World Trend: Voters Reject Incumbents

Ire over `politics as usual' topples existing governments right and left

SOME Democrats say President Clinton should focus on foreign policy and overseas tours now that Republicans have captured Capitol Hill. If he does, he may be in for a surprise: The United States has no monopoly on political anger. Election after election shows that a sour throw-the-yobs-out mood pervades rich democracies around the world.

The extent of recent ruling party reversals might actually make Mr. Clinton feel better. In France, President Francois Mitterrand's Socialists are limping along with only 54 National Assembly seats, down from 270 last year. Canada's Conservatives makes US Democrats look as strong as George Foreman. A year ago they ruled the country with 154 seats. Elections left them two. The Democrats may have suffered its worst electoral setback in some four decades, but at least there are enough of them left in Washington to fill a restaurant booth at lunchtime.

``The common denominator around the world is that people that have been in power for a long time are being tossed out,'' says Christopher Layne, a former Cato Institute senior analyst and international relations scholar.

In Italian elections last spring, for instance, voters disgusted by widespread corruption utterly repudiated the country's longtime ruling Christian Democrats. In a somewhat pathetic and fruitless bid for votes, Christian Democrat leaders went so far as to rename themselves the ``Popular Party.''

Similarly, in Japan an electorate tired of money politics last year ended the 38-year continuous rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The LDP has since returned to a measure of power - at the price of entering into a coalition with its longtime archrival, the Socialists.

Germany's Helmut Kohl managed to win reelection last month. But the man who presided over German reunification saw his parliamentary majority slashed from a 66-seat edge to a bare 10-vote advantage.

This trend of battering incumbents does not run along ideological lines. Parties of both the left and right have suffered the slings of voter ire.

Nor are electoral conditions the same in every industrial democracy. Each has its unique, burning issues that bear on the outcome; corruption in Italy and Japan, for instance, puts the US House of Representatives check-kiting scandal to shame.

But there may be enough similarities to lead some analysts to say that in many nations the 1990s is shaping up as the decade of inchoate voter desire for change. The loss of jobs across borders, the press of poor immigrants, the perceived sleaze of those in power - all these factors could be feeding a growing sense of voter discontent.

``There is a feeling that decisions are being made outside of the political territory that one controls,'' says Charles Maier, a professor of European Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Hold it a second - isn't this a time when the Western democracies should be feeling good about themselves? They have emerged triumphant from the cold war, after all. Their values of freedom and tradition of market economies seem victorious over all ideological competitors.

In fact, citizens in the rich democracies are backing away from their political leaders in disillusion, according to Professor Maier. He argues that this is evidence of a widespread ``moral crisis'' of democracy.

One cause of this crisis, says Maier, is a sense that old principles and alignments have disappeared or no longer seem appropriate.

Nothing has yet taken the place of the old cold war certainties. Today's struggles - Bosnia, Rwanda - seem patternless, almost nihilistic.

In this environment of moral crisis, according to Maier, local loyalties - to state, to region, even to race - can begin to seem more important than existing national political structures. Electorates begin to doubt that domestic problems can be solved, particularly by existing big government programs.

Hard-nose responses to social problems are in favor in many nations, notes Maier. In the US, the solution to crime that many voters favor is more prisons.

In Germany and France, a flood of immigrants seeking jobs has launched a political backlash in favor of tighter residence controls.

Overall, voters simply feel alienated from the political process in Bonn and Boston, Milan and Miami, Topeka as well as Tokyo.

``People have the feeling that things are not responding for them,'' says Maier.

It's not clear where politics proceeds from here: It might descend into further voter alienation, or strong political reformers could force something of a national ``remoralization,'' says Maier.

Not all analysts think nations today are unhappy in similar ways. Francis Fukuyama of the RAND Corporation says that the conditions causing voter unrest are mostly rooted in each nation's particular problems.

The widespread bribes and political slush funds uncovered in Italy are simply not comparable in scale to anything the US has experienced, for instance. The US, for its part, has immigration and racial problems that are much worse than the backlash against Turkish workers in Germany. Religion plays a far greater role in US politics than it does almost everywhere else in the industrialized world.

``I just don't buy that there's a world-wide phenomenon going on here,'' says Fukuyama.

Not all ruling parties have suffered equally, points out the RAND analyst. Considering Germany's economic problems, it might count as something of a victory that Helmut Kohl survived at all.

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