Elections are funny things. They are the culmination and distillation of forces economic, political, military, technocratic, social, racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural. Elections are the small bites that the media loves because they’re easily digestible data points, plus the dates are announced ahead of time. After the Brexit and Trump surprises of last year, election-chasing has become the new sexy. Think of the global cheers when Le Pen lost in France. Or the consternation when Turkey’s constitutional reforms went through. Or the sighs of relief when the Dutch and Austrian elections didn’t result in victories for neo-Nazis.
Drawing conclusions can be difficult. Of the endless minutiae that factor in, voters ultimately have to select from a less than subtle palette of choices. Making sense of it all is as difficult for the outside observer as it is for the voter. Generating predictions in such conditions are, in a word, problematic.
I’ve kicked out three big election calls for 2017, and all are in need of updates.
If the polls hold at where they’ve been for the past nine months, Angela Merkel will earn her fourth term as chancellor this autumn. Her primary opposition (which just happens to double as her current coalition partner) has hemorrhaged nearly its entire leadership cadre in recent years and ruling with Merkel’s Christian Democrats has contaminated them in the eyes of most center-left voters. Such disenchantment, however, hasn’t really benefited Germany’s other two leftish parties, leaving Merkel & Co. with a commanding lead. Considering all the crises that continue to batter the European system, having Merkel’s deep expertise and calm demeanor at the heart of all things European remain the Continent’s most positive and reliable feature.
Tory leader and Prime Minister Theresa May called snap elections this spring, and to many (me included) it appeared her Conservatives were poised for an epic routing of their opposition.
Didn’t happen. Come election day (June 8) the Conservatives stumbled, losing their majority and only being able to continue ruling because of assistance from the DUP (think: Orange). Many might remember the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the pro-British Protestant party that dominated Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The DUP are to the right of the UUP, who incidentally lost their two seats in parliament during the snap election. The party’s supporters are among the most pro-Brexit, pro-life, pro-British, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, socially conservative and Eurosceptic parties not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the UK. And these are the people Theresa May (and her more moderate, center-right party) will have to court in order to stay in power.
Two things changed. First, the Conservatives made a series of policy-release gaffs, denting their credibility as the only adults in the British political system. The Tories made deep inroads against the Scottish Nationals, focusing on putting the Scottish independence issue to bed for now, but it cost them against a massively underestimated Labour party.
Second, British Labour is no longer of the center-left. Jeremy Corbyn, often lampooned as the “British Bernie Sanders,” ran a sophisticated and successful campaign that even included a law & order platform heavy on the sort of pro-security spending and rhetoric that are the hallmark of not just the Right, but the hard right. The shift provided Labour its best showing in a decade, especially as younger, urban voters came out in higher numbers than expected.
May’s government’s top task will be to negotiate the country’s exit from the European Union with nothing resembling a mandate. Odds are a hard crash out of the EU that will generate a multi-year recession – and that’s the positive case. The less-positive case involves May’s government falling to its mildly-rebellious front bench or to the whims of a chaotic and hostile Labour opposition.
La Republic En Marche! didn’t even exist as a party 14 months ago, and after the June parliamentary polls its coalition now holds a commanding majority of 350 in the French parliament. The hard-right National Front quadrupled its representation, but only to 8. The real story is the absolute gutting of the conservative Republican-led alliance down to 137. The Socialist-led alliance lost the most, dropping to 44, following steady gains that began in 2004.
The question is what does this mean for the Fifth Republic. En Marche! is new. Most of its legislators have never held public office. The same holds for the party’s leader and France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron.
Here’s France’s problem:
The economy has been moribund since the 1970's and consistently fails to preform to snuff. The primary obstacles are cultural and regulatory: the post-WWII social welfare model has put down remarkably deep roots in France, leading the French to value government services and quality of life over the sort of activity that tends to generate taxes and… well, high quality of life. The result is a combination of ennui and rage that government isn’t doing more (sound familiar?).
