Democracies Face Multiple Challenges

Voters in the United States and Europe are concerned about national futures in a world battling chaos on many fronts

THROUGHOUT the rich nations of the West voters are angry, long-time ruling parties are in trouble, and protest candidates are riding messages of disaffection to new heights.

The narrow reelection of the Conservatives in Britain last week only highlights the turmoil in Western politics.

In the face of major world changes, electorates from Topeka to Tuscany are turning inward. They're worried about protecting their economic station and their very identity from foreign competition and, in some cases, the pressure of immigration.

Germans are upset that their treasured mark may give way to a common European currency; Italian politics is riven by the country's historic divide between a prosperous north and a rural south; the French quickly tired of Edith Cresson, their first woman prime minister.

But there are also threads of connection. Voters are worried about their future in a world that seems markedly more chaotic and competitive than only a few years ago.

They feel their identity eroding, and they're not sure that either ruling parties or mainstream opposition groups can help them.

"This is all happening at the same time because the Soviet Union collapsed. It's freed everyone to think differently," says Michael Vlahos, a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses.

President Bush can perhaps find solace in the fact that this fog of unease didn't sweep his friend John Major out of office. But he can't be happy when he sees that the Conservative's plump parliamentary majority of 101 has shrunk to 21 seats.

In France, the ruling Socialists had their worst results ever at last month's regional polls, winning barely 16 percent of the vote. Far-right parties in Germany did unsettlingly well in several state elections on April 5.

In Italy's elections of April 6 and 7 the long-dominant Christian Democrats received their lowest vote since the end of World War II.

What's at work here? The contempt of familiarity, for one thing. American voters may think the last Democratic president was before time, or at least before personal computers and cellular phones, but in Britain the Tories have been in power since 1979.

France's President Francois Mitterrand took office in 1981, Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1982. In Italy the Christian Democrats have been major players in all post-war governments.

Perhaps the boom years of the '80s convinced voters to stick with what they had. The world-wide recession may now be having the opposite effect. In the US it's one of the main reasons for the drop in President Bush's approval rating.

"Recessions are always difficult for governing parties. They make them look tired," says Gregory Treverton, senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations. And in Europe fear of economic bad times may be sharper, in a way, than it is here.

While there is still confidence in the economic promise of European Community (EC) integration the, "Euro-phoria" of the late '80s has evaporated.

In its place is unease about matching up not only to Japan but also with the United States, which is still seen as an enormously competitive society.

Besides macro-economic competition from above, European workers worry about micro-economic competition for their jobs from immigrants.

In the US, immigration is a major political issue largely in states with foreign borders, but not in the nation as a whole. It's another matter in France and Germany, where an influx of Middle East immigrants and fear of East European refugees have been crucial factors in the rise of far right parties.

"Europeans are going through a strange process of trying to understand better how to survive what they feel is an assault on their way of life," argues Mr. Vlahos.

While ruling parties are being hurt by this unease, mainstream oppositions aren't necessarily gaining by it. Labour didn't actually win Britain's election, after all, despite its well-run campaign.

Instead, fringe parties and candidates are rising to new electoral heights in Western Europe while independent and third-party candidacies surface in the US. In France the Greens have done so well that the ruling Socialists have taken to adopting some Green policies, such as calling for a cessation of nuclear testing.

The Pat Buchanan of Italy, Umberto Bossi, won 55 parliamentary seats (up from one) for his Northern League with an anti-Rome, regional autonomy message.

"We may well be seeing new lines of political division in some of these countries," says John Lewis Gaddis, director of Ohio University's Contemporary History Institute.

Dr. Gaddis argues that the common thread in European election results is "second thoughts about the whole process of economic integration." Voting publics are finding out that EC integration will change the cheese they buy (in France) or the beer (in Germany) and they don't like it.

It's a new world out there, and voters are groping for the new political line-up that they trust to handle it. And Europe, with the ex-Soviet republics and the former Iron Curtain nations on their doorstep, is closer to recent history than the US is.

"Uncertainties about the future world affect Europeans more," says Gregory Treverton of CFR.

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