Legacy of fallen leaders

THERE are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics.

It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.

So said the British Labour Party prime minister Jim Callaghan when he identified the popular sentiment that would sweep him out of power and deliver the first of three election victories for Margaret Thatcher.

The context might be different, but just over 30 years after he made those comments, economic circumstances are forcing a change in what the public are demanding from leaders across Europe.

And, like he said, it may not matter what leaders say or do, they are failing to overcome a prevailing mood for change.

Ten crisis-hit European countries that have replaced their leaders since the held elections since 2009. There is no identifiable pattern of voters rejecting one particular ideology for another. Some countries ditched right-wing leaders for those on the left, while others migrated the other way around on the political spectrum.

The only trend consistent is an anti-incumbent one. The result is a long, winding pathway to economic recovery, that is not only paved with major stumbling blocks, but also with a the political corpses of a host of fallen leaders. Here is how they lost:

BRITAIN

May 2010, Gordon Brown who had often boasted that he had ended Britain’s boom-bust economic cycle as a finance minister under Tony Blair, ultimately presided over, and lost power under, one of the biggest busts it has seen.

During the campaign he admitted he had bowed to pressure from the city and failed to regulate banks properly.

Not only did he lose his first election as prime minister, but his Labour Party lost its first election in 13 years, giving way to David Cameron’s Conservatives, which formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats promising to “bring in sunshine”.

IRELAND

Feb 2011, Brian Cowen took over as taoiseach in May 2008, during that hazy period when the country was somewhere between brashly wealthy and woefully bust. The country officially entered recession five months after he entered office, but as the reality started to sink in over the following months, he and his Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition never quite managed to grasp it or give any reassurance to the Irish people in their new found predicament.

Before Cowen reached his first Christmas in the job, ministers were awoken with a midnight phone call asking them to agree to guarantee all the debt of the country’s banks.

The measure was passed and as the massive debts of the banks became apparent, the economy itself started crashing down.

From budget surpluses in 2007, the deficit reached 32% of GDP by 2010 — the highest in the eurozone. Unemployment soared to rates not seen since the 1980s, matched by similar levels of emigration that had defined that decade. Borrowing rates soared and, in Nov 2010, the country was forced into accepting an €80bn bailout. Two months later, Cowen stepped down as leader of Fianna Fáil precipitating a general election.

PORTUGAL

June 2011, If an EU/IMF bailout brought about a general election in Ireland, it was the other way around in Portugal where the collapse of the government in March led to a period of political uncertainty that culminated in a €78bn bailout.

Despite his arguing that Portugal had got a better deal than Ireland and Greece, prime minister José Sócrates and his Socialist Party which had been in power for six years, suffered its worst election result in 20 years.

The Social Democrats won a conclusive victory, with 39% of the vote, against 28% for the Socialists, paving the way for a centre-right government.

The task of implementing deep spending cuts agreed with the EU and IMF was left to the new prime minister, Passos Coelho.

FINLAND

June 2011, Feb 2012, There were fears that EU bailouts could be blocked when the anti-immigration, anti-EU True Finns won 39 out of 200 seats in last summers’ elections.

Unlike other eurozone countries, Finland’s parliament can vote on whether to approve such measures and election results showed the True Finns might be needed to form any coalition.

Instead, a conservative-led coalition spanning left and right was formed to keep the nationalists out of power.

Those who feared Finland was becoming a eurosceptic country were proved wrong in February’s presidential election with the victory of Sauli Niinisto — a former finance minister and strong believer in the European project.

Finland’s president has a largely ceremonial role, but takes the lead on matters of foreign policy and is seen as an important shaper of public opinion.

DENMARK

Sept 2011, Although Denmark is a member of the EU, it did not adopt the euro. However, it was not immune from economic woes, and the election was fought during the country’s worst downturn since the Second World War.

Partly due to discontent over austerity, the centre-right government lost its decade long grip on power.

It was replaced by the centre-left Social Democrat Party, which campaigned on a platform of raising taxes and increasing public spending.

With a narrow majority in parliament, Helle Thorning-Schmidt became the country’s first female prime minister.

ITALY

Nov 2011, For 30 months he clung to power, surviving controversies that would have felled the leader of almost any other country in the world. However, the party eventually ended for serial scandal survivor Silvio Berlusconi when investors lost confidence in his ability to spur economic growth and rein in debt.

If corruption investigations, sex scandals and hosting strippers dressed at nuns won’t bring down an all-powerful leader, then the markets will.

After losing his parliament majority in Nov 2011 he promised to step down as prime minister once MPs approved new austerity measures.

President Giorgio Napolitano appointed technocrat Mario Monti as his successor.

SPAIN

Nov 2011, The Socialist Party had presided over a dramatic economic slump which left 23% of Spaniards out of work.

So it was unsurprising that they were delivered a crushing defeat, losing a third of their seats, in a massive display of people power.

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was replaced as prime minister by Mariano Rajoy of the conservative People’s party (PP).

With a landslide victory, Rajoy’s PPs gained an absolute parliamentary majority giving them a free hand to carry out sweeping reforms and impose further austerity in an attempt to turn the country around.

Six months later, unemployment has continued to rise to the highest in the eurozone and market fears that the country’s banks face an unbridgeable funding gap have led to borrowing rates reaching their highest rate since it entered the single currency.

GREECE

Nov 2011, May 2012 Greek Socialist leader George Papandreou swept to power in Oct 2009 over conservative opponents, pledging to spend his way out of a deteriorating economic situation.

Two years later, at the height of Greece’s worst financial crisis since the Second World War, Papandreou’s own deputies force him out after he endangered the bailout by announcing he would put it to a referendum. He was replaced by caretaker prime minister Lucas Papademos.

Following elections earlier this month, efforts to form a coalition have failed with divisions between the three main parties over the implementation of the austerity measures required under its bailout.

Another election now appears likely in mid-June. If the new government rejects the bailout terms, it could mean the end of loans it needs to stave off bankruptcy and a possible exit from the single currency.

FRANCE

May 2012, For the first time in 24 years, France has elected a Socialist as president.

François Hollande secured a convincing 53% of the vote and unseated Nicolas Sarkozy who became only the second president, after Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981, to fail to win a re-election bid.

Mr Hollande promised to reorientate the EU towards more growth and less austerity. He appealed to the masses by showing he could stand up to the markets, describing the financial industry as his “true adversary”.

Sarkozy had thrown himself into a vigorous campaign. Ultimately he failed to overcome a prevailing desire for change in France.


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