet the political fallout from the international crisis presents a very confused picture. Inevitably, most governments in Europe are suffering falling popularity, attacked for failing to prevent the crisis. Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity have plummeted, Silvio Berlusconi was already losing support before the recent scandals, and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Spain has lost support just 15 months after being elected. And yet, leaders in office are not faring as badly as they might have feared. In Greece, polls show Costas Karamanlis is more popular than main opposition PASOK leader George Papandreou. In Germany, Angela Merkel («Iron Angie») is the most popular politician in the country. Sarkozy’s party did very well in the European parliamentary elections and Zapatero’s Socialists came out as the most popular center-left party in Europe. At the same time, the economic crisis is regularly pushed off Europe’s front pages. We prefer to discuss scandals: whether Berlusconi has paid for sex or what expenses British MPs have charged to the taxpayer. The economic crisis is uncertain and complex, better to focus on personal scandal. The traditional ideologies were already under stress, now they’re in a state of suspension. The public lacks a frame to guide its political choices. Ideologies While no shift is greater than that of former President George W. Bush to nationalize US banks, the abandonment of traditional positions in the desperate search for solutions is evident across Europe. Just a short time ago, Sarkozy was preaching the need to reform the French economy to make it more flexible and competitive. He signaled his admiration for the Anglo-Saxon «model» and his frustration at France’s continuing «statism.» Now, he argues that the economic crisis has shown the virtues of the French way and proceeds to lecture London. There, the Labour government, which had curiously announced it would celebrate people becoming rich, is now embarrassed by the huge salaries and bonuses taken by the «greedy» bankers. Brown is condemned for his lack of vision: that is, his ideological confusion. Even in Germany, part of Angela Merkel’s appeal stems from the fact that she is an atypical right-winger: a centrist advocate of soft conservatism who upsets factions within her own party. Undecided The public is politically restless and is looking for someone to blame but across Europe it’s also unsure who to support. In France, Germany and Italy, the opposition parties are in serious disarray, unable to seize on the crisis and make any definite political breakthrough. In Spain, the center-right edged ahead in the European elections, but not well enough to show a clear shift of support. Even in Britain, with Gordon Brown less popular than the devil, David Cameron and the Conservatives appear not to have fully convinced the electorate. Of course, the European elections showed some increased support for the extreme right. On the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Britain elected two neo-fascists to the European Parliament. And though Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National lost support, this was within the context of Sarkozy flirting with the extreme right’s constituency. His recent suggestion that the full veil worn by Muslim women should be banned is further evidence of this strategy. We cannot be sanguine that the riots seen in France and Greece will not recur somewhere, as jobs are lost and migrant labor is scapegoated. In Northern Ireland, where they know about prejudice, coach-loads of Romanian migrant workers have just returned home to escape violent intimidation. Our politics is in more disarray than the economy. With paradigms collapsing and positions shifting, we escape to the safety of amusing scandals, indignation at the private behavior of our leaders, and lifestyle issues of religious wear. We are hungry for distraction. In parallel, our politics loses legitimacy and we ignore the long-term issues. We withhold our political support and tomorrow almost anyone might win. The recession’s political impact has still to be determined. (1) Kevin Featherstone is the director of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics.