Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Approval Ratings Are a Mystery, Worldwide (Part III)

We'll have some more letters about abortion on Friday. Since we had the LIV Golf item today, however, we thought we would return to the subject of foreign leaders' approval ratings. The general idea is that this might give some insight into domestic approval ratings, and why it's so hard for any president these days to break into the 60s (or to stay in the 50s). We had some assessments of Narendra Modi last week; here are some assessments of other leaders' approval:

A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK: There's no great mystery to U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's terrible approval ratings.

First of all, the Conservative Party has been in power at the national level since 2010. This is a long time for a single party to be in power in a two-party-dominant electoral system. This isn't Sunak's fault, and any prime minister would likely struggle to achieve positive ratings after his party had been in power for 13 years (at least, in a healthy and competitive democracy). It doesn't help the Conservative Party that they're simultaneously bleeding votes in traditional working class 'Red Wall' areas (our equivalent of Upper Midwest Rust Belt states) to Labour and in small-l liberal traditionally Tory but anti-Brexit heartlands to the smaller, centrist Liberal Democrats.

Secondly, the stench of Boris Johnson's period in office and the catastrophic interlude of Liz Truss have both served to undermine the credibility of the Conservative Party. The opposition Labour Party currently enjoys poll leads in the range of 15-19%—which may be down from a frankly incredible peak of a 39% poll lead at the height of the Truss debacle, but which is still more than enough to win the next general election (which is admittedly a bit over a year away) at a canter. Sunak at times seems like he might have made a reasonably competent old-fashioned technocratic Conservative Prime Minister in a "normal" pre-Brexit political landscape, but following Johnson and Truss would have been a challenge for anyone—not that the country has quite forgotten that Sunak was Johnson's Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister), so was himself a senior figure in the former Prime Minister's government.

Finally, while we have to acknowledge that he was dealt a bad political hand, we also have to say that Sunak frequently just doesn't help himself. He came into office promising honesty and integrity, but was also forced to offer second-rate and scandal-tinged Johnson and Truss supporters senior government posts in order to keep his fractious party together, which has made him look weak while also undermining his claims to integrity. He lost Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi to tax code breaches and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab to a bullying scandal, while Home Secretary Suella Braverman—who's in charge of policing and immigration—somehow manages to cling on despite a series of scandals and her recent appearance at a hard right National Conservative event where she proceeded to criticize the failure of the immigration policies she was herself responsible for enforcing. As I write this, Sunak has himself now become wrapped up in an extraordinary attempt to stop the COVID inquiry that his own government initiated from accessing Boris Johnson's COVID-period records, which Johnson has gleefully undermined by handing over the records himself (or at least part of the records; it may shock you to read that Johnson is being slightly frugal with the truth regarding what he's handing over). This very much makes it look like the government is desperately trying to cover something up, and even right-of-center media outlets have been uncharacteristically critical, while the Science Minister openly stated he expects the attempt to fail. As one analysis of the situation recently noted, "It is quite something for a government to challenge via judicial review the use of legal powers exercised by an inquiry it set up, run by a judge it appointed, with terms of reference it drafted."

Under the circumstances, a mere -22 approval rating could be held to represent a minor triumph for Rishi Sunak. He's doing considerably better, after all, than either Johnson (final approval rating of -44) or Liz Truss, whose final approval rating of -70 made her the least-popular U.K. Prime Minister since modern polling began.

R.S. in Bedford, England, UK: "Out of touch" is surely the key to Rishi Sunak's unpopularity. Given he and his wife are reported to be worth over $800 million, it must be hard to be in touch with ordinary people facing 15% food inflation and housing scarcity while public services are falling apart. His political sense is somewhat lacking, as he continued to hold a U.S. green card even when serving as Chancellor (Finance Minister), while his wife continued to hold advantageous non-dom tax status. He also seems to lack workable ideas on how to deal with the issues facing the country. The best that can be said for him is that he is better than his two immediate predecessors—bumbling Boris Johnson and the organizationally-challenged Liz Truss. That said, he is safe until he has to face a General Election—not later than January 2025 but more probably fall 2024.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany: In my opinion, the main reason for the unpopularity of German chancellor Olaf Scholz is a planned law that would lead to a transition to climate-friendly heating. It is planned that every newly installed heating system must be powered by at least 65 percent renewable energy, beginning in 2024. A few exemptions are planned, but it's a tight timetable and many people fear that they can't afford to heat next year. That's probably exaggerated, but the details are complicated, and it's unclear if there's a good solution for everyone. The main proponents of this planned law are the Greens (who are part of the German coalition government), but it's been opposed by the more libertarian FDP (who are also part of the German coalition government). So the government is in disarray. Olaf Scholz, as chancellor, apparently isn't able to settle this dispute in a way that leaves everyone happy, so he seems to be a weak leader, and thus is quite unpopular now.

T.K. in Mannheim, Germany: I would not take it for granted that Olaf Scholz is widely unpopular. Surely, he and his traffic-light coalition, consisting of Social Democrats (red), Greens and Liberals (yellow) are dealing with severe issues these weeks. Also, economic prospects currently are highly unfavorable, which is reflected by polling numbers in general. However, the highly reknown "Politbarometer" poll, run by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for public TV station ZDF has Scholz being rated fairly neutral by the German electorate. In general, no one of the leading politicians has a positive image, with the exception of Boris Pistorius, who leads the Ministry of Defense. He is a Social Democrat, as is Olaf Scholz.

S.C. in Geneva, Switzerland: Many Swiss can't tell you who the current president is, which is probably why Alain Berset ranks so high in the ratings.

More importantly, Switzerland is governed by consensus. At the national level, it is really a committee of 7 people that runs the country. The 7 are chosen by parliament to represent all factions (currently 2 UDC—right-wing populist; 2 PLR—center-right; 1 CDU—center-center; and 2 SDP—center-left). Each member of the council is responsible for specific function(s) of the federal government, e.g. Foreign Affairs; Justice and Police, etc. Alain Berset is simply the chair of this group this year—the chairmanship rotates annually. The president doesn't have any special powers, but this rotating system provides the country with a single individual to shake hands with visiting dignitaries when needed.

So Mr. Berset's approval is somewhat irrelevant. It's just his turn to be president this year.

I.R. in Zurich, Switzerland: I would like to add my two cents about Alain Berset of Switzerland.

Disclaimer: I'm German-born naturalized Swiss living in Zurich.

The inclusion of Berset's approval rating in a list of "leaders" is, well, probably not disingenuous, but wildly misleading: Switzerland doesn't have a "leader" or a head of state like the other states on the list (and probably most states in the world). Switzerland has a board of 7 "Bundesräte" (i.e., Federal Councilors), whose members are elected by the elected bodies (upper and lower house). Among these 7, one is chair(wo)man for a year, round-robin style. Berset is simply "up" in 2023. While this person is called "President of the Confederation," this is merely a protocol thing, and comes with no additional rights or duties. No Swiss would call Berset their "leader," nor any other councilor.

His approval is entirely based upon his performance as head of the departments he's responsible for. It's entirely possible that on Jan. 1, 2024, the approval of the Swiss president drops, say, 50% in a day, in case the next in line has a dismal personal approval.

Thanks, all! We'll have another round next week, along with the latest numbers from Morning Consult. (Z)

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