The Magazine

As the World Votes

The era of big government does seem to be over.

Jul 23, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 42 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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HALF A CENTURY AGO it was plain which way democracies were heading: left. In the United States, the Democrats held the White House for the nineteenth straight year. In Britain, the Labour party had just created the National Health Service and nationalized the commanding heights of the economy. Europe’s Christian Democratic parties were creating welfare states hardly less ambitious than those advocated by their social democratic rivals. Parties of the right won only when they were led by national icons who promised not to dismantle the welfare state—Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle.

Ten years ago it was plain which way democracies were heading: right. The domestic revolutions inaugurated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan seemed to be sweeping all before them. Republicans held the White House for the eleventh straight year and had a president with a 91 percent job approval rating. Thatcher had led the Conservatives to three straight general election victories, and her successor, John Major, would lead them the next year to a fourth. Parties of the right held office in most of Western Europe, and in Eastern Europe and Russia the voters were starting to oust the Communists and former Communists and to install in their places those who had advocated or assisted the overthrow of communism in 1989-91. In Latin America voters elected leaders who promised hard currency, privatization of government firms, freer trade.

Today it does not seem plain which way democracies are heading. Writers like E.J. Dionne proclaim the triumph of "Third Way" parties of the left—Bill Clinton’s Democrats, Tony Blair’s Labour, Gerhard Schröder’s and Lionel Jospin’s Socialists—and declare the Third Way the wave of the future. Former Communists have been swept back into office in several countries in Eastern Europe, and Russia’s president is a veteran of the KGB. Yet the Third Way has not everywhere been successful. Al Gore was not elected president in 2000, despite representing the incumbent party in a time of peace and prosperity. Spain and Italy have switched from left to right. In Latin America, free market policies are under attack in Brazil and Argentina and under siege in Colombia and Venezuela.

What are we to make of these conflicting trends? In the last 15 months I have covered elections in five major democracies, interviewing candidates and key strategists and voters on the street, analyzing preelection polls and election returns. Four of these countries are the four arguably most important to Americans: the United States, Mexico, Russia, and Britain. The fifth, Italy, I have included because—well, because I like to visit Italy. Now the burst of electoral activity is over (the next scheduled general elections in these countries won’t occur until 2004-06), so it’s a fine time to look back and take stock. First, some notes on individual countries.

*RUSSIA, MARCH 2000. This was less in the nature of a democratic election and more in the nature of a coronation. In August 1999, President Boris Yeltsin had installed former KGB officer Vladimir Putin as prime minister. Then, claiming that the September bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow was the work of Chechens, Putin had relaunched the war against Chechnya, to enormous popular applause. And at the end of December, Yeltsin had resigned, making Putin president, and a presidential election had been scheduled for March 26. The only serious competition came from the bedraggled Communist Gennady Zyuganov.

Behind the façade of this turnover of power were widely circulated rumors that the apartment bombings were the work of the FSB (the renamed KGB); the modus operandi was not typical of Chechen operations, the explosive used was difficult to obtain, and the bombs were planted in a way that maximized casualties. The possibility that Putin was part of a cynically planned murder for political gain is chilling. So is Putin’s crackdown, begun before the election and continued with vigor ever since, to silence critical publications and the independent NTV network.

Putin won with 53 percent of the vote, just over the 50percent required to avoid a runoff. Voters interviewed on the street seemed to know little about the man; Putin voters said he was young and energetic, meaning he was not infirm and drunk, like Yeltsin. It was as if they were saying, "We hope the next czar turns out to be a good czar," in a fatalistic tone that suggested they feared he would.