The Political Establishment is Wrong (Yet Again)

The Dutch elections resulted in elation among the political establishment. The reaction is very reminiscent to Alexander Van Der Bellen’s win in the Austrian presidential elections, having defeated the far-right Norbert Hofer. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders PVV, the right-wing party, only came in second place with 13% of the vote, while incumbent prime minister Mark Rutte’s VVD got 21% of the vote, thus receiving another mandate to rule, very likely without the PVV.

The political establishment consists of people like Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and for many the leader of the “free” world, because Donald Trump is not establishment enough to be such a leader (though in many ways he is quite a conventional politician given that he has no strong political ideology on his side). Merkel spoke of the victory of the pro-European forces and that the Dutch people had made a reasonable choice (Chambers, March 16, 2017). Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentilioni tweeted his approval: “The anti-EU right has lost the election in the Netherlands. All together for change and revive the (European) Union.” The French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault tweeted, “Congratulations to the Dutch for preventing the rise of the far right”. (Said-Moorhouse and Jones, March 16, 2017) The implication hereby is that the defeat of the far-right gives some breathing room for the political establishment to continue on their current policies of austerity and growing precarization of labor. I argue here that this is a miscalculation by the political establishment.

Does the political establishment have sufficient reason to rejoice? Let’s look at the results in some more detail. While the liberal VVD is still number one, they have lost 5 points, which is 20% of their voter base from the last elections. That is quite a voter punishment. It is true that PVV has not gained as much as they might have in the past (their peak was 15% in 2010, when they also served in government), but they have restored some of their losses to rank in second place. The splintering of the political party system allows the PVV to be ranked second even with only 13% of the vote. The GreenLeft has been the biggest beneficiary of the election, which shows that progressive forces can also benefit politically, but the most astounding result is the collapse of the Labor Party (PvdA), which lost 19 points or 80% of their voter base. PvdA is practically no longer a political force and they have to be happy that they were able to hold on to any seats at all. Historically, PvdA held 1/4 of the parliamentary seats throughout the post-war period, but they are now a spent force.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 10.01.30 PM

Source: Wikipedia

Some people would say that Social Democrats can no longer retain their vote share because they were too successful. The welfare state which made the people vote left has already been established, it remains vigorously strong, and thus people want to vote for environmentalist parties like the Greens. The standard of living in the Netherlands is rather high, but the erosion process of the Social Democrats cannot merely come from the success of the pro-welfare state agenda. People in formerly Social Democratic counties are quite upset about (1) austerity budgets from the government, (2) the rise of precarious labor especially part-time work (women were dragged into the workforce only since the 1980s and only under the condition of part-time work, which affects 80% of women, Economist 2015), (3) decline in median wealth (from 50,000 euros to 29,000 euros between 2008 and 2011, see Oxfam 2013), (4) the rise of the unemployment rate (at 7% compared to less than 4% before 2008) (5) the diversification of neighborhoods, mainly from Suriname, Morocco and Turkey, but also Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. It can never be a happy mixture when economic insecurity is mixed with ethnic diversification, because the local population will blame their economic plight and the decreased subjective sense of physical security on foreigners and immigrants.

That’s exactly what Geert Wilders promised his voters: ban the Quran, shut down all mosques, withdrawal from the EU, assimilation of all immigrants, stop to immigration from Muslim countries (Donald Trump, anyone?), police officers can’t wear veils, repatriate Antilleans (with Dutch nationality) and foreign nationals with a criminal background etc. No surprises here. Wilders does not have good reasons to defend why anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment will make his voters any better off, but they are hooked, because people feel that he is the only one speaking for the little guy. Politics is about emotions and the populists control emotions really well, while the political establishment that takes the form of Jeroen Dijsselbloem (from the decimated PvdA) can only promise harsh austerity because “there is no alternative” and tell Greeks they shouldn’t waste the bailout money on women and booze (Harrison, March 25, 2017).

There really is no reason for rejoicing by the political establishment. What they were able to say with contempt for the grievances of the public is that they can do the same policies that they had been doing (bailout for banks, austerity and precarity for the masses), and then hope things won’t blow up in the next round.

Europe faces two more elections in major countries, while they are negotiating the Brexit with the British. There are French presidential elections in April and German parliamentary elections in September. Let’s begin with the French. Below you can see the poll values for each candidate.

