LONDON — For more than two years now, they have all imposed their will on Europe’s raging debt crisis: German leaders. Panicked governments. Jittery financial markets. Bossy international agencies.
The people? Not so much.
Across the continent, officials have forced through brutal budget cuts despite mass protests from Paris to Prague. In Greece and Italy, technocratic prime ministers have been installed without a single citizen going to the polls. Of the 25 European nations that have agreed to a new treaty limiting public spending, only Ireland is bothering to let voters rule on it.
But today the people of France and Greece will have their say, in elections that have the potential to recast the debate on how to solve an economic unraveling that shows little sign of abating.
“Democracy is on its way into the euro crisis,” said Hugo Brady of the Brussels office of the London-based Center for European Reform. “While we don’t know what that means, it does mean the end of a solely technocratic response to it.”
The elections are likely to see new leaders brought to power on pledges to revisit their countries’ strict adherence to the austerity and fiscal discipline prescribed by Germany as the cure for Europe’s ills.
Popular backlash against the German fixation on austerity has been building momentum for months, in nations whose hurting middle classes say the cuts have only added misery.
The unemployment rate in the 17-member eurozone is at a record high of 10.9 percent. At least half a dozen eurozone nations, including Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands, have tumbled into a double-dip recession.
Increasing numbers of economists and analysts warn that the single-minded focus on belt-tightening is stunting growth, and without growth there is no way out of Europe’s financial hole. Many politicians have taken up that theme, coming around to a view that their exhausted constituents have been shouting and marching about for months.
Greeks have seen their standard of living plunge after multiple rounds of budget cuts demanded by creditors as a condition of Athens’ two international bailouts.
Antonis Samaras of the conservative New Democracy Party, which leads the opinion polls for today’s parliamentary elections, has alarmed some European officials by vowing to renegotiate elements of the rescue deal, which he says is killing, not saving, the Greek economy. Anger over the harsh conditions has also boosted the fortunes of several fringe parties that are expected to win a crop of seats in the Greek parliament.
But even mainstream politicians are challenging policy decisions made in Brussels rather than in national capitals, or by powerful leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“It’s not for Germany to decide for the rest of Europe,” declared Francois Hollande, the French left-wing Socialist candidate who is expected to defeat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in today’s runoff.
Although leaders and governments in other countries have fallen over the last year because of voter dissatisfaction with austerity, their replacements have not succeeded in changing the direction of Europe’s approach to the debt crisis, in part because Merkel and Sarkozy stood firmly together.
With public opinion behind him, Hollande has promised to reverse some of Sarkozy’s cutbacks. Throwing down the gauntlet to Germany, Hollande also wants to revise the new treaty to cap public spending, which Merkel considers the cornerstone of her crisis-fighting policy.