Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Neoliberal Consensus Faces Difficulty at the Polls

Plenty of news over the weekend points to an electorate ready to make changes. First, in Spain, where municipal and regional elections were held on Sunday, two leftists, Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid, came out on top in the mayor's race. Carmena was not the top vote-getter, but she is expected to govern in coalition with the Socialists.

The election is being interpreted as a triumph for upstart Podemos, led by the youthful Pablo Iglesias. As Raphael Minder reports in "Spain’s Local Election Results Reshape Political Landscape":
The success of anti-establishment candidates, who ran for small local parties, in the two largest Spanish cities underlined the fragmentation of Spain’s politics, as well as the precipitous slide of the governing Popular Party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, ahead of general elections this year.
The elections also confirmed the erosion of Spain’s bipartisan system. The Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party together won just over half of the vote on Sunday, compared with two-thirds in the last election in 2011. Instead, Podemos (We Can), a far-left party, and — to a lesser extent — Ciudadanos (Citizens), a center-right party, emerged as the new kingmakers of Spanish politics. Now come complicated negotiations to form new regional governments and city administrations across the country.
In 2011, the Popular Party swept to power as voters punished the Socialists for sinking Spain into economic crisis. Four years later, Mr. Rajoy has been urging voters not to risk derailing Spain’s recent return to growth by entrusting economic management to left-leaning or untested political parties. The government is forecasting growth of 2.9 percent this year, which Mr. Rajoy expects to be the strongest among major European nations.
However, “there is a broader change in the political mood in Spain that the Popular Party doesn’t seem to be able to grasp,” said Manuel Arias-Maldonado, a politics professor at the University of Málaga. Sunday’s results, he added, show that the Popular Party had “false confidence that economic recovery would suffice” to win elections.
Pablo Iglesias, the national leader of Podemos, told supporters on Sunday night that the results in Spain’s largest cities showed the end of the bipartisan system. In Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, Rita Barberá, the conservative mayor, is also expected to resign after 24 years. Ms. Barberá’s Popular Party won, but with an insufficient margin to stop left-leaning parties from forming a coalition and removing her from office.
“The big cities are the big engine of change in Spain,” Mr. Iglesias said on Sunday. He went on to predict that the change in the country’s political landscape would be confirmed in general elections to be held at the end of the year. 
Such a forecast seems premature. But Sunday’s outcome suggests that the days of clear-cut results in Spanish elections are numbered, replaced instead by four-way races that will force parties to enter into the largely uncharted waters of coalition negotiations.
Iglesias is correct. Big cities are the engine for change. And that is why Hillary should be very concerned. There is an anti-incumbent, no more "business as usual" virus that has infected the electorate. Whether it is in Poland, where an anti-establishment campaign by rocker Pawel Kukiz threw the election into a runoff that led to the defeat of incumbent president Bronislaw Komorowski by challenger Andrzej Duda, or in Alberta, the "Texas of  Canada," home base of conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, where Rachel Notley of the New Democratic Party was sworn in as premier, voters are casting about for a way to get rid of the mainstream ruling parties.

It isn't going to be an easy path forward to meaningful change. As Minder notes in his piece on the Spanish elections, coalition governments are difficult creations. And in Alberta, the 51 members of the New Democratic Party recently elected to the provincial legislature, are being labeled novices. If true, the odds are long that there will be any grand transformation in Calgary. My experience with the Green Party, a political organization that attracted mostly idealistic newcomers, is that novices make poor political workers. Look at the Five Star Movement in Italy, another novice-filled political organization; it has not been the transforming force as advertised.

Nonetheless transformation is knocking at the door. Though the corporate mainstream has increasingly embraced LGBT rights in the last five years, Ireland's approval of a same-sex marriage referendum by a super-majority last Friday is noteworthy. Long considered a colony of the Roman Catholic Church, the same-sex marriage vote proves the Irish are shedding their religious shackles. Many of the referendum photos I saw featured a smiling Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin holding a rainbow flag. Add Sinn Féin to the growing list of parties rising to challenge the neoliberal orthodoxy.

While it is true the U.S. political system is the most sclerotic in the Western world, and therefore resistant to the kind of change percolating in Europe and Canada, I am not convinced at this point that Hillary is unbeatable. While Bernie Sanders is no staunch opponent of the American perpetual war machine, his take on inequality and economic justice is going to be a big problem for the Clintons, as this passage from the First Draft reveals:
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont won’t condemn Hillary Rodham Clinton for raking in millions in speech fees and campaign donations. But he warns it could curb her effectiveness in challenging corporate interests on behalf of working Americans. 
“When you hustle money like that, you don’t sit in restaurants like this,” Mr. Sanders said during an interview in a small Italian bistro on Capitol Hill. “You’re sitting in restaurants where you’re spending — I don’t know what they spend, hundreds of dollars for dinner.” 
He added: “That’s the world that you’re accustomed to, and that’s the worldview that you adopt. You’re not worrying about a kid three blocks away from here whose mom can’t afford to feed him.” 
Mr. Sanders spoke on the eve of the first big rally for his 2016 presidential bid, in Burlington, Vt. One question looming over his effort is how aggressively he will draw contrasts with Mrs. Clinton, his former Senate colleague. The Vermont independent concedes that Mrs. Clinton is heavily favored. 
Mr. Sanders advocates a “revolution” to reverse a “massive transfer of wealth” from the middle class to the affluent over the last generation. 
He exuded contempt for the “sick” and “disgusting” views of some titans of business who have likened such efforts to Hitler and his persecution of Jews. 
“These people are so greedy, they’re so out of touch with reality,” Mr. Sanders said. “You know what? Sorry, you’re all going to have to pay your fair share of taxes.” 
He doesn’t flinch over returning to the 90 percent personal income tax rates of the 1950s for top earners. And if reducing income inequality reduces economic growth, he says, that’s fine. “You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants,” he said, “when children are hungry in this country.”

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