Comment 17 May 2017
What is wanted?
The British were ultimately the most straightforward about it. Some 51% voted yes for Brexit last year. By 8 June coming, one line of thinking is that Theresa May will find her Conservative majority in parliament substantially increased. By one reckoning, that will strengthen the Brexit hand, possibly nearer 60%. Populism achieved by a wide margin.
Trump with all guns blazing garnered some 49% of the US electorate and with it the presidency. Though his speeches have been intensely populist on message, actual followthrough has been fading steadily under the grinding attention of the fractious Republican Congress and the independent judiciary. Impressive, but losing speed. Next elections for Congress will be in November next year. That is, if we get there, with the Russian scandal growing daily.
In France, Marie Le Pen started the year with 7 million votes (out of 49 million). The first Presidential round upped that to 11 million votes or 20%, and by the second Presidential vote increased that to 16 million votes or 33%. Extremely good progress but as yet no cigar. The massage is still too aggressive, the average Frenchman and woman apparently not quite ready for the barricades.
In March, the Dutch elections send their own message. On a 150 seat parliament, the Labour Party (PvdA) saw itself decimated from 38 seats to 9 seats, or from 25% to 6%. In contrast the PVV of Geert Wilders upped its stake from 15 to 20 seats, a nice gain but still only 13% of the electorate. The VVD conservatives under Mark Rutte lost ground, from 38 to 34 seats, but at 23% of the electorate by itself still nearly double of Wilders. A silent majority here too isn't close to being ready to slash & burn, as the negotiation breakdown for a new government this week every so quietly suggested.
And then my personal favourite, and surprise, Martin Schultz in Germany on taking over the SDP late last year was a rising star, but by this week a flameout as Merkel’s CDU took a labour stronghold it hadn't seen in 50 years. That is also full suggestion about 24 September when Germany may not be quite ready to drop her pilot, sticking with Merkel for a fourth term.
So populism has risen in the stakes, but has not been a tsunami, except among the anglo-Saxons. The biggest challenge facing everyone is where this is leading?
Among the British it may ultimately be costly disappointment, if spread out over 10-20 years. For the American right, it may be offered ideologically peace branches as only Trump can do. But how long will performance disappointment take, and only a steadily growing economy erode the seething underlying anger?
In Europe, the populist curve is still up. With every electoral term bringing yet another layer of disappointment, one might expect right-wing populism to deepen further. This is not inconceivable, given the intractability of their real structural problems: inequality, lack of integration, the environment. But as the Anglo-Saxons fail to make much progress, that may turn some Europeans more cautious, too.
Macron, having won the French presidency, the first port of call the next day was Merkel in Germany, in repetition of his predecessors. In Berlin, he made sure to sound off about Europe, more integration and stronger. On can imagine his quiet host whispering to him afterwards: Sure, Emannuelle, but first sort out your own economy, the labour market, the national inequality, the slow growth. Once having done that (it might take 20 years) we can talk Europe as much as you want.
For Merkel, too, faces her structural challenges. These are not easy to address, generational stuff in many instances. But then they are determined if slow about it. All this fury among the Anglo-Saxons and French is too much short term thinking. But then the long term for some always looks out of reach.
As to South Africa’s profile set off against these mature democracies, one really wonders whether we have defined the concepts by now rather than being on the road to a better future for all.
Bruggemans & Associates, Consulting Economists