Monthly Archives: January 2013
The second round of direct presidential elections were held in the Czech Republic on January 25-26, 2013. The President serves a five-year term, renewable once. Although often described as a ceremonial head of state, the President does have a few significant powers. The President has veto power over legislation, although the legislature can override a veto. The President also appoints judges to the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, may dissolve the Chamber of Deputies under certain circumstances and has shared authority with the Prime Minister over foreign policy, the use of the military, the appointment of lower court judges, and the granting of amnesty. Until 2012, the President was indirectly elected by members of both houses of Parliament in a convoluted process open to corruption and back-room political deals. This was the first time that Czech voters directly elected their President. I covered the first round here.
Two colourful candidates qualified for the runoff two weeks ago. Miloš Zeman, a former Social Democratic (ČSSD) Prime Minister between 1998 and 2001 who has since broken with his party, won 24.2%. Karel Schwarzenberg, a wealthy Bohemian aristocrat who is the country’s foreign minister in the centre-right government, won 23.4%.
Both candidates are colourful personalities; Zeman is noted for his sharp and often insulting wit, his populist demeanor and his controversial views on issues such as climate change or Muslims. As Prime Minister, he helped modernize the country and guided the country towards eventual EU membership in 2004. However, his confidence and supply agreement with the centre-right ODS in 1998, then led by Václav Klaus, now the outgoing President, has been controversial. Many see the deal between the two dominant parties, ČSSD and ODS, as the deal which entrenched links between big business interests and the two major parties. The country has struggled with endemic political corruption. Zeman was endorsed by Václav Klaus, the outgoing centre-right President (in office since 2003), a controversial figure known for his outspoken opposition to the European Union and his skepticism of man-made climate change. Although Zeman is supportive of European integration, he is also rather pro-Russian. His links with shady lobbyist Miroslav Šlouf (linked to the late mafia kingpin František Mrázek) and the Russian oil company, LUKoil, have raised questions about his campaign’s funding.
Karel Schwarzenberg, is a Bohemian prince, rather colourful in his own right. An urbane and sophisticated aristocrat, he is known for his sharp appearance but also his tendency to doze off during long meetings. His family fled Czechoslovakia for Austria in 1948 after the communist coup, and Schwarzenberg was active in Austrian conservative politics during the Cold War. When he returned to Prague in 1990, he became a close friend and ally of Václav Havel, the leading opponent of the communist regime who served as President between 1993 and 2003. He has served as foreign minister in the centre-right government since 2010 (and before that between 2007 and 2009). He is a leading figure in the pro-European centre-right TOP09 party.
Both candidates had pledged to run a clean campaign in the runoff, but the campaign became rather acrimonious quickly. In a TV debate on January 17, Schwarzenberg drew criticism when he said that the expulsion of Czechoslovakia’s inter-war German minority, the Sudeten Germans, after World War II would be considered a war crime today and the creators of the Beneš decrees (laws which led to the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans after the war) would be tried as war criminals in The Hague. Schwarzenberg was also criticized for his long exile abroad and for the fact that his wife cannot speak Czech. President Václav Klaus, who supports Zeman, expressed concern about Schwarzenberg, pointing to his wife’s inability to speak Czech and his emigration during the communist regime.
During a TV interview, Zeman made a sexist joke in an attempt to criticize his opponent’s aristocratic roots. He said that raping female serfs had conferred an evolutionary advantage on squires (Zeman’s last name means squire/yeoman) while princes degenerated because “they did not have to rape their serfs.” Women’s groups criticized Zeman’s comment.
Zeman’s strategy was to turn the runoff into a campaign between the left (him) and the right (Schwarzenberg) and link his opponent to the unpopular right-wing government. The current government, led by Prime Minister Petr Nečas, is very unpopular because of austerity policies which have led to a double-dip recession and deeply entrenched corruption in the governing parties.
Turnout in the runoff was 59.1%, down from 61.3% in the first round.
Miloš Zeman (SPOZ) 54.8%
Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP 09) 45.19%
Former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman was elected President of the Czech Republic by a bit less than 10 points. The unpopularity of the current government played a large role in Schwarzenberg’s defeat. Zeman was able to turn the presidential runoff into a battle of the left versus the right, and linked Schwarzenberg to the unpopular government. Although Schwarzenberg as foreign minister is not directly linked to the austerity policies and he is one of the government’s most popular members, he could still be easily associated with Petr Nečas’ government and the unpopular austerity policies, which in good part have been spearheaded by another member of Schwarzenberg’s party (TOP09), finance minister Miroslav Kalousek.
Zeman’s campaign was very adroit at exploiting latent patriotic, anti-aristocratic and anti-German sentiments with older, rural voters. Aristocrats, especially German-speaking aristocrats like Schwarzenberg, are unpopular figures. In the nineteenth century, aristocrats and the Czech nobility did not play a major role in the rebirth of Czech nationalism and the promotion of the Czech language. More radical nationalists and the left cast the aristocracy as the enemy. Following the independence of Czechoslovakia, aristocratic titles were cancelled and their land was redistributed in a land reform in 1919. Decades of communist rule after 1948 encouraged anti-aristocratic sentiments. Similarly, many older (and rural) voters hold anti-German sentiments, dating back to the 1930s. Zeman, his opponents would contend, ran a very underhanded dirty campaign which played up nationalistic and anti-aristocratic sentiments. They were able to portray their opponent as insufficiently Czech and patriotic; and too worldly. Schwarzenberg’s comments about the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans after World War II certainly did not help matters for him, neither did his own biography.
The map of the runoff reveals a major rural – urban divide, and something of a regional divide between Bohemia and Moravia/Silesia. Unsurprisingly, the map was basically a traditional left-right contest.
Schwarzenberg’s electorate, like in the first round, was urban, fairly young, middle-class/well off and white-collar. He won 66% of the vote in Prague and similar percentages in two affluent suburban districts which surround the Czech capital. Outside Prague, his support was again largely urban. He won Plzeň, Brno, Liberec and České Budějovice. He came close in the district containing Karlovy Vary, a spa city in northern Bohemia. On the other hand, Zeman’s electorate was more rural, older, blue-collar and economically deprived. There was a regional aspect in the split, Schwarzenberg performed best in central Bohemia, the old aristocratic base of the country and generally a rather well-off region. On the other hand, Zeman won by big margins in the eastern regions of Moravia, Silesia and also North Bohemia – poorer regions, some of them very industrialized. Zeman’s best result was 76% in Karviná, the heart of a coal mining basin in Silesia. He also won larger urban centres in Silesia and Moravia: Ostrava, an industrial city (65%); Olomouc (59%) and Zlín, an old industrial city (54%). Zeman also performed well in North Bohemia, usually the Communist Party’s strongest region. This is a major industrial (coal mining) region which was extensively resettled after the war (following the expulsion of Sudeten Germans) by Slovaks or Moravians. Zeman, generally, did better in rural and lower-income areas which have suffered the brunt of the government’s austerity policies.
Zeman’s victory means the replacement of one strong-willed and influential President by another similar figure; the difference between the two men is that Zeman appears more pro-European than Klaus, and unlike both of his predecessors he is ready to support a government which is supported by the Communist Party. Zeman has said that he would attend cabinet meetings and try to influence important legislation. The presidency is still a largely ceremonial function, but the direct election of the president might give the president more legitimacy to play a more active role in Czech politics. Zeman will take office in March.
Legislative elections were held in Israel on January 22, 2013. All 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, were up for reelection. Israel uses a slightly modified type of d’Hondt proportional representation in a single national constituency with a 2% threshold for parties to qualify for seats. Israeli politics are remarkably convoluted, understanding the complexity of Israeli politics and the conflicting ideologies of the various parties are challenging for any casual observer. My preview post tried to explain every party, who they were, what they stood for and what was at stake for them on January 22.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking a third term in office and a second consecutive term. To boost his chances, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud allied with Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing nationalist party led by his controversial (now former) foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has often been described by his opponents as a racist, a xenophobe and hard-line radical nationalist. Netanyahu allied with Lieberman’s party in a move to secure support on his right. Netanyahu is often painted by the western media as an arch-nationalist, a hardliner opposed to any negotiations with the Palestinians and possibly the most right-wing leader which could come out of Israel. In Israel, however, Netanyahu is widely seen as a moderate within his party and certainly more moderate on the Palestinian question than many on the right. Many on the right were dismayed when, in 2009, Netanyahu endorsed – tepidly – a two-state solution for the first time; even if he has since done next to nothing to walk the walk on this issue. His attempt to secure his right by allying with Lieberman was unsuccessful, because Netanyahu found himself overwhelmed by a surge in support for the far-right Jewish Home coalition, led by the young ex-military software entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, whose tough, uncompromising stance on the Palestinian question attracted many right-wingers. Bennett’s surge forced the Palestinian issue back into the election, which Netanyahu and his main opponent – Shelly Yachimovich of the Labour Party – had wanted to be about the economy (and social policies).
The Israeli centre and centre-left – which tends to be more dovish on the Arab-Israeli conflict – was widely seen as being headed to a very disappointed election which would confirm that Israeli society is shifting to the right, favouring arch-nationalist hardliners. Labour expected to come a distant second, a mediocre result which would have allowed it to lick its wounds and slowly heal itself after a disastrous election in 2009. Kadima, the centrist party which governed between 2006 and 2009, was fighting for its political survival; while ormer Kadima leader Tzipi Livni hoped that her reinvention as a quite dovish peace-focused centre-leftist could allow her to return after losing the Kadima leadership in 2012. Finally, Yeir Lapid, a journalist who entered politics a year ago with his new centrist party, Yesh Atid, hoped that his campaign focused on socio-economic matters and targeting the middle-classes would propel him to a strong showing.
Turnout was 67.07%, up from 65.2% in 2009 and 63.2% in 2006. This is fairly high turnout, though it is lower than what was predicted from earlier turnout results throughout the day. Two hours before polls closed, turnout was up 4% since 2009 and it was expected that final turnout could reach 69-70%. Unlike in 2009 and 2006, there was not a substantial number of voters who voted in the last two hours. Turnout increased by only 3.5% in the last two hours, against 5.5% in 2009 and 6% in 2006. Interestingly, this was despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute plea to his supporters to turn out and vote. As the poll closing drew nearer, Netanyahu and the Likud openly voiced their worries about the result and feared that they were heading for a worse result than expected. On the other hand, Yair Lapid was optimistic about his chances.
The results currently stand as (votes compared to 2009, seats compared to dissolution and 2009):
Likud Yisrael Beiteinu 23.32% (-9.99%) winning 31 seats (-11)
Yesh Atid 14.32% (+14.32%) winning 19 seats (+19)
Labour (HaAvoda) 11.39% (+1.46%) winning 15 seats (+7, +2)
Jewish Home-National Union 9.12% (+2.91%) winning 12 seats (+7, +5)
Shas 8.75% (+0.26%) winning 11 seats (nc)
United Torah Judaism 5.17% (+0.78%) winning 7 seats (+2)
Hatnuah 5.17% (+5.17%) winning 6 seats (-1, +6)
Meretz 4.54% (+1.59%) winning 6 seats (+3)
United Arab List-Ta’al 3.65% (+0.27%) winning 4 seats (+1, nc)
Hadash 2.99% (-0.33%) winning 4 seats (nc)
Balad 2.56% (+0.08%) winning 3 seats (nc)
Kadima 2.10% (-20.37%) winning 2 seats (-19, -26)
Otzma LeYisrael 1.76% (+1.76%) winning 0 seats (-2, nc)
Am Shalem 1.2% (+1.2%) winning 0 seats (-1, nc)
Ale Yarok 1.15% (+0.76%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others below 1% 3.0% (+0.29%) winning 0 seats (nc, nc)
Right-Religious Bloc 48.12% (-4.28%) winning 61 seats (-4 since 2009)
Centre-Left, Left and Arab Bloc 47.92% (+3.39%) winning 59 seats (+4)
including Arab Parties 9.20% (+0.02%) winning 11 seats (nc)
As predicted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ‘won’ the elections on January 22, though he suffered a major setback. He comes out of these elections weakened, challenged both by a rejuvenated centre/centre-left led by a new face and by a slightly weakened but also more radical right (both inside and outside his party). Netanyahu is a winner and he will have his third term as Prime Minister of Israel, but these results are quite bad for his party. Netanyahu was ‘reelected’ only because he lacked an obvious credible challenger who could take him on. His main opponent throughout the campaign, Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich never really proved herself as a strong, credible alternative to Netanyahu; while the star of the hard right, Naftali Bennett, was too polarizing and too right-wing for the wider electorate to emerge as a serious threat to Netanyahu’s position as Prime Minister. Therefore, even if the electorate was eager for a change and many embraced new leaders or new parties, they could not find an alternative to Netanyahu and the result is that he remains where he is, even though he comes out quite roughed up.
Netanyahu and the Likud-YB’s campaign was uninspiring and unexciting, characterized by a general dearth of new ideas. In fact, Likud-YB did not even present an updated platform in this election. He stuck to mildly hawkish language about defending the settlements and presenting himself as the strong leader who would be best positioned to resist American pressure to freeze the construction of new settlements. He emphasized an economic record which he claimed has kept Israel out of the crisis. Voters to his left were looking for a new direction, more favourably inclined to real negotiations with the Palestinians and critical of Netanyahu’s economic and social policies. Voters to his right were unimpressed by his record in office since 2009 and were attracted by leaders such as Bennett who were more unequivocal in their opposition to a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s attempt to shore up his right flank was, as predicted, rather unsuccessful (and counterproductive?). His new ally, Avigdor Lieberman, is no longer the star of the hard-right (unlike in 2009) and he has lost his touch, in good part because of his indictment for corruption. Within his own party, Netanyahu had failed to dominate the internal primaries which saw his right-wing challengers do well and the old moderates decimated.
The real surprise was that Israel did not shift to the right as predicted. Netanyahu did even worse than the last polls had predicted (the lower end of his range in the final polls was 32 seats) and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home did not quite as well as had been widely anticipated. Despite regional tumult with the Arab Spring, a general pessimism amongst Israelis on the Palestinian issue and Iran’s nuclear program presented as an existential threat to Israel by the Prime Minister; the electorate did not shift to the right, in fact it shifted towards the centre. Israel is not, ultimately, the increasingly nationalistic and religious country it had become increasingly fashionable to portray.
The major winner of the election was Yesh Atid, a party founded only a year ago by Yeir Lapid, the son of a cabinet minister and anti-clerical politician and a popular journalist and TV host himself. Lapid’s party placed a respectable second, taking 19 seats, far more than it had been expected to win (8-13). Either the polls themselves were wrong or something happened in the final stretch (no polls could be published between January 18 and 22) which moved many votes towards Lapid and, seemingly, away from Netanyahu’s right and the far-right. Lapid was a popular, charismatic and consensual journalist and TV host who often focused his attention on the Israeli middle-class, which is often described as being left on the side of the road in the polarized and divided society between the left’s ‘peaceniks’, the hardline religious settlers and the ultra-orthodox Haredim. His campaign’s general orientation was vague, although he did offer some specifics on what he sought to change in the country – a welcome break from a campaign in which other candidates seemed more interested by gimmicky campaign ads than substance.
Yesh Atid’s centrist, consensual campaign appealed to the middle-ground, backed by the attractive notion of ‘change’ and a focus on the middle-class. Lapid’s party is secular, though not as secular as most had expected. Its list included some rabbis, some of which are orthodox or religious Zionist (although all quite moderate or liberal). It includes both a mayor formerly associated with the pro-peace left-wing Meretz (Yael German) and a former head of Shin Bet (Yaakov Peri). One of the cornerstones in Lapid’s platform was “equal sharing of the burden” – that is, extending the draft to the Haredim (and perhaps even Arabs) who can receive an exemption from military service to pursue full-time Torah study. Lapid either wants to draft them into the IDF or allow them to do a civilian ‘national service’ instead. But while his father had been the leader of a virulently anti-clerical, anti-Shas party; Lapid is far more consensual, even on this divisive subject. He has insisted that he is not hostile to ultra-orthodox Jews, but only wants to find a way to share the burden of military/service more equally, a position which resonated well with his middle-class and largely secular electorate.
Israel’s politically centrist, religiously secular or indifferent middle-classes often care more about domestic issues – such as the economy, the cost of living, housing prices and public services – than they do about the old Arab-Israeli conflict. Lapid’s campaign spoke to those middle-class voters with a platform and campaign focused more on those domestic priorities than on peace negotiations and a solution to the conflict. He vowed to fight the lower Israel’s notoriously high housing prices, build more apartments and improve the education and healthcare system. Lapid campaigned under the slogan of “change” and “changing things”, which has led to the inevitable comparisons with Obama in 2008. His message of change worked, because many of the voters he targeted – the middle-class – are unhappy with the existing parties and were eager for a fresh alternative.
Yair Lapid struck the middle-ground on most issues, from the economy to diplomacy; and this moderate, pragmatic centrism appealed to a good part of an electorate which is, after all, more moderate than many had assumed. Outside of the occupied territories, in central Israel, most voters are focused on ‘kitchen table issues’ rather than the conflict. A Haaretz (centre-left) columnist, Gideon Levy, wrote that Israelis “want nothing, only to be left alone” and that Lapid, for these middle-class centrists, was the perfect embodiment of what they wanted from their politicians: “looks good and dresses well, (…) well-spoken and well-married, lives in the right neighborhood and drives the right kind of Jeep. With that, he doesn’t say much. He’s not extreme, heaven forbid, that’s not who we are, nor does he stick his hand in the fire, that’s not us either. He stays away from any divisive issues, just as Israelis prefer.” Levy writes that “voters want a quiet, good life, peaceful and bourgeois, and to hell with all those pesky nagging issues.”
