Analysis: European Elections A Warning To Obama


obamaBy David Lauter

The failure of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s party in a major state election Sunday is another reminder to Democrats of a fundamental reality of politics – in recessions, voters tend to punish the party in charge.

Americans tend to think of their politics as being a thing unto itself – not related to contests elsewhere in the world. But the economic crisis that began in 2008 swept through all the major, developed market economies, and the political waves that have washed through their elections follow a similar pattern.

In Germany’s election, Merkel’s conservative coalition lost big in the country’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, which shows her party won backing from only about one-quarter of voters, down from more than one-third in the last election. The state contest would be the second major one in a row that the Christian Democratic Union and its coalition partners, the Free Democrats, have lost.

Merkel herself, who will meet with President Obama at summit gatherings this coming weekend, does not need to face a national election until 2013. Elsewhere in Europe, however, national leaders have fallen right and left. On the right, Merkel’s ally, French President Nicolas Sarkozy lost his reelection bid earlier this month to Socialist Francois Hollande. On the left, Britain’s Labor party, which had governed for 13 years, lost in 2010 to the Conservatives under David Cameron. Similarly, in Spain, the recession helped topple the socialist government in 2011. Governments have also fallen in Italy and Greece, among others.

Each of those elections involved unique factors – local issues, contrasting campaign styles, differing personalities and the like. But the overall pattern – familiar to political scientists – is a simple one: The swing voters in elections in most democracies tend to be non-ideological. When times are bad, they tend to agree with candidates who argue that the incumbent’s policies haven’t worked, let’s try something new. Right now, that’s the theme being put forward by the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

Obama and his advisers do have counter-arguments, of course. A substantial percentage of voters continue to blame former president George W. Bush, not Obama, for the country’s economic troubles. And a major theme of Obama’s campaign lately has been that Romney’s policies, far from providing new leadership, would simply mark a return to Bush’s policies. That argument could help Obama retain his job this fall – currently he leads narrowly in most polls – but if he does so, he will have bucked a worldwide trend.

{Los Angeles Times/ Newscenter}