It's not the United States that is caught up in election campaigns. Germany votes in October, and France next spring. In both countries, the play so far has been pretty routine. European politics of the past several years has been notable chiefly for the things that didn't happen.
Four years ago, it had seemed altogether possible that Europe might split into two blocs moving in sharply different directions.Germany and the smaller countries associated with it were determined to hold inflation down, suggesting perhaps a movement to the right. In the 1976 election campaign, the conservative parties were organizing a powerful challenge to Helmut Schmidt's coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals.
The countries to the west and south, in contrast, appeared to be losing their grip on inflation and drifting rapidly to the left. It was widely thought to be only a matter of time until the Communists formally entered the Italian government, in which they were already playing a substantial part. In France, the Socialists and Communists were organizing an alliance clearly capable of winning national elections.
But none of that happened. Chancellor Schmidt kept his office. For the Western European Communist movement, the turning point was March 1978, when the alliance of the left lost the French parliamentary elections. The Communists had evidently changed their minds and decided not to risk the ideological perils of coalition government. They had turned on their Socialist partners with a deliberate malevolence that brought them both defeat. Simultaneously, terrorists in Rome kidnapped a former premier, Also Moro, who had been the crucial figure in the negotiations between the government and the Communists. Two months later, they killed him. A good many Italian voters evidently concluded, perhaps unfairly but not unreasonably, that the rise of the Communist Party promised violence. The Communists suffered serious losses in the next elections, and their progress toward seats in the Cabinet suddenly ended. As for the Spanish Communists, who had originally coined the term "Eurocommunism," they sank out of sight altogether.
While Americans were preoccupied mainly with the Communists, some, Europeans were more concerned about the effects of the deep recession of the mid-1970s on political stability. Postwar European democracy had been built on a presumption of steadily rising prosperity, and several leading politicians wondered out loud about the reactions to a severe decline.
As it turned out, the recession had no great effect on European political development. In 1976, there was a tendency among Europeans to wring their hands and declare themselves the victims of great worldwide forces -- above all, the exhaustion of natural resources. Today, the more common view is a certain tough confidence that while it may be difficult to get richer, it isn't impossible. The political effect has generally been to draw power to the center. Chancellor Schmidt and his coalition are clear favorites to win in October. France's President Valery Giscard d'Eastaing is likely to be reelected next year. European inflation isn't any better than in mid-1970s, but it isn't any worse. European political life has become, if anything, a bit dull. As European politicians know, that's the reward of success.