It may be a very cynical commentary and one may take issue with the gist of the editorial; but it reflects an interesting perspective. In the foreign press, Israel makes headlines because of the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear threat or the attention-grabbing actions of a few more radical settlers or nationalists. Most would be led to assume that these issues are the first preoccupation for voters – after all, the left-right divide in Israel is built around such issues. However, Lapid’s success – but also the success of past centrist parties, most recently Kadima in 2006 – show that, for many (but not all) voters, domestic issues and concerns common to voters around the world are a top priority. The 2011 social justice protests in Tel Aviv and around the country showed the importance of issues such as housing prices, public services or cost of living to the urban middle-class, which often feels ignored by the major parties. Labour had hoped to benefit electorally from the protests, in fact, two of the protest leaders were on the party’s list. It appears that Yesh Atid, rather than Labour, may have benefited the most from these protests instead.
The attitude of a plurality of Israelis towards the conflict also reflect the prevalence of ‘moderate’ opinions. According to the December 2012 Peace Index, 60% of Israeli Jews support a two-state solution, 68% favour negotiations with the Palestinians and 58% support an independent Palestinian state “in the framework of a peace agreement that includes appropriate security arrangements.” At the same time, however, most Israelis (55%) define themselves as right-wing on the security issue, a bare majority of Israeli Jews (51%) agree that West Bank settlements should not be dismantled, 58% oppose ceding East Jerusalem to the Palestinians within the framework of an agreement and a huge majority (85%) oppose relinquishing control over the Golan. Most Israelis, furthermore, believe that there is no chance for progress in the foreseeable future.
Yair Lapid’s Palestinian-diplomatic agenda was similar. He says that returning to the negotiating table with the Palestinians and escaping Israel’s growing international isolation is urgent. However, he is security-oriented and also has hawkish positions – he supports targeted killings of Hamas leaders, has always advocated for a strong military response to violence from Gaza and vows that Israel must defend itself and its citizen. Similarly, he opposes a ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees, opposes ceding control of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state and states that large settlement blocs in the West Bank are a “fact on the ground” and will not be dismantled.
Labour had a very disappointing election with a mediocre result. The party, which was set to become the second largest party in the Knesset and form the main opposition to Netanyahu came out in third place, with only 15 seats – a gain of only two seats for the party since the 2009 election, which had been the party’s worst result in its history. Labour’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich, a journalist, ran a campaign focused almost exclusively on economic and social matters. She tried to benefit from the 2011 protests and middle-class discontent with Netanyahu’s record on social policies since 2009. By and large, it failed to do so. Her decision to leave peace and security issues on the side of the road alienated the doves within the party, who instead preferred a rejuvenated Meretz. Other, more hawkish Labour supporters, may have preferred Yair Lapid instead. In addition, her decision to rule out participating in a Netanyahu-led coalition was criticized by both Lapid and Tzipi Livni, who competed for left-of-centre secular middle-class voters with Labour. Voters did care about the social and economic issues which Yachimovich focused on, but they likely preferred to vote for a party which had a similar focus and promised to champion those policies and values within a government (Yair Lapid).
Yachimovich failed to become a credible opponent to Netanyahu. She will probably be facing an uphill battle to retain the party’s leadership after a dismal finish for the old traditional governing party. The party’s fortunes have been down the drain since 2001-2003, with a succession of mediocre or hapless leaders who could not turn the party back into a credible alternative for power. Ehud Barak’s decision to bring the party into cabinet in 2009 was disastrous, but even a stint in opposition (since 2011) under Yachimovich did not correct matters.
Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which had very high hopes and expectations for itself on January 22, came out a bit deflated on election night. Predicted to (and expecting to) win some 15 seats and place a solid third if not second, the party came out with a respectable but disappointing 12 seats. It was nevertheless very good result for the party, which had only 5 seats in the Knesset when it was dissolved. But some in the party found it hard not to feel at least a bit disheartened by that performance, when polls had consistently given them around 14-15 and they were riding on a wave of local and foreign media attention. Bennett did not break through as expected, and he will be a less powerful actor in any governing coalition. Bennett’s goal in the election was to break through the old barriers of the Israeli far-right, transcend the religious Zionist and settler base of the old NRP and build a broader nationalist coalition which included more secular or traditionalist voters living outside the West Bank. In part, he was successful: he was quite popular with some younger voters. However, he did not fully achieve the goals he had set out for himself. The party (and its leader) were perhaps the victims of exaggerated expectations. Bennett is a significant political presence rather than a game-changing phenomenon.
Nevertheless, Bennett achieved a solid, respectable and even fairly remarkable result. With Avigdor Lieberman’s power and even influence much diminished, Bennett can become the sole major rival to the right of the Likud (excluding the ultra-orthodox parties which have a tightly knit electorate and a limited range). Even if he didn’t do as well as he would have hoped, Bennett showed himself to be a particularly successful politician – even if this was his first time running for elected office. His rather impressive biography, his charisma and his outsider profile all proved beneficial to him and his party. Compared to Lieberman, who is very much damaged goods by now (though one should not underestimate any Israeli politician’s ability to rebound from lows), Bennett is still a fresh, clean and energetic figure.
The two ultra-orthodox parties did quite well, especially United Torah Judaism (UTJ) which was able to grab two extra seats, giving it 7 members in the new Knesset. The Shas held their ground and their popular vote increased a bit, after a relatively poor performance in 2009. However, given how much noise and how big a fuss they had made about the high-profile return of their former leader, Aryeh Deri, to their list; this could also be seen as a fairly mediocre and underwhelming performance. The two ultra-orthodox parties, who represent Sephardic (Shas) or Ashkenazi (UTJ) Haredim, have a tightly knit electorate which has meant that their electorate has tended to be remarkably stable (less so in the case of the Shas, but especially so for the UTJ – which is even more ultra-orthodox in its electorate than the Shas) in the context of Israel’s famously unstable politics. I am not sure to what the Shas/UTJ’s strong performance this year can be attributed to. Turnout was very strong in their ultra-orthodox citadels, meaning that they likely benefited from the small increase in turnout since the last election. Maybe this increase in turnout/support for the ultra-orthodox parties could be chalked up to fears about being drafted?
Tzipi Livni’s new party, Hatnuah, founded just a few days right before the elections, won 6 seats. This result is slightly below its numbers in the final polls (7-8 seats), though a result in that general vicinity was expected. She might have might have suffered from what appears to have been a last-minute shift towards Yesh Atid by centrist middle-class voters, the demographic which both Yesh Atid and Hatnuah (but also Labour) were competing for. Her campaign’s heavy focus on the urgency for peace negotiations with the Palestinians might have turned off a few centrist voters, whose primary focus was on domestic rather than diplomatic/Palestinian issues. Centrist parties rise and fall in very quick succession in Israel, and Hatnuah’s fate might be no different. Nevertheless, Hatnuah enters the Knesset with a small but rather experience and/or distinguished caucus. Besides Tzipi Livni, her list had two former dovish Labour leaders (Peretz and Mitzna), a Kadima MK and General Elazar Stern, the IDF commander who supervised the Gaza pullout. Both Peretz and Mitzna might be tempted, depending on what Labour becomes in the next few years, to jump ship again to rejoin their old party.
Meretz performed well, winning 6 seats – doubling its horrible result in the 2009 election (3 seats). In the 2009 election, Meretz – like Labour – had suffered from a late anti-Bibi strategic voting push on the left. This late shift, undetected by pollsters, allowed Kadima – then led by Tzipi Livni – to finish narrowly ahead of the Likud, and meant that Meretz was left decimated with only 3 seats – whereas polls had given it up to 7 seats right before the vote. This strategic shift was quite perceptible on the kibbutzim – a core Labour and Meretz demographic – where Kadima and Labour tied with 31% apiece and Meretz trailed behind with 18%. In addition to recovering those losses, Meretz likely gained some left-wing dovish voters from Labour, alienated from the party by Yachimovich’s exclusive focus on economic/social issues and her reluctance to adopt an overly dovish position on the settlements or peace negotiations. Meretz’s success means that Issawi Frej, an Arab Israeli placed fifth on the party’s list, won a seat in the Knesset. Meretz’s result shows that, while the left-wing ‘peacenik’ camp is not as powerful as it was before the Second Intifada, it retains a small following within the Jewish population.
Together, the three Arab parties won 9.2% and 11 seats – more or less exactly what they had won in 2009, which had been a generally good year for all three parties. There were concerns that turnout would drop even further this year with Arab Israelis, after a prominent Islamic cleric had called on Arabs to boycott the election. However, from the results in various Arab towns, turnout actually increased by around 3% – that is to say, still low (around 56% in general) but over the halfway mark.
In detail, the three parties more or less won the same results as they had in 2009. The exception is Hadash, which lost about 0.3% from its 2009 result. I suspect that, in 2009, the party had won a bit of bicommunal Jewish support from particularly left-wing/pro-Palestinian Meretz voters (at the time, the party’s support for the 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon and the 2008-2009 operation against Gaza had been criticized by some). Once again, the Arab parties did relatively well but they did not achieve their full potential because of their disunity and low turnout. If Arab Israeli voters turned out in high numbers, and voted for a single Arab party, such a party could possibly be the second largest party in the Knesset and be in a far stronger position than the three disjointed parties at pushing for Arab interests. However, as long as Arab Israelis feel marginalized and discriminated against in Israel; as long as their parties feud among themselves and remain excluded from every government, they will have a hard time playing a more prominent role in Israeli politics.
Kadima was nearly wiped out, managing to extend its lease on life for some time again. With 2.09%, it managed to save two seats – one for the party’s hapless leader Shaul Mofaz and one for incumbent MK Yisrael Hasson. The party’s decline began under Tzipi Livni following the 2009 election, when her performance as opposition leader was so mediocre that her party voted her out of the leadership spot in March 2012 by a landslide. Unfortunately for them, Shaul Mofaz turned out to be an even worse leader. After vowing that he would not enter Netanyahu’s government in March, he joined (for two months) Netanyahu’s cabinet in order to push through a reform of the draft law (which the grand coalition was unable to do, leading to Kadima pulling out). This about-face destroyed Kadima’s image and its standing in the polls. The creation of Yesh Atid in early 2012 and Livni’s new party attracted many centrist voters who had backed Kadima in 2006 and 2009. Israeli centrist voters are notoriously volatile voters who have never had a single clear political home.
Shaul Mofaz, a stale and boring politician, could not compete against a media-savvy charismatic figure like Yeir Lapid (or even Livni and Yachimovich). Kadima awaited its fate, like an agonizing patient, throughout the campaign – it just hoped that it could at least save 2 seats rather than be totally obliterated. The party’s campaign was seemingly entirely about reiterating “Shaul Mofaz is not a complete idiot”.
The two new breakaway parties on the right, Otzma LeYisrael (the most far-right party founded by two former National Union MKs) and Am Shalem fell right below the threshold for seats. Otzma LeYisrael’s appeal was limited to the most radical and extremist fringe of the settlers’ movement in the West Bank, where it performed best (by far). Other right-wing nationalist voters, less drawn by the party’s controversial far-right rhetoric, already had their own party: Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home. Am Shalem, the Shas breakaway faction led by the renegade rabbi and ex-Shas MK Haim Amsalem (who represents a less parochial and open type of Haredi Judaism), also fell short. Pilloried by the ultra-orthodox community for attacking the sacred precept of draft exemption, he was unable to break through with the very parochial and closed ultra-orthodox community. Like most new Israeli parties which try to attract voters who like none of the established parties (but most invariably fail at doing so), it will probably die out now.
You can find a great interactive map of the results, from the sub-district to the precinct level, here. Unfortunately, it’s entirely in Hebrew, but one can get the hang of it and what the colours mean fairly quickly.
The election once again revealed the deep schism which divide’s Israel’s two largest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The former, the cultural and economic capital, is known for its more relaxed attitude. The latter, the political and religious capital, is a deeply conservative city with a large ultra-orthodox population. In Tel Aviv, Yesh Atid won 20.7% against 17.5% for Likud-YB and 16.8% for Labour. Meretz scored 14.3% and Livni won 7.3%. The results at a precinct level reveal that Yeir Lapid was, unsurprisingly, most popular in northern Tel Aviv: secular, Ashkenazi upper middle-class suburbs where the centre and Labour have always tended to perform well. He won nearly 30% in some precincts in northern Tel Aviv, where Labour and Meretz also polled well – but where Likud only polled in the low teens. In downtown Tel Aviv, a young, artsy and secular gentrified area, Meretz actually topped the poll in a good number of precincts, with Labour and Yesh Atid also doing well. Tel Aviv’s results also reflect a north-south polarization in the city. In the southern neighborhoods, which are poorer Sephardic/Mizrahi areas, Likud and the Shas dominated the polls while the centre-left parties polled quite poorly.
In Jerusalem, however, Yesh Atid placed fifth with only 7% of the votes. It was UTJ, the Ashkenazi Haredim party, which topped the poll with 22% of the vote. Likud-YB won 20.5%, the Shas won 15.6% and Bennett’s JH won nearly 12% of the vote. Jerusalem has a large and politically influential ultra-orthodox population, which makes it a very stark contrast with Tel Aviv, Israel’s more relaxed and secular cultural and economic centre.
In Haifa, northern Israel’s largest city which was once known for its socialist politics, the results more or less followed the national trends. Likud-YB won 26% against 18% for Yesh Atid and 15% for Labour.
Likud-YB did well in cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon or Karmiel which have a large Russian population, Avigdor Lieberman’s primary electoral clientele. But it clearly was not successful in attracting every YB voter from 2009. In Ashkelon, where the two parties combined had taken a big 58% in 2009, they won only 42% against 14% for the Shas, 10% for Lapid and 9% for JH. In Ashdod, another city with a large Russian population, the Likud-YB polled 36% against 17% for the Shas and 10% each for UTJ and Lapid. The Russian population is heavily secular and very hostile towards the religious parties, therefore it is fairly certain that they did not jump ship to the Shas. They might instead have been attracted by Naftali Bennett’s JH for its nationalist right-wing tone or even Lapid’s Yesh Atid for its secular platform, just like many Russians had voted for his father’s party, Shinui, in 2003.
The Likud-YB, unsurprisingly, polled very strongly in the Negev, where the party has been very strong in the largely low-income and Sephardic/Mizrahi ‘development towns’. In Beersheba, the target of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza late last year, it won 38% against 13% for the Shas and 12% for JH. In Sderot, the Israeli town closest to the Gaza Strip, Likud-YB won 37% against 16% apiece for the Shas and JH. Hatnuah, boosted by the presence of local favourite son Amir Peretz on its list, won 11% – Peretz’s Labour had won Sderot in the 2006 election. Even in Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea resort town (where Kadima had won by 10 points in 2009), Likud performed well with 30% against 18% for Lapid ans 12% for Labour.
In the Bedouin communities of the Negev, the United Arab List (UAL) was very strong, in some communities they polled over 80% of the vote. However, the Shas, who have made concerted efforts to appeal to Bedouin voters in the past, received a respectable share of the vote in some communities. The Shas also polled quite very well in Jewish towns in the south, often second behind the Likud-YB. In Netivot, the Shas took 44% of the vote. The low-income town located near Gaza is a major shrine and pilgrimage place for Sephardic Haredim; Sephardic Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira (Baba Sali) is buried there.
Likud-YB also performed well in less affluent larger cities (some of which have a large Russian immigrant population), notably Nahariya (37%), Hadera (34%), Netanya (34%) and areas to the south of Tel Aviv such as Holon or Bet Yam.
Haaretz, in December, described suburban Rehovot as Israel’s bellwether community. Located 20km from Tel Aviv in the populous central district, it includes lower-income areas, more bourgeois neighborhoods, immigrant areas, ultra-orthodox concentrations and the very prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science. Likud-YB won 27% against 16.7% for Yesh Atid, rather similar to the national result. Labour won 13%, the Jewish Home won 11% and the Shas won 8%. Meretz won a precinct around the Weizmann Institute of Science, and took 4% in the city. At 67%, turnout in Rehovot also matched the national average.
Yesh Atid performed best in upper middle-class towns, the traditional base for centrist parties in Israel. In the affluent suburban towns located north of Tel Aviv, for example, Lapid’s party often won in the mid to high 20s. In Kfar Shmaryahu, one of the wealthiest towns in Israel, Yesh Atid received 32% against 16% for Hatnuah and 15% for Meretz – Netanyahu’s party placed fourth with only 13%. In Ramat HaSharon, Lapid’s party took 29% against 17% for Labour and a paltry 15% for Likud-YB. In Hod HaSharon, the results were similar: 29% for Yesh Atid, 10 points ahead of Labour and Likud-YB. In Herzliya, Yesh Atid won 26% against 22% for Likud-YB and 16% for Labour. These patterns hold true outside the Gush Dan, throughout the country. Lapid performed best with the educated and well-off middle and upper middle classes, likely groups concerned more by domestic concerns like high housing prices or the cost of living than by security or diplomatic issues.
In heavily ultra-orthodox towns or precincts, the vote was divided almost entirely between UTJ and the Shas. In Bnei Brak, a major ultra-orthodox town on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, UTJ won 60% against 25% for the Shas; the JH and Likud-YB took 4% of the vote each. In Modi’in Illit, a major ultra-orthodox settlement in the West Bank (right across the Green Line), UTJ won 77% against 18% for the Shas. In Beitar Illit, a large and growing ultra-orthodox settlement southwest of Jerusalem, UTJ also won – with 59% – against 30% for the Shas. In Beit Shemesh, a major town outside of Jerusalem with a large ultra-orthodox population, the centre-left was a non-entity. UTJ won 28% in the city, against 23% for Likud-YB, 18% for the Shas and 14% for Naftali Bennett’s party. In all these ultra-orthodox communities, turnout was much higher than the national average (high 70s or 80s).
The results in ultra-orthodox towns show that, unsurprisingly, neither the Jewish Home nor Am Shalem were able to break through the walls of Haredi Judaism. Both parties, especially Am Shalem, performed poorly in ultra-orthodox towns or precincts.