Source: Wikipedia (as of March 26, 2017)

The figure to worry about is the Front National leader Marine Le Pen, who has kept her vote share about even. She is another political figure to assail the pro-EU and pro-immigration course, and one would think that she would have more support given the recent terrorist attacks that have kept the French on the headlines since 2015. The socialist government under Francois Hollande used the terror attacks to impose a state of emergency, which has been continuously extended even until today. Has that calmed the moods? Le Pen would lose even though she would almost surely make it to the second round. In the first round, she would get about 25% of the vote, and in the second round, she would only bump up to 30 or 35%, which suggests that she is a polarizing figure. Those that vote for her like her very much, and those that do not vote for her, would never consider voting for her. Such fate would make her similar to her father in 2002, who made it to the second round but failed abjectly in the second round, because cordon sanitaire held (i.e. left-wing voters holding their nose to vote for the conservative Chirac). That would create the impression that France might dodge the right-wing bullet, but since Brexit and Trump we perhaps should be more careful about such predictions.

The frontrunner on the right had been Francois Fillon from the conservative party, who prevailed against the oldtimer, Alain Juppe. Fillon campaigns on balancing the budget and bringing in neoliberal reforms, whereby the French workers tend to be the most resistant to labor deregulation. But his polls had been dropping the last two months since his coronation, because he is involved in a scandal, where he hired his family for political work, even though they didn’t do anything for him. That is an example of nepotism, which is regarded as very negatively in France.

Interestingly, promiscuous sexual relations that are frowned upon in the US, are perfectly acceptable in France. The new frontrunner to displace Fillon is the young Emmanuel Macron, who had served as the economy minister under Valls and Hollande. So what about Macron and sex? His wife is Brigitte Trogneux, his former high school teacher 24 years his senior. Trogneux spoke lovingly of Macron, who was her favorite student, as she regularly read his poetry out loud in class. He was the teacher’s pet. Macron’s parents frowned upon the intimacy between teacher and student and sent their son away to another town. Macron spoke with Trogneux about the decision, and she advised him to do what his parents told him. Macron then said to her that they will stay together and when Macron returns they would get married. Indeed, as soon as Macron graduated at 18, Trogneux divorced her husband with whom she already had 3 children and moved in with her young lover Macron. 11 years later the two were married (see Gee, January 31, 2017).

Politically, Macron promises voters to bring fresh wind into the old structures of French politics. En marche (forward, on the move) is what he called his new political movement. He is a progressive, who wants to “transcend left and right”. He favors the free market (read: neoliberalism, labor deregulation, more profit incentive for capitalists) and reducing the public budget deficit (read: austerity). He scores political points by condemning French imperialism, as was the case during the colonization of Algeria. He favors more EU integration, especially in the form of a common EU finance minister with more authority and budget (which in the current configuration strengthens neoliberal power, because of the preference for liberalization and opposition to an integrated social policy). He favors the acceptance of many refugees, and thus runs counter to the right-wing populists.

Macron is the dream come true for the political establishment, and his lead in the polls is again suggesting that the establishment seems to have done everything correctly. He follows along the trails of Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, who shows his teary face when welcoming Syrian refugees into Canada, greeting people celebrating different ethnic and religious holidays, while signing oil contracts with Texas billionaires to exploit the shale gas in Canada without regard for climate change, proliferating low-wage jobs and offering cheap foreign workers indefinite staying rights. It’s neoliberalism with a human face (Walkom 2016), and that is what Macron can offer his voters. I doubt that most French voters will vote based on some rational calculus, but based on the feel-good atmosphere that Macron vibrates. “En marche”. Let’s march. Let’s do something. Let’s be active. Let’s make France great again! Of course, Macron is not going to tell his voters the social implications of his agenda, but all he has to do is to say that he presents the young, fresh face to end the political gridlock in the country, which has kept unemployment so high. The strategy seems to pay off in part, as he leads the polls and is replacing Le Pen as frontrunner.

The real tragedy is that there are two big left-wing candidates. The communists field Jean-Luc Melenchon, and the socialists field Benoit Hamon, a left-wing critic of his party colleagues Valls and Hollande. Hamon has campaigned on a universal basic income and more generous social policy, and Melenchon isn’t that far apart from Hamon. The tragedy is that they are two candidates each with about 12-13% approval rating, which combined would put them up ahead with a chance to snatch the presidency. But no, the left is internally divided, stealing votes from each other and not even having the appearance of a chance to win the presidency. The media makes fun of these two candidates, especially Hamon, who represents the governing party that is so despised by the voters. Hollande promised he would not run for re-election if he could not substantially reduce the unemployment rate, and he wasn’t able to, so he didn’t even bother to run. People seem to equate Hamon with Hollande, even though their political positions are quite different. No matter, the real left-wing alternative is blocked, and French voters are seriously contemplating a neoliberal, presenting himself as a “fresh” face (but same content), and a right-wing extremist. No wonder that old democracies are now becoming the farce!

