At G-20, leaders look to save economy – and their own jobs

The global crisis has led to political upheaval in many countries, unseating three prime ministers in Europe alone.

Matt Dunham/AP
Perhaps no G-20 leader is as vulnerable as the summit host himself, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown (l.), who must hold elections by the summer of 2010. His Russian counterpart (r.), Dmitry Medvedev, also faces trouble at home, where stocks have dropped precipitously over the last year.

World leaders embarking on the latest round of financial summitry in London this week are not just trying to save the world economy. Some of them are also trying to save their own skins.

On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama emphasized the seriousness of the economic crisis, saying, "All of us here in London have a responsibility to act with a sense of urgency. Make no mistake: we are facing the most severe economic crisis since World War II."

But another crisis of sorts was brewing at the summit, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy – who earlier threatened to walk out – and his German counterpart Angela Merkel took a firm stand against US proposals for more stimulus packages.

At stake for all the leaders is their political standing amid a recession. As the past six months has shown, recessions threaten social unrest, electoral upheaval, and even challenges to the state itself. Former US President Bill Clinton put it most succinctly with his immortal, "It's the economy, stupid." His predecessor George H. W. Bush was neither the first nor last incumbent to slide from office on a downward graph.

"Serious downturns do tend to discredit those in power," says Mark Duckenfield, an expert in international political economy at the London School of Economics. As a general rule, he says, recessions ruin governments. "Certainly in democratic countries that's been the case since the Great Depression."

Upheaval in Europe

Take Europe. This year alone, three prime ministers have already been unseated by economic mayhem (in Latvia, Iceland, and Hungary). Leaders in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria are feeling the heat. The cohesion of the European Union has been thrown into question amid disagreement over everything from fiscal rescue plans to Ostpolitik.

Katinka Barysch, a Europe expert with the London-based Centre for European Reform predicts further electoral upsets later this year, though she adds that eastern Europe is renowned for electoral volatility.

"You'll see more populism and more demonstrations on the streets, but I would be cautious about saying there is political mayhem coming," she says.

The European parliamentary elections in June are, for the same reason, likely to throw up maverick results, she adds.

Britain's Brown faces 'short, dark window'

Of G-20 nations, elections are due in Indonesia, India, South Africa, Mexico, Germany, Japan, and Argentina this year. But no G-20 leader is perhaps as vulnerable as the summit host himself, Gordon Brown.

Prime Minister Brown must hold elections before the summer of 2010, and experts say time is running out. A brief poll revival last autumn, when he looked measured and statesmanlike in the early throes of the financial crisis, has died out.

"The public now believe the Tories are best able to handle the financial crisis," notes John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland. "Brown has to hope that the latest version of the financial bailout will finally be the last major financial initiative they have to take. Don't think the G-20 will solve anything: It won't instill confidence."

Wyn Grant, a politics professor at Warwick University central England, concurs that Brown's window of opportunity looks short, dark, and unpromising. "I would be very surprised if the economy makes any recovery this year or next. I'm skeptical that these measures will have the desired effect in that time frame."

German, Japanese leaders on solid footing

For other G-20 leaders soon to face voters, things are slightly easier.

German and Japanese leaders may be safe, but that is largely more because of the woes of the respective opposition than because of any great successes notched up in dealing with the crisis.

In India, which holds staggered legislative elections in April and May, the ruling Congress party can fall back on the fact that growth hasn't gone negative. But it is slowing sharply, posing a different but just as awkward problem. Lal Krishan Advani, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in India's Parliament, recently said that job cuts due to the global recession were posing "more danger than terrorism." There's fear that mass layoffs could spark off social turmoil in this crowded democracy of 1.13 billion people.

"The deteriorating economy will certainly have an impact on the electorate," says Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of India's Planning Commission.

Russia's Putin losing popularity

Job strife is proving unsettling even for leaders who don't face elections any time soon. The French have in recent weeks twice reminded the world why they are the best in the world at striking and marching. Three in four people support the strike action. President Nicolas Sarkozy has already signaled his concern by offering financial concessions.

Russia's sputtering economy is meanwhile of grave concern to Vladimir Putin, even though elections are not due for years and rarely trouble him.

Hundreds of thousands of job losses and a rash of small, short-lived protests, have provided the first real challenge to Putin's authority. "The country that could see the worst reaction is Russia," warns Mr. Duckenfield. "Vladimir Putin is not as popular as he was last summer."

Rising unemployment and growing restlessness poses problems for non-democrats too.

In China, more than 8 million recent university graduates are out of work, and more than 20 million migrant workers have been fired in the past four months from their jobs in the factories that powered China's export boom before the crisis dried up world demand for Chinese goods.

China has already seen small-scale riots and protests, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told the country's rubber stamp parliament in March that "we will improve the early warning system for social stability to actively prevent and properly handle all types of mass incidents."

"Contradictions in the economic arena have interacted with contradictions in other arenas," Chen Jiping, a top Communist party official, warned 'Outlook,' a party magazine, recently. "It will be a challenging task to maintain and control law and order in the country this year."

"If the economy keeps deteriorating, and if prices go up and migrant workers can't find jobs there might be problems," says Liu Shanying, a researcher at the government-run Chinese Academy for Social Sciences think tank in Beijing. "People's patience is limited and the pressures of life are real."

Peter Ford in Beijing and Anuj Chopra in Mumbai contributed.

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