The kibbutzim and moshavim, historically the cornerstone of the Labour Zionist ideology, backed the centre-left – especially Labour and Meretz. However, enthusiasm for either of those left-wing parties, which have dominated the kibbutz movement, is lower than in the past. The kibbutzniks no longer carry much weight within either of those left-wing parties, which have become heavily dominated by the urban middle-class elite. Nevertheless, even if the kibbutzniks will no longer have any of their own in the Knesset and a sense of indifference towards party politics, turnout remained high and most of the votes went either to Labour, Meretz, Yesh Atid or Hatnuah. It appears, from a cursory look through the results, that the centrist parties – Yesh Atid and Hatnuah – performed better in the moshavim, where the farms tend to be owned individually rather than collectively. The Jewish Home won the religious kibbutz communities, a smaller movement associated with religious Zionism.
The Likud-YB and Jewish Home dominated the playing field in the West Bank settlements. In the West Bank as a whole, JH received 28% against 21% for Likud-YB and 17% for UTJ. The largest centre-left party, Yesh Atid, took only 7% of the vote, placing fifth – while Labour’s attempts to appeal to the settlers by toning down their dovish rhetoric ended disastrously: only 4% for the party. Jewish Home also topped the poll, with 24% against 21% for Likud-YB, in the Golan Heights.
The Likud-YB polled best in the largest settlements: Ma’ale Adumim (pop. 31,700) split 42% to 21% with JH; Likud took well over 40% in Pisgat Ze’ev, a settlement in East Jerusalem; in Ariel, Likud-YB won 53% against 16% for JH. Settlers in Ma’ale Adumim or in East Jerusalem neighborhoods/settlements have tended to move there for economic reasons than ideological reasons, in search of cheaper housing and better living standards. As a result, their population often tends to be more secular, although some large settlements (Ramot Alon in East Jerusalem) have a large orthodox population. However, the Jewish Home was very strong in more ideological settlements (which tend to be located further out from Jerusalem), which are dominated by religious Zionism. In Efrat, a growing community with a large population of North American and European Jews, Bennett’s party won 59% against 22% for Likud. In Kiryat Arba, a large settlement bloc near Hebron, JH took 42% while the far-right Otzma LeYisrael placed second with 28%. In Karnei Shomron, it won 43% against 26% for Likud.
Otzma LeYisrael won 8% in the West Bank, performing best with the most radical and extremist factions of the settlers’ movement – those who might have found Naftali Bennett too moderate for their tastes. In Yitzhar, an Orthodox settlement which has the reputation of being the most extremist settlement, Otzma LeYisrael won no less than 72% of the vote against 17% for JH. No centrist or centre-left party appears to have received over 1% of the vote in Yitzhar.
United Torah Judaism (UTJ), as aforementioned, carried the ultra-orthodox settlements of Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit in the West Bank.
For an interesting sidenote, even if Labour won only 4% in the West Bank, it can pride itself on receiving 90% in tiny Niran, a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley where 50 voters turned out.
The Arab towns did not vote as bloc for any party, but in almost all major Arab towns the broad outlines are the same: turnout in the 50s, almost all votes for the three Arab parties with Meretz, Labour and sometimes the Shas taking the leftovers. In Rafat, a very poor Arab city in the south with a large urban Bedouin population, the UAL won 56% against 30% for Balad. In Kafr Qasem, things were a bit different. The UAL took 38% in the home base of Islamic Movement leader Ibrahim Sarsur, but Meretz received 35% of the vote, thanks to their new Arab MK, Issawi Frej, who is from the town. In nearby Tira and Taibe, however, the UAL received over 50% of the vote and the rest was split fairly evenly between Balad and Hadash, with Meretz being the most popular non-Arab party. Up north, in Umm-al-Fahm, Hadash took 50%, UAL and Balad split the rest evenly. Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth, remained a communist stronghold – Hadash won 49% against 27% for Balad.
The Druze vote, however, was nowhere near as homogeneous. The Druze in Israel have been much more pro-Israeli than the Arab Muslims, to the point that the Druze are drafted into the IDF and some Druze politicians have served in the Knesset for right-wing parties. In Maghar, a Druze-majority town in the Galilee, the Shas – who have at times vigorously canvassed for Arab or Druze votes – won 19%, roughly tied with Hadash which also won 19%. The Likud won 13%, the UAL won 12%, Labour took 8% and Kadima and Hatnuah won 7% each. Kadima actually topped the poll (with 47% and 36% respectively) in Daliyat-al-Karmel and Isfiya, two Druze towns outside Haifa (!).
Israeli elections only partly determine the shape of the next government. Given the massive fragmentation between parties and blocs in Israeli politics and the consistent lack of an absolute majority for any one party, every election is followed by coalition negotiations between parties and their leaders, negotiations which often tend to be long and tortuous as the smaller parties attempt to extract concessions and plum posts in cabinet from the leading party.
The one certainty in this year’s negotiations is that Benjamin Netanyahu will stay as Prime Minister. It was nearly impossible to form a coalition without the Likud-YB after the election, given that such a coalition would realistically need to include all the centre-left/left parties, at least one or two of the Arab parties and one of the ultra-orthodox parties. The Arab parties have never been invited to join any cabinet, their anti-Zionist positions are a huge non-starter and they themselves would not agree to be in a government with Zionist parties. The ultra-orthodox parties would certainly have a hard time being in the same government as unabashedly secular and left-wing Meretz. Yair Lapid, the kingmaker, nixed the idea of an anti-Bibi coalition on Wednesday.
Throughout the campaign, Yair Lapid made it clear that he wanted to be in Netanyahu’s cabinet, ostensibly to ‘moderate’ it and to be in a stronger position to implement his own domestic agenda. While Yesh Atid later clarified that it did not want to be in a coalition at all costs, it is quite clear that it will be in the next coalition alongside Netanyahu’s Likud-YB. The two leaders diverge on some issues, though in large part they’re not all that dissimilar. Netanyahu is more ‘outwards-looking’ than Lapid, meaning that his policy focus is on security and diplomacy issues; while Lapid is clearly ‘inwards-looking’ and focused on domestic issues. After the election, to signal that he had understood the election’s significance, Netanyahu said that he wanted to form a coalition which was as broad as possible and promised action on three fronts: affordable housing, government reforms and “sharing the burden” of military service (drafting the Haredim).
Lapid has apparently been offered the finance or foreign affairs portfolio. The former would be more tailored to his campaign’s platform and give him a chance to implement some of the economic and social policies he emphasized in his campaign. The latter would be less tailored to his platform (and would thus be a politically risky position for him, just like Amir Peretz was sunk by his decision to take the defense rather than economy portfolio in 2006), but the West would certainly welcome a more pragmatic and moderate foreign minister after four years of extremely tense relations with Avigdor Lieberman.
The next obvious coalition partner for Netanyahu would be Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, who had also clearly indicated that he wanted to join the governing coalition (in this case to move the government to the right). Israeli coalitions are never politically coherent and, out of political necessity, bring together parties with conflicting ideological orientations and goals. There are some major differences between Bennett and Lapid, especially on security/diplomacy policy – the former wants to annex over half of the West Bank, the other preconditioned his coalition participation on restarting peace talks – and these differences might make some of Lapid (or Bennett)’s supporters queasy if both are forced to live together in a coalition.
However, Bennett is not in a position to actually implement his Palestinian agenda and the annexation stuff is, while not a bluff, not the top priority on his agenda. Similarly, Lapid is not a peacenik and a far-left dove. He wants to open peace talks, but at the same time he’s clearly opposed to relinquishing Israeli control of East Jerusalem or evacuating the settlements. In the current regional context, no Israeli politician is sanguine about the chances of peace talks and they are not too eager to push any such talks extremely far. The broader electorate is pessimistic about the chances of substantive progress in that field in the near future.
The next obvious partners for Netanyahu would be the two ultra-orthodox parties, which he has described as his natural allies. The Shas have been in all governments since 1984 except for Sharon’s 2003-2006 coalition and they would probably like to be in the next coalition. UTJ has not participated in as many coalitions, but it too was in the outgoing right-wing coalition and it would probably like to join the next government. Netanyahu has reportedly told them that he wants both of them in.
The problem, however, is that Yeir Lapid is making the extension of the draft to the ultra-orthodox one of his conditions for joining any government; and with 19 seats, it is in an unexpectedly strong position to push for this. Bennett, who has no interest in pandering to the ultra-orthodox either, also supports the extension of the draft. It is unclear where Netanyahu stands on this issue, because, naturally risk-averse, he has up until now preferred not to take any decisions which would squander his good relations with the ultra-orthodox parties. Now, he may be forced to take a decision, which might damage the partnership between the ultra-orthodox parties and the Likud-YB for years to come.
The ultra-orthodox parties have bonded together to oppose any changes to the ultra-orthodox draft exemption, and this appears to be one position on which both of the parties are particularly adamant about. Similarly, Lapid made extension of military service of the key tenets of his campaign and it is fairly certain that he will be insistent on this issue.
It is possible for Netanyahu to form a coalition which will exclude both ultra-orthodox parties. Likud-Lapid-JH have 62 seats, a majority albeit an extremely tight one. This majority can be expanded to include the annihilated Kadima, which has signaled that it is open to participating in a broad coalition (and bring it up to 64 seats). However, many believe that Netanyahu is extremely reluctant to break his long-standing solid partnership with the two ultra-orthodox parties, especially the Shas, in favour of an uncertain alliance with more demanding and potentially less reliable other parties.
Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, with 6 seats, is another potential coalition partner, but she might have become too dovish for Netanyahu to include her in a coalition. He understands that he still needs to secure his own right flank, which came out much stronger from these elections and would likely topple him if he lurched too much towards the left on peace negotiations. Netanyahu would apparently like to pad out his coalition with Labour, but for the moment Yachimovich is standing firm on her pre-election position that she would not join a Netanyahu coalition. However, one Labour MK (Nachman Shai) has already said that his party should seriously look into joining the coalition. As of now, Labour joining appears unlikely (although Barak had the same position in 2009 until he changed his mind at the last minute and joined the coalition).
There have been rumours that Netanyahu might be considering excluding JH, to form a government with Lapid and the Shas – but I find that rather hard to believe, and such a coalition would be tough to hold together (not to mention that it would hold exactly 61 seats).
A coalition with Yesh Atid, JH and probably the Shas is the most likely. The issue of what this government will be able to do on the issue of the draft is a major question. Will they work out some sort of compromise, tolerable for most parties? Will the Shas act like their usual selves and adapt their positions to fit in the new coalition? Or, will either Yesh Atid or the Shas walk out of the coalition and make the government collapse as soon as the draft is brought up?
Many believe that the next government will have a short lifespan, because it will be hard to keep the future coalition – which will likely be more ideologically colourful than the last coalition – together, be it because of the draft or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Economic issues will also play a role. Despite Netanyahu’s campaign on the issue, Israel’s economy is not doing swellingly. Its deficit is bigger than expected, which – according to most analysts – means that budget cuts and austerity are inevitable at this stage. Already, Lapid’s advisers have urged him not to take the finance portfolio because widespread budgetary cuts in the upcoming months will likely hurt his image (which might explain why some Likud and YB figures are implicitly saying that the finance portfolio would be more ‘natural’ for Lapid).
In every country, after every election, we are told that “the country” voted for or against something. In this case, we are told that Israel “voted for the centre” or “voted against the right” or “voted for change” or whatever. In reality, Israel didn’t vote for anything. The largest party barely won 23% of the vote, and the two large blocs – centre/left and right/religious – ended up more or less tied. The centre and the left performed better than it had been expected to, proving that we were all too quick to write their obituary. The right, in contrast, under-performed and lost seats compared to the last election; but it’s not as if the left is better shape. But, even more so than in 2009, the electorate’s verdict was inconclusive. Many certainly voted for change, but few agreed on what direction that change should come from.
The election did confirm that Israel remains a complex and very divided society, divided not only by ethnicity and religion (Jewish vs. Arab/Muslim) but also by ideology (hardliners, centrists, doves, peaceniks) or religiosity (ultra-orthodox, religious Zionist and secular Jews). As always, no one camp came out with a clear, resounding victory.
The phenomenon of this election turned out to be Yeir Lapid rather than Naftali Bennett as everybody had predicted. Every election, or at least nearly every election in Israel, a new centrist party emerges out of nowhere to capture disoriented and volatile centrist voters who often prioritize domestic issues and don’t like either the right or the left. There was Dash in 1977, the Center Party in 1999, Shinui in 1999-2003 and Kadima and Gil in 2006. Invariably, the new centrist party disappears almost as soon as it comes. This year may be no different. Kadima more or less died out, rather abruptly, though it still has a tiny chance of coming back. Yesh Atid and Hatnuah were the two new centrist party which came out of (almost) nowhere to replace Kadima in the centre.
Will Yesh Atid and Hatnuah suffer the same fate as all their predecessors? It is hard not to think that at least one of the two won’t die out by the time of the next election. Yeir Lapid is a charismatic and talented politician, but he’s also a novice. He’s not a career politician and he campaigned largely on being a moderate and changing things around. With little political experience and an electorate which will be expecting him to deliver from his spot in cabinet, he may find it hard to cope. If he gets the finance portfolio, he would be in a position to implement his agenda but that position is often political suicide in Israel, maybe especially so this year with inevitable budget cuts around the corner. As foreign minister, his voters might have a falling out because he will be focusing on things he did not emphasize, but it would be a safer position from which he could build a reputation and aim at becoming the next Prime Minister. Above all, his electorate will be expecting him to deliver the goods, which is always the toughest part – especially if you’re a junior partner whose strength comes from focusing on economic and social issues. Lapid’s fate will also be affected by what happens to the other parties, especially Labour and perhaps Hatnuah. They too are campaigning, more or less, for Lapid’s middle-class centrist/centre-left electorate.
What will this election change in term of Israeli foreign policy and its place in the region? Ultimately, not much. The two-staters came out a bit stronger from the election and they might hold a more prominent voice in the next government, but even then, the chances for a final peace settlement in the near future are very low and neither side appears all that willing to reach a settlement. Netanyahu may have to take notice of the two-staters a bit more, but at the same time he came out of this election with a much more right-wing caucus and an emerging bloc further to his right. He is walking on a tightrope, meaning that he cannot alienate either the centrists/security-oriented moderates or the hardliners to his right. This election does not provide any ‘hints’ about what Israel is going to do with Iran, given that Iran did not feature prominently in the campaign and because, even if it did, the election would not have changed Israel’s policy towards Iran.
This election confirmed that many of our preconceptions about Israel was wrong. Not everybody is a hardline religious settler in the West Bank whose sole preoccupation is preventing a Palestinian state; even if this sector remains influential, increasingly so. Instead, many voters were more concerned by domestic issues – the economy, jobs, housing, cost of living or public services. The Israeli right and hard right remains in a powerful position, and they are becoming even more right-wing; but they are not on an irreversible accession to the top which will fundamentally transform Israeli society and Israel’s place in the world. Similarly, the centre and the left are not dead, even if they are still in a fairly weak position at this stage. In conclusion, Israel remains a complex and divided country where nothing is as simple as black and white.
Regional elections were held in the German land of Lower Saxony on January 20, 2013. The Landtag of Lower Saxony has at least 135 members, of which 87 are elected in single-member constituencies and the rest are allocated proportionally to parties winning over 5% of the vote in the state. In the German MMP system, the proportional element (second votes) seeks to correct disparities between votes and seats which may be created by the single-member system (first vote). There are additional seats in the legislature if a party wins more single-member seats than it is entitled to in the proportional distribution of the seats. After this election, the Landtag will have 137 seats, 15 less than the outgoing legislature, elected in 2008.
Lower Saxony is the fourth most populous state in Germany. The state is fairly important in German federal politics. Not only as it produced prominent national politicians such as Gerhard Schröder, Christian Wulff, Sigmar Gabriel and Ursula von der Leyen; it is also seen by some as a good bellwether for the rest of the country. Lower Saxony is a mix of rural and urban/industrial, Protestant and Catholic. The southern region of the state is a working-class Protestant region where the Social Democrats (SPD) have traditionally been very strong, in some cases since the days of the Kaiserreich. The SPD has always performed strongly in Hanover but also industrial towns such as Salzgitter, Peine, Wolfsburg (the home of Volkswagen) and Holzminden. In this regards, it is similar to the neighboring poor, rural or working-class Protestant regions of northern Hesse or Lippe (NRW). In the north, along the coast, the industrial harbours of Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven Since the end of the war, the rural and isolated Protestant region of East Frisia has also been one of the SPD’s strongest regions in the whole of Germany. On the other hand, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) often win some of their best results anywhere in Germany in the rural and devoutly Catholic Oldenburg Münsterland, around Cloppenburg and Vechta.
Lower Saxon politics used to have a strong rural, conservative and Protestant regionalist movement, which existed from 1869 until the 1950s. At the outset, a German-Hanoverian Party during the Empire and Weimar represented the dethroned House of Welf, the dynasty which ruled the Kingdom of Hanover until it was annexed by Prussia in 1866. After the war, the German Party (DP) briefly carried on with this tradition, winning a few direct seats in the first three federal elections. In large part, this rural, conservative Protestant support has gone to the CDU. Post-war, the state’s politics were also heavily influenced by the Heimatvertriebene population (ethnic Germans displaced from the east after the war), who made up around 30% of the state’s population. The heimatvertriebene‘s impact of the state’s politics nowadays is more limited, but they have played a large role in the state CDU.
