In 2010, a new right rose in Europe. Parties that were or had become economically conservative and socially liberal came to power despite the left blaming their free-market ideology for the financial crisis. Now, the tides are turning.
Denmark’s Christian Democrats and liberals were ousted in September of last year after a decade in government and replaced by a left-wing administration.
Theirs had been a minority government, supported in parliament by the far-right and nationalist Danish People’s Party which parted with other two right-wing parties on entitlement and labor market reforms. By positioning itself as the champion of pensioners and the working class, the People’s Party appealed to a constituency which increasingly mistrusted the typically pro-European and pro-globalization conservatives and liberals.
In the Netherlands, a similar administration took office in September 2010. The liberal party had won the elections on a platform of economic repair and formed a minority cabinet with the Christian Democrats who had lost half of their seats, many of them to Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, ideologically equivalent to the Danish People’s Party.
Wilders supported the conservative-liberal coalition in parliament until this weekend when he rejected additional austerity measures.
The government had initially planned only the barest possible of spending cuts but was forced to consider steeper reductions to bring the deficit under 3 percent of gross domestic product in 2013 per European treaty rules. Now, it may have lost the legitimacy and the majority to do so.
Prime Minister Petr Nečas’s center-right government of the Czech Republic is also aiming to balance the budget by reining in health-care and pension spending and raising taxes but it too could lose the support of one of its coalition partners, raising the possibility of parliamentary elections as early as June.
Like their Dutch counterparts, the Czech right-wing parties never made the philosophical argument for smaller government. The left-wing opposition, rallying with trade unions in the streets against “devastating” cuts and “asocial reforms,” is winning the public debate.
The godfather of Europe’s new right-wing movement, David Cameron, remains fairly popular in the polls despite enacting policies that are similar to his beleaguered counterparts on the continent. His “detoxification” of the Conservative Party brand of one that cares only for the rich hasn’t stopped the Labour opposition from credibly arguing that his government doesn’t care for the little guy though. It is only because of Labour’s ineffectual leader Ed Miliband that the party hasn’t managed to mount a more convincing stand against British austerity.
Cameron’s position is far from enviable however. His lackluster austerity agenda has failed to wield significant results. The British economy remains in recession but the political and public resistance to further budget restraint is so high that it’s probably too late now for the coalition to change its tone and argue that it’s shrinking government for anything but pragmatic reasons.
Margaret Thatcher didn’t win three elections telling voters that she didn’t have a choice but to enact unpopular austerity measures. She convinced them that it was the right thing to do.
When times are tough, people will be inclined to vote for the party that seems to them capable of managing the nation’s finances. As soon as a crisis is averted, which many left-wing parties seem to believe is the case, the political managers lose their appeal. People don’t just care for policy. They crave for a politics of vision.
Austerity is not an ideology. It is a means to an end but when the end is left unsaid, who but a masochist would vote for it? The left, at least, has its appeal to “fairness.” Europe’s right hasn’t dared articulate an alternative vision for fear of appearing asocial and losing elections — and now it’s losing anyway.