Donald Trump stunned the world when he won the United States presidential election. Members of the political, intellectual and media establishments in Western countries rubbed their eyes. Few were prepared for such an outcome – and many remain unable to swallow it.
Hillary Clinton’s victory had appeared a “done deal” to the elite. A Trump presidency was not an option, because results that are deemed undesirable are not supposed to materialize.
The outcome of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom resulted in a very similar shock. But it happened and – to the horror of those who neither wanted nor expected it – this divorce may prove not quite as catastrophic for the UK as the opponents had prophesied. In fact, a satisfactory outcome cannot be ruled out. As with the election of Mr. Trump, this also appears difficult for many to accept.
Poll-based forecasts are no longer reliable because they are inferred from voters’ past behavior in a stable political environment – it is not stable anymore. The pollsters always have a problem when new players emerge or voters’ expectations significantly shift. This has been happening lately, as the public’s trust in the traditional political leadership has eroded in Western democracies.
More such surprises are in store. The U.S. is in a privileged situation now, with no new elections scheduled for two years. In Europe, however, there are big votes coming in key countries.
In France, euroskeptic Marine Le Pen appears poised to make it to the second round of the 2017 presidential race; the doctrine of hope dictates that she must lose in the end. But must she really?
Until recently, it appeared that the experienced, politically conservative and economically liberal Francois Fillon could become her successful rival in the second round. The socialist candidates seem far too radical and irresponsible to even dream of participating in the final contest – with the possible exception of Emmanuel Macron, a socialist spin-off. The mindset of Marine Le Pen, however, is so close to socialists’ that, in the end, many voters on the left may prefer her to Mr. Fillon.
Is anybody making plans?
Also weakening the conservative candidate are the allegations of nepotism that have surrounded him and his family members. Some may find them damning at decision time. All of this indicates that the French presidency may well be within Ms. Le Pen’s reach. With such a scenario looming, are other European countries and Brussels busy preparing contingency plans in case a President Le Pen would move to challenge, or outright quit, the European Union – or is everybody leaning on the doctrine of hope, assuming that she cannot prevail?
The Netherlands has always been a pillar of the European project. The euroskeptic Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders, however, may emerge from the next elections as the strongest political force.
Germany will vote, too. It can be assumed that the Christian Democrat CDU/CSU alliance will remain the strongest force and that Angela Merkel will try to create a new coalition after the elections and remain chancellor. Which parties this coalition would include is an open question. But there are other possibilities as well. The Social Democrats will be led by the ambitious Martin Schulz, who resigned from his prestigious position as president of the European Parliament. Mr. Schultz is unlikely to accept the role of a junior partner in a Merkel-led coalition. Instead, he might try to build a majority in the Bundestag by lumping together a coalition of the left, including the Greens and the successors of the former East German Communists. Germany is doing well in the EU and with the euro, but the new government in Berlin may change its position on transfer payments. (Through the European Central Bank’s target system, Germany has been building up financial claims against some other countries in the eurozone. As these claims are unrecoverable in practice, they in fact can be considered as transfer payments.)
Italians also go to the polls – in 2018 at the latest, possibly even this year. That country’s membership in the EU is not under threat, but there is some question whether it will remain in the eurozone. Are there any European strategies for shoring up the common currency if Italy opts out? For example, does Berlin have a view of what a drastically rising euro would mean to the German economy?
‘No choice’ principle
Ms. Merkel likes to use the term “alternativlos,” which largely means there are no alternatives – in her case, that the plans and solutions chosen by the chancellor are the only ones possible. Any other approach would bring disaster, and is therefore unacceptable. This all-or-nothing attitude is also discernible in the workings of the European Commission.
The “no choice” principle can function in the government for a while, keeping public opinion its hostage. Unfortunately, political and administrative systems tend to become self-serving. Eventually, their operators turn blind to other options than those they prefer. People are willing to live with it – but only to a point.
Now a time has come when European voters will try to reinstate choice, differing visions and more openness in their government systems, because they rightly perceive them as self-serving. The election outcomes are highly uncertain.
But think of it: would Marine Le Pen kicking up institutional dust in France be a greater disaster than President Francois Hollande, who accomplished nothing meaningful during his uninspiring term? Also, it is hard to predict at this point what a Le Pen presidency would look like; once given the responsibility, many firebrand leaders act more responsibly than when they criticized the system from the outside.
Certainly, a President Fillon would be preferable to a President Le Pen. Mr. Macron, the likely standard bearer for the Social Democrats, most likely would just continue Mr. Hollande’s policy of no reform.
Democracy thrives on choices in means and policies. “Alternativlos,” which is also a doctrine of the European Commission, is no longer sustainable.