Monday, 10 March 2008

Two reelections expose one deep divide

News came this morning of two big election results in Europe, both won by the slimmest of margins and both reflecting the increasingly polarized nature of their societies.

In the first, Malta’s ruling Nationalist party won the weekend’s general election by the slimmest margin in the Mediterranean state’s 40 year history. The nationalists beat the opposition Labour party by just 1,500 vores - .5 percent of all the votes cast!

The election was seen in some ways as being a referendum on the tiny island nation’s membership in the EU, which it joined in 2004. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi ran largely on an economic platform emphasizing pro-EU policies. The Nationalist party has governed the nation for most of its history since it declared independence from the UK 1964, with only a few brief periods of Labour control.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, an election on Sunday’s saw Spain’s socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero barely cling on to power after a particularly divisive and bitterly fought election campaign. Zapatero rose to power in 2004 following the Madrid bombing after much of the public reacted with disgust with the conservative government’s initial attempts to blame the attack on ETA, Spain’s Basque separatist group. The 2004 vote was also a repudiation of Spain’s participation in the Iraq war, and after Zapatero’s victory Spain withdrew its troops from the effort. Now in 2008 Zapatero has won another stunning victory defying predictions; even though opinion polls were predicting he might would barely hold on to office while losing seats for his party, he has actually increased his party’s number of MPs.

Yet in Spain, the defeated party was anything but despondent. As the BBC’s Mark Mardell observed in Spain, the opposition People’s Party were celebrating the outcome as well. Mardell writes:
[PP] supporters may be a little more subdued, but they are cheering and waving their blue flags with enthusiasm. There’s not a despondent face in the crowd and a spokesman calls the result “magnificent”.

For the opposition have also increased their share of the vote and number of MPs. How to explain this weird (to British eyes) electoral maths? Well, some of the smaller parties have suddenly got a lot smaller…it may be that Spain has voted for a two party system. Many observers have commented that the traditional division between two Spains - socialist secularists and Catholic conservatives - has got sharper in the last four years.
So both major parties emerged the winners, and the small third parties were the losers. But more than reflecting the trend of European politics gravitating toward two-party systems, the weekend’s elections reflect an increasingly divided Europe, split down the middle along economic lines. In recent years, election after election on the continent has yielded these narrow splits between conservative and socialist voting blocks. Neighboring Italy’s political split is so narrow that it’s been unable to form a government and new elections will be taking place shortly, and in France Sarkozy’s win was also by a small margin and exposed a bitter division in France between the left and right. In Germany it’s looking increasingly likely that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats may lose their governing mandate in another close election.

The schizophrenia is the natural result of a Europe torn in two different directions, a continent which has come to a crossroads and must decide in which direction it will go. Some believe the nations must remain loyal to their socialist roots and embrace change cautiously, while others believe that the free market and economic liberalisation are the only way for Europe to be relevant in the 21st century. In this kind of climate, perhaps there is an opening for continental politicians who suggest a third way, a blending of both traditions, in an attempt to heal the wounds of a divided electorate.

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