Saturday, February 26, 2011

Another one bites the dust

The Irish election, predictably, has brought the humiliation of Fianna Fail, down to just 15% of the vote, and a likely centre-left coalition between Fine Gael and Labour. Not surprisingly, given the almighty mess that the government made of handling the financial crisis.

So far, no government in any democracy that I can think of has actually won straight reelection since 2008. Germany had continuity in the Chancellorship, but the coalition changed radically, with the Social Democrats taking the punishment; in the Netherlands the CDA hung onto some government power but lost half of its parliamentary seats (leader and former PM Balkenende resigned). Long-standing incumbents - Labour in the UK, Bush in the US, the Independence party in Iceland - have all been defeated at least in part by the consequences of the collapse of liberalized finance. In Belgium there isn't even a government. We await elections in France, Italy and Spain - incumbent defeat is a near certainty in the latter.

It is predictable that voters punish incumbents when things are going badly. However, the scale of the punishment is unusual, because things are going unusually badly. We know that political parties are weaker than they used to be, and that electoral politics is getting more volatile - this was the case even before 2008. There are prospects now for major changes in democratic party systems - quite what form they will take is difficult to say. But it seems a good bet that parties protesting against the establishment are likely to do well, since most mainstream opposition parties had pretty much signed up to the economic orthodoxy that led to disaster.