Be sceptical of simple-sounding theories

A short complement to Greece and France reject austerity? Are elections ever that simple 

By Babak Moussavi

Taken before he saw the result.

Too many elections have been occurring in Europe in recent weeks for political pundits to keep up. François Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy to become only the second Socialist President of the French Fifth Republic. In Greece, a bunch of fringe extremists were elected to its parliament. In the UK, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition received a drubbing at the hands of Labour in Britain’s local elections. And in the large German state of North-Rhein Westfalia, Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU, was trounced by the opposition SPD. What to make of it all?

My humble advice: be sceptical about what you hear. As Joe Markus pointed out, the elections have been referred to as a reflection of anti-austerity sentiment. That may have something to do with it in some places, especially Greece. But it’s unlikely that it was the key variable everywhere: Germany is so far not badly affected (though its exports will be if the European crisis continues), while in France, austerity has not yet properly bitten, and, despite Mr Hollande’s talk about renegotiating the EU fiscal compact, the economic differences between him and Mr Sarkozy were really not that large (as François Cocquemas pointed out recently). Moreover, in Britain, voting patterns suggest the landslide gains for Labour were in part the result of dismal voter turnout by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. This could easily have been a reflection of both parties’ grassroots disaffection with the coalition, rather than hostility to austerity.

Indeed, this leads to the second regular verdict on the swathe of elections: that the results show that voters are in an anti-incumbency mood. It is conceivable that voters turn against their leaders when the times get tough, but such blanket statements about the ‘mood’ that voters across the whole European continent must be in do appear to be quite implausible. If anything, such statements reflect a superficial search for simplicity in a morass of complexity. Nicolas Sarkozy was ousted for a number of reasons, but not merely because he was the incumbent: the man who ran against him must have had a fair bit to do with it. Just as the man who ran against Boris Johnson for the London mayoral election must have had something to do with why the mayor was re-elected. On this note, would we say that Barack Obama is likely to beat Mitt Romney in November because the economy will hopefully have improved or because his Republican rival suffers from foot-in-mouth syndrome and possesses Etch-a-Sketch convictions? Surely it is both – along with the hundreds of other factors that could swing it either way.

If you wish to understand why the European elections have thrown up the results that they have, looking at each case individually would help. Perhaps political scientists will eventually collect enough evidence to suggest people’s main reason for voting was that they thought their candidate was more socially just or economically competent than his or her opponent. But so long as we aren’t equipped with such data, let’s keep the theorising on a low gear, lest we draw the wrong conclusions.

1 comment
  1. One thing to keep in mind is that if Greece does not manage to get a coalition together, new elections will take place, in which it is not unlikely that the incumbent parties would fare much better than they did last time. Sanctioning is one thing, but if it means shooting yourself in the foot, you mind think again before doing it twice.

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