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Sunday, May 9, 2010

With Inconclusive Elections, Britain Heads Down Treacherous Political Path

The Washington Post

Politicians prefer elections that produce real majorities and clear mandates. One lesson from the messy outcome of Britain's just-concluded general election is that politicians should never underestimate the power of voters to disappoint them.

The outcome here has produced something rare. Forced by the failure of any party to win a majority of seats in the next Parliament, negotiations underway here are exploring whether it will be possible for some combination of the parties to govern cooperatively in difficult times.

That's currently unthinkable in the America's winner-take-all political culture. But there is enough evidence that the voters in the United States lack full confidence in either major political party to warrant watching closely what will play out here in the coming days and months.

All three major parties in Britain -- Labor, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats -- emerged from Thursday's election feeling let-down. As a result, the country has been plunged into a period of extraordinary uncertainty. No hanging chads, but a hung Parliament, as it's called.

The visual images across London on Saturday displayed the uncertainty. Politicians have been shuttling between meetings. A group of demonstrators took to the streets, calling for electoral reform. Round-the-clock coverage keeps everyone abreast of any developments.

Most extraordinary was the side-by-side appearance of the three major-party leaders at a ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe -- which symbolized more than anything else the fact that no one knows who will lead Britain.

How did it get to this point?

Voters on Thursday dealt a huge blow to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Labor Party, which has been in power since 1997. Labor lost 97 seats, its worst setback in 80 years. Labor's share of the vote fell to 29 percent, the lowest since the humiliation of 1983, when the party won just 27 percent.

But voters were not prepared to fully embrace the Conservatives. Although they gained 91 seats, the Tories fell short of the 326 seats needed to claim a majority in the new Parliament.

Six months ago, polls suggested that the Conservatives would easily win enough seats to install David Cameron as the next prime minister. Now Cameron is trying to broker a deal to make it possible for him to enter No. 10 Downing St. as prime minister, while members of his party blame one another for the failure to win a majority against an opponent as unpopular as Brown.

Most disappointed, however, may be the Liberal Democrats and their leader, Nick Clegg. Thanks to the charismatic Clegg's performance in the first nationally televised candidate debates in Britain's history, the Liberal Democrats saw a surge in their support in the weeks before the election.

Clegg called on voters to usher in an era of new politics. For a time, it looked like Liberal Democrats could push Labor into third place in the popular vote. The party also appeared likely to expand its share of seats in Parliament significantly. Instead, the roof caved in on Election Day. Clegg's party actually lost five seats.

Still, the results have put Clegg in the powerful but awkward position of playing kingmaker. More than anyone else right now, Clegg is positioned to name the next prime minister.

Clegg had said the party with the most votes and the most seats deserved an opportunity to form a government. For now, the serious negotiations are between Cameron's Conservatives and Clegg's Liberal Democrats.

The path is treacherous for both sides. Cameron and Clegg are being tugged and pulled between the electorate's apparent desire for governing in the national interest and party activists' fears that the leaders will compromise too much. That tension is something that is familiar on both sides of the Atlantic.

Philip Stevens, a columnist for the Financial Times, noted Saturday that the voters' desire for change and "palpable disenchantment" with the old politics produced the inconclusive outcome of Thursday's balloting. "This demands something of the nation's politicians with which they are largely unfamiliar: a grasp of the national interest that reaches beyond the reflex to grab the spoils of office," he wrote.

For Cameron, still the most likely next prime minister, this is a terribly difficult moment. One option is for the Conservatives to attempt to govern as a minority party, though with some assurances from the Liberal Democrats that they will not try to bring down the government on key votes in return for some nods to their priorities.

On Friday, Cameron appeared interested in seeking something broader, an agreement that would put the two parties in a more formal arrangement. That could give the new government greater stability as it attempts to deal with a major budgetary problem.

But Cameron faces resistance within his ranks from those who fear he already has abandoned principle in trying to modernize his party -- the same sentiment expressed by some conservative activists in the United States about some Republican politicians.

Clegg, whose party won almost a quarter of the vote but not quite 10 percent of the seats in Parliament, faces similar pressures from his activists and some fellow members of Parliament, for whom a major overhaul of the electoral system is of paramount importance.

Brown made an expansive public offer to Clegg on Friday, promising a referendum on electoral reform. His hope is that a breakdown in the current negotiations will drive the Liberal Democrats into the arms of Labor, although the price of Labor's staying in power might be Brown's resignation.

No matter the outcome, it is possible that the new government will be so shaky that Britain will face another election in less than a year. Such is the fluidity of politics here this weekend.

In Washington, the weight remains with the politicians and activists who prefer confrontation to cooperation, as the polarized debate over health care underscored. Politicians willing to work with the other side do so at their own risk.

The new bipartisan debt commission operates in an environment in which neither Republicans nor Democrats on the panel can be confident of support from either elected officials or their parties' rank and file. The current harmonious Senate floor debate over financial regulatory reform is more a function of the politics of the issue -- nobody wants to appear against taking on the banks -- than of a change in the partisan atmosphere.

The United States has not reached Britain's current moment and, because the systems are so different, may never. But the November elections could produce an American equivalent: a Republican House and a Democratic White House.

That would put the same pressure on President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress that Britain's political leaders are feeling this weekend -- caught between the national interest and partisan demands from their wings for a no-compromise stance. British politicians will have to resolve their problems first, but Democrats and Republicans may find their day is coming soon.