Elections rarely reflect the clear will of the people

Alan Philps asks: does voting reflect the reality of a deeply fractured country?

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen thanks her supporters during an election rally on May 1, 2017 in Villepinte, France. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images
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When elections yield a surprising result, you often hear the phrase, “the people have spoken”, which means the case is closed and nothing more is to be said. In real life, the voice of the people is often not clear at all. And if it appears to be clear when the votes are tallied, then perhaps the people did not fully understand what was at stake.

Take the victory of Donald Trump in the United States. Six months on, there is a general assumption that this reflected a sea change in American politics such that only a rank outsider promising to “drain the swamp” of Washington could win. But Hillary Clinton, the ultimate insider and swamp denizen, won the popular vote by a margin of 2.9 million votes. It was only the US election system – in which the president is chosen by an electoral college made up of separate delegations from each state – that ensured Mr Trump’s victory.

If Mrs Clinton had run a better campaign and focused more on the rust belt states such as Michigan and Wisconsin that pushed Mr Trump over the line, she could have won. In that case, the commentary would have been about the resilience of elites and the chances of Chelsea Clinton winning the presidency in 2028.

With the final round of the French presidential election on Sunday, all the polls show that the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron will romp to an easy victory over Marine Le Pen, the far right, Islamophobic candidate of the Front National. The opinion polls give Mr Macron, a pro-European former banker, a lead of up to 20 percentage points.

But what if France had an electoral system like the US one? The Economist magazine carried out an experiment: if France’s 18 regions were treated like American states and the system was based on an electoral college, not the popular vote, then the two candidates would have been neck and neck in the first round of voting on April 23, with the possibility that Mrs Le Pen could have won. (France, of course, is not about to adopt the US system.)

Stalin is known for saying, “It’s not the people who vote that count, it’s the people who count the votes”. If indeed he said such a thing, it was about a vote in the central committee of the Communist Party, a small body of men who lived in fear of the leader, not a nation going to the polls. In today’s world, the important factor is not who counts the votes, but how they are counted.

That is not to say that elections mean nothing. If Ms Le Pen loses the race, her campaign will still have had a huge effect on France, bringing the Front National’s ideas into the mainstream, including the nasty unofficial slogan chanted at her rallies, “We are at home” – by implication a home without migrants and Muslims in particular. The previously unthinkable idea that France might choose to abandon the euro currency and even leave the European Union cannot be buried.

The same is true for the Dutch election in March where the foreign press had suggested that the Party for Freedom of the anti-Muslim politician, Geert Wilders, could emerge as the largest in parliament.

In fact, he came second with 20 seats to the 30 seats won by prime minister Mark Rutte, producing a sigh of relief around Europe. Mr Rutte said his victory was a vote against “the wrong sort of populism”. But in order to win he had to move onto Mr Wilders’s territory, declaring that those who did not abide by Dutch values should “act normal or leave”.

The word from Dutch Muslims is that they all feel less welcome in their country. So who was the winner? In terms of defining the centre ground of politics, rather than the survival of a prime minister, the runner-up achieved almost as much as the victor.

That is not to say that elections are never turning points. In Britain in 1997, after 18 years of rule by the Conservatives, a fresh-faced Labour leader by the name of Tony Blair swept to victory with a landslide. Even the Conservatives admitted in private that they had run out of ideas and energy after so long in government. Unusually for British politics, the landslide was confirmed at the next election in 2001. There was no buyer’s remorse.

No such clarity attaches to Britain’s vote last year in a referendum to leave the European Union, by a margin of 52 per cent to 48 per cent. But now a majority think it is wrong to leave the EU, according to opinion polls.

This reflects the realisation of the complexity of disentangling Britain from the bloc, the misleading slogans of the Leave camp, and the fact that the EU has found a rare sense of unity in punishing Britain with severe financial penalties for its decision.

The root cause of these second thoughts is that the referendum was a blunt instrument, offering a choice of in or out without anyone having thought of the consequences of leaving. Opinion polls suggested an easy win for the Remain camp, demobilising its supporters while firing up the Leavers. But the mantra, “the people have spoken”, has quashed calls for a second referendum which in any case is not in line with Conservative party thinking and would provoke a torrent of abuse from the popular press, itching to fight the Second World War again.

The lesson here is that the results of votes are usually not as clear as they seem. If the result is close, the arguments of the losing side may weigh heavily on the winner. In France if victory goes to Mr Macron, who is the continuity candidate, he will have to deal with the Eurosceptic legacy of Mrs Le Pen, and the reality of a deeply fractured country where trust in traditional parties has evaporated.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps