It’s always risky to bet against the sympathy vote; many elections have been won by the candidate whose only selling point was a dead spouse or parent, and many politicians have been more useful to their parties as martyrs than as living leaders. And sure enough, it seems to have given a boost to Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has done better than expected but nonetheless looks like failing in his bid to succeed his twin brother, Lech, who was killed in a plane crash in April.

Acting president Bronislaw Komorowski, from the governing Civic Platform party, leads Kaczynski by 41.2% to 36.7% in the first round of voting. The only other candidate with a significant tally is the left’s Grzegorz Napieralski, and since his voters are unlikely to support the conservative Kaczynski, Komorowski is a clear favorite to win the run-off.

Poland confirms a trend that has been visible now for several months. Like all generalisations across countries it has to be offered tentatively, and it’s certainly subject to exceptions, but it does appear that voters in the developed world have been shifting to the right, and (to the extent that they are offered the choice) to the liberal free-market right rather than the conservative right.

The trend probably started with the two big elections in the second half of last year: Japan, where voters threw out the conservative LDP in favor of the centrist and pro-market DPJ, and Germany, where the Social Democrats lost heavily and the big winners were the pro-business liberals, the FDP, who joined the Christian Democrats in government.

Examples of the trend this year include Chile, Hungary, the UK, the Czech Republic, Colombia, the Netherlands, Slovakia and now Poland. It’s quite an impressive list, and it’s hard to find an obvious swing to the left in the same period — the best I could do is Costa Rica.

This is not just a movement to the right. Liberal parties have been doing well: the LibDems in Britain, Civic Platform in Poland, Freedom and Solidarity in Slovakia. And within the liberal family — always a broad church — the free market wing seems to be in the ascendant. In the Netherlands, for example, which has two liberal parties, it was the pro-business People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy that emerged as the largest party, well clear of the more progressive Democrats 66.

This is all quite contrary to expectations at the start of the global financial crisis, when it was thought that voters would lose faith in capitalism and turn to the parties of the left. In late 2008 there were signs of that happening, but it petered out quite quickly.

Why, who knows? Maybe the early appearance of recovery convinced voters that the crisis was mostly a beat-up. Maybe they trusted pro-market parties as better able to address capitalism’s problems without killing the patient in the process. Maybe they thought a breakdown in regulatory systems implied government failure, not market failure. Or maybe it’s all basically just coincidence.

Whatever its causes, it’s interesting to contemplate the implications of this trend (such as it is) for Australia. The most obvious gap in our party system is that we have no party in the category of “pro-market liberal”; politicians as diverse as Mark Latham and Malcolm Turnbull have failed to create one.

But it’s not impossible that some of the discontent the polls are showing with the choices on offer is related to just that gap: that the three options of big-government conservatism, watered-down social democracy and market-sceptic Greens show Australia to be out of step with the new international fashion.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey