With Europe in the thick of its worst financial crisis in a generation and governments forced to take the axe to their budgets, you have to ask – who would be a politician?
Stock markets around the world have fallen sharply in recent weeks, in large part because of investors’ fears that European governments will be unable to force through unpopular measures to shore up finances in the face of public opposition. Riots against cuts in Greece, the country that triggered the eurozone crisis, have claimed three lives so far.
Albert Knödler, a Berlin coach driver, sums up the dilemma: “I wouldn’t want to be a politician now.”
Leaders of the more heavily indebted nations have fared particularly badly in the eyes of voters.
The popularity of George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, has tumbled 10 points since January after he called on the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund. Athens received €110bn ($134bn) in emergency loans in return for a tax rise and public-sector pay cuts. A Public Issue poll for Kathimerini newspaper last week gave Mr Papandreou an approval rating of 53 per cent.
Aristides Papazoglou, an architecture student in Athens, says he had high hopes last year for the newly elected government of Mr Papandreou. “Now I’m disappointed – with all politicians. It’ll take years to get over this crisis,” he says.
Spain, Italy and Portugal more recently announced measures to bring public spending in line with tax intake, largely in response to the eurozone’s €750bn rescue package agreed this month. The measures have cost prime ministers José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Silvio Berlusconi and José Sócrates popular support.
Fernando Madeira, a 37-year-old geologist in Lisbon, says he used to admire Mr Sócrates. “But these austerity measures have made me realise he has made mistakes in managing the economy,” he says.
In Spain, Mr Zapatero is facing the prospect of a call for early elections from the opposition. The conservative PP is polling at 42.8 per cent, against 33.7 per cent for the ruling Socialists – down almost four points since the austerity pledges in early May.
But Mariano Rajoy, leader of the PP, has so far failed to capitalise on the government’s failings and remains slightly less popular than Mr Zapatero. Vicente Alvarez Areces, Socialist leader of the Asturias region, believes this is because “many citizens know it’s necessary” to cut public spending.
Fears that German taxpayers would be left to pick up a hefty bill for bailing out Greece and other profligate eurozone countries – up to €22.4bn for Greece and €123bn of the €750bn package, in loan guarantees for other eurozone emergencies – has dented the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mrs Merkel’s approval rating fell seven points to 55 per cent in April as the prospect of lending Athens billions of euros became ever more likely. Voter satisfaction rallied to 58 per cent in early May, but polls have yet to measure reaction to Germany’s full financial commitment, which only became clear in the following days.
But polls suggest that in most parts of Europe, governments that are facing up to the challenge of balancing their books do have the political capital to force through spending cuts and raise tax.
In Ireland, which last year became the first eurozone nation with a big deficit to launch an austerity programme, the ruling Fianna Fail has watched its poll ratings slip to an all-time low of 23 per cent, a far cry from the 41 per cent of votes it won in the 2007 national election.
But while Irish voters might not like the harsh medicine, they seem to sense that any other leader would have prescribed the same treatment: Mr Cowen’s Fianna Fail party briefly saw its ratings rally after the cuts in December and there is little popular enthusiasm for his rival Enda Kenny, head of Fianna Gael.
The mood in Europe may be grim – the consumer confidence index fell this month at the second-fastest rate for almost 20 years – but people seem to realise that they are living in straitened times.
A recent survey showed 64 per cent of French people said they expected to retire later to save the country’s state-pension system.
Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, is one of the few European leaders whose ratings have picked up in the past few weeks – albeit from historic lows – as he has hunkered down to save Greece and plan pension reform.
In the Netherlands, the party with the toughest austerity plans is in the lead in opinion polls ahead of next month’s general election. The VVD, or Liberal party, has seen its popularity rocket since unveiling its economic plans and is now vying with the Labour party as favourite for forming the next coalition.
“People are saying they want the VVD to pull the Netherlands out of this dead-end and bring back order,” says Mark Rutte, the party’s leading candidate.
In Sweden, the centre-right coalition of Fredrik Reinfeldt hopes to win credit for its solid stewardship of the economy through the crisis when Swedes vote in September. The prime minister’s ruling alliance is now trailing the centre-left opposition by only three points.
The new Conservative-Liberal coalition in the UK on Monday unleashed the most severe public-spending squeeze for at least three decades. Senior ministers joke about becoming the “most unpopular government this century”. But with a maximum five-year term ahead of them, they hope that showing purpose and delivering results will be rewarded in the long term.
Luísa Duarte, a school teacher in Portugal about to retire, is glad the crisis made her government ditch expensive infrastructure projects it “clearly” could not afford. “We have been living beyond our means,” she says.
Additional reporting by Kerin Hope in Athens, Peter Wise in Lisbon, Victor Mallet in Madrid, Guy Dinmore in Rome, Ben Hall in Paris, John Murray Brown in Dublin, Alex Barker in London, Michael Steen in Amsterdam and Andrew Ward in Stockholm
Get alerts on Global Economy when a new story is published