What do voters want?  

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The Right is resurgent! The Left is Back! The Center is on the march!

It’s always tempting to declare, on the basis of a few elections, that a political tendency is on the ascendant. I should know: I’ve done it myself. But the only commonality in the most recent consequential elections—France, the UK, and Iran—is that voters can be depended on for one thing only: their desire for change.

In this age of constant flux—when history turns on a tweet—voters have become increasingly inconstant. They want new, they want different, they want better. Why shouldn’t elections follow the same pattern as iPhones, with a brand-new model every year? We can’t wait to trade in our perfectly good phones for something only marginally better because modernity for the last half-century has been predicated upon planned obsolescence.

Politics would seem the last refuge of the obsolescent. The median age of world leaders is 62. Joe Biden at 81, for many the very epitome of unplanned obsolescence, is not even the oldest leader (eight other leaders are older).

Yet politics, too, is moving away from incumbency. Voters just don’t want the same old, same old. It’s no wonder that U.S. voters recoil with horror from the prospect of a replay of the 2020 presidential election even as they eagerly flock to movie theaters for the second, third, ninth iteration of a superhero franchise. In politics, as in entertainment, consumers want something different and yet still, somehow, reassuringly similar.

The far right has been the latest new flavor to capture voters’ tastes. In some cases, as in the United States, it has offered little more than “change,” which means for a lot of voters not simply “change the channel” but rewind the tape a couple decades to a time when minorities weren’t so uppity. But the far right, too, must reckon with the fickleness of voters, as Jair Bolsonaro discovered in Brazil in 2022, the Law and Justice Party realized in Poland in 2023, and Narendra Modi had to confront to a certain degree in India this year when his party lost its parliamentary majority.

One way to get around the mercurial preferences of voters is to game the system. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and others have turned themselves into leaders for life by changing constitutions, eliminating oppositions, and reducing the powers of courts and parliaments. Voters might want change, but smart authoritarians don’t give them a choice.

Change in Iran

The Iranian religious leadership, too, has permitted only a constricted version of democracy. By vetting all potential presidential candidates—and retaining an effective veto on all policies of importance—the ayatollahs have kept the country religiously conservative.

But in permitting Masoud Pezeshkian to run in the most recent presidential elections, perhaps in the belief that he was too obscure to win, religious leaders might have miscalculated. Pezeshkian won the second round of voting over known quantity Saeed Jalili, an arch-conservative, by a comfortable margin.

Pezeshkian is unusual in several respects. He is of mixed Azeri and Kurdish parentage. He was a cardiac surgeon before entering politics. He has managed to maintain a clean record despite many years in the political fray. And he has courageously challenged government narratives, in 2009 after the crackdown on the Green Movement protests and in 2023 after the death of student Mahsa Amini.

Pezeshkian is by no means a radical. He wouldn’t have survived the vetting process if he had been.

But the new Iranian president has the potential to be a Gorbachev figure, working within the system to transform it. He has promised, for instance, to relax rules on the mandatory dress code for women and to open up access to the Internet.

The big game-changer that Pezeshkian seems to favor would be a détente in relations with the United States, as Iran once again trades its nuclear weapons program for the removal of economic sanctions and a return to the global economy. That’s not something that can be negotiated between now and the November elections in the United States. But if Biden wins a second term—or if any Democrat defeats Trump—rapprochement will be on the table.

An improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations could set the stage for a significant reduction of tensions throughout the Middle East, from Yemen and Lebanon to the current stand-off around Gaza. Whatever the Iranian public thinks about the United States or Israel, it certainly wants the economic benefits that rapprochement promises to bring.

Beating back the Right

The second round of parliamentary elections in France delivered a solid victory to a new left coalition of parties that includes the Socialists, the Communists, the Ecologists, and the democratic socialist La France Insoumise. It was a surprise, even apparently to the left itself, that it won the most seats in the French parliament by the end of the second round. The New Popular Front didn’t even have a choice for prime minister ready in case it captured enough seats to form a government.