Germany is considered to be the key anchor of European stability. That has partly to do with their sheer economic strength and also with the surplus-producing function of the German export economy, which lends the Germans the power of the purse that had been used against other southern European economies that cannot remain competitiveness with Germany given the strength of the euro currency controlled by Germany. Germany has been rather peculiar in pushing down the unemployment rate even during the crisis, and they have balanced their budget. Some problems persist like the growth of low-wage work following the draconian social welfare legislation of the earlier Social Democratic government, which now struggles with permanently lowered popular support the last decade or so (holding about 1/4 of the vote).

Source: Wikipedia (as of March 26, 2017)

Until Martin Schulz came along. When I wrote my German politics paper during my undergraduate years in the spring of 2015, I genuinely thought that Merkel would sit in office until she died or decided to retire. Merkel certainly did not decide to retire and announced her candidacy for a fourth term. She is the center of political stability, having been the CDU (conservative party) chair since 2000 and chancellor since 2005. Only Helmut Kohl had been in power longer than her. It is his record that she can break if she can hold onto the chancellorship.

But then the refugee crisis broke out, and people began blaming the CDU for the inundating of the country. Over a million refugees were absorbed into Germany in 2015 and into 2016 until the pathway was blocked, when the EU struck a deal with Turkey to withhold the refugees and prevent them from entering the EU. An apparent success for Merkel, who was subsequently able to consolidate her poll figures (and also led to the decline of the rising star of the right-wing AfD). She did not have to hold the 42% of votes she got in the last elections, but she only had to have more votes than the second-ranked SPD to continue on a grand coalition under her leadership.

The SPD having been part of the Merkel government for the second term now had a problematic optic: in order to beat Merkel, they had to sell themselves as anti-establishment, but as members of the governing coalition they were part of the establishment. On top of that, the SPD had an unenthusiastic leader, Sigmar Gabriel, who loved his SPD chairmanship, but hated the idea of running for the chancellor, which he turned down twice when offered to him: once in 2009, when Frank-Walter Steinmeier became the frontrunner, and a second time in 2013, when Peer Steinbruck did the same. Gabriel apparently hated competitive elections, and not being the leading candidate allowed him to stay on as party chairman and ultimately vice chancellor. The problem is that the lack of charisma and second fiddling does not win elections.

Martin Schulz, the EU parliament president, who had only experienced EU politics and no German domestic politics, was called upon to take the SPD chairmanship. Schulz is not showing his political ambitions for the first time. In 2014, the EU established for the first time competitive elections with figure heads for the EU commission president (which were previously appointed by the EU council). The conservatives (EPP) fielded Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg and the Social Democrats (S&D) fielded Martin Schulz. The TV debates were held in English, French and German, languages that both candidates were all fluent in (Schulz can also speak Italian and Dutch, and Juncker Luxembourgish). But the election was entirely comical, because they both understood each other well, and there wasn’t much of a political contrast. There wasn’t much fervor in the EU parliament elections, because the real power was in the EU council which consists of the prime ministers of the EU countries and also in the national governments themselves that controlled most of the budgets.

Now that Schulz was demoted in Brussels (against the will of Juncker, the commission president, who liked cooperating with Schulz, as EU parliament president), he was seeking for a new political outlet, and so he was given the chancellor candidacy. Now the CDU and SPD are neck on neck, and the SPD has a genuine chance to regain the chancellorship and unseat Merkel. Some commentators already predict the new axis of Macron and Schulz, which will revive the Franco-German axis and deal with the Brexit and any future integration of the EU. Schulz sells himself as a pro-EU, having served in its highest positions. He also brands himself with a more left-wing rhetoric, which is a demarcation from Macron’s neoliberalism. But if we scratch away the surface, we find that Schulz isn’t all that much different from the rest of the political establishment. There are some progressive ideas for Schulz policy. He wants to close the gender pay gap, curb executive compensation and invest the budget surplus in education and infrastructure. But the Hartz agenda, which had earlier brought down his party, shall not be fundamentally changed given that it is partly responsible for the export surplus of Germany (another major part being the euro). He condemned left-wing calls for an abolition of benefit sanctions for welfare recipients not meeting the work requirement.

No matter where we look in Europe, democracies are showing public discontent, but so long as the moderate parties can win the elections, there will be plenty of discontent that the political parties cannot transform into positive energy for more sustainable political-economic solutions. The malaise of economic crisis, investment crisis, inequality, poverty, low-wage work and ethnic diversification cannot be resolved by the political status quo, yet that is all that we are served today. Without a new positive vision, we are doomed.

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