Monday, 21 May 2007

Europe sways to a centre-right swansong

A very interesting article...
By Wolfgang Munchau,
Published: May 21 2007 03:00
A voting share of 53 per cent sounds impressive. But a closer analysis of the French presidential election throws up a perplexing result. According to Ipsos*, the polling organisation, 18-59 year olds - those who work and pay most of the taxes - overwhelmingly voted for Ségolène Royal, the defeated Socialist candidate. Nicolas Sarkozy is now the president of France as a result of an extraordinary degree of homogenous political preferences by pensioners. Mr Sarkozy won an unbelievable 68 per cent among those over 70, and 61 per cent among the 60-69 year olds. So much for the notion of generational change. The old crowd in France is still very much in charge. The first and obvious conclusion is that in Europe's ageing societies, the political power of the older generation is large - and occasionally decisive. Tom Peters, the management guru, has made another interesting observation in his blog**. While Mr Sarkozy was campaigning on a "back-to-work" ticket, he owed his election victory to people who are no longer in work. Mr Peters says by sending the young back to work, the "six-zero plussers can get their hands on the loot they need to spend their remaining winters in Nice". I would probably not go that far, but would concede that the presidential election result was clearly an example of an insider-outsider vote.
Mr Sarkozy also did well in the 25-34 age group, where he managed to win 57 per cent, according to Ipsos. My own explanation is that his promise to modernise the French labour market would benefit this age group disproportionately - again an insider-outsider phenomenon. But the long-term age trend runs against the centre-right. The Socialists may have lost three presidential elections in a row and are currently busy committing political fratricide. But make no mistake: the left in French politics is very much alive.
The trend towards the left is even stronger in Germany. A week after the French presidential elections, there was a much less noticed election in the small German city-state of Bremen, a traditional SPD stronghold. The most interesting result of that election was a strong gain by the Greens and the Linkspartei (Left party) - which, as its name suggests, is a radical party on the far left of the political spectrum. The Linkspartei will enter a west German state parliament for the first time. Its parliamentary party in Berlin is co-headed by Oskar Lafontaine, who famously resigned as SPD party chairman and finance minister in 1999. It has its roots in east Germany, but is now gaining in the west.
I did some calculations on the combined national voting share of a hypothetical leftwing alliance of SPD, the Greens and the Linkspartei. That share went up from 48 per cent in the 1994 federal elections to about 52 per cent in the three elections since. While the present SPD establishment has categorically ruled out a coalition with the far left, I would not be surprised if that position were to change at some point. The left has a structural majority in the country. It will ultimately use it.
Another interesting aspect of the result in Bremen, and the nationwide polls in general, is that the centre-right has become an old peoples' movement - just as it has in France. Since Germany is full of old people, the CDU's results still look respectable, but the age trend is alarming. In Bremen, the CDU managed to get 26 per cent of the overall vote, but the voting share among the 18-59 year olds was only about 20 per cent. This is not a local phenomenon.
The really important point is the changing political dynamics of German and French pensioners. Most pensioners today are from the pre-1968 generation. They spent their politically formative years in the 1940s and 1950s. They are mostly conservative and vote for Mr Sarkozy or Ms Merkel. But as the baby boomers of the '68 generation start to retire in the coming years, that pattern will change. I bet that this group will continue to support the left as they grow older. If this happens, the left in France and Germany can look forward to a big structural majority for many years to come, supported by the young and the old alike.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that Ms Merkel has turned out to be reluctant to push for reforms. I would expect Mr Sarkozy eventually to shift to the left after some initial "back to work"-type labour market reforms. If not, we can look forward to an accelerated political comeback of the French Socialists - probably under a different name and leadership.
Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy are both exceptional and talented politicians. But I do not buy the argument that they are representatives of a new age of centre-right European politics. I think it is far more likely that they will turn out to be transitional figures in brave defiance of a tectonic shift to the left in their countries.


Pedro said...

Where does that leave the liberals?

Renaldas said...

With obscure chances to hope for the new generation or in other words, soon we will be a rarity and quite right after extinct...