The SPD governed the state between 1946 and 1955, 1959 and 1976 and most recently between 1990 and 2003. Gerhard Schröder, who became Chancellor of Germany in 1998, was the state’s Minister-President between 1990 and 1998, he was succeeded shortly thereafter by Sigmar Gabriel, who is now the SPD’s federal leader. The CDU’s Christian Wulff won the 2003 elections, defeating a worn out and unpopular SPD government. Since then, the state has been ruled by a black-yellow right-wing coalition with the liberal FDP, the same coalition which is in power federally with Angela Merkel. The black-yellow government was reelected with a reduced majority in 2008. Christian Wulff resigned to become Germany’s President in 2010, but he was forced to resign from the presidency in disgrace in 2012. The state’s current Minister-President is David McAllister, a dual British-German citizen with a Scottish mother.
McAllister is described as a rising star in the CDU and a potential successor to Angela Merkel. As premier, he is quite popular – according to the exit polls, his approval rating was 68%. Like Merkel, who is personally very popular in Germany, his government itself is considerably less popular. A bit less than 40% approved of the state government. The SPD’s top candidate was Stephan Weil, the mayor of Hanover.
Education, particularly college tuition fees (the state is one of the few in Germany to still charge tuition fees), was the most important issue for voters in this election. 45% rated it as the biggest issue, against 24% who were concerned about unemployment and 13% about the economy. Family policies and nuclear energy closed the list, with 12% and 10% respectively.
These state elections have been painted as a first test for Angela Merkel before the September 2013 federal elections, in which she will be running for a third term. It was a high stakes election for the federal government, because Lower Saxony is ruled by the same coalition as the federal government (CDU/FDP). Most said that a black-yellow victory in the state would confirm that Merkel’s victory in September is a near-certainty, but a victory by the red-green opposition could indicate a more disputed contest federally.
As is the case federally, the CDU itself remained quite popular and its vote was holding up. The danger, however, for the CDU laid with its junior partner, the liberal FDP, which has been in dire straits for some two years now. Most polls, for now, show that it is polling below the 5% threshold for seats in the Bundestag. In government, the party had hoped to push Merkel’s economic policies to the right and promote its own low-tax agenda, but it has been outmaneuvered all the way by the Machiavellian Merkel, who is quite talented at shifting her policy to meet the current mood. It has been weakened by infighting, unpopular low calibre leadership at the federal level and a series of policy blunders and miscalculations which has caused it to lose most of its 2009 support to Merkel’s CDU. In Lower Saxony, the polls had shown the CDU polling well – roughly 40% – which was about 2.5% less than what it won in 2008. On the other hand, the polls showed the FDP hovering at the 5% threshold, which meant that there was a serious risk that the FDP would not get in. If the FDP had not passed the threshold, even if the CDU itself had done quite well; the red-green (SPD-Greens) would certainly have won a majority on their own. To ward off this possibility, McAllister and the CDU more or less openly called on right-wing voters to “lend” their second vote to the FDP, to allow the party to break the threshold and retain representation. A FDP clearing the threshold and a rather healthy CDU result would, they hoped, allow McAllister to win reelection.
Turnout was 59.4%, up from 57.1% in 2008. The results were:
CDU 36.0% (-6.5%) winning 54 seats (-14)
SPD 32.6% (+2.3%) winning 49 seats (+1)
Greens 13.7% (+5.7%) winning 20 seats (+8)
FDP 9.9% (+1.7%) winning 14 seats (+1)
Linke 3.1% (-4.0%) winning 0 seats (-11)
Pirates 2.1% (+2.1%) winning 0 seats (nc)
FW 1.1% (+0.6%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 1.5% (-0.9%) winning 0 seats (nc)
David McAllister’s incumbent black-yellow coalition was defeated in a race which went down to the wire and provided for lots of nail-bitting suspense on election night. The red-green opposition won 69 seats, the incumbent black-yellow coalition won 68 seats; giving the new government a one-seat majority.
The government’s defeat can be attributed to a wide array of factors. The SPD had a clear advantage over the CDU on the important topic of education, campaigning with the Greens on a promise to do away with college tuition fees. Exit polls showed that 45% of voters preferred the SPD on education, against only 33% for the CDU. Discontent with the federal government (which is not that popular, unlike Merkel) also played a role; state elections in Germany often double as opportunities for voters to register disapproval of the federal government. However, McAllister’s strategy to save his government by encouraging his voters to loan their second votes to the FDP backfired spectacularly on him and his party.
The CDU lost over 6% of the vote compared to the 2008 election, and won 36% – which is about 4-5% less than what the final polls had predicted. The loan strategy certainly worked out very well, given that the FDP not only managed to clear the 5% threshold easily but also managed to increase its support compared to the 2008 election by nearly 2% (amusingly, 9.9% is also the best state election result for the FDP…). The FDP has been able to save its skin quite well in recent state elections (NRW and Schleswig-Holstein in 2012), but in this case it owes its miraculous result to McAllister’s strategy of propping up the FDP in a bid to save his government. The exit polls confirm that the FDP’s ‘strength’ in this election came, in large part, from CDU/right-wing voters who voted for the FDP to save the CDU/black-yellow government. 91% of FDP voters said they could just have well voted CDU, 68% (!) said that their vote for the FDP was a classic “borrowed vote”. Only a minority of the FDP’s voters cited reasons which indicates that the FDP is their natural home: only a third of the party’s voters said the FDP was the party they felt closest to. One can also notice the nature of FDP second vote support by looking at the direct votes: the FDP won 3.3% in the direct votes, which in this case is down from both 2008 (5.6%) and 2003 (4.4%).
The result of McAllister’s FDP vote loaning campaign was that the CDU’s vote fell considerably and that the FDP did way better than anybody could have predicted. Certainly, the government was sunk by other factors, but the FDP vote loaning campaign backfired badly on McAllister and the CDU. It is questionable whether or not McAllister’s strategy, regardless of its actual outcome, was actually a good strategy. If he had not said anything about propping up the FDP, would the FDP have scraped together enough voters to clear the threshold? It is quite possible. The FDP was polling 4.5% or 5% in all the final polls, which would probably have been enough for it to save face. In addition, there were enough CDU voters to pull them over the threshold if they did not do so “on their own”. If the FDP had won 5% or so, enough to retain its foothold in the legislature, the CDU would not have lost 6.5% support; making the reelection of the black-yellow government slightly more likely (though still a tough fight).
Germany’s ‘vote transfer’ analyses are always quite interesting, even if they need to be taken with a grain of salt. According to the analysis for this election, the CDU gained 49k votes from 2008 non-voters, and 10k (?!) from the Linke. They lost a non-negligible amount of support to the SPD and Greens (37k and 20k respectively), but they bled a full 104 thousand votes to the FDP – strong movement which shows the ‘loaned votes’ to the FDP. The SPD lost 6000 votes to the Pirates and a more hefty 49k to the Greens, but they gained from non-voters (90k), the CDU (37k), FDP (20k), Linke (15k) and others (7,000). This means that black-yellow was also sunk by non-negligible direct loss of support to SPD (and Greens, as noted above). The higher turnout also helped the SPD quite a bit, the analysis says that they gained 90k votes from non-voters.
The FDP lost votes to all parties (even Linke?!) but the CDU, accounting for 42,000 votes altogether – but that was more than compensated by the loaned votes (104k from CDU) and some 9,000 non-voters who voted for the FDP this year. The Linke’s most substantial loses were to the ranks of abstention – 40,000 voters who had backed the party in 2008 did not vote this year. It also lost significantly to the Greens (17k), SPD (15k) and even CDU (10k).
The SPD and the Greens had a good night, especially the Greens. The SPD were not hurt by the SPD’s troubles federally in the past few weeks, after a series of blunders and gaffes from the party’s unpopular hapless chancellor-candidate, Peer Steinbrück. Its positions on education and family policies, as well as the relative popularity of its top candidate (Stephan Weil) helped the party increase its support compared to the last election, in which the party won its worst result in any state election. Nevertheless, in a longer historical perspective, 32.6% isn’t all that great – it is lower than 2003 (33.4%, a very bad result for the party already) and worse than every other state elections besides the last one. This reflects, in part, the Greens’ success. They won 13.7%, by far their best result in a state election (the first time they break 10% in a state election as well). Their support increased by over 5 percent. Nationally, the Greens have been benefiting from the uninspiring and mediocre leadership and opposition of the SPD. The collapse of the 2012 Pirate surge should also help them recover lost support. The lingering importance of nuclear energy in German politics, post-Fukushima, has also helped the party. In Lower Saxony, they benefited from controversy surrounding the proposed nuclear waste dump site in Gorleben (they won 20.4% in that constituency).
On the other hand, the Linke, which had won 7% in the 2008 elections (on the back of the SPD, in good part), fell below the threshold and lost all its seats. This result confirms Linke’s downswing in those western states where it had entered state legislatures in 2007-2009. As noted above, many of the party’s lost voters did not turn out, others returned ‘home’ to the SPD. Its brief foray outside of East Germany (and Saarland) will have proven quite short-lived.
The Pirates won 2% and fell far short of winning seats. This result confirms that the Pirate surge, which began after the Berlin state elections in September 2011 and lasted until the summer/early fall of 2012, is over. The Pirate surge carried over to state elections in Saarland, NRW and Schleswig-Holstein in 2012, but the party’s support has since collapsed. The Pirate surge was destined to be a fad, which still lasted for a surprisingly long time. It attracted politically disoriented or ‘homeless’ voters, non-voters, first time voters and a lot of more working-class youths who did not identify with any of the parties. Its surge was not based on any concrete political ideology, platform or ideas (besides the vague appeal of direct democracy, privacy and left-libertarianism). The party’s general lack of a defined platform and policy played a major role in its collapse. In the exit polls, 83% of voters agreed with the statement that the Pirates lacked positions on important issues.
Der Spiegel has a map of the results here. As expected, the CDU did best in rural areas, but particularly the rural Catholic Oldenburg Münsterland, where the CDU won over 50% of the vote – including 57.6% in Cloppenburg and Vechta. It also performed well in the Catholic Eichsfeld, and the rural Protestant areas between large metro areas. Likewise, the SPD’s support was quite traditional. It did very well in its East Frisian and southeastern strongholds, peaking at 46.4% in Emden (East Frisia) and hovering above 40% in its working-class bases in the southeast. The SPD performed quite well in Hanover, though its performance in other cities (Göttingen, Brunswick, Wolfsburg, Hildesheim, Osnabrück, Oldenburg) was weaker because of the Greens’ strong performance. The Greens peaked at 28.5% in the university town of Göttingen, and naturally their strongest results came from cities – 25.1% in Lüneburg, 25.8% in central Oldenburg and 25.3% in central Hanover. As noted above, in the Elbe constituency (20.4%), they benefited from controversy around the nuclear waste dump site in Gorleben. The FDP’s support was strongest where the CDU’s support was also strong, with some differences (they were not as strong in the Oldenburg Münsterland, though they still did quite well). Their strongest constituencies were some peripheral suburban areas, and a rural Protestant area to the west of Bremen.
What are the implications for the federal election in September? The CDU-FDP’s defeat is unwelcome negative media coverage for the CDU and Merkel. David McAllister, like her, was a very popular premier himself but his government was unpopular and most voters were eager for a change in government. Could Merkel suffer a similar fate in September? It is more doubtful, given that the federal SPD is not in the best of shape and their current candidate (Steinbrück) doesn’t measure up to Merkel. The CDU would like to insist that its defeat in Lower Saxony was due to local state issues, and does not indicate anything for the federal election. Nevertheless, her black-yellow finds itself in a similar position. Her CDU is polling very strongly (40-42%, against 33.8% in 2009) while the FDP is polling 2-4% support, which would shut it out of the Bundestag. The consensus is that she would form a grand coalition with the SPD; a red-red-green left-wing federal coalition with the Linke still seems a long way away. The disastrous result of McAllister’s FDP vote loaning campaign will scare CDU/CSU politicians away from endorsing such deals in September; the CSU has already said that it would not encouraging vote loaning for the FDP in the Bavarian state elections this fall. The FDP had some tense closed-door meetings after the election, ultimately Rainer Brüderle will be the FDP’s top candidate for the federal election but his rival, and incumbent party chairman, Philipp Rösler will keep his spot as party leader. Is the federal election more open than expected?
A general election will be held in Israel on January 22, 2013. The Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, has 120 seats.
The Knesset is elected by party-list proportional representation (d’Hondt) with the entire country serving as a single constituency. The threshold for parties to win seats is very low in Israel, currently standing at 2%. This 2% threshold is, in fact, higher than past thresholds – it was previously 1% and then 1.5%. The very low threshold has had several effects on Israeli politics. From a partisan standpoint, the low threshold makes it fairly easy for small parties to win at least one seat and gain some degree of influence in the legislature. This has favoured the growth and survival of small parties, the creation of new parties by dissidents from other parties and the birth of new small parties every election. The low threshold has also made governing difficult, because no party has ever won the 61 seats required to win an absolute majority (the closest that a party came was 56 seats, but this was back in 1969). In the past two elections, the party which won a plurality of seats won only 22% of the popular vote. As a result, the larger parties must necessarily form coalition governments with the smaller parties, many of which cater to sectional religious or ideological interests and have a tendency to abandon their senior coalition partners very quickly. This has resulted in short-lived governments, very heterogeneous coalition governments which often includes parties with differing interests or political bases and has made the life of Israeli Prime Ministers quite difficult.
Electoral and political reform has been a long-standing issue in Israel. One attempt was to directly elect the Prime Minister, alongside legislative elections (in 1996 and 1999). It had been hoped that by personalizing the system and directly electing the Prime Minister (all three times in two-way races), the winning candidate could lead his party to a strong showing. Voters did not behave that way, and in all three cases the Prime Minister-elect needed to form broad coalitions with smaller parties. The system was scrapped after the 2001 prime ministerial election and Israel returned to the old system. Others have proposed to modify the electoral system by raising the threshold, using the German MMP system or switching to FPTP in single-member constituencies. However, small parties, which are necessary for every governing coalition, have resisted any such changes which would likely hurt them or force them to merge with larger parties.
The Israeli ‘party system’ is very unstable, and marked by the proliferation of many small parties all across the spectrum. The parties are a reflection of the electoral system which has created an extreme case of multi-party system, but the many parties are also a reflection of Israel’s religious, ideological and ethnic diversity: parties representing the various strands of Zionism, parties representing the religious diversity within Judaism, parties representing the different Jewish immigrant or ethnic groups and the three parties for the Arab Israeli minority. Ideologically, Israel often speaks of the ‘right’, the ‘centre’ and the ‘left’ – with these ideological labels referring primarily to various positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict (hawks vs. doves) rather than differences over economic policy. The ‘right’ includes both a mainstream right, a religious right and a far-right (the religious right is often considered the far-right). The ‘centre’ is divided and its history has seen many parties come and go, many disappearing after one or two elections before being replaced by a new centrist party which often, invariably, suffers the same fate.
The party standings in the Knesset at the moment of dissolution were as follows:
Likud 27 seats
Kadima 21 seats
Yisrael Beiteinu 15 seats
Shas 11 seats
Labour (HaAvoda) 8 seats
Hatnuah 7 seats
Independence 5 seats
United Torah Judaism 5 seats
Hadash 4 seats
United Arab List-Ta’al 3 seats
Jewish Home 3 seats
New Movement-Meretz 3 seats
Balad 3 seats
National Union 2 seats
Otzma LeYisrael 2 seats
Am Shalem 2 seats
Arab Democratic Party 1 seat
Likud (The Consolidation) is the major right-wing party in Israel, and currently the largest governing party. The Israeli right and Likud were born from Revisionist Zionism, a conservative and nationalist variant of Zionism developed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It was distinguished from Ben Gurion’s Labour Zionism both for its conservative anti-socialist character but also its territorial maximalism/irredentism, claiming the entire British Mandate of Palestine, including modern-day Jordan, for an independent Jewish state. Jabotinsky and his successor, Menachem Begin (the leader of the Irgun militia and later the Herut party) refused to sacrifice part of the historical land of Israel to establish an Arab state. However, after the creation of the modern-day state of Israel, the Herut party, under Begin’s leadership, grew more moderate in their advocacy of Jewish sovereignty on both banks of the Jordan river. By the 1970s, irredentist sentiments had largely subsided and the legitimacy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was no longer questioned by the right. However, the Israeli right and Likud have always taken a harder stance (hawkish) on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the issue of a Palestinian state and negotiations with the Arabs and Palestinians.
Herut and its successors (the Gahal alliance with the liberals, then Likud in 1977) were out of power during the first 28 years of Israel’s existence. Begin’s Likud finally came to power in 1977, defeating the centre-left Alignment (Labour) which had been in power since the creation of the Israeli state in 1949. Menachem Begin’s historic victory in the 1977 election marked a major political realignment in Israel and the defeat of the Ashkenazi elite. The founder of Israel and the leaders of then-dominant Labour Zionism were all Ashkenazi, Jews of European (including eastern European) descent. Ashkenazi Jews became the political and economic elite of the new Israeli state, while Sephardic (Jews of Iberian descent) and Mizrahi (Jews from the Muslim Middle East and North Africa) Jews were largely poor, living in working-class neighborhoods of major cities or in peripheral cities. The Ashkenazi elite looked down on the poorer Sephardic and Mizrahi (nowadays, the two terms are interchangeable) communities. The growth of both of these communities in the first decades of Israel’s existence proved politically beneficial to Likud, whose more religious, conservative and hawkish/nationalist outlook appealed to these more religious (often called ‘traditionalist’ Jews in modern Israeli parlance) communities. To this day, the Likud performs best with lower-income and traditionalist Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, in lower-income urban or peripheral areas. It is also strong in the Negev development towns, and polls well in some of the larger West Bank settlements.
Despite the Likud’s historic hawkish positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, their leaders have often proven more moderate and pragmatic than their parties. Menachem Begin negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to cede territory to the Palestinian Authority in 1998 with the Wye River Memorandum while Ariel Sharon, in 2006, evacuated all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip (the unilateral disengagement plan). The unilateral disengagement led to a major split in the Likud, which culminated in Sharon walking out to form the centrist Kadima. At the outset, Kadima’s creation and its victory in 2006 left Likud as a decimated right-wing rump, which polled very badly in 2006. However, after three years as the largest opposition party, Likud, led by Netanyahu, roared back in 2009.
