Opposition Mounts for Leaders with it All to Lose

Saturday, 22 February 2003 19:19 by: Anonymous
Patrick Wintour, Sophie Arie, David Fickling and Giles Tremlett
The Guardian UK

Saturday 22 February 2003

Unflinching support for ousting Saddam may leave premiers fighting their own battle to avoid regime change.

The Iraq crisis is posing a challenge to political leaders across Europe and beyond. Tony Blair is not alone in potentially putting his career on the line. Guardian reporters examine how four leaders, including the British prime minister, have found themselves at odds with the opinion polls, and how they have reacted to their position.

Britain

Both in public and private Tony Blair does little to minimise the political risk he is taking by insisting he will commit Britain to war in Iraq with or without the support of a UN resolution.

He has admitted in the Commons that he is risking all, and in private he muses "if they throw me out, they throw me out". Whatever happens, he is fashioning a new, colder relationship with the electorate. He will court popularity less and receive it less.

With his personal standing plummeting in the polls, he knows he could lose the trust and confidence of part of liberal Britain. He may never have felt any natural affinity with the liberal intelligentsia, but he knows from the size of last weekend's demonstrations that he is also stirring anger in middle England: the people who helped him to two coalition landslides.

Nevertheless, he probably felt reassured by the poll findings showing reluctant support for war so long as it has endorsement of a second UN resolution.

Since last weekend's worldwide demonstrations, the opposition to war seems to have grown. A poll found that 52% were against the use of military force to remove Saddam Hussein.

The case for a just moral war is being put belatedly. At the same time, Mr Blair's confidence in securing a second resolution now looks more misplaced.

A war without UN support would trigger a backbench rebellion of more than 100 Labour MPs, and provoke the tearing up of many party membership cards. It might well trigger an easily defeated leadership challenge from the left.

And if the war went badly wrong, he would probably know he would have to go, even though many of his great projects, the euro and the reform of public services, remain incomplete and though electorally the Tories and Liberal Democrats are in no position to challenge his party. His legacy would be at best mixed, and some of his work in progress would be undone by his near certain successor, Gordon Brown.

A "successful war" without UN backing would also require him to rethink his relationship with Europe.

Britain can afford to differ with Germany on this issue, but a serious clash with France as President Jacques Chirac wielded the veto would be shattering. Europe would be split into two camps, one led by France and Germany, the other by Britain, the Mediterranean right and the accession countries.

It would create for Blair a new and unwelcome relationship between Europe and the US, and place new pressures on Britain to choose between America and Europe. The decision on the euro would become even more fraught. The terms of entry, including reform of the stability pact, may also become more difficult to negotiate.

For a leader such as Blair, determined that Britain can act as a bridge between the US and Europe, it could prove a very high price to pay.

Italy

By joining the pro-war camp, Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister and media mogul, is swimming against the tide of Italian public opinion for the first time since his landslide election victory in June 2001.

Repubblica newspaper pointed out this week that these are uncharted waters for the business tycoon who is used to "consulting the opinion polls to decide what policies to make".

Recent newspaper polls showed that more than 80% of Italians were against a war and 70% would object even to an attack authorised by the UN.

Until recently, despite a floundering economy and allegations of corruption and media monopoly, more than 50% of Italians still supported their prime minister. But analysts say the public anti-war position, now labelled "common sense", may be the turning point.

Mr Berlusconi's centre-right, predominantly Catholic voters, are angry for the first time. Many feel their prime minister has sacrificed a moral stance for the chance to position Italy alongside the world's superpower.

But Italy's leaderless and divided op position left is Berlusconi's saving grace. Greater pressure has come from the Vatican, a moral guiding light for the majority of Italian voters.

In the past week Berlusconi had toned down his pro-war message, but he has also rejected the popular tide of opinion. Analysts say he has artfully walked the tightrope balancing international pressure against public opinion at home. But crunch time will come if the US decides to attack Iraq without UN authorisation and calls on Italy for support.

Australia

If the Australian prime minister, John Howard, was wanting a measure of public feeling about his foreign policy, he need look no further than his doorstep. Green party activists dumped hundreds of the government's anti-terrorism kits at the gates of his home on Sydney harbour on Thursday. The kits are the main plank of a 5m information campaign to raise awareness of terrorism.

More than 10,000 Australian troops have already been sent to the Gulf and among George Bush's "coalition of the willing" Mr Howard has been making a good showing. But to much of the Australian public, the leaflets are emblematic of a government which has become closer to Washington as it has drifted away from the views of its electorate.

In the most recent poll, on February 3, three-quarters of Australians declared themselves against a war in Iraq without UN backing. Forty per cent said they would oppose it even with UN approval.

More worrying still, a survey last October found that seven out of 10 people felt that Australia's support for the US had been a factor in the choice of target for the Bali bombers.

The figures have clearly made some impact. On Thursday Mr Howard went to the length of attacking the 500,000 Australians who marched against the war last weekend, saying that their actions "give comfort" to Saddam Hussein.

All this ought to be threatening Mr Howard's position, but his ebullient stance has done as much damage to the opposition Labor party as to himself.

Labor's policy, that war would be justified only with a fresh UN resolution, has alienated staunchly anti-war voters.

There is also a deeper cultural issue to consider. Since the second world war Canberra has aligned itself closely with America. Simultaneously, there has been a strong strand of scepticism about American foreign policy.

Nick Economou, an expert in Australian politics at Monash university, says the fate of Australia's politicians, lies ultimately in the hands of America's generals. "The government needs a quick, clean war in Iraq," he said. "It has to last no longer than two or three weeks. Any longer than that and you will start to see a fragmentation of opinions."

Spain

As the Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, tucked into some Texan hospitality on George Bush's ranch in Crawford last night, he may have found himself reflecting on the fact that no Spanish leader has ever been so welcome at the high table of US politics, or so out of tune with his own electorate.

In this case, the two are intimately linked. Mr Aznar is, after Tony Blair, the most important and enthusiastic world leader backing the Washington hawks. As a result he is being courted assiduously, enjoying his second Bush visit in two months.

At the same time, however, he has also seen at least 2 million protesters take to the streets of Madrid and Barcelona while polls show more than two-thirds of Spaniards oppose war. His conservative People's party has lost its poll lead over the anti-war opposition Socialists.

In many ways Mr Aznar is proving more hardline than Mr Blair. Spanish policy so far been a fairly straightforward approval of every US decision or statement. No effort has been made, at least in public, to soften the Washington hardliners or play for more time at the UN security council, where Spain currently has a seat.

If things go wrong, Mr Aznar will not have lost as much as Mr Blair or others prepared to back their words with soldiers on the ground. Spanish troops are expected to stay on Spanish territory.

The potential debacle facing Mr Aznar's People's party is purely political.

In those terms Mr Aznar may be playing, on behalf of his party and whichever candidate they choose to take over from him after he stands down at the end of his second term as prime minister, at all or nothing.

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