The Europeans have a word for it—several words, in fact. In France, they call it le malaise—a pervasive sense of unhappiness with politics, the economy and the country’s uncertain place in the world. In Italy, it is called malessere, a chronic discontent with corruption, crime and crumbling public services. And in Germany, it is angst, or Teutonic anxiety about just about everything. Whatever the language, the sentiment is the same.
Across much of Europe, voters are worried about the future, angry at politicians who seem unable to solve their problems, and unsettled by instability on their doorstep. And whatever the country, the target of the fury is the same: mainstream politicians who—like their counterparts throughout North America—stand accused of incompetence, corruption and hypocrisy.
The result has been a recent series of electoral setbacks for governing parties across continental Europe. But in an unusual twist, the widespread disaffection with those in power has not benefited traditional opposition groups. Instead, voters in France, Italy and Germany have turned in everincreasing numbers to xenophobic, far-right and regionalist parties to register their disenchantment with established politicians of both the left and the right. In a comment that could have been made by a German or Italian leader, former French prime minister Michel Rocard lamented recently that “political life corrupts.” He went on: “None of my sons will go into politics, and it’s a good thing. If I continue myself, it’s because I’m not so young anymore.”
Corruption: The causes of voter discontent vary from country to country. And there are notable exceptions to the trend. In Britain, where the winner-take-all constituency system makes it almost impossible for new protest parties to get a foothold in Parliament, the Conservatives managed to win a fourth straight victory in April, confirming their reputation as Europe’s most successful ruling party. But on much of the Continent, governing parties and coalitions are being humbled as voters express their unhappiness with rising immigration, stagnant economies, political corruption and, in Germany, the soaring cost of post-Cold War reunification.
Beneath the discontent is a widespread sense that traditional political organizations have lost touch with voters, pursuing lofty objectives such as closer ties among the 12 member nations of the European Community while ignoring grassroots fears of economic dislocation and loss of local identity. As well, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of Eastern Bloc communism have encouraged Europeans to break out of the established mould of politics based on left-right polarization. Many voters are taking their chances on splinter groups that speak directly to their frustrations—and give voice to their disillusionment with mainstream leaders. “People are no longer ready to allow the political elites to decide things for them,” said Gordon Smith, a specialist in European politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “In that sense, it’s a healthy attitude.”
In the April 5 Italian national election, voters clearly showed their displeasure with the traditional polarization between Christian Democrats and Communists. For decades, that stag-
nant rivalry has helped to sustain a bloated, corrupt governing system that Italians call partitocrazia (“rule by party”). As a result, the Communists and Christian Democrats, along with their allies, lost ground both to resurgent neo-fascists, whose star candidate was former dictator Benito Mussolini’s 29-year-old granddaughter, Alessandra, and to the Northern League, which wants to split the country into three republics—north, south and centre. The League fed on discontent among voters in Italy’s prosperous north, who say that the country’s political system is little more than a device used by corrupt politicians to funnel tax money to what they see as the lazy, Mafiaridden south. At pre-election rallies, League supporters chanted: “We pay! Rome collects! The south wastes!”
The rise of the League, and the evident voter disgust with the old political system, have shaken the complacency of many mainstream politicians. On the eve of the vote, Gianni De Michelis, Italy’s foreign minister, ascribed part of the change to the collapse of the old Cold
War-era rivalries. “Now, communism and anticommunism have gone,” he said. “So people express their real feelings, and there is a confused longing for change.” Added Robert Leonardi, a specialist in Italian politics at the London School of Economics: “People used to say, ‘Hold your nose and vote for the Christian Democrats.’ Now people have alternatives, and they are not willing to hold their noses anymore.”
Trouble: In France, too, the political elites are in trouble—a recent poll ranked politicians below prostitutes in their usefulness to society. The country’s bookstores are full of works with titles like The Corrupt Republic, France’s Breakdown and The French Regression. They reflect the unpopularity of politicians from the traditional left and right and their apparent inability to come to grips with pressing problems such as rising unemployment and fears that the country is being reduced to an economic appendage of Germany. Like Brian Mulroney, President François Mitterrand often reminds voters that they enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living—but those protestations have not substantially increased his popularity. Mitterrand’s popularity has been at rock-bottom for months, and in recent regional elections his Socialist party won only 18.3 per cent of the vote, its worst showing in 23 years.
However, most disaffected French voters shunned the main conservative opposition parties. Instead, they registered their protest by increasing support for two Green parties and for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme-right National Front. Le Pen’s party won 14 per cent of the vote on an openly anti-immigrant platform, casting a troubling shadow over the country’s political life. Many analysts, however, suggest
that Le Pen’s strong showing may not be as worrying as it first appears. The National Front, they point out, has picked up considerable support in areas that were once strongholds of the discredited Communist party— indicating that its voters were motivated less by ideology than by a desire to thumb their noses at the political establishment.
But it is in Germany that rising support for the far right has caused the greatest degree of concern—because of its Nazi past. Neo-Nazi skinhead groups have attracted the most publicity in recent months by staging violent attacks on non-white immigrants and refugees. And far-right parties won surprising support in Germany’s recent state elections. In BadenWiirttemburg, the Republicans, whose platform included demands for a halt to immigration, won 11 per cent of the vote, compared with a mere one per cent in the last state election four years ago, depriving Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic party of a majority. In Schleswig-Holstein, where the Social Democrats hold power, they lost ground to the extreme-right German People’s Union, which won 6.3 per cent of votes and captured six seats in the 89-member state assembly—the first time its representatives have won seats in that chamber.
German voters have a litany of complaints: a flood of immigrants that will likely reach 400,000 this year alone, higher taxes to help pay for the enormous cost of unifying the country (about $130 billion this year) and doubts about closer European union that have not yet been fully debated in public. And as in France, they have found that right-wing parties are a convenient vehicle for their anger. As a result, says Smith, the apparent swing to the right is not as threatening as pictures of militant neo-Nazis make it appear. “It’s a backlash against the established parties and their policies,” he says. That may reassure foreigners worried about a new right-wing surge, but it offers little comfort to mainstream politicians anywhere.
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