In Europe, Too, Voters Disillusioned

April 12, 1992|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE | GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE,Gilbert Lewthwaite, former London correspondent for The Sun, now reports from Washington.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The surprise survival of Britain's Tories last week stemmed but hardly reversed a tide of voter protest that has swept across Europe, posing a widespread threat to powerful parties and long-serving politicians.

John Major's victory may have confounded the pollsters and pundits, who universally predicted neither main party would gain a parliamentary majority, but its narrowness did show a lack of any real enthusiasm among voters for either the Conservatives or Labor.

The Tories lost most of the 102-seat parliamentary majority they garnered in 1987. Labor lost its best chance at a political breakthrough. The Liberal Democrats continued to go nowhere.

The simple truth is that we seem to be entering the Age of Political Disillusion. On both sides of the Atlantic, and in Eastern as well as Western Europe, there is disappointment, frustration, even anger among voters.

If the Evil Empire has been defeated, the New World Order is off to a troubled start.

Three headlines from the Financial Times of London last week tell the story: "French poll underlines crisis facing government," "Gains for far right in German polls," and "Italy tries to cope with a political earthquake."

In France, President Francois Mitterrand's socialists are giving new meaning to the word malaise after 11 years in office. "I have a great capacity for resisting imperatives," said the imperial Mr. Mitterrand. Then an authoritative poll showed two out of three French voters favored a new government, with almost half demanding Mr. Mitterrand's own head, and he abjectly caved in to popular demand, dismissing his acid-tongued prime minister, Edith Cresson.

In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, 12 years in office, was given a nasty warning last week by voters who turned sharply to the right in two regional elections to signal popular misgivings about his expensive, grand visions of unity, both German and European, and the mass influx of refugees.

Italy too joined in the trend, throwing out the coalition government led by the long-serving Christian Democrats, who have dominated the country's politics since Benito Mussolini's fascists were defeated during World War II. Delegates from no fewer than 16 parties now sit in Italy's national legislature, and later this month they will face the challenge of forming a new government, Italy's 60th in 45 years.

Even in Canada, it would almost take a miner to uncover the support level of Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose popularity rating after 8 years was heading toward single digits when last seen pausing at 11 percent, the lowest ever for a Canadian prime minister.

Whichever way the voters are going, left, right or center, the underlying message is one of dissatisfaction. Age has apparently brought neither wisdom nor respect to governments. The voters are signaling that the parties that have held power for so long cannot take their trust for granted.

The closeness of the British election sends this salutary message to Washington.

The sort of anti-incumbent mood that has taken hold in the United States, forcing a drove of national legislators to decide against seeking re-election, almost brought an end to 12 years of Tory rule that saw the same boom and bust that currently overshadows the United States, economically and politically.

One key difference: Mr. Major was forced to seek his own mandate while the country was still in the iron grip of recession. Unemployment in Britain is over nine per cent, two points higher than here, its housing market in a state a state of collapse, its government services declining. The leading economic indicators were against Mr. Major from the start. Mr. Bush can only hope that the U.S. economy has time before November to perk up. If it doesn't, he, too, could find himself fighting for survival.

There are many striking parallels between the British and American elections this year: administrations accused of running out of steam after more than a decade in power; uninspiring replacements for charismatic ideologues seeking to stay in office with support from unimpressed voters; electorates buffeted by hard times; opposition parties working the middle ground and the middle classes; a sense that perhaps it is simply time for a change.

In Britain, Labor leader Neil Kinnock tried to capitalize on this mood. He presented a new model of democratic socialism. Out had gone unilateral disarmament, a policy which soured the party's relationship's with Washington for years. Abandoned was the old commitment to renationalize all that the Tories had privatized.

Cast off was the party's fealty to the labor unions. Mr. Kinnock was no beer-swilling comrade to Andy Capp, the archetypal cloth-capped working man.

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