Last week, French voters threw President Nicolas Sarkozy out of office, electing Socialist challenger Francois Hollande by a margin of four points - 52% to 48%. Whether it was the debt crisis, a rebuttal of the austerity program, or a challenge to Germany, it was most certainly voter anger that drove this result. France now joins a government turnover list that includes Spain and Italy. At the core of each of these is one fundamental attribute that is driving voter behavior: trust. Or more pointedly, it is widespread distrust.
In January, Edelman released its annual global Trust Barometer study, which revealed a severe breakdown in government trust, globally and in particular in Europe. In 2008, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, trust in business plummeted, and the public took away the “keys to the car” and gave them to government. Four years later, as government failed to adequately react to the economic crisis in the eyes of the people, they've taken them away again. The majority of countries in our study now distrust government. This was particularly so in Europe, with government trust being well below the 50% mark in Ireland, Germany, the UK, Russia, Poland, Italy, France, and Spain. Over the past year, trust in government plummeted among informed publics in Spain, France, and Italy, by 23 points, 18 points, and 14 points respectively. In addition, nearly two-thirds of European Union citizens believed their country was on the wrong track, and six in 10 did not trust government leaders to tell the truth at all. Each of these countries had unsustainable “trust scores” and that turned out to be a good predictor of whether those governments would flip.
France is not in isolation. In Germany, voters in a state election refused to support established political parties, while in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron's party experienced heavy losses in local elections. And protests against Putin's re-election swept Russia, whose trust in government is also extraordinarily low.
This year's trust study also took a look at what people expected from government on some key measures and how well they rated their performance on those measures. The results are telling. In countries with recent elections, such as France, Germany, Russia, and the UK, government is underperforming on the attributes that matter most to citizens, namely “listening to citizens' needs and feedback,” “effectively managing the financial affairs of the country,” “having transparent and open practices,” and “communicating frequently and honestly.” The gap between performance and expectations on these measures was often 40 to 60 points depending on the market.
The biggest problem for government today, in Europe and throughout much of the world, is that voter anger toward government officials is a function of the belief that those leaders are unwilling to tell the hard truths. That is the real story here. We asked people whether they trusted government officials in their country to tell the truth about a difficult issue and the results were abysmal.
In nearly every country surveyed, government leaders were less trusted to tell the truth than business leaders. However, European countries were far more likely than countries in other regions to say they do not trust government leaders at all to tell the truth. In fact, French and German citizens were among the European Union markets with the lowest trust in government leaders, with 66% and 65%, respectively, saying they do not trust them at all to be truthful. We have already seen how France's lack of trust in government leaders can influence a government overturn. Now, with Germany's already vulnerable state, this lack of trust may have serious implications on Chancellor Angela Merkel's tenure. And now that business has the opportunity to lead again, will they be able to take advantage of it?
In the end, Sarkozy ran as the head of government, and Hollande ran as a guy with no government experience. Therefore, Sarkozy was not believed, and to some extent Hollande was. All incumbents beware. I trust - no pun intended - team Obama is paying attention.
Trust is what people believe you will do in the future, and this is true for business as well as government. In that context, European governments and others need to begin work on securing trust of their citizenry or risk the same cycle in the next round of elections.
Steve Lombardo is global CEO of StrategyOne.