Behind the West's Political Tilt to Left

Anti-incumbent sentiment stirs democracies

Are the great democracies of the West in the midst of a historic political shift toward the left?

At first glance the evidence seems persuasive. In the wake of Socialist Lionel Jospin's triumph in France and Labor leader Tony Blair's British win, 13 of the 15 nations of the European Union are now governed by or with left-leaning political parties.

Canada reelected Liberal premier Jean Chrtien this week. And the United States, of course, has had Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House since 1992.

But a closer reading of voter intentions does not support the "left revolution" thesis, say a number of experts. As is often the case in geopolitics, the situation is more complicated than the evidence suggests.

For one thing, the leftists in question are far from a piece. Both Messrs. Clinton and Blair are much more centrist than Mr. Jospin, for instance.

What's really happening may be an increase in Western vote volatility. Since the late 1980s, there's been a rise in throw-the-bums-out sentiment from Nice to Natchez.

Europe in particular may be in the midst of political malaise, as the demands of economic globalization conflict with social democratic structures.

"There is a trend against the majorities in place," says Simon Serfaty, director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Citizens everywhere are so very exasperated with government."

Thus the current rise of leftist parties may not signal as profound an ideological shift as did the conservative victories that swept Europe and the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan, et al., stood for sharply defined ideas about the proper size of government (small). Their policies - at least initially - were natural results from their basic beliefs. Mr. Reagan cut taxes; Mrs. Thatcher sold off nationalized British industries.

By contrast, both Clinton and Blair won by emphasizing flexibility more than belief, and by making their respective nations' leftward parties seem less ideological. Both held out the promise of kinder, gentler policies, perhaps - but not a complete reversal in government direction.

This week, for instance, Blair has been promoting one of his first major policy initiatives: welfare reform. Sound familiar?

Leftist governments in the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Sweden, have traveled the same reinvention road.

The situation in France is more singular. Situations in France often are. In Britain, the Labor Party won by moving toward the center. Its Tory government predecessor was arguably more exhausted than ineffective. In France, the Socialists triumphed by moving away from the center. In doing so they defeated a conservative opponent voters judged inept.

A main issue in the French vote, if not the main issue, was economic globalization. More precisely, the French public was weary of government attempts to cut cherished social programs in an attempt to meet the rigorous fiscal standards called for by impending European monetary union.

The French ballot now leaves the future of the EMU (European Monetary Unit) very much in doubt. Germany and France were its main proponents from the beginning; now France's stomach for the endeavor is in question, and even Chancellor Kohl, the primary statesman of European integration, is in domestic political trouble.

The Italian government is already calling for a delay in the scheduled 1999 EMU introduction, saying the French election shows that everyone involved will have trouble getting their fiscal houses in order in time to junk their old liras and francs.

But some of Europe's troubled (or toppled) leaders may have only themselves to blame for this mess, say some experts. They have used impending European monetary union as a convenient excuse for unpopular moves that fiscal prudence might have dictated anyway - or they've clumsily gone too far.

It's true that economic globalization - as represented by the EMU - has taken away some national fiscal autonomy in recent years, under this view. But it does not mean national leaders don't have any room to maneuver.

"The French political elite fell into the trap of viewing its options as if they were entirely foreclosed by the international economic environment," says Dani Rodrik, Harvard University professor of international political economy. "I'm trying to suggest they have more leeway than that."

A variety of European nations, from Britain to the Netherlands, have shown that budget deficits can be brought down and social programs, for the most part, protected, according to Dr. Rodrik.

US voters should view the EMU debate as more than European arcana. It could hold important implications for their own economy.

If the EMU plan falls apart, economic stability could be adversely affected in a region that is America's biggest trading partner. Conversely, if the new European currency staggers weakly into existence, it could drive the price of dollars higher - also hurting US trade.

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