Electoral rejection of “the Narrative” tests Europe’s commitment to democracy
By John C. Dyer, UK Correspondent
9 May 2012.
Elections in the UK, France, and Greece 3 May and 6 May made clear, the voters have had “enough” of the prevailing “Narrative” undergirding “austerity” and “competitiveness.”
In the aftermath, the purveyors of the prevailing “Narrative” urgently sought a reset button. So clear was the electorates’ rejection of that narrative, so clear the demand for change, both Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel felt compelled to say publicly and firmly neither would change course. Their rejection of what they themselves say they understand to have been the voter’s clear message opens a new and dangerous chapter in the story of Western democracy.
6 May the French electorate chose Socialist Francois Hollande over Conservative Nicholas Sarcozy, 52% to 48% with an 80% voter turn out. Hollande promises to shift French focus from austerity to growth. He challenges Europe to deal with the banks. In his victory speech, Hollande spelled out the message to those who may have hoped his campaign posture had been “electioneering.” In France the prevailing narrative had encountered a new narrative. That narrative is, “Enough. Time to grow.”
3 May the UK electorate - those who voted - punished both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at the polls. The Liberal Democrat share of local government, its strongest connection with voters, fell to its lowest levels since the formation of the party. Conservatives lost a substantial number of seats. Of even greater long term significance to Britain’s democracy, turn out fell to just over 30% of those registered to vote. In some places it was 8%. That is 30% of those who had been interested enough at one time to register and remain eligible to vote.
The message of disaffection with the prevailing narrative is clear, however. All the major parties embrace austerity in some form. As Speaker Bercow said, the public perceive little difference between them. The French on the other hand saw in Hollande a difference. That is the reason the same rejection of austerity saw an 80% French turn out but a 70% British turn off.
6 May the Greek electorate threw out the governing coalition of the two most established Greek Parties. As of 9 May the politicians appear impotent to establish a viable replacement coalition to run the country. But pretty much all these many parties have in common is a rejection of austerity-tied bailouts as they now stand. While critics wish to dismiss this as extremist anger, as of 8 May even the head of the Athens Chamber of Commerce called for renegotiation of Greece's bailout.
Wherever Greece may lead, whatever concessions Hollande may be able to negotiate from Merkel, it is clear that a significant percentage of voters across Europe have had enough of the prevailing narrative. The wave of reaction has now claimed France, the Netherlands, Greece and the UK electorate. France, Greece and the Netherlands appear willing to embrace uncertainty rather than continuing surrender to Social Conservative imposition of austerity and competitiveness.
The markets initially reacted with jitters, a hiccup reported with a sense of forlorn worry by reporters. How the markets would react was, indeed, the first and primary thing on reporters' minds. Some reporters did not even attempt neutrality. Others did, but were unable to shake the narrative’s framework of “truths” and arguments even as they attempted neutral analysis. They often appeared the proverbial deer in the headlights.
Standing their ground
Not to worry, markets. Not to worry, media. Cameron and Merkel are "not for turning.”
Chancellor Merkel called a press conference in response to Hollande’s victory speech and very public telephone call to her to open renegotiation of the European compact. Merkel had endorsed Hollande's opponent. But at the press conference Merkel said, albeit stiffly, she would welcome Hollande into the family. On the other hand, Merkel also made it crystal clear she would not budge on austerity.
Prime Minister Cameron initiated a number of Public Relations exercises in the days following 3 May. In an “aftermath” interview, Cameron said he “gets it.” Times are "difficult." The people are disaffected. He understands the vote in the local elections reflects anger at the national programme rather than local issues. But, he will not budge on austerity. 8 May Cameron and Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, publicly “renewed their vows” of coalition and rededicated themselves to the austerity programme, using the word "difficult" repeatedly.
Merkel and Cameron both cite “the reaction in the markets,” the interest rates in the bond market, the “debt crisis,” and/or other elements of the prevailing narrative of “debt crisis” and “lack of competitiveness” as the cause of the people’s miseries. Any economic recovery will be slow, a painstaking task. They cannot vary or alter course from their "credible" plan.
Social and Political Democracy in the balance
Their response raises the aspect which, among the many uncertainties of this moment, troubles me more than most - Europe’s commitment to democracy.
I think anyone who has taken the trouble to inform him or herself about the world economy understands a recovery will be challenging. There is likely no magic bullet to make it all disappear overnight. The nature of any future prosperity may not be everything we all might hope it would be or once was.
On the other hand, Europe and the UK appear set to burn the village in order to save it. The village is social and political democracy. The markets and the elites seem uncomfortable with and set to defy democratic will in the face of democratic rejection of liberalized free trade in a global free market and austerity/competitiveness as the remedy for the global market’s impact on their nations' peoples.
First, the UK and Eurozone authorities imposed swinging austerity cuts and privatization across Europe and the UK, using the leverage of bailout packages and interest rates in Europe. Next, the Eurozone used spiking interest rates to impose unelected technocrats to govern Italy and Greece.
Now, Merkel, acting with the self assurance of a Premier, rejects the will of the people in both France and Greece. Cameron, now publicly acknowledging both a difficult economy and public rejection of his programme, never-the-less makes it clear he will not change course. Both make it abundantly clear that however much the little people don’t like it, leadership “knows best what’s good for you.”
This undemocratic behaviour comes from the same leaders who argue to governments across the globe that governments which fail to accept the will of their people lack legitimacy. They are, of course, right. It is their conduct that does not measure up, not the principle of democratic rule. In a democracy the people are the employers of leaders, who are the people’s representatives. The people are not the leaders’ subjects, or the leaders their employers.
This cannot go to a good place if Europe refuses to honour the will of the people.
It may be that Europe and the UK face an uncertain future if they abandon the narrative.
But Europe and the UK face a certain future of instability and unpredictable social and political change if these governments continue to defy the wishes of their people.
The people have made it clear. Enough.
The leaders have made it clear. Tough.
The electorates in particularly France and Greece now appear set on a collision course with European leadership. This collision will do nothing less than determine the future of democracy in the West. The UK has a tamer history, but the British will find a British way to draw their own kind of line. As the 2012/2013 Parliament opened, as is traditional, with the Queen's Speech setting out the government's agenda for the year, an agenda perhaps best described as status quo, it isn’t all about economics any longer. It is also about the future of social and political democracy in the Europe. Democracy in Europe has not been so clearly tested in some time.