Low Marks for Europe's Leaders Signal New Era for Democracy

WHEN former Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlueter was forced to resign earlier this month over judicial findings that he lied to parliament, a 10-year reign came crashing down amid charges of leadership that had grown arrogant, unresponsive, worn out, and removed from public contact.

Whatever was rotten in Denmark, it highlighted a leadership crisis that stretches across much of Western Europe. From Germany to Spain, Britain to Italy, the public is showing growing disenchantment with leaders who have been in office for more than a decade.

Governments weakened by their own fatigue and the perils presented them by low public satisfaction are failing to boldly address some of Europe's most pressing needs, analysts warn, and are making a renewal of the way democracy works all the more urgent.

"Uncontestably there is a leadership crisis in Europe," says Michel Foucher, director of the European Geopolitical Observatory in Lyon, France. "The problem derives in part from the duration of the exercise of power, but also from the fact that we are in the midst of a profound change from one historical period to another," he adds. "And that is affecting political leaders whatever their age or political persuasion."

In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in power for over a decade, is facing growing criticism over his handling of German reunification and lack of inspired leadership. (Stagnant German leadership, Page 7.)

In France, Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, whose second seven-year term ends in 1995, remains weakened by some of the lowest approval ratings of his nearly 13 years in power. March legislative elections look certain to deal another blow with victory for the conservative opposition, but voter interest in nontraditional parties indicates disenchantment with all the mainstream political movements.

In Italy, more than 40 years of mostly Christian Democratic rule by the same entrenched politicians looks finally to be on its way out on a wave of public disgust and institutional reform propelled by economic crisis.

Despite his success in bringing democracy and prosperity to Spain after the Franco dictatorship, the unchallenged government of President Felipe Gonzalez Marquez - another leader with a 10-year pin in his lapel - has been weakened by scandals.

Britain, too, despite last year's election of relative newcomer Prime Minister John Major, is groping under stagnant leadership in place since former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, observers say.

"Even if the individual [Major] is new, the political establishment is tired," says Stanley Crossick, director of the Belmont European Policy Center in Brussels. "It's one reason the government keeps getting things wrong."

Europe's tired and timid leadership poses problems not just for itself, but for the rest of the world, given Western Europe's economic clout and its growing presence on the international stage. Leadership with more "energy, imagination, and flair" could have done a better job addressing the political and economic transition of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, says Jim Rollo of London's Royal Institute for International Affairs.

And a weakened Mitterrand is unlikely to face down French farmers over new trade rules needed to get a crucial accord in global trade talks.

Despite these difficulties, observers say the leadership crisis may be salutary if it reinforces demand for a renewal of democracy in government.

Addressing the crisis will take more than just elections, says Mr. Foucher, but "measures to develop debate, reinforce the powers of parliaments, and put political leaders back on the ground," he says. "The need is not for a depoliticization, but for a remaking of politics."

Italy's upcoming string of referendums on political reform and France's feisty public debate and referendum last summer on the European Community's Maastricht Treaty are two signs of the direction politics must take, Foucher says. Enlargement of the EC beyond its 12 members is going to force reform of political institutions, which Crosick call's "Europe's fundamental issue."

Remedying strong public discontent with leadership will not be easy in a period of profound change, when even the most inspired leaders might have fallen short in the public eye, some observers note.

"Overall, I'm not sure anyone could have done much better," says Mr. Rollo. Mitterrand has modernized France and engineered impressive growth in the standard of living, "but still he is blamed for high unemployment resulting from business restructuring that is out of his hands," notes Foucher.

Still, some analysts say it will take more "new thinking" to address the political needs of a Europe that has changed dramatically in just a few years.

"[President] Clinton and much of what he says are an example of [new] thinking - and we haven't done enough of that of late in Europe," says Crossick.

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