The party’s current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is considered a moderate within his own party. He has often faced opposition from the party’s ‘hard-right’ which is strongly opposed to a two-state solution. In contrast, Netanyahu tepidly endorsed the two-state solution (under certain conditions) in 2009, though he has generally given the image, especially abroad, that he is sliding his feet on negotiations. At the same time, under his government, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have continued to expand. Governing has forced him to be more pragmatic and moderate than the Likud hardliners, but Netanyahu gives the impression that he has no great appetite for rapid negotiations. Netanyahu needs to be careful of not alienating his own party, which is generally to his right on the Palestinian issue.
The ‘hard right’ of the party performed very well in the recent Likud primaries, something which will shift the party further to the right, much to the chagrin of the ‘peaceniks’. Moshe Feiglin, who had won 23% in the January 2012 Likud leadership election as Netanyahu’s only opponent, did very well in the primaries and will finally enter the Knesset, placing 22nd on the list. Feiglin, a close ally of the hard-right settlers’ lobby, is a controversial politician who wants to encourage the Palestinians to emigrate, with financial incentives to push them in that direction. Other new Likud hawks are far more assertive against Israel’s traditional allies in Europe and in Washington, warning that Israel should ignore the West’s demands for a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. On the other hand, old timers and moderates – incumbent cabinet ministers Benny Begin (the son of the former Prime Minister) or the centrist Dan Meridor did not find enough support in the primaries to win a place on the party list.
The Likud is running a common list with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home). Lieberman, a Moldovan immigrant, created YB in 1999. By and large, the party’s support lies predominantly with Jewish immigrants who came from Russia and the former Soviet Union. It polls best in towns with large Russian Jewish immigrant populations: Ashdod but also Karmiel or Arad.
The party’s ideology reflects its largely Russian electorate: hawkish but secular. The party is characterized by the foreign media as far-right, hardline or ultra-nationalist. Lieberman has often taken hardline stances on Arab-Israeli relations and negotiations with the Palestinian, but he supports a two-state solution – with a major twist, which is the subject of much controversy. The Lieberman plan suggests a transfer of populated territories between the Jewish state and an Arab-Palestinian state which would see Israeli settlements in the West Bank transferred to the Jewish state and Arab regions within Israel transferred to a Palestinian state. Arab Israelis and many on the left have contended that this plan is racist, others have questioned the legality of such a plan (as it would likely involve the revocation of citizenship for many Arab Israelis). On domestic issues, YB is a secular party. It strongly supports civil marriages alongside religious marriages, and wants to end the ultra-orthodox’s exemption from military service (an issue which came up again in the past year). It is not, however, anti-clerical: it opposes the separation of religion and state.
Avigdor Lieberman is a love-or-hate figure. Many of his opponents have claimed that he is a virulent racist and a far-right nationalist demagogue. His ties with certain local and foreign entrepreneurs are the subject of controversy. The police has been investigating allegations that he received millions from an entrepreneur while serving in the Knesset, which is illegal in Israel. In December 2012, Lieberman was indicted for breach of trust and fraud (but not witness tampering or money laundering). He resigned as foreign minister and deputy Prime Minister the following day. Even if corruption only very rarely kills Israeli politicians, these latest corruption charges against him likely signal that his star power and political influence may be starting to wane, even with his Russian base.
The Israeli right’s traditional stance on negotiations with the Palestinians is ‘peace for peace’, indicating that it sets peace and the end of terrorism as a necessary precondition for any negotiation and the creation of a Palestinian state. In a 2009 speech, Netanyahu seemed to endorse the two-state solution, over the opposition of some Likud hawks. However, at the same time, the Likud strongly opposes evacuating West Bank settlements or a partition of Jerusalem (handing East Jerusalem over to the Arabs). The party has always tried to appeal to the settlers and placate them, while still maintaining an arm’s-length from them. This may prove harder as the Likud hawks and hard right has gained even more prominence within the party. Both Likud and YB support forceful military responses to any terrorist attacks against Israel. In November 2012, the IDF responded to Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from Hamas’ stronghold in Gaza with air strikes against Hamas militants and leaders.
On economic issues, both Likud and YB support right-wing economic policies including privatization or lower taxes, though some within the Likud have tended to favour more interventionist policies. Netanyahu served as finance minister under Sharon between 2003 and 2005 and gained a reputation as one of the most free market liberal finance minister, backing free trade, privatization and criticizing the power of Israel’s largest trade union (Histadrut).
Israel is a religiously diverse society. A significant and rapidly growing Jewish demographic are Haredi Jews, the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism. Haredi Jews should segregate from non-Jewish culture, focus on Torah study and participate in modern society as little as possible. They are expected to abide to Jewish religious laws very closely, and enforce a strict gender segregation. Historically, the Haredi have been strongly opposed to Zionism, in large part because they felt that a Jewish state would only be established through divine intervention by the Messiah and that human attempts to establish the Jewish state equated to open rebellion. The Haredi also strongly disliked the secular and socialist Zionist elites which founded Israel. If certain Haredim sects still strongly oppose Zionism and even refuse to recognize Israel, most Haredim in Israel have accepted the Jewish state as a fait accompli and made their peace with the state in return for special advantages. They have focused their political efforts on certain religious issues such as religious education, military service exemption and strengthening the Jewish religious identity of the state. Sephardic Haredim is more supportive of Zionism and Israel than Ashkenazi Haredim are. There are two Haredim parties in Israel, forming the religious right. Both support the establishment of a theocratic state governed by Jewish religious laws.
The Shas were founded in 1984 to represent the Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredim communities who felt discriminated against or marginalized by the Ashkenazi Jewish elite. The Shas’ spiritual leader is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and its chairman is Eli Yishai. In this election, however, the Shas have no actual leader because Aryeh Deri, a former leader and cabinet minister who had been found guilty of bribery in 2000, wanted to return to politics and the Shas leadership needed to prevent him from creating his own party. The Shas are a small party, but they have a solid electoral clientele which has allowed them to be the eternal kingmaker in Israeli politics since the 1980s. The party has participated in every coalition government besides Sharon-Olmert’s coalition between 2003 and 2006.
Traditionally, the party did not place a heavy emphasis on the Palestinian question and maintained a pragmatic, ambiguous and moderate stance on the issue, preferring to focus on religious questions. In recent years, however, they have shifted heavily towards the right and adopted far more nationalist stances on the Palestinian question. In 2010, the Shas joined the World Zionist Organization, signaling their evolution from a religiously-focused pragmatic Haredi party to a Zionist-Haredi party. It now strongly opposes dismantling settlements in the West Bank. On religious issues, the Shas define Israel as a Jewish state which should abide by Jewish religious laws. While it has decried extremist attacks against women, it supports maintaining the gender segregation on public transit in predominantly Haredim areas. On economic issues, the Shas strongly oppose free market capitalism and tend to emphasize social justice, alleviating poverty, a strong social safety net and ‘social solidarity’.
The Shas are the Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredim party, but most of their votes, in reality, come from Modern Orthodox or traditionalist (non-Haredim) Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.
The smaller United Torah Judaism (UTJ), founded in 1992, is an alliance of two ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi parties: Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel. The Degel HaTorah (Banner of the Torah) represents the “Lithuanian” non-Hasidic Haredim Ashkenazi Jews, it was founded in 1988 from a split in Agudat Israel. Agudat Israel (Union of Israel) is the Hasidic (Hasidism is a variant of Haredi Judaism) party, which is also heavily Ashkenazi. The two parties often disagree with one another, largely over religious issues; this does not seem to matter as much as it would in other parties because the UTJ structure has little power, with MKs having individual autonomy and most important votes being decided by rabbis. The two parties did split in 2004 but reunited in 2005. While the Shas have shifted to the right on Arab-Israeli/Palestinian issues, UTJ has maintained a position of neutrality (status-quo) on the issue and it has retained its exclusive focus on religious issues. Like the Shas, UTJ defines Israel as a Jewish state, believes that religious law should take supremacy over democratic values, supports gender segregation in public transit, opposes opening businesses on the Sabbath and opposes any changes to the ultra-orthodox exemption from military service.
UTJ and Shas, evidently, are strongest in cities and towns with large Haredim populations. This is the case in Jerusalem, where UTJ topped the poll in 2006 and where they won 19% in 2009 (and the Shas won 15%). UTJ is very strong in Bnei Brak, a heavily Haredim town near Tel Aviv.
There is a new religious party in this election, Am Shalem, a Shas splinter led by ex-Shas MK Haim Amsalem. The party appears slightly less ultra-orthodox, supporting “religious-secular unity”. It says that it supports the ‘separation of religion from politics’ and calls on all citizens to share the ‘national burden’ of serving in the IDF. It has maintained ambiguous silence on the Palestinian question, though Amsalem claimed that he was in the ‘middle’ on those issues but stressed that his emphasis was on religious and domestic issues. It has focused most of its attacks on the Shas, notably accusing it of corruption.
The Shas and UTJ are both identified as the ‘religious right’ parties in Israel. Given their very conservative positions on religious issues, they have often been lumped into the larger ‘far-right’ category by observers. However, given that Israel’s left-right spectrum is largely defined by the Palestinian question rather than economic or moral/religious issues, it might not be very accurate to consider these two parties, especially UTJ, as far-right. The Israeli far-right is formed by The Jewish Home and the National Union parties, which are running a common list in these elections, unlike in 2009.
The Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) was founded in 2008 and it is the successor of the National Religious Party (NRP, Mafdal). The NRP was founded in 1956 and represented the Religious Zionist/National Religious movement, a conservative strand of Judaism (often similar in their faith to some orthodox Jews) which strongly supported Zionism. The movement’s founder, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, attempted to reconcile Zionism (a largely secular and socialist ideology) with religion. Kook argued that Zionism was also a tool of God to promote His divine scheme and to initiate the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. God wanted the Jews to return to Israel and establish a sovereign Jewish state where they could follow Jewish religious teachings. The NRP was born as a fairly moderate party interested in its religious issues, and its pragmatism on other issues allowed it to participate in every government between its foundation and 1992 (and between 1998 and 2005). However, after 1967, the NRP had a very marked shift to the right coinciding with a “messianic revival” spawned by Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. The NRP and Religious Zionism became very closely linked to the settlement movement in the West Bank, and the party was at times described as the political arm of the settlers’ movement.
The National Union, founded in 1999, is an alliance of four far-right parties: Moledet (supports a voluntary population transfer to establish Jordan as the Palestinian state, Israeli annexation of the territories), Hatikva (secular), Eretz Yisrael Shelanu (linked to the Kahanist movement) and Tkuma. The NU has always been a shaky political coalition, with parties coming and going (Lieberman’s YB was originally part of the NU). They have been held together by their vociferous opposition to any independent Palestinian state within the “Land of Israel” (Israel and the Palestinian territories), and their very strong support and links to the West Bank (and, formerly, Gaza) settlements. In 2008, the NU and NRP united to merge into a single party, Jewish Home. However, the new party was quickly dominated by the NRP, with most of the top spots on the party’s list going to the NRP. Moledet and Hatikva revived the NU, and were later joined by Eretz Yisrael Shelanu and MK Uri Ariel (ex-Tkuma). The NU, which is very closely tied with the settlements, won many settlements in the West Bank (which it calls Judea and Samaria) in 2009.
Naftali Bennett, the son of American Jewish immigrants and a former high-tech tycoon and entrepreneur, won the Jewish Home leadership primaries in November 2012 with 67% of the vote. Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff between 2006 and 2008, and between 2010 and 2012 he was the director general of the Yesha Council, an organization of municipal councils of West Bank settlements. In 2011, he founded, alongside Ayelet Shaked, the ‘My Israel’ organization, a right-wing organization aimed at fighting “left-wing elites” or “anti-Zionist” sentiment.
The JH is far less ambiguous than Netanyahu on the issue of Arab-Israeli relations or Palestinian negotiations. It naturally strongly opposes any evacuation or dismantlement of West Bank settlements or a partition of Jerusalem. But it is also unequivocally opposed to a Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Bennett supports the direct Israeli annexation of Area C of the West Bank (the zone under Israeli control according to Oslo-II, where most settlements are located). Palestinians could retain municipal autonomy under tight Israeli tutelage within their islands of control. This is more or less a “one-state solution”, but unlike one-staters on the left, the far-right’s one-state vision seeks to uphold Jewish hegemony and protect Israel as a Jewish state. According to the party, “Jordan, which accounts for 75% of the Palestinian population, is the Palestinian state”.
On religious issues, the Jewish Home (and the NRP before it) is generally conservative, though unlike the ultra-orthodox parties it does not support a theocratic state, instead supporting a “Jewish and democratic” state. The party’s platform says that it will “fight for the Jewish identity of the state on every level” and opposes any attempts to “damage religious legislation”. However, the party wants to name religious Zionist rabbis to the chief rabbinate, to take control of that institution from the ultra-orthodox. Bennett has appealed to religious communities, but Ayelet Shaked, the 36-year old co-founder of My Israel, is a secular young woman (a big deal in a party such as the JH/NRP) whose comments hinting in favour of civil marriage sparked a row with the ultra-orthodox parties (particularly Shas), which have violently denounced the party for its alleged secularism. The party also wants to simplify the conversion process. On economic issues, the JH is right-wing.
Otzma LeYisrael (Strong Israel) is a new far-right party, even further to the right than the JH. It was founded by two NU MKs, Aryeh Eldad (Hatikva) and Michael Ben-Ari (Eretz Yisrael Shelanu). Ben-Ari still openly defines himself as a Kahanist, the extremist movement which has been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries. Like the JH, it strongly opposes any Palestinian state or settlement freeze or evacuation. The party has been accused of race-baiting against the Arab Israeli minorities. One of its billboard ads was banned by the Central Elections Committee on the ground thats it was racist, in a TV ad the party’s two leaders spoke in Arabic and warned that “without duties there are no rights”.
In the centre, Kadima (Forward) was founded by Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after his unilateral disengagement plan had created a major crisis within the Likud. Sharon had been something of a maverick within the Likud, because of his weak ties to the Revisionist Zionist ideology (he was originally a member of the left-wing Mapai) and his more moderate positions within the party. The party was launched by Sharon in November 2005, and was immediately joined by a good number of Sharon supporters within the Likud (Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert) but also Shimon Peres, a former Labour Prime Minister. However, Sharon suffered a stroke in December 2005 and another massive stroke in January 2006 which left him debilitated. It was Ehud Olmert who led the party to victory in the 2006 elections and became Prime Minister, the first non-Labour or non-Likud member to hold that office. Olmert was unpopular as Prime Minister, because of constant corruption allegations (he was finally indicted in 2009 and convicted of ‘breach of trust’ in 2012) and the summer 2006 war in southern Lebanon, described as disastrous in Israel. The right also opposed his peace talks with the Palestinians. He stepped down as leader in July 2008. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, narrowly won the leadership battle against Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister and former IDF chief of staff. Livni’s Kadima actually won one more seat than the Likud in the 2009 elections, but Likud formed government because of its better relations with right-wing parties. Her mediocre performance as opposition leader led to a leadership challenge in March 2012, in which Shaul Mofaz handily defeated her.
Shaul Mofaz had pledged during the leadership campaign that he would not join a government headed by Netanyahu. In May 2012, as the country was set for new elections in September 2012, Kadima and Mofaz agreed to join the government and the elections were cancelled. The issue which precipitated Kadima’s surprise decision to join the coalition was the Tal Law (the law which allows Haredi to indefinitely defer their national service), Kadima (and YB) had attempted to amend the law. In July, however, Mofaz quit the coalition, citing the failure of the parties to reach a compromise on the Tal issue. Mofaz’s decision to join the government after being adamant a few months before that he would not seriously hurt his image and popularity. He has also been painted as something of a lightweight.
Sharon supported the old ‘Road Map for peace’ and Kadima supports a two-state solution, even if it supports maintaining large legal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and supports Israeli control over Jerusalem. The Israeli ‘centre’ has usually been more supportive than the right of an independent Palestinian state and the two-state solution, however, it has always taken a tough stance against Palestinian terrorism and insists that dismantling Palestinian militant/terrorist groups should be the first steps in negotiations towards a two-state solution. The party’s platform says it will ensure the safety of Israelis against terrorist organizations.
On domestic issues, Kadima has been concerned by the growing divide between the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) sector and other Israelis, and it has sought to bridge this gap. It is secular on religious questions, notably opposing the current military service exemption for ultra-orthodox Jews or supporting civil marriage. It has described its vision of Israel as being a “Jewish and democratic state”. On economic issues, the party is centrist: it supports the market economy but also wants to increase social security benefits, fix the public housing problem and raise taxes on the highest earners.
Hatnuah (The Movement) was created in late November 2012 by Tzipi Livni, the former Kadima leader defeated by Shaul Mofaz in the party’s March 2012 leadership election. 7 Kadima MKs, not including Livni who had resigned from the Knesset, joined the party. It was later joined by two Labour leaders: Amram Mitzna (2002-2003) and Amir Peretz (2005-2007), both of whom are known as ‘doves’ on the Palestinian question.
The party has placed a large emphasis on the Palestinian question in this election, Livni has stated that the existence of a “Jewish, democratic state” is threatened by the lack of progress on peace agreements with Palestinians and the Arab world. She has criticized Netanyahu’s record on the issue, attracting attention to his government’s inability to defeat Hamas and its international PR defeat in 2012 when Palestine was recognized by the UN as a non-member observer state. Hatnuah strongly supports a two-state solution and it is open to freezing construction of new West Bank settlements. Livni was one of the few non-Arab Israeli politicians who strongly opposed the government’s citizenship-loyalty law (requiring non-citizens to take an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state), passed in 2010. On religious matters, it is strongly secular.