The issue has gotten so bad as to contaminate France’s foreign relations with its most important partner: Germany. French governments have consistently demanded that the EU subsidize all things French with German money, as well as to use more German money to pay for whatever ails the broader European system. The Germans have politely, if firmly, declined to do so. Macron realizes and acknowledges that until such time as France can repair its own house, calling upon the Germans to fork out more for Europe just isn’t going to happen.
With a commanding majority, Macron and En Marche! will attempt to force the sort of economic, cultural and social overhaul that the last several French governments have tried and failed to do. Succeed or fail, expect strikes of a scale that France has not seen in decades (which is saying something).
If Macron is successful, then he will carry the case to Berlin that the Germans need to dig deep to pay for the federalization of the European Union. That means a common budget, common government debt, and some sort of sharing of existing liabilities. For Marcon’s case to get any hearing, his reforms at home must be far more painful than anything any French government has enacted since Napoleon.
So what does it all mean?
The common thread here is centralization.
Merkel is slowly, steadily, quietly, drawing power within the German and European system. Politically, it is to marginalize her opponents at home and abroad. Strategically, it is to prepare for a world with a more active Russia and Turkey and a less active America.
May has to wield her minority government as if she had a crushing majority. The only way to do that is to strengthen state institutions so that whoever holds them has an outsized influence in all things British. Somewhat ironically, Jeremy Corbyn’s shift to the hard right will make it easier for the moderate right to do just that.
While Marcon has the best political tools of the three, he is also attempting the most dramatic transformation: attempting nothing less than a complete overhaul of French policies and economic system. That will require the government forcing its will on an often unruly population who has the tendency to vote “No! What was the question?”
The centralization theme isn’t exactly coming out of the blue.
The world has felt more chaotic of late as the problems we face are getting larger and the tools we have used to respond for so long no longer work. Europe has had a migration problem but the tools needed to manage it are overwhelmed. The financial crisis left much of the world scrambling to get back to where they were a decade ago. But most importantly, the organizing principles of the world Order have been flaking at the edges. Governments the world over are starting to feel the cold as the Disorder sets in.
The rapid changes on the horizon require agile, quick decision making and implementation. These are anathema to many of the multiparty, parliamentary systems that dominate Europe. Germany, Italy and Spain in particular are amalgamations of smaller competing statelets that have been cobbled together over centuries – they’re not designed to allow the central government to implement changes easily. It is hardly a problem the Europeans have a monopoly on: Canada functions as ten countries in one – with all the complications that holds for policy. Brazil is confederal, while Japan struggles with a deep state that resists change in all its myriad forms. India is less a country and more a geographic expression akin to the Holy Roman Empire.
So countries are consolidating. Britain is preparing for a bruising Brexit. Japan has built its largest carriers since WWII and their constitution doesn’t even allow them to have a wartime military. The European Commission is desperate for a roadmap to demonstrate the end of the EU is not nigh. The Indian government is hoping to obliterate the opposition Congress Party as a political force so it can rule unfettered. China’s preparing for political lockdown at its autumn party gathering. Russia’s implementing Snowden-stolen social monitoring techniques at the speed of thought. France aims for a root-to-branch consolidation that guts parties and unions (most of us call these pillars of civil society). Turkey, Hungary and Poland are implementing personality cults. Liberal heartthrob Justin Trudeau wants to nearly double Canadian defense spending (yes, that Canada). Angela Merkel – brilliant, measured, and often boring – is openly discussing Germany’s need to secure its own defenses (and if that doesn’t terrify Europe as much as it titillates Putin, I don’t know what will).
As weird as it sounds, the United States is – so far at least – the exception. Donald Trump’s consolidation moves are typical for any freshman leader, not someone eyeing a storm on the horizon. Funny enough, it took Trump’s Twitter account to make the rest of the world look up.
Read The Absent Superpower for more on why each of these countries is – or isn’t – likely to succeed.