France and Italy share the tendency of taking a step forward while beating a voluntary or forced retreat soon thereafter. In the case of Italy, disillusionment with the governance and antics of Silvio Berlusconi rather than enthusiasm for the centre-left coalition cobbled together by Romano Prodi suggests the defeat of the erstwhile government although it is less than clear how Signor Prodi will be able to govern under compromises between 11 parties and groups with barely compatible agendas. But there is hope.
That Berlusconi squandered his goodwill and failed to make the best use of a majority during the past five years is now history. He ran a campaign bereft of real issues such as liberalising the job market, simplifying and cutting taxes, and presenting his coalition as the only credible alternative facing the Italians. Instead, he launched into a tirade of personal attacks against his opponent in a performance that was simply appalling.
Admittedly, as a former President of the European Commission, Prodi’s baggage is least alluring. The euro is widely blamed for falling living standards in Italy. It was not so long ago that pensioners took to the streets to strongly protest their inability to buy their usual cup of coffee at their favourite bistros due to overpriced lattes in the wake of the euro. Last year, an Italian minister publicly called for a return to the lira in order to solve the country’s economic problems. The Italian scenario has also emboldened the Left in France towards reinforcing their social conservatism.
Never did so few measures wreak such political havoc in so short a time as in France. The climb down by the French government after President Chirac signed the controversial jobs contract could not have been more humiliating. It has all but erased the political prospects of Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister and author of the law. Chirac is now unlikely to do anything that risks further electoral unpopularity for his remaining year. Other European leaders would also be hard put to do serious business with him unless it plays well in France.
The drumbeat of discontent has also reached Britain’s shores where Prime Minister Tony Blair seems engaged in a Hamlet-like monologue. Having committed the mistake back in October 2004 of pledging to step down before the next general election in 2009 if he won the 2005 election, he now finds himself in the unenviable position of ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ sort of dilemma. Last week, he admitted that the pledge was a mistake. But there is little doubt that he is in the final phase of his premiership. Blair no longer commands a guaranteed parliamentary majority. The police are investigating into the cash for coronets scandal where Labour is alleged to have secretly raised some £14m in loans to fight the last election. Four of the lenders were subsequently nominated for seats in the House of Lords. Though nothing has been proved so far, Labour has come under a cloud for possible political corruption. All these problems have created a sense of confusion within the Labour party, exacerbated by the fact that Britain’s two main parties —the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats —have new leaders geared up for the challenge.
Blair’s growing number of critics says it is time to stand down and hand over the reins to Gordon Brown, the prime minister in waiting. It must be grating for him to be told, as did the British media a few days ago, that he was in danger of finding himself "in office, but not in power". But nothing marks Tony Blair more than his time-tested skill of resilience.
In the face of recent polls suggesting that nearly 57 per cent of the public think that he has "run out of steam and is unlikely to achieve anything else as Prime Minister", Blair has been fighting back, putting across his message through a spate of recent interviews that he still had a "massive amount" to achieve: addressing the complex reform of Britain’s state health service, education, welfare and pensions reform, energy security and so on.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown, who has never hidden his desire to occupy 10, Downing Street at the earliest possible date, has been making bolder noises, such as when he launched a head-on attack against David Cameron, the new Conservative leader. But Blair is not ready to go just yet. His allies feel he is still too young and energetic to bow out from the political stage. There is little doubt, however, that the Labour party is in a limbo of Blair’s own creation. There are fears that the longer he stays, the messier will be his eventual departure. That will not be good for the party or for his own political legacy.
Probity in public life is still not quite the norm in Germany. Former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder displayed poor judgment in accepting the chairmanship of the North European Gas Pipeline Company, a Gazprom-led Russian-German venture he helped create as chancellor. The 5bn euro gas pipeline linking Siberia to Germany via the Baltic Sea is strategic. However, recent revelations that his government had sanctioned a 1bn euro credit guarantee to the project barely a month before he left office have embarrassed Schroeder but he has denied any wrongdoing.
With his political career tainted by too many business relationships in the past, Schroeder is more likely to go down in history as the unacceptable face of German corporatism. It is no coincidence that Germany’s most business-friendly chancellor presided over the country’s worst economic chapter under any government since the Federal Republic came into being.
M N Hebbar is a Berlin-based commentator
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