To add to the pathological division of the centre, there is a new centrist party in 2013: Yesh Atid (There is a Future). Yesh Atid was founded in January 2012 by Yair Lapid, a popular journalist and the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the former leader of the extinct anti-clerical liberal Shinui party. Built on the ruins of the once-mighty Shinui, Yesh Atid has placed its emphasis on secularism (civil marriage, extending the draft to all Israelis, gender equality) and domestic priorities (economic growth, combating red tape, reducing cost of living and housing costs) rather than the Palestinian question. It has also adopted an anti-corruption agenda, including a smaller cabinet (18 members), protecting judicial powers and independence and protecting the rule of law.
The party has not placed much emphasis on the Palestinian question during the campaign. While Yesh Atid supports a two-state solution, it is strongly opposed evacuating settlements in exchange for peace and it has pledged to meet Palestinian militancy with a forceful military response. Recently, Lapid said that he did not think that Arabs wanted peace and that he wanted to “be rid of them” and “put a tall fence between us and them”, in order to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel.
The centrist parties have been stronger with secular and more middle-class Ashkenazi Jews, in central Israel. Kadima won 34% in Tel Aviv in 2009 against only 19% for Likud, performing well in affluent and secular north Tel Aviv.
The traditional party of the left in Israel is the Labour Party (HaAvoda). The current party was founded in 1968, but seen as the latest incarnation of the Labour Zionist movement, its power and influence predates the establishment of the state of Israel. At the outset, the Zionist movement was largely dominated by a secular and socialist Ashkenazi elite which placed great emphasis on Jews moving to Israel to become farmers, workers, and soldiers. They established cooperative agricultural communities, the kibbutzim. The early leaders of Israel, first and foremost David Ben-Gurion, all came from this Labour Zionist tradition. Some more left-wing and radical members of the movement were Marxist, but Ben-Gurion – representative of the ‘right-wing’ of the movement – was a non-Marxist socialist. Labour and its predecessors (most importantly the Mapai) were the dominant political party in the new Israeli state between 1949 and 1977, when Begin’s Likud defeated the Alignment (the coalition in which Labour was the largest bloc).
The party lost its dominant position in Israeli politics after its defeat in 1977 election, even though it returned to power in 1984 (a grand coalition with Likud), in 1992 under Yitzhak Rabin (until his assassination in 1995) and Shimon Peres and again between 1999 and 2001 with Ehud Barak. Barak won the 1999 prime ministerial election and formed a large coalition, including religious parties, which pushed a dovish agenda and supported peace talks with the Palestinians. However, the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit and the start of the Second Intifada in 2001 led Barak to call special prime ministerial elections in 2001, in which he was badly defeated by Likud’s Ariel Sharon. It remained in government because the divided Knesset forced Sharon to form a grand coalition. However, in the 2003 elections, Labor was routed, winning only 19 seats. It briefly joined Sharon’s coalition in 2005, to bolster support for his disengagement plan.
In 2005, Amir Peretz, a trade union leader identified with the dovish left-wing of the party became the party’s leader. Under Peretz’s leadership, which sought to move the party to the left and reemphasize its traditional socialist policies, the party had a brief upturn, winning 19 seats in the 2006 election. However, when Peretz and his party joined Olmert’s government, the party lost popularity. Peretz became defense minister and his handling of the Lebanon conflict in 2006 was criticized. On his left, his decision to take the defense portfolio rather than the finance portfolio (where he could have pushed for social policies) was criticized. In 2007, he placed third in a leadership election won by Ehud Barak, who had become more hawkish. The party was decimated again in 2009, winning fourth place and a mere 13 seats. Barak pushed Labor to remain in government under Netanyahu and Barak still claimed the defense portfolio. In 2011, internal opposition to Barak’s leadership led to Barak leaving the party with 4 other MKs to form the ‘Independence’ party, a ‘centrist and Zionist’ party. Independence (and Barak) is not running in this election.
Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist, became leader of the party in 2011. Described as a staunch social democrat, she is on the left of the party and has placed emphasis on domestic policies. There were large ‘social justice’ protests in Israel in 2011 and 2012, a largely middle-class and urban movement which targeted the high cost of living (particularly housing), high prices, low wages and the deterioration of public services. Yachimovich moved the party in the direction of the protest movement, criticizing the government’s economic policies, accusing them of hurting the middle class.
Historically a more hawkish party, Labour has become a much more dovish party in the past decades. Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin actively pushed for a peace deal with the Palestinians, signing the Oslo Accords. While he was Prime Minister, Ehud Barak also unsuccessfully tried to revive the moribund peace process. It supports the two-state solution, a peace deal which it claims will ensure the safety of Israeli citizens. It supports Israeli sovereignty over large settlement blocs in the West Bank, but it would transfer settlements which are not part of large blocs to Palestine. The Israeli left has traditionally backed the ‘land for peace’ vision of negotiations. It supports the targeted killings of Palestinian terrorist leaders.
The Labour Zionist tradition is strongly secular. The Labour Party has retained this character, though it wishes to maintain (albeit limit) the current ultra-orthodox exemption from the draft and defines Israel as a Jewish state.
Over its history, the Labour Party played a large role in the establishment of a modern welfare state in Israel. However, the party nevertheless slowly drifted to the right in its economic policies in the 1980s, a shift which contributed to the party’s decline and current problems. Under Amir Peretz and, seemingly, now with Yachimovich, the party has sought to reclaim lost ground on the left by adopting more left-wing economic policies. It supports “renewing” the social welfare model, strengthening the public service, halting the privatization process and increasing taxes on high earners. It claims that reducing inequalities is its priority.
The founders of the Labour Zionist movement and the Labour Party were overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, and these Jews of European (including eastern European) origin formed the political and economic elite in Israel after 1949. The party never placed much effort in reaching out to lower-income and more religious immigrant groups (Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, later Russian Jews), in fact the Ashkenazi elite often discriminated against these new Jewish immigrant communities, creating a feeling of marginalization and exclusion against which the party has always struggled. Its weak support with these right-leaning demographics are a major problem, which led to its 1977 defeat and its subsequent decline. The party has not really been able to shake off its association with the Ashkenazi middle-classes, and its urban support remains strongest in middle-class (often Ashkenazi) areas, notably northern Tel Aviv. The Labour Party is also dominant in most non-religious kibbutzim, they won 31% in the kibbutzim in 2009, though this was a low figure in part because of left-wing tactical voting for Kadima (they won 31% on the kibbutz). In past years, the party had very strong support with Arab Israelis, but in recent years, it has lost most of its Arab vote to the Arab parties.
Meretz (Energy), founded in 1992, is the most left-wing Jewish party in Israel. It was originally a coalition between three parties, Ratz, Mapam and Shinui. The Mapam, founded in 1948, represented the Marxist current within Labour Zionism and originally had pro-Soviet positions. It was a member of the Alignment coalition between 1965 and 1984. Ratz was founded in 1973 by an Alignment MK who opposed the occupation of the Palestinian territories and called for a peace settlement with the PLO. The party won 12 seats in the 1992 election, and joined Rabin’s Labour-led coalition. The party’s strength has since declined considerably, falling from 10 seats in 1999 to 5 seats in 2003 (following the Second Intifada) and only 3 seats in the 2009 election (hurt by strategic voting on the left for Kadima against Likud). The party’s electoral weakness in the twenty-first century has been attributed to low and declining Jewish interest for the left-wing peace settlement in the face of renewed Palestinian violence and a further polarization of the conflict.
The party, naturally, supports a two-state solution. It has based its peace plan on the Geneva Accord, under which the Palestinian state’s borders would be close to that of the 1967 line and which would have East Jerusalem as its capital. Meretz supports an end to the Israeli occupation and an evacuation of the West Bank settlements and returning the Golan Heights to Syria. It recognizes that terrorism which harms innocents is an obstacle to the peace process, but does not wish for the political agenda to be dictated by terrorists. Meretz is closely associated with the Israeli peace movement and human rights groups. Alongside Labour and the Shas, Meretz is one of the few Jewish Israeli parties which has made a serious attempt to reach out to Arab Israeli voters. In the past, Meretz had Arab MKs and it has Arab candidates on its list.
On religious issues, the party is strongly secular and it is the most socially liberal party in Israel. It is closely associated with LGBT rights (it supports gay marriage) and women’s rights, and wants to enact a basic law on freedom of religion which will guarantee “freedom of religion and freedom from religion”. It also emphasizes a liberal and secular public education system. The party is quite left-wing on economic issues, supporting state intervention in the economy to ensure a social safety net or raising capital gains tax.
Meretz performs well in secular, young and artsy areas (downtown Tel Aviv) but is also quite strong in some secular kibbutzim, where they won 18% overall in 2009.
There are four major “Arab parties” which represents the Arab Israeli minority in Israel. The Arab minority accounts for 20% of the country’s population. They form a majority of the population in the Northern Region of Israel, there is also a substantial Bedouin population in the Negev and an Arab minority in Jaffa (Tel Aviv). Most Arab citizens of Israel will self-identify as Palestinians, though Negev Bedouins are more susceptible to define themselves as Israeli. Most Arab citizens of Israel are Muslim, but there is a substantial Arab Christian and Druze minority (around 9% of the Arab population each). Most Druze will not self-identify as Palestinian, and many Druze politicians are members of ‘Jewish’ parties, including right-wing parties such as Likud or YB. Arab Israelis are a growing minority, their high birth rates poses, according to the Jewish rate, a major demographic threat because they could form a majority of the population as early as 2035. Current statistics do not confirm this “demographic threat”. Most Arab Israelis support Palestinian nationalism, but it is questionable if they would move to Palestine if an independent state is created.
The Arab minority is a hot topic in Israel. Many Arab Israelis feel marginalized, sidelined or discriminated against by the Jewish majority in Israel, a sentiment which has increased considerably since the Al-Aqsa Intifada at the turn of the century. There are large disparities in general living standard and education between Israeli Arabs and the non-Arab Israeli population. In addition, more and more Arab Israelis are withdrawing from participating in Israeli politics, turnout dropped from 75% in 1999 to only 53% in 2009 and it may be even lower this year. In the past, a substantial number of Arab voters backed Jewish parties. In prime ministerial elections in the 1990s and 2001, they overwhelmingly backed the Labour candidates (Peres in 1996, Barak in 1999 and 2001 – despite very low turnout in 2001); Labour has traditionally performed well with Arab voters, though it has lost most of this support. There are currently 17 Arab members in the Knesset, including 6 Druze. 11 of these 17 members represent Arab Israeli parties.
There have been attempts to ban the Arab parties from participating in Israeli elections, most recently in 2009 when the electoral commission disqualified some of them (on the grounds that they did not recognize the State of Israel), but the courts overturned this decision.
The United Arab List (Ra’am), founded in 1996 and led by Ibrahim Sarsur, is running in coalition with Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al (Arab Renewal Movement), as it has since 2006. The UAL split recently, when Taleb el-Sana of the Arab Democratic Party left the coalition. The dominant force in the UAL is Sarsur’s southern (less radical) branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a conservative Islamist organization. While the other Arab parties are secular, the UAL is a fairly religious party. The party’s rhetoric includes numerous references to the need to establish an Islamic Caliphate over (seemingly) the whole of Israel. The UAL does not support the separation of religion and politics, in contrast to the other Arab parties, especially Hadash and Balad. In the short term, the party’s immediate goal is to “preserve the Arab existence in the country” (their national and religious identity) and “to protect the holy places”.
The party’s core base lies with Bedouins in the Negev. According to Ha’aretz, the UAL won 80% of Bedouin vote in the 2009 election. It is also strong in poorer Arab cities and town, including the impoverished city of Kafr Qasim.
The UAL has been allied with Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al party since 2006, and they are forming a common slate again. The party is more secular than the UAL. One of the few major ideological differences that I can spot with Hadash and Balad is that Tibi objects to the redefinition of Israel as a state “for all its citizens” (it is currently defined as a “Jewish and democratic state”, which Tibi argues is a contradiction and that both cannot coexist), he would redefine it as a state “for all its nationalities” to protect the collective rights of the Arab minority and prevent a uniformization of the state along individual lines.
Hadash (The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality or New) is actually a bi-confessional left-wing alliance which has some Jewish voters and has a Jewish MK (Dov Khenin), but because most its voters and members are Arabs, it is labelled – somewhat erroneously – as an ‘Arab party’. The largest faction within the party is Maki, the Israeli Communist Party. The current Communist Party was founded in 1965 as Rakah, led by the pro-Palestinian and pro-Moscow faction of the old Maki. The party has always been non-Zionist, keeping in line with Marxism’s opposition to nationalism. However, the party has shifted towards Palestinian-Arab nationalism, leading some left-wing critics to say that it had lost its left-wing social agenda in favour of Palestinian nationalism.
Hadash is strongest in the largest Arab cities and with Arabs in northern Israel (perhaps because the northern Islamic Movement boycotts elections, unlike the southern wing which forms the UAL). It won 54% in Umm al-Fahm, the largest Arab city; and 52% in Nazareth, another large Arab city in the north with a large Christian majority (Jesus’ birthplace being a communist stronghold is quite amusing). Most Arab Christians seem to vote for Hadash.
Balad (National Democratic Assembly), the smallest Arab party, is hard to pin down. It is similar to Hadash, and generally leans to the left; but it is an Arab nationalist party which at one point was close to the Ba’athist ideology and Syria. It also openly expressed support for Hezbollah. Some years ago, Balad tried its hand at a short-lived reincarnation as a liberal party, it has since returned to a pan-Arabist and anti-Zionist orientation.
One Balad MK, Haneen Zoabi (the first Arab woman MK) is quite controversial; a Likud MK attempted to disqualify her from running for reelection this year. She participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla and has been a very loud critic of the Israeli state, branding most Jewish Israeli politicians as ‘fascists’.
All Arab parties support Palestinian independence and the two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders, the complete evacuation of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian control over East Jerusalem and returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Hadash is usually moderate in its advocacy of the Palestinian cause, while Balad often tends to be considerably more radical in its support for Palestinian nationalism. The UAL couches its support for the Palestinian cause in religious language.
All the parties seek full equality for Israel’s Arab minority, and disagree with the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. The Arab parties been particularly critical of the Israeli state and successive governments; they have often criticized the human rights abuses in Israeli military actions against Gaza. The Arab parties have often branded Israel a ‘racist’ state and vocally criticized policies and laws which they viewed as blatantly discriminatory against Arabs. Balad and Hadash wish to redefine Israel as a state “for all its citizens”, irrespective of ethnic or national identity, with Balad supporting cultural autonomy for Arab Israelis while Hadash wants to eliminate all forms of ethnic discrimination. In addition, all Arab parties strongly oppose extending the military draft to Arab Israelis. As it currently stands, the Israeli government does not actively seek to draft Arab Israelis (besides the Druze and some Bedouins) into the IDF, more or less exempting them. The debate over the Tal Law, however, led to some on the right raising the question of extending the draft to Arabs as well.
Campaign, Polls and Cabinets
Final polls ranges from January 17-18 [current seats at dissolution].
Likud Yisrael Beiteinu 32-37 seats 
Labour (HaAvoda) 15-17 seats 
Jewish Home-National Union 12-15 seats 
Shas 10-12 seats 
Yesh Atid 8-13 seats 
Hatnuah 5-8 seats 
Meretz 5-7 seats 
United Torah Judaism 5-6 seats 
Hadash 4-5 seats 
United Arab List-Ta’al 3-4 seats 
Balad 3-4 seats 
Kadima 2-3 seats 
Otzma LeYisrael 0 or 2 seats 
Am Shalem 0 or 1 seat 
More likely than not, Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to form government and win another term as Prime Minister of Israeli. Right-wing, far-right and religious parties will run away with the election on Tuesday January 22.
However, Netanyahu’s Likud-YB coalition is unlikely to receive a very strong mandate or win an overwhelming victory. In fact, while it will certainly win some 32 to 35 seats, this result will be quite underwhelming considering the combined strength of the Netanyahu-Lieberman bloc at dissolution (they held 42 seats). By allying with Lieberman, Netanyahu had hoped to secure his right flank, after the success of Likud hardliners in his party’s internal primary. By allying with Netanyahu, Lieberman aimed to eventually succeed Netanyahu as the leader of the Israeli right and Prime Minister. It seems like neither Netanyahu or Lieberman will be successful in their objectives. Lieberman was indicted for breach of trust and fraud, which led to his resignation as deputy PM and foreign minister the next day. Additionally, it appears as if Lieberman might have cooled on the idea of working with Likud and an actual merger of the two parties seems to be off the table for now.
Lieberman’s political star rose during the 2009 election, and he gained significant political clout within Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition after the 2009 election. Now, deep in a major corruption scandal, his immediate political outlook is quite bleak. The hardline right in Israel no longer has Lieberman as its leader and icon. This means that he was unable to shore up Netanyahu’s right flank.
Netanyahu had hoped to win a strong mandate by fudging the hawk-dove/left-right divide, he was happier to talk about the economy. He argues that his economic policies have meant that Israel is in far better state than other OECD economies in the current global economic crisis. Labour’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich, was also quite happy with such a strategy. As Labour leader, she has placed a big emphasis on economic and social issues, trying to attach her party to the goals of the 2011 social justice protests and attacking Netanyahu primarily over his economic policies. She cautioned doves within her party to be too vocal in their positions or to speak ill of West Bank settlers, which she sought to appeal to. Her focus on economics and social matters rather than the old hawk-dove battle alienated prominent doves within her party, most notably two of her predecessors: Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, who opted to join Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah because Yachimovich had not talked enough about peace (while Livni, positioning herself to the left of Labour on the peace issue, made peace one of the cornerstones of her campaign).
The idea, ostensibly supported by both Netanyahu and Yachimovich, was that Labour and Yachimovich would join a moderated and more centrist second Netanyahu cabinet after the elections, with Yachimovich as his finance minister or perhaps foreign minister or defense minister.
