Yet potentially more disruptive to Europe’s crisis management plans, furious voters in Greece dealt a powerful blow to traditional parties that backed the tough terms of the country’s massive international bailout. The result left centrists in Athens scrambling to form a fragile new government against strengthened ranks of the far left and right. Even the leader of a center-right party that earned the most votes — New Democracy — backtracked on a pledge to support the bailout conditions late Sunday, casting fresh doubt on Greece’s rescue deal and the nation’s ability to remain within the euro zone.
The results in France and Greece came after a tumultuous few weeks in which the Dutch government fell and Britain’s Conservative-led coalition received a licking in local elections. In all cases, front and center was the growing debate over austerity vs. growth, with opponents of strict cuts arguing that they are succeeding only in driving the region’s economies into the ground.
Lessons on spending cuts
The pushback in Europe could hold tough lessons for the United States, where government spending and the deficit have emerged as major election-year issues. Presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney has vowed to cut the deficit at a faster pace than President Obama. But the mixed results of such policies in Europe — where a voter backlash has brought down leaders in Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and now France and Greece — could make the argument for speedy deficit reduction increasingly difficult.
In Europe, the rapidly changing political landscape is throwing up new challenges as the region struggles to end a debt crisis that has loomed over the global economy for more than two years. That is especially true for Merkel, who has led the argument that such woes can be fixed only by foisting fiscal restraint — of the kind Germany imposed after its 1990 reunification — on heavily indebted nations that share the euro currency.
In Germany, meanwhile, Merkel’s party faced a setback in regional elections Sunday, with her Christian Democrats in danger of losing power in their fourth state in two years after their worst showing in Schleswig-Holstein since 1950.
Farther west, a triumphant Hollande said Sunday that he would work for “a reorientation of Europe, for growth, for employment, for the future.” He added that “in quite a few European countries” hit by austerity, his arrival marked “a relief, a sign of hope.” He conceded that France must get a grip on its deficit but said he wanted to add a “dimension of growth” to the debt-reduction struggle, adding: “This is what I will tell our friends, and, above all, Germany, in the name of the friendship that unites us.”