After its month-long election, India’s voters have confounded expectations with a strong vote of confidence in the incumbents. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance will have about 260 seats, not quite an absolute majority but at least a hundred seats clear of its main rival, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
It will be a simple matter for prime minister Manmohan Singh to put together a majority with some smaller parties and independents. That will make him, as The Age puts it, “the first prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962 to be returned after completing a full term in office” — and he will cap the achievement by appointing Nehru’s great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, to cabinet as his heir apparent.
So much for my suggestion a month ago that “India seems to be getting harder to govern”. On the contrary, the voters have consolidated the two-party system. The BJP and its allies were not disgraced, losing about 15 seats; the big losers were the left-wing and sectional parties, the so-called third and fourth fronts, who lost as many as 70 seats between them.
It seems that the global financial crisis has not had the devastating effect on the world’s governments that many were expecting six months ago. There is little sign of either a general swing to the left or a general movement against incumbents.
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Out of the major elections held since last September, incumbents have been comfortably returned in South Africa, Indonesia and now India. Canada’s conservatives were returned as a minority government, and Romania’s conservatives returned in coalition with the social democrats. The United States and New Zealand kicked out incumbents (of right and left respectively), but both results had been long expected, with the GFC in a secondary role.
There’s also not much in the polling data to suggest sitting governments are in trouble on a broad front. Britain’s Gordon Brown is doing badly, but there were ample signs of that before the GFC hit. Germany’s conservative-led government, facing an election later this year, is travelling well in the polls, as are centre-left governments like Australia’s.
In short, the supposed popular reaction against neo-liberal orthodoxy is thin on the ground. People seem to be seeking stability as much as change; governments that look moderate and responsible are well placed to hold on, and those that are turfed out are equally likely to be on the left as on the right.