This article hence proposes two major reasons to account for such a trend – unpopularity and inaccessibility of the austerity measures, dynamics of political parties during elections.
“The President’s great failing is that he has never tried to convince his countrymen of the need for reform. His election campaign largely ignored the subject, giving voters the impression that more taxes on the rich and an end to austerity would be enough to cure France’s ills.” This criticism of François Hollande from The Economist in April was followed soon after in May by an article on Hollande’s failure to inform the electorate of the imperative of austerity in France during his campaign trails.
The articles bear an uncanny resemblance to other articles in the Economist and right-leaning journals about Mariano Rajoy of Spain, Antonis Samaras of Greece and Pier Luigi Bersani of Italy. All of them feature the condemnation of politicians and political parties’ failure to inform and support austerity once in office despite its necessity or implementation. What these journals do not seem to get is that they publish the same arguments repeatedly without providing reasons why political parties and politicians are not keen to support – let alone discuss – austerity and the need for liberal reforms.
The recent European austerity experiment centres around the school of economic thought which subscribes to the priorities of low government debt (at three percent according to the European Pact of Stability), liberalisation of the labour market, and reforms to gain economic competitivity. This ranges from the subordination of other social and economic considerations to the dogma of austerity. From a theoretical perspective, it is possible to understand the economic reasoning behind austerity. For the general public without an economic background, it is difficult to understand how such austerity measures function. The relation between the size of public debt and interest rates for private firms for example requires specialist knowledge that tends not to exist beyond the confines of universities, governments and the financial sector.
Austerity measures tend to lead to short-term pains with projected long-term gains and affect low-income households and welfare recipients the most. It is also probable to conclude that an information asymmetry regarding specialist knowledge in economics tends to exist within the general public. As a result, while bearing most of the brunt of austerity measures, the general public is simultaneously unable to comprehend the logic or reasons behind such measures. Equally, even if one is able to understand such models, it is difficult to support them simply because it severely affects one’s livelihood especially if already living hand-to-mouth.
This is the trouble with austerity. It inflicts pain that is relatively greater on a significant part of the public which cannot understand or rationalise the reasoning behind austerity and support it. Austerity measures thereby suffer from a set of conditions that inherently weaken any political leader who seeks to implement them – inaccessibility beyond a narrow group within society and its unpopularity that cannot guard themselves against it, and therefore do not support it.
When The Economist argues for political parties to embrace austerity by explaining them thoroughly to the public, it assumes an absence of the role of the electoral process. Given that austerity is both inaccessible and unpopular, it is political suicide for any political party seeking power to openly back austerity. While one may point to the case of the United Kingdom as an example where a political manifesto built around austerity allowed the Conservatives to win power, it is also possible to argue otherwise. Rather than winning power through austerity, the electorate was simply disenchanted with the inability of Labour in handling the crisis and hence handed power to the Conservatives. In addition, the crisis was perceived as a result of policies during Labour’s stewardship of the government. One can hence argue that the electorate was in fact voting to reject Labour, than to affirm the Conservative’s stance on austerity.
When one further considers the political dynamics during the campaigns of Hollande, Bersani, Samaras and Rajoy, it becomes even more obvious why austerity could not be supported. The existing political parties which were then in governance were already practising austerity measures resulting in a great degree of discontent. This implies that any support for austerity will lead to a perception among the electorate that there is no significant difference between the challenger and the incumbent. The most effective means to obtain political support and power is to differentiate vis-à-vis the ruling political party (which, unlike opposition parties, are constrained by limits imposed on the state such as financial markets).
If austerity generates such attention to be the centrepiece of politics, it should be anticipated that the challengers will manoeuvre themseves on the side which wins them support. In addition, notions of ‘banker-bashing’ and ‘railing against the rich’ are far easier to comprehend, become internalised and supported by the electorate than the theoretical concepts of austerity which cannot be easily reduced in similar and popular forms. Even if they could be reduced, they still suffer from the weakness of unpopularity due to the inherent need to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains (if not, austerity itself would be superfluous). The existing political parties which were then in power were already practising austerity measures resulting in a great degree of discontent.
So why do the political opposition in countries that are stricken by the financial markets and in need of structural economic reforms not raise the banner of austerity and liberalisation of labour in their campaigns even if they have to do so when in power? It is not politically expedient to do so when austerity is unpopular and inaccessible to large parts of the population. To win votes and thereby power, it is far easier to be on the side supported by the majority of the population. If the economic problems within Europe, and in particular vulnerable states within the Eurozone, persist, do not be surprised to read more articles in which the Economist denigrates politicians and political parties for not heeding its call to inform the electorate about their subsequent conversion to austerity once in power.