Two elections held at the weekend provide an interesting angle on how democracies respond to crisis.
The first, in the Czech Republic, was on Saturday. Czechs have been in a state of intermittent political crisis since the last election, in 2006, produced a tie between left and right. The conservatives eventually managed to form a government, but that fell on a vote of confidence more than a year ago and for the past few months the country has been run by a bipartisan government of technocrats.
This time, however, the result is pretty clear.
Although the social democrats will (narrowly) be the largest party in the new parliament, the three parties of the centre-right have won a clear majority between them, 118 seats out of 200. It will take some time to work out the details, but no one seems to doubt that they will form a governing coalition. Social democrat leader Jiri Paroubek has conceded defeat.
This is interesting because the Czechs, like most of Europe, are facing serious budgetary problems, and the centre-right made no secret of their plans for rigorous austerity measures. Civic Democrat leader and likely prime minister Petr Necas said (according to the BBC) that “It is great news that will allow the Czech Republic to avoid a repeat of the Greek scenario.”
It’s not always the case in central Europe that a swing to the right would be a vote for fiscal responsibility: many right-wing parties are given to big-government populism, and social democrats have often been the more sensible financial managers. But the Civic Democrats are a very Western-style combination of liberals and conservatives, not unlike our Liberal Party of the Howard-Costello era, and on this topic they probably mean what they say.
It’s often thought that democracy is ill-equipped to cope with the current sort of crisis, because voters resist cutting government spending or raising taxes. The Czech result, however, suggests that the electorate is more public-spirited than it is given credit for, and that an austerity program can be sold as necessary to avert disaster.
It also deals another blow to the already shaky theory that the crisis would turn voters against capitalism in general and therefore deliver gains to the parties of the left.
The weekend’s other election, in Colombia, was also a victory for the right. Incumbent president Alvaro Uribe was prevented by term limits from running again, but his chosen successor, former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos, was a clear winner on Sunday with about 47% of the vote, well clear of his nearest rival, Greens candidate Antanas Mockus on 21%.
Since Santos has less than 50% there will be a run-off on June 20, but there is no doubt about the result (a good argument for preferential voting to save costs).
In Colombia, the big issue is not finances but national security; the success of Uribe’s measures against the FARC guerrillas, despite their questionable human rights aspects, has evidently garnered public support.
Colombians may eventually worry about the price they have paid for improved security, but for now they seem content with the deal. Latin America’s swing to the left has clearly run out of steam.