In the aftermath of the European parliamentary elections and the recent political crises engulfing countries across Europe, some political leaders have opted to remain in their positions, while others have recognised the bigger responsibility they have towards their constituents and those who they serve, as opposed to simply satisfying themselves and those closest to them. It is true that those who speak the loudest often have nothing to say, but it is empty vessels which make the loudest sound. These figures of speech can be applied to political leaders who commit themselves to putting their leadership to the test, and those who are more than comfortable staying as they are.
Expecting politicians to earn your trust, instead of you simply giving it to them as a part of them desiring, or even coming close to outright demanding it from their constituents, isn’t that much of a difficult concept to grasp. Governments, and those working in any form of public and civil service, ought to expect more from what they do for those who they serve, than the people serving those in power. Be it an election defeat or a corruption scandal, a swift and decisive response is what is normally expected from those involved, instead of dragging one’s feet, removing blame and responsibility by shifting it onto others, or being in utter denial by acting as if nothing even remotely serious has happened or by invoking the grave acts of your predecessor so as to lessen the gravity of your own misdeeds.
In the run-up to the European parliamentary elections, a show of un-common, if not rare accountability being displayed was put into force by former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on the 17th of May. Last May, it was made known that Heinz-Christian Sarche, the Vice-Chancellor of Austria and chairman of the Freedom Party, which was in a coalition government with Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party, was involved in a political scandal concerning a secret meeting which took place on the Spanish island of Ibiza in July 2017.
This scandal had widespread consequences for Austria’s coalition government, with Kurz announcing its termination the very next day the scandal was made known to the public, and he also announced that a snap election would be called. On the 20th of May, all Freedom Party ministers in Kurz’s government tendered their resignations, and Kurz had to face a motion of-no confidence, one which he ultimately lost, as a result of losing his parliamentary majority due to the termination of the coalition government. As much as it may seem that Kurz’s good will in acting swiftly and decisively would be rewarded, that all depends on whether Austrian voters choose to do so in September’s snap election, or decide to condemn him for having agreed to lead such a coalition in the first place if half of its members were engaging, or aware of, corruption. The message left behind an event such as this is that Kurz would be severely mistaken to enter an election expecting gratitude to be heaped upon him, but should instead put himself to the test of re-gaining the confidence of the people who he serves, the people of Austria.
Leaders are not bound to expect outpours of praise thrust upon them from those whose confidence they must strive to maintain, nor should they demand it from them, as citizens must expect more from their leaders, than leaders must seek from their citizens. This is at least, the very basic rule of how any democratic country or entity ought to operate, be it in the case of political figures in the midst of damaging events being revealed, or with regards to parties suffering devastating defeats in elections.
This brings us to the aftermath of the European elections last May, following which some political leaders across Europe decided to shoulder responsibility, or others taking steps to do so. In the case of Greece, former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras decided to call a snap election after the centre-left Syriza Party which he leads lost ground to the centre-right New Democracy Party. The election, which was called for the 7th of July, resulted in another defeat for the Syriza Party, effectively removing Tsipras as prime minister. In the case of Germany, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Andrea Nahles, resigned as leader on the 3rd of June, due her own unpopularity and her party ending up in third place with 15% of the vote in the European elections.
A similar set of circumstances were also displayed in Italy, where the leader of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, called for a vote of confidence in his leadership in which the members of his party would vote, after having seen the voting share of his party being halved in the European elections, after taking just 17% of the vote and finishing up in third place. The confidence vote, which occurred via an online vote on the 30th of May, resulted in 80% of the 56,127 party members voting in favour of Di Maio staying on as leader.
Needless to say, the local political landscape hasn’t been devoid of leading figures being called to shoulder responsibility, namely the leader of the opposition and leader of the Nationalist Party, Adrian Delia. Calls for Delia’s resignation ensued in the aftermath of the Nationalist Party registering a bruising defeat in the European elections, with it losing its third seat in the European Parliament which it had gained in the previous European elections in 2014. This was as a result of the Nationalist Party not increasing its base or voter threshold, since it lost over 2,000 voters since 2014, and gained 37% of the vote, therefore making this the first time that the Nationalist Party has gone below its traditional 40% share of the vote ever since European elections have been held, and this being only the second time since the 1951 general election that the Nationalist Party has obtained only 37% of a nationwide vote.
Matters were made worse when the initial arguments being put forward by exponents of the Nationalist Party was that the result was some form of a consolation since pre-election surveys were predicting a far wider gap between the Nationalist and Labour parties, together with some saying that the simple reason why the Nationalist Party didn’t do as well in this election was the amount of people who didn’t go out to vote, specifically 101,621 of registered voters.
Without getting into the entirety of events which ensued within the Nationalist Party following these elections, there were two clear camps standing against each other, one supporting Delia and the other calling for his resignations, with the former saying that the Nationalist Party needed to unite behind its leader as he tries to solve the party’s problems which have been crippling it for years, while the latter said that it was inexcusable that Delia refused to shoulder responsibility after such a resounding defeat which only added to the Nationalist Party’s woes.
Further down the line, a vote of confidence amongst members of the party’s general council was called to decide whether or not Delia would carry on as party leader until the next general election in 2022. The conclusion, was 67% of the party councillors voting in favour of Delia staying on as leader, following which Delia said that he would commit himself to carry out very-much-needed changes within the Nationalist Party, and listen to the concerns of those who may not support him and didn’t vote for him in this confidence vote.
While all of Delia’s promises appear well-intentioned at face value, as is the case with his rhetoric, the underlying situation is that more change has been expected from those within the party who have objections towards Delia’s leadership, as opposed to him seeing what must be changed in order to appeal to differing factions within the Nationalist Party, together with the wider electorate, which is the most important conglomerate of all.
While it is important that leaders must rely on support, be it in government or opposition, so as to maintain a strong and united party which can be well-positioned to succeed in elections, it is even more fundamental for constructive (and not destructive) dissent to be allowed, in order to be accompanied with constructive criticism. Whether we like it or not, political parties exist to win elections, but this may not be the case if leaders refuse to be held accountable or be criticised. Leaders must not only have the confidence to be heard, but they must also have conviction to listen, if they want to have any chance of winning the hearts and minds of the people as whole, and just those who are closest to them.