This strategy backfired on Netanyahu, who failed to dominate the Likud primaries and got overwhelmed by a right-wing tidal wive. As noted above, several prominent hardliners – most notably Netanyahu’s right-wing rival Moshe Feiglin – won high spots on the Likud-YB list and spoke openly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in rallies. But this right-wing tidal wave was not only confined to his party. It saw the rapid emergence of a new hardline right-wing icon, Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home.
Bennett’s position on the Palestinian question is unequivocal. He opposes any Palestinian state and he will fight to make sure that there is never a Palestinian state. He wants to unilaterally annex 60% of the West Bank and place the remaining Palestinian towns under Israeli military security. He openly says that there will never a peace deal with the Arabs. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s position is far more ambiguous. In 2009, at Bar-Ilan University, he ostensibly endorsed the two-state solution though he has done nothing to follow through. The Bar-Ilan speech was viewed as a betrayal by many hardliners on the right, including many within his own party. Bennett’s clear and unequivocal positions on the Palestinian question is very popular with hardliners on the right, be they secular and cosmopolitan or religious Zionist (like his party in the past) settlers in the West Bank.
Naftali Bennett’s profile and biography is very appealing to many right-wing voters, who have grown even more wary of any negotiated settlement with the Palestinian and whose opposition to a Palestinian state has been reinforced in recent years (in part because the chaotic post-Arab Spring situation in Egypt or the civil war in Syria). His cosmopolitan lifestyle and culture and his past as a start-up software entrepreneur and successful businessman appeals to more secular right-wing Jews living outside the settlements. At the same time, Bennett is also quite religious, lives on a settlement in the West Bank and wears a small knitted kippa (like most religious Zionists). He can also appeal quite successfully to the religious Zionist sector, who make up a large portion of the West Bank settlers.
His strategy is very ambitious. In the past, the Israeli hard right was left divided because of its internal squabbles and the longstanding enmity between very religious and more secular Jews. Bennett’s strategy is to build a broad right-wing nationalist (hardline) alliance, which goes beyond the old religious/non-religious divide on the far-right. Bennett’s appeal to the Haredim might be limited, but the rising force in Israeli politics and society are the religious Zionists, who dominate settler politics and are ambitiously trying to strengthen their role and voice in Israeli politics. To appeal to the religious sentiments on the Israeli hard right, there are several religious figures (tied to religious Zionism) on his lists. Religious Zionists still make up a large majority of the party’s electorate. On the other hand, Bennett is a new kind of leader for the hard right, with an unusual youthful cosmopolitanism and business profile which could appeal to more secular but still very right-wing Jews, in the coastal plain or outside the settlements. His close ally, who is fifth on the list, Ayelet Shaked, reflects this desire to appeal to a secular demographic.
Bennett’s rise scares Netanyahu, the Likud and even the Shas. Netanyahu stepped up his attacks on Bennett, but they do not seem to have worked. The Likud-YB bloc lost many of its more nationalist and right-wing voters to Bennett. The Shas recently lashed out at Bennett over religious matters, they might feel that the power and influence of the Haredi bloc might be weakened following the election. The religious Zionists’ goal since the the late 1980s has been to ‘penetrate’ the political and business world, Bennett’s religious platform seeks to strengthen the place of the religious Zionist movement within the Jewish religious hierarchy in Israel.
Bennett’s party could win between 12 and 15, likely closer to 14-15. It would be a very strong result for the party, obviously. This reflects the strength of the right in Israeli politics. While Israel, between 1949 and 1967, was dominated by a secular and socialist Zionist elite which cared little about religious matters (but, for political reasons, conceded religious matters to religious authorities); today, the religious sectors of Jewish Israeli society are gaining prominence, power and influence. The religious Zionists have been at the forefront of this power shift, which began with Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Netanyahu will win the next election, but with a disappointing result. He will have to deal with a much stronger hardline right, which will exert significant pressure on him to lead a more right-wing agenda. The Likud-YB’s caucus after the election will have been pushed further to the right, with the entrance of new (or the reelection of older) ‘hardliners’ and right-wingers,including Moshe Feiglin. Just like the Tea Party movement forced the GOP leadership in the United States to shift to the right, the hardliners within Likud-YB (and Bennett’s troops in the JH-NU) will insist that Netanyahy acknowledges their power and presence within the Israeli right.
Cabinet formation is a long, difficult and tortuous process in Israel. Small parties try to extract concessions from the largest party and impose their conditions on them. The next cabinet will most likely have a distinctively right-wing flavour to it. The old idea that Netanyahu would seek to bolster his moderate credentials by forming a coalition with Labour and Shelly Yachimovich has fallen through. The radicalization of the campaign on the hawk/dove battle forced her to come out tough saying she’d either be Prime Minister or in opposition. Given that Labour will not finish first, she will be in opposition.
A Likud-YB-Haredi coalition (more or less the outgoing coalition) on its own will probably come about 10 seats short of the 61 seats needed for a (bare) majority. Yeir Lapid, the leader of the secular centre-right Yesh Atid, has said that he would be open to participating in a Netanyahu cabinet to ‘moderate’ it and limit the influence of the religious parties. He is not as militantly secular/anti-clerical as Shinui was, so there appears to be little issue for him to be in coalition with the Shas and UTJ. A Likud-YB-Haredi-Lapid coalition would probably come out with a tiny majority. Hatnuah has not closed the door on participating in government either, but it could be hard for Netanyahu backed by a very right-wing caucus to find enough common ground with the increasingly dovish Livni (who was very critical of Netanyahu during the campaign, if such things matter) to form a government.
Could Bennett’s JH-NU enter government? The Jewish Home is currently a small junior partner in the Netanyahu coalition, but the JH-NU will be much different after January 22. Naftali Bennett (and Ayelet Shaked) both worked under Netanyahu when the Likud was in the opposition to Olmert, but they both suddenly resigned – most likely after a spat with Netanyahu’s powerful but unpopular wife Sara (described by some as similar to Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan). Bennett nevertheless hopes to gain a spot in the leadership, it seems. This long article (a must read) on him and the Israeli right ended with a comment from Bennett: ” ‘The best analogy is that Bibi is the bus driver with two hands on the wheel,” Bennett said. “I want to put a third hand on the wheel.’ ” Such a coalition would certainly be very right-wing, and exert considerable pressure on Netanyahu to move further to the right on the Palestinian issue, even at risk of clashing with the US.
Israel is a major geopolitical hotspot, and it will always remain one. As such, the 2013 elections in Israel are quite important and may hold high stakes. A further shift to the right in Israel could have repercussions both inside and outside Israel’s borders.
Israeli politics is a very hot topic, which many feel quite passionately about. There is much sensationalism, knee-jerk responses, and misrepresentations on both sides of this inflammatory topic; it is an issue where it is quite hard to strike a neutral tone which tries to depict the various opinions of the various actors, Jewish or Muslim, fairly and accurately. I hope that this article provided a neutral, fair and accurate description of Israel’s various parties and complex politics, as well as the stakes of the 2013 election.
The first round of direct presidential elections were held in the Czech Republic on January 11-12, 2013 with a runoff scheduled for January 25-26. The President serves a five-year term, renewable once. Although often described as a ceremonial head of state, in contrast to the Austrian and Hungarian presidents, the Czech President does have a few significant powers. The President has veto power over legislation, although the legislature can override a veto. The President also appoints judges to the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, may dissolve the Chamber of Deputies under certain circumstances and has shared authority with the Prime Minister over foreign policy, the use of the military, the appointment of lower court judges, and the granting of amnesty.
Until 2012, the President was elected indirectly by the members of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate through a convoluted and overly complex process. This electoral process, as in 2003 and 2008, was marred by allegations of backroom deals between parties/politicians and corruption. The 2008 presidential election was quite controversial, and led to the reform of the system. Since a reform last year, the President is directly elected to serve a two-year term. Some have criticized this reform, saying that the direct election of the President would strengthen his power and weaken parliament (the country is a parliamentary republic).
Since the fall of communism and the Velvet Divorce in 1993, two very forceful and imposing personalities have held the presidency. Václav Havel, the playwright and leading opponent of the communist regime, served until 2003. Havel was widely respected at home and abroad for his work in establishing democracy in his country. He was succeeded in 2003 by Václav Klaus, who had served as Prime Minister between 1992 and 1997 and founded the ruling conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS). In contrast to the widely respected Havel, Klaus is a far more controversial figure known for his outspoken opposition to the European Union and his skepticism of man-made climate change. He took strong stances against the European Union, which often irritated his European neighbors. Klaus was critical of the Lisbon Treaty and was reluctant to sign it, although he ultimately did. In recent years, Klaus has clashed with the governing centre-right coalition, even though it is led by the ODS.
The current government is led by Prime Minister Petr Nečas (ODS). Nečas’ cabinet is patchy and has been living on the edge since April 2012. One of his junior partners, the gadfly Public Affairs (VV) party was kicked out of the coalition (but some VV deputies stayed in government, forming a new party, LIDEM). The government lacks a coherent absolute majority in the lower house.
The government has implemented stringent austerity measures, including cutting investment, public spending and raising taxes. These austerity policies decreased public demand and led to a double-dip recession. The country’s economy shrunk by around 1% in 2012. However, the country’s deficit has been getting smaller: 3.2% of the GDP in 2011, down from 5.8% of the GDP in 2009. The cabinet is dead-set on getting the deficit below the EU’s 3% limit, it has recently introduced a bill to raise the VAT by 1% and raise taxes for high earners. Austerity has been unpopular with voters, and hurt the ODS and its allies in regional and senatorial elections in October 2012. But neither the ODS nor the inept opposition ČSSD (social democrats) are popular with voters. Elected on a platform of cracking down on corruption, Nečas’ cabinet has done – more or less – the opposite. Corruption is prevalent both within the governing parties and the opposition ČSSD, and voters are disgusted by corrupt politicians and the backroom deals which dominate the unstable parliamentary politics.
In early November 2012, the government survived a backbench revolt led by six ODS MPs who disagreed with the cabinet’s decision to raise the VAT by 1%. In somewhat obscure circumstances, the government was able to convince most of the rebels to back down: two supported it, three members resigned rather than voting on the confidence motion (they were replaced by the next-in-line candidates on the ODS’ 2010 list) and one left the party. The government survived, 101-93. The government could face another confidence vote in the next few days, following Klaus’ controversial decision to pardon over 6000 prisoners and cancel all court proceedings which had been ongoing for over eight years.
Presidential candidates needed the signatures of 50,000 citizens or the support of 20 deputies or 10 Senators. There were nine candidates, including some colourful personalities. The governing ODS nominated Přemysl Sobotka, a senator and former president of the Senate. The ČSSD nominated Jiří Dienstbier Jr., also a senator and the son of a noted dissident. However, both of these candidates had a tough time appealing to many voters in a crowded field and against some colourful personalities.
The frontrunners in the campaign were Jan Fischer and Miloš Zeman. Fischer is a statistician who was head of the Czech Statistical Office until he became a caretaker Prime Minister for a year between 2009 and 2010, after Mirek Topolánek’s cabinet collapsed. Fischer was a popular and competent Prime Minister. His candidacy received the support of Prague’s business community, which is often considered a mixed blessing for Czech politicians given the close links between big business and some politicians. He was also criticized for having been a member of the Communist Party between 1981 and 1990, but like many Czechs he defended himself by saying that membership in the ruling party was the only way for apolitical civil servants and academics like him to maintain employment. Fischer’s campaign was generally pro-European and pro-business, but his campaign was fairly colourless.
In stark contrast to the mild-mannered and technocratic Fischer, Miloš Zeman is a brash and sharp-elbowed old politico who has a reputation for abrasiveness and rudeness. Zeman was the leader of the ČSSD in the 1990s and was behind the party’s rise to power. Zeman’s ČSSD won the 1998 election and he became Prime Minister, after signing an “opposition agreement” with Václav Klaus’ ODS. The ODS provided Zeman’s cabinet with confidence and supply, in return the ODS received high-profile positions in the public sector. This opposition agreement between the two major parties in the country is often viewed as the symbol for the proximity between the two parties, despite their apparent opposition to one another. Zeman served as Prime Minister until 2001. In 2003, he tried to run for President but, having alienated members of his own party, he did not do as well as expected. Zeman remained in the party, but increasingly clashed with the ČSSD’s leadership. Following a dispute with then-leader Jiří Paroubek in 2007, Zeman quit the party. Emerging from retirement in 2010, he founded his own party, the Party of Civic Rights (SPOZ). Zeman is a colourful figure, known for his sharp and often insulting wit, and his controversial views. Like Klaus, he is skeptical of man-made climate change. In 2011, Zeman commented that Islam was the ‘enemy’ and likened Muslims who believe in the Qur’an to anti-Semitic and racist Nazis. While Fischer is a very popular figure, well regarded by most voters; Zeman is a far more controversial and divisive figure. He is well liked by older voters outside of Prague, but many others dislike him. Outgoing President Václav Klaus supported Zeman.
Zeman was widely regarded to have won a final debate, and eclipsed Fischer, the original front-runner in the polls. One of the candidates who benefited from Fischer’s fall was Karel Schwarzenberg, the incumbent foreign minister and the candidate of the pro-European centre-right TOP 09. Schwarzenberg is a wealthy Bohemian prince, known for his sharp appearance. He grew up in Austria and was active in Austrian conservative politics during the Cold War, but he returned to Czechoslovakia when the regime fell and was a close friend and collaborator of Václav Havel. He was foreign minister between 2007 and 2009, nominated by the Green Party, and again since 2010. He is one of the leading founders of TOP 09.
One candidate, Vladimír Franz, attracted international attention for his unusual appearance. An artist, opera composer and university professor, Franz’s body is entirely tattooed. An outsider candidate, his vague anti-corruption and pro-education platform appealed to many younger voters who are tired of the country’s corrupt and ever-bickering ruling elites. He surged to 11% support in the last opinion poll.
Other candidates included MEP Zuzana Roithová, nominated by the KDU-ČSL; Táňa Fischerová, an actress and former MP (2002-2006) for a small pro-European liberal party; and Jana Bobošíková, a former Eurosceptic MEP.
Turnout was 61.31%, a bit below the turnout in the 2010 general election. This turnout seems a bit low, given that the campaign had apparently excited and motivated many voters, leading some to predict 70% turnout. The Communist Party (KSČM) did not nominate a candidate of its own and was split between Zeman and Dienstbier. Judging from the low turnout in the KSČM’s strongest regions, it appears as if many of its voters did not turn out. The results were as follows:
Miloš Zeman (SPOZ) 24.21%
Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP 09) 23.40%
Jan Fischer (Ind) 16.35%
Jiří Dienstbier Jr. (ČSSD) 16.12%
Vladimír Franz (Ind) 6.84%
Zuzana Roithová (KDU-ČSL) 4.95%
Táňa Fischerová (Ind) 3.23%
Přemysl Sobotka (ODS) 2.46%
Jana Bobošíková (Suverenita) 2.39%
As expected, former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman (SPOZ) placed first and qualified for the runoff. The surprise came from the runner-up, foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who won 23.4% and qualified for the runoff, distancing Jan Fischer, the vaguely centre-right independent who was the original front-runner and still widely expected to qualify for the runoff even if his candidacy had lost speed following the final debate.
Fischer’s support base was likely quite soft, made up in large part of urban middle-classes and pro-business centre-right voters whose early support for Fischer might have had more to do with their distaste for the polarizing Miloš Zeman. Fairly bland and colourless despite his widespread popularity with the electorate, Fischer’s support fell apart following the last debate. Many of his supporters, if my assessment of his original support is correct, preferred Karel Schwarzenberg, who had been gaining ground in the polls throughout the campaign. After all, Fischer and Schwarzenberg are fairly ideologically similar.
The other, smaller, surprise came from the ČSSD’s candidate, Jiří Dienstbier, who had been polling in the low teens for most of the campaign. He outperformed most of his polling results, taking 16.1%. I’m not sure what explains his late mini-surge in support. On the other hand, the candidate of the other traditional party – the ODS – did horribly. Přemysl Sobotka won only 2.5% of the votes! Certainly the unpopularity of the current government did not help him, and Sobotka was a largely unknown candidate in a field of heavyweights.
Vladimír Franz did not do as well as some had thought he would. His support had apparently increased to 11% in the last polls, but he came out from the first round in fifth place with only 6.8% of the vote. It should not be surprising that his potential support turned out to be quite soft. During the campaign, his pro-education and anti-corruption stance appealed to many apathetic younger voters. They probably did not turn out for him in the end.
Schwarzenberg, unsurprisingly, did best in Prague (43.2%) and its suburbs, which form his party’s traditional base (educated upper middle-classes). Broadly, his support reflected that of the right, with strong results in urban areas and in the wealthier rural areas of Bohemia. The ODS’ pathetic support was spread equally, at low levels, throughout the country. On the other hand, Zeman’s support closely reflected that of the left. He performed well in Moravia, where the ČSSD is usually stronger, and in the Ore Mountains region of Bohemia (Ústí nad Labem and Karlovy Vary regions). Somewhat surprisingly, Dienstbier’s support does not seem to have closely reflected that of his party in general elections. Certainly somebody who knows more about Czech electoral geography would be able to draw better conclusions out of the general map and each candidate’s regional support.
The runoff, two weeks from now, will oppose Zeman and Schwarzenberg – broadly speaking, the left and right (which is what Zeman is now seeking to present the runoff as). There were no runoff polls before the first round, meaning that at this early stage, we can only rely on hypotheses. Zeman is a divisive and polarizing figure, who may have a strong lingering base of support but who might have trouble winning 50+1 in a runoff election. Schwarzenberg is a less polarizing figure than Zeman, meaning that he could be in a stronger position to win in the runoff. Though I don’t know if such factors could come into play, Schwarzenberg could be perceived as having a more ‘presidential’ image than Zeman, and his foreign policy credentials as well as his ties to the late Václav Havel could come in useful. One would think that Fischer’s support will flow to Schwarzenberg while Dienstbier’s voters will prefer Zeman. Regardless of the winner, the Czech Republic will have a colourful head of state for the next five years.
