Europe - 'restless,' 'bitter' - swings to the political right

Recent provincial elections showing a sharp swing to the right in three West European countries have prompted some political analysts to wonder whether -- as the old song goes -- this could be the start of something big.

Rather than a shift in political thinking, however, the recent conservative victories and socialist defeats in elections in France, West Germany, and the Netherlands (accounting for one-half of the total population of the 10-nation European Community) reflect something even deeper.

They reflect, according to most observers, an urgent desire for change, no matter what the political coloring, among an electorate frustrated with ineffective government attempts to cure the mounting socioeconomic ills besetting Western Europe.

''There is a real restlessness in the public mood,'' one political observer said, ''and a growing bitterness about the failure of governments to halt rising unemployment and stop the fall in purchasing power.

''Those feelings have been expressed in street demonstrations, and now we may begin to see them expressed increasingly at the ballot box. Whatever the prevailing ideology -- left or right -- the public today would want it changed.''

The most significant recent swing to the right came in the Dutch provincial elections last month (March 24), when the Conservative Liberal Party increased its share of the vote to 22.2 percent (against 17.3 percent last May) wholly at the expense of the Labor Party (down from 28.3 to 21.8 percent in the same period).

It was the first time the Liberals ever outpolled the Labor Party. The center-right Christian Democrats also increased their share (30.9 to 33.4 percent), while the left-of-center Democrats 1966 won only 8.3 percent, compared with 11 percent last year.

Similarly, recent elections in Lower Saxony -- the first of four state elections to be held in West Germany this year and the first major test since the 1980 general elections -- showed sharp gains for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as well as equally impressive defeats for Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic Party. Mr. Schmidt's SPD has suffered as much from intra-party squabbling as from challenges from across the political spectrum.

Some analysts have suggested that the 13-year-old SPD-Free Democratic coalition government has begun easing toward collapse, and that the state elections in June and September (coupled with the budget debate this summer) will be critical tests of the coalition's staying power.

In France, voting last month for council seats in half of the country's departments (i.e., counties) saw the conservative opposition win nearly 50 percent of the ballot, leaving the Socialist and Communist parties 2 percentage points behind.

Political observers explaining what the influential French daily Le Monde called a ''defeat'' for the government have echoed Socialist Party chairman Lionel Jospin's admission that the elections were a ''warning.''

Although inflation has slowed since the government assumed power last May, unemployment has risen, and the French franc has weakened dramatically, hitting a record low against the dollar last month. Other analysts have said that the French people -- perhaps the most tradition-loving in Western Europe, have been disappointed, even angered, by the brashness of the Socialist government in implementing its programs.

The French government remains secure despite the Socialist setbacks in the elections, but the three-party governing coalition in the Netherlands, which has been poised on the verge of collapse since its formation last November, seems even closer to disintegration now, largely because of the election results.

Some observers are predicting that the Labor Party -- vehemently opposed to proposals by the Christian Democrats to trim the budget deficit by cutting public spending and streamlining the welfare system -- could be forced out of the government by as early as this summer.

This would leave the Christian Democrats to rule in a coalition with the Liberals that, according to some political thinkers, would be better able to administer the bitter austerity measures the Dutch economy needs badly.

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