Elections in Western parliamentary systems are always about the center. The standard situation is one in which there are two dominant parties – one somewhat right of center and one somewhat left of center. There are differences between the policies these parties pursue when in office, but there are also enormous similarities. The election never reflects a profound political split. Rather, it is about recentering the center – what is to be considered the leverage point in the seesaw between the parties.
The rarer situation is about repudiating the center, and therefore repudiating the two erstwhile principal parties that revolve around the center. Such a result throws national politics into major turmoil, and sometimes has considerable impact outside the country as well.
The recent elections in France and Greece illustrate these two situations well. In France, the Socialists defeated the conservative UMP, and have indeed recentered the center. In the larger chaotic situation of the world-system, and particularly that of the European Union, recentering the center in France will have a great impact. But do not expect the actual policies of François Hollande to be radically different from those of Nicolas Sarkozy.
In Greece, quite the contrary happened. The center was dramatically repudiated. Both major parties – the conservative New Democracy and the socialist PASOK – lost more than half the votes they normally had. Their combined total went from about two-thirds of the votes to one-third. PASOK even was reduced to third place, outvoted by a further left coalition of parties, Syriza, which was generally considered the big victor in the election. The basic issue of the elections was the austerity program imposed on Greece by outside forces, and most unflinchingly by Germany. All the parties except the two traditional major parties called for repudiating the austerity measures. The leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsirpas, asserted that the election results made the government’s commitment to the austerity program “null and void.”
What will happen in the next few months? After all three parties with the most votes in Greece – New Democracy, Syriza, and PASOK – have failed to form a government, we are moving to new elections. Syriza may even come in first next time. Since the Greek government will not get further aid, it will have to default on its loans. The German foreign minister has already threatened them with expulsion from the euro zone. There is however no legal way to do this. And since the Greek public seems to think that exiting from the euro zone would solve nothing and probably make matters worse, there will be a deadlock. The Greeks will suffer enormously. But so will many European banks. And so will the German population, even if they are not yet aware of this.
Meanwhile, there will have been new elections in France for the legislature. Observers predict a strong Socialist victory, with however a significant contingent of France’s equivalent of Syriza, the Front de Gauche. The one clear position of Hollande is that growth in Europe must take priority over austerity – a direct challenge to the current German position. So the center will have been further recentered leftward.
The Germans are now under enormous pressure. There is internal discontent leading to electoral losses by Chancellor Merkel’s party, the CDU, and its neoliberal coalition partner, the FDP. The other social-democratic parties in Europe have been encouraged by Hollande’s victory to move somewhat leftward. The two conservative parties in the Italian government coalition have both suffered severe losses in the May municipal elections. There is also, strangely but importantly, pressure by the United States on Germany to move in the direction that Hollande is advocating.
The Germans might resist all of this – until May 31, the date of the Irish referendum. The Irish government was the only member of the Eurozone that made its agreement to the new austerity treaty on which Merkel had insisted, with the support of Sarkozy, contingent on a referendum. The polls had been showing that it was a close call, but the Irish government had felt confident it could win a yes vote. Hollande’s victory may now shift enough voters so that the Irish vote is negative, in which case the austerity treaty is void. This will undermine the German position far more than the Greek repudiation of the center.
What will happen then? The key is what happens in German political life. Angela Merkel, like any good political leader, tries to see which way the wind is blowing. Her language is therefore already beginning to evolve. She may even secretly welcome the outside pressure to do what, from Germany’s own narrow point of view, is the sensible thing, and shore up purchasing power (for German goods, among other things) in the rest of the European Union.
If Germany moves in that direction, the euro and the European Union will survive, and continue to be a major (if chastened) actor on the geopolitical scene. Worldwide, the recentering of Europe as a whole will however not encrust a status quo but rather speed up the geopolitical realignments that are inevitable. Nonetheless, German recentering may help Europe to resist better the coming tsunami of the collapse of sovereign funds and of the dollar as reserve currency.
The entire world is swimming in very choppy waters. Germany may soon join the list of states that are beginning to understand how to navigate amidst chaos. Inflexible governments are their own worst enemy.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World (New Press).