Austerity and Anti-Politics

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gave an interview to the Financial Times shortly before Christmas to criticize the impact that successive waves of austerity are having on political stability in southern Europe. The interview had particular resonance in the aftermath of the Spanish national elections. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was in many ways Europe’s ‘best’ student in terms of economic policymaking. Rajoy not only narrowly escaped the doom loop that tied the fate of the Spanish government to the solvency of its banks, but he also avoided the indignity of falling under official European economic tutelage. He has not always does as told by his European counterparts but his government is often held us as a model of successful macroeconomic adjustment and fiscal consolidation in the face of crisis. His ‘reward’ has been a splintering of the Spanish electorate and a hung parliament. For Renzi, the fate of his ‘friend Mariano’ is an inevitable consequence of Europe’s obsession with austerity.

Alas, explaining European politics is different from evaluating public policy. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Europe’s current obsession with austerity both in terms of ideas and in terms of practice. The impact has increased income inequality, the timing has lengthened Europe’s recession, and the long-term consequences in terms of foregone investment and capital wastage will be felt for generations. This is true across the euro area and not just in Spain. Nevertheless, it is too big a jump in reasoning and evidence to say that such problems lay behind the discontent of different European electorates. It would be nice if voters punished bad public policy, but it is more likely that they are trying to send a very different message. They don’t want new policies, they just want new leadership. And that message applies to all parts of the political spectrum.

Consider the fate of the Spanish socialist party (PSOE). The PSOE has been in opposition since Rajoy was elected in 2011 – and for Rajoy to win the 2011 election, something had to happen to the popularity of the PSOE even before that. In fact, between 2008 and 2011, the PSOE lost more than 4 million votes. Over the same period, Rajoy’s center-right PP gained over 500,000. This is what you expect to happen when the voters see one party governing badly and then look to the main party in opposition. What happened between 2011 and 2015 is very different. True the PP lost 3.5 million votes during its time in government – but the PSOE lost another 1.5 million. Austerity may explain part of the PP’s misfortune, but what happened to the PSOE is a different matter.

Recent Italian experience is also inconsistent with Renzi’s assertion about the link between austerity and electoral politics. Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government could be accused of many things prior to its collapse in 2011, but European-inspired austerity is not one of them. If anything, Berlusconi’s inability to pull together a convincing fiscal stabilization package was one of the reasons that led to his ouster that November. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano brought in a government of non-political ‘technicians’ under the leadership of Mario Monti to calm the situation. In turn Monti implemented a number of rigorous fiscal reform measures.

Had Monti remained true to his ‘technical’ – read non-political – origins and refused to campaign for re-election as prime minister, many believe he might have stood a chance to become Napolitano’s successor as president. Instead, Monti chose to campaign for re-election and rapidly lost his technocratic legitimacy. Monti’s party was crushed in the February 2013. The opposition Democratic Party (PD) also did worse than expected – which is one of the many factors that eased Renzi’s path to power. The big winners in that election were Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which captured roughly 25 percent of the electorate using populist anti-elite rhetoric.

The parallels between what happened in Italy in February 2013 and what happened in Spain this year are close in this anti-elite dimension. True the big winner in Spain was Podemos, which has a clear critique of austerity alongside its promise to root out corruption and overturn the ruling class. But the more moderate Citizens’ party (Ciudadanos) also had an impressive showing despite its more centrist economic ideology. They did not emerge as kingmaker in the new Spanish parliament, which is what many observers expected. They sent a powerful message that it is time to replace the Spanish political elite nonetheless.

Greece and the United Kingdom present even bigger problems for Renzi’s assertion about the link between the impact of austerity measures and the rejection of incumbents by the electorate. Greece is anomalous insofar as it holds to the pattern that Renzi describes only to abandon it. Syriza came to power in January 2015 on the back of popular opposition to austerity measures. But Syriza went to the polls again the following September seeking a mandate to embrace an austerity package even tougher than the one that had just been rejected in a popular referendum. Syriza did lose a few seats from one election to the next but it also jettisoned an important part of its extreme left-wing baggage and retained its parliamentary majority. Obviously that situation could change again. Nevertheless, it seems more stable now that the Syriza government is pushing ahead with austerity measures than when it was openly fighting against them.

The British situation is even more puzzling. David Cameron’s Conservative Party made no secret of its rhetorical embrace of fiscal austerity. Criticism from close allies and from the International Monetary Fund that Britain should engage in more fiscal stimulus made little if any difference to government policy. If anything, Conservative back-benchers complained that the government was not austere enough. The impact on the electorate was counter-intuitive. Cameron achieved an outright victory in the May 2015 elections to the deep embarrassment of the opposition Labour Party. The fact that the Labour Party responded by electing the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader only added insult to injury. Far from renewing the opposition to the Conservatives in the eyes of the British electorate, Corbyn’s staunch rejection of austerity – along with other left-leaning inclinations – threatens to condemn the Labour Party to the political wilderness.

Again, what unites the Greek and British cases is the strength of anti-elite sentiment. Syriza can turn its policy program around and still retain support from the voters provided it does deals with Europe rather than with Greece’s own entrenched elites. In an oddly similar way, the real threat to the David Cameron is not opposition to austerity but rather reactionary Conservative backbenchers and a United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) that wants to redefine Britain’s relationship with Europe – which they regard as an elite betrayal of the sovereignty of the British parliament. As for Corbyn, his election as Labour leader was nothing if not a victory for those who want to overturn the ruling class.

Renzi himself is caught up in the same dynamic. For his supporters in the PD, Renzi personifies the rejection of entrenched elites. He is the wrecking machine that ushered in a whole new generation of Italian politicians. For his staunchest opposition in the Five Star Movement, however, Renzi has not gone far enough. They see Renzi’s government as ‘more of the same’ and want change that is more dramatic. The contrast between these two positions is the central cleavage in Italian politics.

Renzi is right to criticize Europe’s obsession with austerity. It really is bad public policy. Nevertheless, by doing so Renzi should not detract attention from a more important message that diverse European electorates are trying to communicate to their politicians. Europe suffers at the moment from more than just a case of bad economic policymaking. Europe needs new leadership. Or maybe it needs existing leaders to be more convincing about what they want and how they are going to achieve it.  Whatever is the case, Europe was suffering from this problem already long before the crisis. Just look at the last two decades of political developments of Austria, France, and the Netherlands. Then look closely at what has been happening in the Nordic countries. The signs of exhaustion with traditional elites are everywhere apparent. The crisis has obscured a longer-term groundswell of anti-elite sentiment. Once the current obsession with austerity has passed, Europe’s crisis of political leadership will still need to be addressed.


This essay was originally written for publication by ‘Analist‘ in Turkey.  You can find the Turkish version here.  The Turkish Weekly has published the English-language version as an op-ed here.


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