Europe's dull dogs barking up right tree: Nervy voters, disturbed by politicians' broken promises and corruption, are putting their trust in technocrats, reports Patricia Clough in Rome

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MEMO to John Major. To be a popular politician these days you must not be a politician. Or at least you must not behave like one.

You need to be seen as a cold, dull technocrat. You have to tell the people the unpleasant truth and not make rash promises. Give them blood, sweat and tears, not jam tomorrow. Be completely trustworthy, very cautious, and above all, be seen as competent. People need to feel that you, at last, are capable of solving their problems.

You have to succeed someone or something that was generally detested. But wait, Mr Major, you have to have done it recently. For with grey-faced technocrats, as with politicians, popularity can vanish as quickly as it came.

Take the Italian Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who was the mild, self-effacing governor of the Bank of Italy until in April he found himself steering his country through the mess left by the collapsing political class.

In July he was the most popular Western leader with a 60 per cent approval rating in opinion polls. Since then he has been overtaken by France's Edouard Balladur whose ratings, at present 67 per cent, have caused Le Figaro to exclaim 'it's a levitation]'

Then take yourself, President Clinton, Chancellor Kohl and other Western leaders, professional politicians who are highly unpopular with the voters. Although each country is different, the Ciampi- Balladur phenomenon may tell us something about the plight of western politics in the nervous Nineties.

Mr Ciampi is the most extreme case. Extraordinarily modest, honest and economically immensely competent, he is seen as the opposite of everything that politics has come to mean in scandal-racked Italy. 'He is the anti-politician,' says Ennio Salamon of the Doxa public opinion institute. He refused first a pay rise on becoming governor of the bank, then the prime minister's salary, saying his pension was quite enough. He pedals around on an old bike at his seaside home in Santa Severa.

His staff say he is anything but a cold technician and he clearly has a healthy political instinct - but he does not bother about his image. He spends at least 15 hours a day on the business of government, gives no interviews to the Italian media and makes no attempt to court the public or the parties, who used almost to run the government. His remark that the parties had learnt the contents of his budget from the newspapers was, by Italian standards, revolutionary.

'In my opinion the very fact that he has not had a political career is part of his success,' says Dr Salamon. 'And that he came from the only institution in Italy that was really serious and which people trusted.' The Bank of Italy was the only organisation that managed to fend off political interference. 'Plus the fact that he is seen as completely clean, competent, a little grey . . . he has the maximum assets any leader at present could have.'

Mr Ciampi's popularity has slipped slightly since July to 57 per cebt but he remains the person Italians would most like to see as prime minister in the future. The second, significantly, is the electoral reformer Mario Segni, also honest, uncharismatic, cautious.

Mr Balladur, who rose through the backrooms of politics, comes over as a technician even though in fact he is elected and was finance minister from 1986-88. 'He benefits from this image as a high public official rather than a professional politician,' says Jean-Luc Parodi of the Fondation Nationale de Sciences Politiques. Prime Minister since March, he too is seen as a welcome change from an unpopular government - in his case as a man of the centre after the failure of the Socialists. He is moderate, cautious, able to avoid conflict and has warned the public bluntly the economic situation is the worst since the Second World War, it will take sacrifices and won't get better soon.

And he emanates competence, seemingly vital in an economic crisis when, as in other countries, people are alarmed about unemployment. 'People want to have confidence,' says Professor Parodi. 'They need to cling to the idea that there is someone who can do something.'

Credibility is clearly the key - as the case of Helmut Kohl also shows. After his peak of popularity in 1990 when he rammed through the reunification of Germany he is right back in a trough after failing to tell people how dear it would cost them and (always with an eye to the elections) making promises he could not keep. Now, on the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen scale of plus five to minus five, he is down in the minuses while the President, Richard von Weizsacker, who tells the country the truth even if it hurts, is high in the pluses.

Horst-Eberhard Richter, head of Frankfurt's Sigmund Freud Institute and an incisive psychoanalyst of society, suggests that people are losing confidence in the whole political class, opposition included. 'They are asking themselves whether Kohl and the others are capable of solving their problems,' he said. Some 70 per cent of Germans think the parties are concerned mainly about themselves and have little idea how ordinary people think and feel - a figure which would doubtless be very much higher in Italy.

Thus alienated, only 70 per cent of Germans still vote for the three traditional parties (they used to share more than 90 per cent) while others vote for extreme groups, or not at all or, as in Hamburg recently, for the curious protest group the Stattpartei, the anti- party.

Professor Richter believes the anti-politician mood is driven by an unconscious sense of dissatisfaction with oneself and one's ability to solve the huge problems of today. 'There is a deep fear that our industrialised society may not survive . . . that we can no longer be sure that our comfortable, egoistic conditions of life will go on much longer.'

(Photograph omitted)