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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Europeans Vote against Austerity

On May 6, 2012, elections took place in six E.U. states. The most significant in terms of the debt crisis are those of France and Greece. In France, Francois Hollande narrowly beat Nicolas Sarkozy. According to the New York Times, Sarkozy “is the latest of a string of European incumbents, from both the left and the right, to lose in a larger popular revolt against budget-cutting and tax increased during a time of recession and high unemployment.” Hollande said “he intends to give ‘a new direction to Europe,’ demanding that a European Union [amendment] limiting debt be expanded to include measures to produce economic growth.” After midnight, Hollande spoke against austerity to a crowd gathered at the Bastille. To be sure, an anti-Sarkozy-arrogance vote doubtlessly benefitted Hollande. This makes it difficult to treat this (or any other) election as a mandate policywise. Even so, the center of gravity on austerity at the E.U. level had shifted, given the important role of state officials there.
                 François Hollande addressed supporters in Tulle, France.      Philippe Desmazes/Agence France-Presse

Meanwhile, voters in Greece were shifting the political landscape in that state, “bolstering the far left and neo-Nazi right in a wave of protest against the dominant political parties that they blame for the country’s economic collapse.” In other words, the two main parties that had agreed to the austerity/bailout agreement lost ground to other parties—essentially splintering the vote. According to the New York Times, an exit poll “indicated that center-right New Democracy party was in first place with 19 to 20.5 percent of the vote, much less than the 34 percent it won in 2009. But in a major shift, the Socialists, who dominated for decades, won 44 percent of the vote in 2009 and were in power when Greece asked for foreign aid in 2010, appeared to have 13 to 14 percent of the vote, putting them behind the Coalition of the Radical Left, called Syriza, which opposes Greece’s agreement with its foreign lenders. Syriza appeared to be drawing 15.5 to 17 percent of the vote.” New Democracy and the Socialist Party had agreed to the austerity, and they paid a price at the polls.
The shifts in both states undoubtedly provided federal officials (including state officials active at the federal level) with a message: more and more E.U. citizens were opposing the austerity-only approach. Lest it be concluded that Hollande and the Greek legislature trigger a change of E.U. policy, incumbents including Angela Merkel were still a force to be reckoned with. Generally speaking, actual political change occurs in graduate steps rather than all at once after an election. The status quo is never entirely defeated by a few replacements; it takes several elections for a sea-change to gain the upper hand in governmental channels.
Even so, May 6, 2012 suggests that the forces of such change were gaining.  Even if it would take more elections for the austerity-emphasis to be changed, it was already clear that a majority of the people were willing to vote as if they were opposed to the approach.  In relying so much on austerity in their agreement with Greece, state leaders making policy at the E.U. level had gone beyond the center of gravity. In a representative democracy, doing what is right or in the people’s best interest at the expense of popular anger or disapproval has value. However, this leash does not extend very long and it must be tailored to the amount of time until the next election. This is both a disadvantage and advantage of representative democracy: officials cannot get too far from their basis in the popular center of gravity, even if a crisis warrants a long-term solution that is generally unpopular at the grass-roots level.
Sources:
Steve Erlanger and Nicola Clark, “Hollande Ousts Sarkozy in French Presidential Election,” The New York Times, May 6, 2012. 
Rachel Donadio and Nici Kitsantonis, “Greek Voters Punish 2 Main Parties for Economic Collapse,” The New York Times, May 6, 2012.