Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Politics of confusion leaves a void for hate

Oct 4, 2010

As Western govts face ideological void, fringe parties are flourishing
By Jonathan Eyal

ARE we witnessing a new trend? Three recent general elections, held in countries as far afield as Australia, Sweden and Britain, produced stalemates, with no single party winning an overall majority.

Nor are these just fluke results. Canada and New Zealand have endured almost a decade of inconclusive elections, while Belgium and the Netherlands are still straining to put together a government, months after their ballots.

While specific national factors may be at play, something more profound is happening: the advent of the politics of confusion, in which ideology and old party loyalties no longer matter, and the electorate is increasingly fickle. The real question is whether this trend is now irreversible.

Ideology - the glue that used to bind Western politics - has been dying a slow death since the end of the Cold War two decades ago, and parties have learnt to adapt to this.

Socialists embraced the market economy. Britain's Labour party became 'New Labour', while Germany's socialists grew comfortable in the company of cigar-chomping millionaires.

Right-wing politicians discarded their traditional hatred of the welfare state: Britain's Premier David Cameron, of the Conservative Party, talks incessantly about the 'big society', a tent in which, supposedly, everyone is looked after.

But it is becoming more obvious that such a simple political rebranding exercise is no longer enough for electorates, who demand more substantive policy changes in response to the global financial turmoil.

The chief consequence from the meltdown of the West's banking system is that big government is back, with a vengeance. A decade ago, the United States government was responsible for spending 37 per cent of its country's gross domestic product (GDP); today, the figure is 42 per cent. In Britain, state spending jumped from 44 per cent of GDP to 55 per cent over the same period.

The way governments allocate wealth now matters again.

In theory, left-wing parties should benefit from this development. After all, the financial crisis is a reminder that capitalism does not always work as intended. Socialists also believe that the state is the best distributor of resources. But, curiously, Western left-wing parties remain as bankrupt as their nations' banks.

They have failed to persuade the electorate of their ability to create wealth, rather than merely distribute it. Instead of being trusted to provide answers to the financial crisis, they are seen as part of the problem.

The decline of the left is painfully evident. In Germany and Sweden, socialist parties scored their worst electoral results since World War II. Britain's Labour did even worse: Its recent share of the vote was the lowest since the 1920s.

One reason general elections are now inconclusive is, therefore, the absence of a truly viable opposition: Those who do not like right-wing governments do not have much of a choice.

Another reason is the rise of single-issue movements. These range from the downright silly - one Swedish party advocates making legal the download of any copyrighted material on the Internet - to the respectable but narrow, such as the Greens, and all the way to the downright sinister variety of extreme left and extreme right movements.

The biggest boost to fringe parties is currently provided by the anti-immigration wave which grips Europe. The old political elite - which has ignored this development for decades - simply has no clue about how to respond.

Some, like France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, are tempted to beat the nationalists at their own game, by engaging in populist measures such as the wholesale expulsion of gypsies. Others are determined to continue ignoring the problem altogether.

But the result is invariably the same: a split in the electorate, which virtually guarantees stalemate. That is what has paralysed political life in Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia, as well as in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria.

The scattering of votes among many small parties seems destined to continue, because it is underpinned by wider social changes. Few people bother to join the old political parties. Germany's Christian Democratic Union, for instance, has a signed-up membership of half a million, out of a total population of 82 million. Most voters are no longer beholden to any movement: They 'float', as electoral experts put it.

More importantly, fringe parties now face few obstacles to entering politics. Protest movements can be mobilised through Facebook, websites can collect electoral money, and one clever stunt can guarantee an unknown politician huge media exposure. Sweden's anti-immigrant party gained instant fame by producing an electoral video which showed some burqa-clad Muslim women beating a white person to the queue at the social benefits office. No reasoned argument; just raw hatred in a few clips would do.

The fragmentation of Western politics is not all bad. Coalition governments can often be solid, and forge sensible policies.

But the danger is that, as fragmentation proceeds, the only viable coalitions would either be those which include extremists, or those which exclude them by cobbling together wider alliances incapable of coming to a decision. These are the awful choices now facing Sweden and the Netherlands.

The real answer for both the mainstream left and right is to relaunch their political messages, and recapture the fringes, rather than merely concentrate on holding the middle ground.

This requires effort, time and ingenuity. Since these commodities are in short supply, Western politicians are attracted to a different idea: tinkering with existing electoral systems to ensure that ballot results still produce clear answers.

But the artificial manufacturing of majorities is unlikely to provide salvation. For the ideological void which now exists in many Western countries will, sooner or later, be filled.
By either the men of reason, or the men of hate.

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