The far right is crying foul, having expected to win an outright majority of the seats rather than come in third place. And, indeed, the National Rally won 37. 3 percent of the vote, compared to the 26.9 percent that the left-wing coalition captured. But the left and Macron’s centrist Ensemble party each won dozens of races by making tactical agreements to let the stronger candidates in close contests go up alone against the far right. The popularity of the far right suggests that the French left should continue to hold together in their alliance and that it should, despite a lot of bad blood, explore more tactical alliances with the center.

The dramatic drop in support for the current ruling party certainly indicates a desire for change within the French electorate, which boils down to less austerity and more worker-friendly policies. Also telling is the Meloni-ization of far-right politics. Giorgia Meloni became the Italian prime minister by tamping down the most extreme rhetoric of her Brothers of Italy party and jettisoning unpopular positions like siding with Vladimir Putin. Marine Le Pen did some of that mainstreaming as well, by condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine back in 2022 and subsequently supporting foreign assistance that will ensure that “when the time comes, Ukraine is in the most favorable situation to restore its territorial integrity.” She still opposes the dispatch of French trainers to Ukraine, wants restrictions on French weapons provided to the country, and would like to withdraw France from NATO. But it’s a far cry from the days when Le Pen was visiting the Kremlin to kiss Putin’s ring.

In this way, Le Pen is positioning her party halfway between the unabashedly pro-Russian far right in Germany and Austria and the unabashedly pro-Ukrainian far right of Meloni in Italy. These divisions on foreign policy will make it all the more difficult for right-wing extremists to unite at the European level. The new far-right bloc Patriots for Europe, which brings together the Austrian Freedom Party and the French National Rally, is now the third largest electoral alliance in the European parliament, and it is considerably more radical in its outlook than the European Conservatives and Reformists anchored by the Brothers of Italy and Poland’s Law and Justice. If somehow the far right were to take over the European Parliament, they wouldn’t know what to do with their newfound power, at least in terms of foreign policy.

Kicking out the Conservatives

Given that British voters have been living under Conservative governments for 14 years, it’s no surprise that they voted for change this year. The desire for change managed to overcome the decided lack of charisma of Labor leader Keir Starmer and the electorates lack of enthusiasm for him.

When it comes to foreign policy, Labor won’t really change much. Policies toward Ukraine and NATO, including defense spending, won’t budge. Labor won’t try to reverse Brexit, but it will try to move closer to Europe, which means more pro-trade, pro-business policies. And Labor will push a little harder, perhaps, on the Netanyahu government to agree to a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict.

As for U.S.-UK relations, Starmer is committed to the “special relationship,” which has a whiff of an Anglo-Saxon alliance when combined with Australia and New Zealand. But closer UK relations with the EU should undercut the Kremlin’s attempts to drive a wedge between U.S. and UK support for Ukraine—what Putin calls the work of “Anglo-Saxon powers”—and the often-wavering assistance coming from Europe.

Key to those efforts to divide and conquer is Russia’s support for the far right in Europe. In that, Putin has an ally in Nigel Farage, whose Reform UK party came in third in the recent elections with nearly 15 percent of the vote. Farage has taken the soft appeasement line of blaming Russia’s invasion on NATO expansion and urging Ukraine to accept a ceasefire agreement. That’s really no surprise coming from someone who called Putin the world leader he most admired back in 2014.

In the old days—pre-social media and the mainstreaming of fascism—voters who wanted change would shift a bit to the left or a bit to the right. But now Labor in the UK and the New Popular Front in France have to reckon with the very real possibility that disenchantment with their governance will result not in the return of the center or the center right or even the conservative right-wing. Voters may well be tempted to vote for the very far right.

In this political environment, “throw the bums out” has increasingly become “throw the system out.” That’s not a bad thing when it’s a corrupt, autocratic, or theocratic system. But when voters in democratic states decide, democratically, that they’ve had enough of democracy, it’s not just throwing away a vote, it’s throwing away the vote.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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