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March 28, 2017

To vote or not to vote

The outcome of the French presidential elections is still quite unpredictable. And this is not due to the candidates’ relative performance. The main factor is the undecided voters.

A new poll shows that 40% of the French do not know who to vote for. With just one month to go, this is an absolute record: in 2012 there were 26% at this stage. Undecided, angry, and disgusted, these voters do not even know whether they should bother and go to vote. And of those, 86% would prefer if their lack of preference could be expressed as an explicit blank vote.

With such high numbers the question, then, is whether their blank vote should be a valid one that counts, writes l’Opinion in its lead story. This vote would then be an expression of their preferences, political disengagement, and rejection of all candidates. At the moment these blank votes are counted but do not play a role later when the candidates' support percentages are calculated. If they were accounted for, certain candidates would drop out in the first round as they would fail to qualify under the threshold, and the winners’ percentage would look much less impressive. It would also have meant that neither Jacques Chirac nor François Hollande would have had a majority of over 50% in the second round. The advantage of such a blank vote is that it might get people to bother to vote, and reduce the number of those who abstain or protest. It also might reduce protest votes which often turn to extremist parties to find expression.

This blank vote idea has been taken up by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon, who both advocate a recognition of the blank vote in the counting. But there are considerable hurdles for this. It would require a rewrite of Article 7 in the constitution. This is not about to happen any time soon. It would also imply that the winner of the second wound could win with only a relative majority. Imagine what the duel between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 would have looked like. Maybe the second round would have been different altogether? Who knows. But with a rising number of politically disengaged people, the blank vote discussion is here to stay. And there are also clear differences among the current candidates on this.

The latest poll shows that, if the blank vote were effective, it would be employed most strongly by the electorate of Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Marine Le Pen, with 44% and 35% respectively. This is followed by Benoit Hamon (33%) and Emmanuel Macron (30%). It would be least used among the voters of Francçis Fillon (22%). The most enthusiastic about a blank vote are the supporters for Mélenchon, Hamon and Macron.

For the last five months of primaries and polling French voters defied predictable outcomes. And now they ponder the question whether to vote i the first round, and for whom. Don’t think you know already who the next president will be.

One further caveat is that if you allow the blank vote to count, you will eventually have to allow it to win. And, in this case, you could end up with a second round run-off between Le Pen and a blank, leaving the electorate with a choice between fascism and anarchy. Have they thought this through?

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March 28, 2017

The pressure is on for the Dutch Green Left

Given the tradition of "radio silence" that dominates Dutch coalition negotiations - what! no leaks? - the press is focusing on commentary and analysis. The pressure is on Jesse Klaver, the young leader of the green left party GroenLinks. After pointing out that this is the first time in 45 years that four parties are needed to form a government, NRC's editorial says the GL would do well to make it clear soon whether it is willing to compromise to form a government with VVD, CDA and D66; or whether it would tolerate a minority government of the other three. The article also recalls that during the election campaign Mark Rutte and Jesse Klaver disagreed strongly on policy. Were the two parties to form a government together, the voters might not understand it, as was the case after 2012 when the labour party PvdA quickly formed a government with Rutte's VVD after running a campaign of strong opposition. The implicit threat to the GL is that it might be punished by the voters at the next election like the PvdA was two weeks ago.

Raoul du Pré notes in Volkskrant that the GL's relative numerical weakness makes the party expendable (there are other options) in the four-way coalition talks with VVD, CDA and D66, and thus vulnerable. Du Pré recounts a number of previous occasions where the expendable party in the initial talks didn't make it to the final coalition, and was blamed by the other parties, to boot. Here, too, history is written by the victors. 

On the other hand, Menno Tamminga has a curiously positive take on GL's negotiating strength - business supports it, which is odd for a left-wing party. The reason is that the greening of the economy is now seen as a profitable venture. A combination of low interest rates and falling steel prices has made offshore wind energy cheaper. There is now a lot of interest in green investment on the part of business, and the medium-enterprise lobby group VNO-NCW is very keen on the GL's promises of public investment. Jesse Klaver will find himself negotiating with older politicians that have grown up with austerity mantras, and central planning bureau budget projections leaving no room for additional investment. As a newcomer to top-level politics, Klaver is not (yet?) infused with the inevitability of budget cuts, and he will have an unlikely ally - business.

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March 28, 2017

On macro risk in the eurozone

Philip Hildebrand's article on how to read the eurozone recovery is a good rendition of two counteracting factors international investors and observers need to balance in their heads. The one is the unusually strong cyclical recovery that is currently taking place, and for which the available evidence is mounting. The other is whether the incoming generation of political leaders will tackle the underlying centrifugal forces within the eurozone. Let’s try to untangle this diverging mess.

Hildebrand criticises the obsession of the Anglo-Saxon world with a break-up of the eurozone; and the failure to see a rather strong cyclical recovery, as evidenced by the normalisation of inflation rates and improving economic indicators, and driven by large pent-up demand for investment. We would be more cautious on inflation - the core rate is not moving and the headline rate mostly reflects changes in the oil price. And we would add the normalisation of fiscal policy to this mix, which in our view has been the dominant factor. But we would agree with him that the eurozone is going through a stronger-than-normal cyclical recovery.

We also agree with Hildebrand in the analysis of the risks that lie ahead: weak banks, weak credit supply, over-regulation, and rising barriers to cross-border activity. The eurozone needs convergence but convergence needs some combination of more discipline and more support mechanisms. We liked his descriptions that 

“These questions are not simple, but good technical solutions exist and are within reach of Europe’s mandarins. Political will is more elusive.”

Hildebrand seems conflicted between a desire to tell the Anglo-Saxons that they should stop being negative on the eurozone, and a concern that the eurozone might miss another chance to solve its problems. What he didn’t say is that the latter would of course vindicate the Anglo-Saxon scepticism. In this case, as he notes, the improved economic recovery would be short-lived, and the risks of a genuine popular backlash at the next round of elections would be much more elevated. 

So this means that the eurozone offers both greater risks and rewards than other regions in the world. The upside is indeed very large indeed - larger than in any other place in the world right now. But the downside risks are absolutely dreadful.

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