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What’s next for euro?
May 28, 2012
Alistair Burnett

French and Greek voters have spoken loudly on austerity measures, but perhaps not so decisively. In Greece’s case, the message was so unclear that the country returns to the polls on June 17th. Chance is that no matter how they vote the tension between the market and democracy is here to stay.

This month’s election results can be broadly categorised in three ways: The most common headline was a variant on the London Daily Mail’s “Au Revoir Austerity.” Another interpretation was that Europe kicked out another bunch of incumbents. A third variation – Europe’s mainstream parties are losing support to extremists on both the ?right and left.

A strong argument can be made that results in the French presidential and Greek parliamentary elections show that voters have had enough of the debt-reduction policies. In Greece, parties that campaigned explicitly on an anti-austerity platform did very well. But the results may be a continuation of a trend underway since the financial crisis struck in 2008, with leaders of any party tossed out of office once their electorates had the chance to vote – the defeat of US Republicans that year, Gordon Brown’s Labour in the UK in 2010, Spanish Socialist Jose Luis Zapatero in 2011 and now Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then again, recent votes in France and Greece also saw increased support for parties of the far-right and far-left campaigning against the effects of globalisation – the right took issue with immigration while the left oppose power of financial capital and bankers.

There’s an element of truth in all three explanations, which to some extent feed off one another.

The most straightforward factor explaining the French and Greek results is that the parties that had been in power when economic crisis hit four years ago got the blame for the consequences, including increased public debt, public spending cuts and tax rises to pay for bank bailouts by national governments.

Sarkozy, who came to power in 2007, promising to reform the French economy for faster growth, was only a little more than a year into his presidency when the crisis hit. The crisis derailed much of his reform programme and also associated him in the minds of his electorate with rising debt and the euro crisis.

In the Greek election, socialist PASOK, in power in 2008, saw its support plummet, blamed for not preventing the collapse of the country’s finances and severe austerity measures that have hiked unemployment and reduced the standard of living. There was a rise in support for smaller parties opposing austerity measures and a fall in support for the main opposition party.

There is one exception to the trend of European incumbents since 2008 failing at re-election, blamed for not preventing the crisis and associated with the recessions, spending cuts and tax increases – Poland.

Last year, Poles re-elected the coalition led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Still, this result also confirms the view that Europeans base their voting decisions on the state of the economy. Voters rewarded incumbent Tusk, because the Polish economy escaped Europe’s suffering and continued to grow, perhaps benefitting from proximity to the German market and exchange rate flexibility arising from not being in the euro.

The economic crisis has spurred the rise of far-right and far-left parties in recent European elections.

But across Europe, voters are also rejecting conventional politics and politicians, left and right. In Italy’s recent local elections, the Five Star Movement, led by former comedian, Beppe Grillo, who supports Italy’s leaving the euro, garnered almost a fifth of the vote in some cities and won the Mayoralty of Parma, while in Germany the Pirate Party, which campaigns for internet freedom, got almost 8 percent in the North Rhine-Westphalia state election in Germany on May 13th.

In contrast to France and the Nordic countries, parties that focus on the place of Muslims in society and immigration controls may have peaked in other countries. So perhaps a neglected outcome of the French and Greek elections is the tension exposed between democracy and the interests of financial capitalism.

Democracy in Europe is facing a challenge. And some see it coming less from parties of the far-right or far-left and more from the interests of financial capital as expressed in the markets.
Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight, a BBC News programme

© Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation
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