In Europe, too, a 50/50 political divide

If the US electorate is split almost evenly between "red" and "blue" voters, the European political picture might be drawn from a more muted palette. But pink or mauve, European voters are also riven into nearly matching camps, recent elections suggest.

Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, who finally submitted his resignation Tuesday, had hoped for two weeks somehow to salvage something out of that reality, angrily contesting the wafer-thin margin by which he lost last month's Italian elections. The voters hardly gave victor Romano Prodi a resounding mandate, after all.

In their polling-day indecision, however, Italians reflected a confusion that has gripped electorates in other major European nations, plunging the continent into uncertainty about its direction at a time when rising economies elsewhere in the world are threatening its economic prosperity and political clout.

Last autumn, German voters' inability to choose a clear winner forced Angela Merkel to bring opposition Social Democrats into her coalition government. The front-runners in French presidential elections due next year are neck and neck. Pollsters cannot call the results of the Swedish parliamentary elections to be held next September as the margin of difference is within the margin or error.

"You could speak of a crisis of the democratic model," worries Dominique Moisi, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations, a think tank in Paris. "People are disillusioned with politics, disappointed in whichever government they've got, and generally disenchanted with democracy."

At the same time, the election and opinion-poll results suggest that Europeans simply don't know what they want when it comes to the key economic reforms that their leaders say are necessary if Europe is to break out of its vicious circle of low growth and high unemployment.

"Europeans want change but they are scared of it. They realize the status quo is unsustainable, but they are frightened that reforms will hurt them," says Mark Leonard, a former foreign policy adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

That has led voters to deliver some highly ambiguous verdicts in recent elections.

Last month, Mr. Prodi led a nine-party alliance to victory over Mr. Berlusconi's coalition by the slimmest of margins - ahead by just 25,000 votes out of 38 million cast.

In Germany, during the final days of the campaign, the Social Democrats clawed their way back to a position of sufficient strength to force Ms. Merkel to include them in her government.

In both countries, the mainstream parties contesting power from the center-right and center-left found themselves fighting over the middle ground. They were scrambling for the support of voters divided less by the clear ideological differences that have split the US electorate down the middle than by muddled indecision.

In Italy, Berlusconi won office five years ago on promises of reform, pledging to modernize the Italian economy with changes to the welfare system and the labor market. His failure to make good on those pledges, and the sluggish performance of the Italian economy, disappointed many voters. Prodi offered a new approach, but without threatening a radical break with the past.

In Germany, it was the Social Democratic government's efforts - however cautious - to cut unemployment benefit and to liberalize labor laws, that lost Chancellor Gerhard Schröder much of his support, along with record unemployment. Merkel's image as a root-and- branch reformer was a liability: Last-minute worries that she might be another Margaret Thatcher pushed voters away from her in droves.

That experience appears to have taught a lesson to Nicolas Sarkozy, the French conservative expected to lead the right into presidential battle next April. While branding himself the candidate of "rupture" with his country's stagnant status quo, he carefully distanced himself from his government's failed efforts last month to reform French labor law.

Some observers blame this sort of ambiguity in Europe's leaders for its citizens' uncertainty about which of them to elect.

"Everybody knows there has to be change, but none of the political parties are courageous enough to describe a possible future," says Wolfgang Nowak, an economist with Deutsche Bank's International Forum. "People know change is needed, but leaders have to explain where we are going. Nobody wants to move if they move blindfolded."

Europe's rulers have set themselves objectives in the "Lisbon Agenda" - a list of goals including sustained economic growth and job creation through liberalizing markets and investing in innovative technology. But few European Union members have come near to reaching the targets, or dared to attempt more than piecemeal reforms.

With the short-term losers from welfare or labor reforms more easily identifiable, and more vocal, than the potential long-term winners, governments have been reluctant to take the electoral risk that reform represents.

"They are often not willing to ride roughshod over people's fears," says Mr. Leonard.

"But at the same time, few major parties in Europe run on a platform of simply maintaining the status quo. So there is an underlying similarity of approaches between the left and the right: Different parties just play different mood music about how the reform should be done," he says.

Sometimes, though, the music drowns out the message, says Mr. Moisi, leaving voters without any clear vision to inspire them. "People don't ask themselves who they are for, but who they are least against," he argues. "It is democratic confusion, and loss of morale, which is very important."

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