The problem with using fear to win elections

REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau
When David Cameron and his Conservative party confounded everyone by winning an outright majority in Britain’s parliamentary elections, they followed in the footsteps of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.

Two elections. Two incumbents on the ropes who managed to pull off strong victories, in part by scaring voters. 

The result? Two of America’s closest allies are no nearer — and probably further than ever — from solving existential challenges.

When David Cameron and his Conservative party confounded everyone — including themselves — by winning an outright majority in Britain’s parliamentary elections last week, they followed in the footsteps of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. Recall that Netanyahu was thought to be in big trouble in March, but emerged from elections with what he proclaimed a “great victory.”

But here’s the thing: Despite the strong showing by the Israeli right in March, Netanyahu finally finished putting together a governing majority last week, just a few hours before the deadline. Even after he negotiating away control of important ministries, he was only able to secure the support of the minimum number he needs to govern — 61 out of 120 members of parliament. 

He alienated just about everyone else.

He angered the Obama administration by declaring on the day before the vote that there would be no Palestinian state if he were reelected. If anything, the criticism was even more scathing for his election-day Facebook post declaring that Israeli Arabs were voting in large numbers. Many saw it as racist, a panicky bid to drive right-wing turnout.

It worked, but at the expense of losing some allies. One, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, refused to join the new coalition. That put Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian state and supports increased settlement in the West Bank, in position to make or break Netanyahu’s new government. 

One peace activist declared the government resulting from the negotiations to be “the most clearly articulated, narrowest, most right-wing, most religious and most nationalistic government ever assembled in Israel.”

Analysts say Netanyahu is still trying to add to his coalition. But in the words of one quoted by the New York Times, “Nobody in his right mind believes that this will hold for even a short time.”

So don’t expect this new government to make progress on relations with the Palestinians, or the rest of the region.

In Britain, Cameron thumped the opposition Labor party and came away with a majority, 331 of the 650 seats in Parliament.

But the political landscape has changed in a way that will make it hard to maintain two pillars of British identity: As a united kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and as a member of the European Union.

The most immediate problem is Scotland’s 308-year-old union with England. In what had been a Labor bastion for decades, the pro-independence Scottish National Party won 56 of 59 seats, and will be the third-largest party in Parliament.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was only able to secure the support of the minimum number he needs to govern — 61 out of 120 members of parliament.

Instead of veteran Labor politicians, Scotland will be represented, among others, by the owner of a chain of comedy clubs, a 20-year-old university student who tweeted about wanting to castrate a Labor candidate — and a breast cancer surgeon whose constituents considered voting against her so she would continue to do her day job back home.

Cameron would have a tough time in Scotland in the best of circumstances. The Tories’ fiscal policies are anathema to many Scots, who favor more spending and more services.

But the Conservatives only made matters more difficult for themselves by portraying the Scots as a bad influence on Labor. The Tories argued that Labor couldn’t be trusted to maintain Britain’s economic recovery – much less a minority Labor government that would depend on the SNP to stay in power.

This is the way the left-leaning Guardian put it: “The prime minister will face urgent pressure to woo the disaffected Scots or lose them forever.”

But the Conservatives need to watch their other flank, too.

Cameron already has promised a referendum on remaining in the EU — which he says he supports with modifications. He’ll have to fend off the UK Independence Party, which espouses a kind of anti-immigration, anti-EU, blue-collar English nationalism. UKIP won 13 percent of the vote (nearly three times more votes than the SNP won), but because of the way the British election system works, it took only one Parliamentary seat.

To oversimplify a bit, the SNP wants Scotland to be in the EU, with or without England. UKIP wants to be out of the EU, with or without the Scots.

Cameron can, and will, cite what the Scots and English have accomplished together. Tories are certain to argue that Scots will be worse off economically if they leave the union.  But as Americans are well aware, politics are not always rational. That’s particularly true when it comes to questions of independence and nationhood.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/13/2015 - 09:21 am.

    Politics based on fear

    So what are the implications for governance of a politics based on fear? Well, I think the implications are different with Britain and Israel. However, the election was conducted, Britain’s Conservative Party emerged from it with a narrow but sufficient governing Parliamentary majority. In Scotland, voters exchanged a lot of Labour MP’s for a lot of SNP MP’s but in terms of their impact on governing, they might as well be so many potted plants. Although he may have run a negative campaign, Britain’s system of governance allows him to pursue any positive agenda he wants, for the next five years. Israel’s situation is different, or at least I think it is. Netanyahu has a narrow parliamentary majority based on a coalition. Any positive move on his part, risks the loss of one of his coalition partners, and the consequent fall of his government. Doing nothing, I suppose, might alienate some folks too, but that seems to be less of an issue, particularly for the kind of coalition Netanyahu is capable of forming. So it seems that in parliamentary systems, a politics of fear can have opposite results.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 05/13/2015 - 09:30 am.

    Netanyahu may have alienated President Obama but that seemed to galvanize the Israeli people who voted him in…. Again. Telling the citizens that there is danger out there and you are going to have make tough choices when you live in Israel is not scaring folks, it is telling the truth. Strong leadership, who will negotiate from strength, is what is needed in times of trouble.

    Scaring folks is having a Paul Ryan look alike throwing Grandma off the cliff in her wheelchair.

    • Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 05/13/2015 - 01:35 pm.

      The same was true in Great Britain

      The Conservative Party only received 36.9% of the votes – not much higher than Labor and the Scottish National Party combined. When a plurality will elect a candidate, the number of members elected doesn’t necessarily reflect the sweeping results that the media would have us believe.

  3. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 05/13/2015 - 01:31 pm.

    Netanyahu may have won, but he only received 23.4% of the vote – hardly evidence that he galvanized the Israeli people.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/13/2015 - 02:30 pm.

    Netanyahu may have alienated President Obama but that seemed to galvanize the Israeli people who voted him in…. Again.

    The Israeli electorate isn’t particularly galvanizable. And I believe Netanyahu’s governing coalition has shrunk. “Tough” is one of those words focus groups tell politicians to apply to themselves, but when stripped of it’s context it’s often difficult to know what it means. Netanyahu’s supposedly “tough” choices generally appeal to his base voters solidifying his base, but among other things jeopardizing his support in America. Netanyahu is also freezing a status quo where the long term demographic trends may be against him. It’s not very tough for Netanyahu to inform his otherwise very well informed citizens that there is danger out there. Indeed, the danger to Israel on his has increased substantially while his international support has weakened. As critical as we might be of the politics of fear, the fact is, it is often the case that to be afraid is a perfectly correct reaction.

    Negotiation from strength is always nice, but Netanyahu’s strength persuades him that he doesn’t need to negotiate. He believes that all he has to do is present an illusion of willingness to negotiate sufficient to allow his allies to convince themselves of his good faith.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/13/2015 - 10:27 pm.

    What is eally scary

    So frightening people with “war on women” and “racist Republicans” and “another dumb Bush” and so one is not considered using fear? Let’s be honest here – every party in every country is using this tactic and in most cases it works… And that is indeed frightening.

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