Another year over, opening the door to another year of (hopefully) exciting and significant elections around the world. As in the past two years, to set the stage for the next twelve months, I preview the most important elections to look forward to in 2013. As in past years, there will be some snap elections which we will not have seen coming, and other elections which will turn out to be less important or interesting than originally assumed. In the coming months, you can expect almost every single one of these elections to be covered in some level of detail on this blog.
Canada (BC, Nova Scotia, federal Liberal leadership): No federal elections in Canada this year, but the stage will be set for the 2015 federal election with the election of a new leader for the Liberal Party, Canada’s traditional governing party which collapsed to third place in the last election. Federal Liberals will finally be electing a permanent leader in April. The runaway favourite is Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Justin Trudeau is seen by most Liberals as the solution to all their woes, and the promise for a quick return to official opposition or even government in 2015. His candidacy is naturally buoyed by strings of ‘Trudeau polling’ which show the federal Liberals, led by Trudeau, in first place ahead of Prime Minister Harper’s Tories and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP. If Trudeau prevails as expected, it remains to be seen if this honeymoon with Canadians will last and if he will be able to salvage the Liberal vessel from capsizing. In the provinces, British Columbia and Nova Scotia will vote in 2013, and in both cases the incumbent governments – Christy Clark’s Liberals and Darrell Dexter’s NDP respectively – face an uphill challenge to win reelection. Both of their parties are currently down in the polls, with the official opposition parties (BC NDP, NS Liberals) holding the advantage. Most also assume that there will be a provincial election in Ontario, after the governing Liberals elect – on January 26 – a successor to retiring Premier Dalton McGuinty. A new Liberal Premier might alter the playing field considerably, but as of now they remain in a precarious position though with polls still indicating a close three-way contest with the PCs and NDP, they would have a chance at holding power.
Ecuador: President Rafael Correa, a prominent left-wing populist aligned with Chávez, the Castros and Morales, will almost certainly win another term in office on February. Correa, who like Chávez has created wide-reaching social programs with oil money, remains very popular in Ecuador. Correa is an ambitious figure whose political career is still fairly young. Progressively, he has built up his own stature and image on the world stage – recently with the Julian Assange asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London – and he is clearly aiming to replace Chávez and take the leadership of the South American left/ALBA. His main rival this year is Guillermo Lasso, a right-wing businessman. He also faces two perennial opponents; former President Lucio Gutiérrez (elected on the left, governed on the right between 2003 and 2005), an indigenous Ecuadorian; and Alvaro Noboa, a wealthy right-wing tycoon who lost the 2006 runoff election to Correa.
Paraguay: After nearly a year of political uncertainty following the controversial impeachment of President Fernando Lugo in June 2012, Paraguay will hold general elections on April 21. Lugo, the first leftist President in the country’s history, was impeached by Congress in June 2012 – in a controversial move denounced as a coup by Lugo and Paraguay’s main neighbors – and replaced with Vice President Federico Franco. Ineligible to run for office himself this year, Franco proved surprisingly successful and efficient despite the odds – in contrast to Lugo, who was seen by most as ineffectual. Already, Franco made progress on agrarian reform, expanding education in rural areas and won passage of the country’s first income tax. However, it is uncertain if Franco’s Liberal Party (PLRA) will hold the presidency. The favourite is Horacio Cortes, a wealthy businessman and the candidate of the right-wing Colorado Party, which ruled the country between 1948 and 2008. The left is divided between two candidates, while controversial populist General Lino Oviedo, a former strongman who almost staged a coup in the 90s, is running again (he placed third in 2008).
Chile: The first round of presidential elections will be held in Chile in 2013. President Sebastián Piñera, the first centre-right president since Pinochet’s regime fell, cannot run again. He leaves office rather unpopular, rattled by big student protests and unpopular decisions. Fancying a return to power, the heterogeneous centre-left Concertación, unwilling to confront its internal problems, has been playing a game of wait-and-see until former President Michelle Bachelet (PS), Piñera’s predecessor who left office with sky-high approval ratings, decides whether or not she wants to run for another term. Bachelet remains very popular and would be the favourite to return to power. If she does not run, the opposition does have other fairly strong candidates but no clear frontrunners. On the right, public works (former mines and energy) minister Laurence Golborne – an independent who became very popular following the rescue of the 33 miners trapped underground in August 2010 – would be the strongest candidate for the governing centre-right coalition, though still at a deficit against Bachelet.
Venezuela (potential): Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was reelected in October 2012, but his cancer returned in December and he has since been out of the country for treatment in Cuba. Few details are leaked of his actual condition, but Chávez appears to be in bad shape. He was unable to return home for his scheduled inauguration on January 10, an inauguration which has been controversially delayed. It is unsure whether Chávez will ever be able to return home. If Chávez was to die this year, new presidential elections would be held within 30 days of his death. The present situation has created a constitutional crisis, with the opposition claiming that Chávez has not been inaugurated, hence his anointed successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, has no constitutional right to take power temporarily if he was to die. The constitution says that if there was an ‘absolute absence’ of a president-elect (who is not inaugurated), the president of the National Assembly (in this case Diosdado Cabello) would become the interim president until elections are held within 30 days. The most likely scenario in the event of Chávez’s death in 2013 would be that Nicolás Maduro becomes interim President and elections are held within 30 days. Chávez appointed Nicolás Maduro, his foreign minister who is well regarded in Havana, as his successor (Vice President) in October, sidelining Diosdado Cabello, the president of the legislature who is well connected to the military. By officially placing Maduro as his heir, Chávez might have prevented a succession crisis. Cabello insists that he stands behind Maduro, though the opposition claims there is still an internal power struggle between the two men.
In the case of a snap election, Maduro would be the favourite and benefit from the very short campaign. The opposition’s frontrunner would likely be Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda who lost to Chávez in October but ran a tough and spirited campaign. However, the opposition lost badly in regional elections back in December (though Capriles won reelection in Miranda) and Maduro would likely benefit from a wave of sympathy for the late President, who is still quite popular with most Venezuelans. Undoubtedly, Chávez’s death would mark the end of an era in Venezuela. The various factions (including the military) which he had held together might disintegrate into a power struggle, while the genuine popular appeal of chavismo might fall apart under a less charismatic figure like Maduro. Simply put, can chavismo survive without Chávez?
Italy: Undoubtedly, the Italian general election on February 24-25 will be one of the most important and significant elections of 2013. As local and regional elections in 2012 hinted at, Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011 has triggered the start of a major realignment in Italian politics, comparable to the last major upheaval in Italian politics in 1994. The left-wing opposition, dominated by the rather heterogeneous and often hapless Democratic Party (PD), remains the favourite in these elections. The PD’s coalition includes Nichi Vendola’s left-wing Left Ecology and Freedom (SEL). Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the PD, emerged victorious in a left-wing primary in November-December, defeating the young mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who had run on a more centrist and ‘outsider’ platform. If the PD-led coalition wins in February, it is guaranteed a majority in the lower house because of the national majority bonus, but it is unclear whether it would have a majority in the Senate, where the bonus operates at the regional level.
Silvio Berlusconi is attempting yet another political comeback after his reinvention as a populist, who criticizes Angela Merkel, the EU and austerity. Berlusconi is finally running, after coming in and out of retirement so many times over the past few months, but he is not running to be Prime Minister – or so he claims. Berlusconi has managed to forge a coalition with his party, the PdL, but also the Lega Nord – which has opposed Monti’s cabinet (while the PdL had been forced to back it until December) and has been through a tough spell after corruption allegations forced its historic leader, Umberto Bossi, to resign. Relations between Berlusconi and the LN had turned sour, but both parties seem to agree that the writing is on the wall for them. Berlusconi may be running again, but he is on his way out. His departure from the political scene, which may not come as quickly as some think but which will ultimately come, will usher in a major realignment on the right, which since 1994 had been structured around his unique personality.
Realizing this fact, the centre/centre-right has sought, since 2010 or so, to take the leadership of the post-Berlusconian right in Italy. The creation of a ‘Third Pole’ around Casini’s UDC and Gianfranco Fini’s FLI (created in 2010 from a split in the PdL led by Fini, the former leader of the post-fascist AN and a former ally of Berlusconi) in 2010-2011 went nowhere. These parties were the strongest supporters of Mario Monti’s government since 2011, and had attempted to get Monti himself to run in an election as their leader. Finally, after the PdL withdrew its support and forced Monti to resign last month, Monti agreed to the idea and he will now lead the centre-right coalition, on a pro-European and pro-austerity ‘Monti agenda’ which is backed by the Catholic Church and the European centre-right (notably Merkel). Monti claims he is a liberal reformer, beyond left and right, but his clear goal – and that of his partisan allies – is to recreate the First Republic’s DC.
This interesting election is made all the more interesting and uncertain with the presence of Beppe Grillo, a former comedian who is now the leader of the M5S. The M5S is a populist, militantly anti-system and anti-establishment party which attacks austerity, taxes, the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the Italian political class and the political system. It grew quickly in 2012, largely on the ruins of the PdL and the Lega, and even if it is not polling as high as before, it remains likely to win over 10% and have a major impact on Italian politics. The 2013 elections in Italy, 19 years after the ultimate collapse of the First Republic, might see the collapse of the Second Republic and the dawn of a new political system dramatically different from the old.
Germany: Federal elections will be held in Germany in September. Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to remain in power, but it is extremely unlikely that she will be able to renew her coalition with the liberal FDP. Merkel herself is very popular, and some of that popularity has worn off on her party, the CDU. Her position is strengthened by Germany’s relatively good economic performance in the context of a continent in crisis, and many Germans credit her for keeping Germany in the clear during the crisis. However, the liberal FDP’s stint in cabinet since the 2009 federal election has been disastrous for the party, which has seen its popularity plummet because of poor leaders, scandals and unpopular decisions by its government ministers. The FDP is now fighting to clear the 5% threshold to retain its seats in the Bundestag, with polls consistently showing the FDP – which won 14.6% in 2009 – at 2-4% in polls. On the left, the Social Democrats (SPD) are doing only marginally better than in 2009 – a disaster for them – and they will not be helped by their chancellor-candidate, Peer Steinbrück, who has already shown that he suffers from an acute case of foot-in-mouth disease. The Greens are polling better than what they won in 2009, though they have come down to earth after their 2010-2011 surge to unprecedented heights. The SPD-Greens, along with the Left Party, do not appear to have sufficient support to form a left-wing coalition after September. Late 2011-2012 in German politics was marked by the Pirate wave, which saw the Pirate Party surge to over 10% nationally. This bizarre surge has since fallen back, the Pirates are unlikely to enter the Bundestag in September. The most likely option remains a new Grand Coalition between Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the SPD, or a black-green (CDU/Green) coalition; in both cases the CDU would be by far the strongest partner, it could possibly win over 40% in September.
Austria: Federal elections will also be held in Austria by September. The SPÖVP Grand Coalition is, for a change, rather unpopular, but it could remain in power after these elections. For some time early last year, it appeared as if Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ could win the elections, fresh from his success in state elections in Vienna in 2011. However, the FPÖ has been badly hurt by controversies and major corruption scandals, which have brought them down to the low 20s at best. Part of the story in these elections will be a new party, Team Stronach, a populist right-wing party led by Austrian-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach (the father of a former Canadian Liberal MP) which is just getting off the ground. Benefiting from its novelty and its populist right-wing platform (anti-euro, flat tax but not anti-immigration), the party is in a strong position to benefit from the FPÖ’s recent troubles and the collapse of the late Jorg Haider’s BZÖ (which will likely lose all seats this year). The Greens should also do well. State election in Haider and the far-right’s backyard, Carinthia, in March will prove interesting as while. Following Haider’s death, the state and federal BZÖ split, with governor Gerhard Dörfler and the state BZÖ aligning with Strache’s federal FPÖ (under the name FPK) while the federal BZÖ took a new right-liberal course. Dörfler’s administration and other parties in the state have been tarred by a major corruption case, this might help the Greens and Stronach’s party.
Norway: September, again, will prove busy in Europe: Norway will hold legislative elections on September 9. As things stand, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s left-wing coalition led by the Labour Party (Ap) will likely be defeated by the disparate right, in opposition since 2005. Stoltenberg’s popularity boomed in 2011 right after the tragic Utøya attacks, but the government has since become very unpopular because of alleged inefficiency, blunders and scandals. Last fall, a parliamentary report about the Utøya attacks concluded that Anders Breivik could have been stopped from carrying out the massacre. The government’s unpopularity has particularly hurt Ap’s two smaller coalition partners, the agrarian Centre (Sp) and the Socialist Left (SV) – the latter could now fall below the 4% threshold and be left with only a single seat. The opposition parties have a 20 point lead over the governing coalition, and would win a very substantial majority. The formation of a right-wing government is made easier by the strong standing of the Conservative Party (H), which is outpolling the Ap and consistently polling over 30%. In contrast, Siv Jensen’s right-populist/far-right Progress Party (Frp), hurt by a sex scandal and Utøya in 2011, is now a distant second on the right (unlike in 2009 when it was the strongest right-wing party) and is polling roughly 17%, down from 23% in 2009. Frp supported without participating in the last right-wing coalition between 2001 and 2005, but the Frp now says that it would not support a government in which it does not participate. Two smaller members of the opposition bloc, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, are hostile to Frp’s cabinet participation although H is more amenable to it. It remains to be seen, if the right wins in September, whether or not Frp will be allowed to participate in a governing coalition and, if not, if the Conservatives and their smaller moderate allies can govern with Frp’s external backing.
Middle East and Africa
Israel: Knesset elections will be held on January 22 in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will quite certainly emerge victorious, boosted by his party’s electoral alliance with Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party. The centrist and left-wing opposition to the dominant right remains, as ever, divided and fractured between various party. Labor, led by Shelly Yachimovich, will make some solid gains and likely place second, benefiting from the 2011 social justice protests. Kadima, the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon in 2006, now led by Shaul Mofaz, will probably lose all its seat (21 as of dissolution). Mofaz defeated Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in a primary in 2012, and Livni has now started her own party (The Movement), which has received the backing of former Labor leader Amir Peretz. It could win upwards of 10 seats. Another centrist secular party, Yesh Atid, led by journalist Yair Lapid, will likely win around 10 seats as well. Facing such a divided opposition, Netanyahu will win and will remain as Prime Minister, probably under a new coalition which is either oriented towards the centre or towards the right and religious parties. Netanyahu’s result, however, may end up slightly underwhelming. The main winner, in fact, could be the far-right Jewish Home/National Union, two parties which are extremely hawkish and the most supportive of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Led by the charismatic self-made businessman Naftali Bennett, the two parties – which have managed to transcend some of the religious cleavages which have divided the far-right in Israel – could win, give or take, 15 seats (they hold 5 as of dissolution). Israeli public opinion remains firmly on the right, though with contradictory views: most support a two-state solution and the expansion of Israeli settlements.
Kenya: General elections will be held in Kenya on March 3, notably to elect a successor to President Mwai Kibaki, who has held office since December 2002. The last elections in Kenya, in 2007, resulted in an outburst of ethnically charged violence after Kibaki’s rival, Raila Odinga, refused to recognize his narrow (official) defeat. The violence, which notably opposed Kibaki’s ethnic Kikuyu to Odinga’s Luo supporters, killed over 1,500 and displaced over 300k people. A tense compromise was found whereby Odinga would serve as Prime Minister under Kibaki. A new constitution adopted in 2010 changed the electoral system and created a upper house. The President will now be elected in a two-round election. Odinga is running again, and would seem to be the early favourite. Recent polling, however, has hinted that Uhuru Kenyatta – the son of the country’s first President and a Kikuyu – has made gains. Kenyatta’s victory could turn Kenya into an international pariah state, given that both he and his running-mate (William Ruto) have been indicted for inciting violence following the 2007 election. The eventual winner will face the heavy task of preventing another descent into ethnic violence.
Zimbabwe: Will there be presidential elections in Zimbabwe this year? The consensus seems to be that there will be general elections on March 31, and Zimbabwe’s longtime strongman, President Robert Mugabe, will run for another five-year term. However, a constitution which was supposed to be ready in time for the elections is being held up and the process is stalled. In the 2008 elections, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC) actually beat Mugabe in the first round but then withdrew from the runoff on the grounds that it would not be fre and fair. Following the election, the regional community imposed a power-sharing national unity government between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai’s MDC. The influx of foreign aid following the deal and the adoption of the US dollar significantly improved the country’s economic situation. But Mugabe does not care much for power-sharing and openly seeks to rid himself of the MDC as soon as possible. The MDC likes the new constitution, but the ZANU-PF would prefer to fight this election under the old one, which affords it much more leeway to control the election’s outcome. The result of the next election and its impact on Zimbabwe’s political situation (which is also marked by the question of Mugabe’s eventual succession) is quite uncertain. Polls indicate that the ZANU-PF might have regained popularity recently and Mugabe remains in a good position to defeat Tsvangirai, although Tsvangirai remains popular.
Egypt: Egypt’s post-revolutionary future will take another step in April 2013 with new legislative elections. The legislature elected in 2011-2012 was dissolved by the courts in June 2012, which ruled that the elections had been unconstitutional and one-third of seats were filled ‘illegitimately’. This decision was followed by a presidential election in which Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood (MB)’s party (FJP), was victorious. In December, a new constitution controversial for its religious content and concessions to the military, was approved in a low-turnout referendum. Morsi’s decision to grab more powers for his presidential office was met with renewed violence and demonstrations by opponents, largely secular liberals, in Cairo. This chain of events has forced the secular opposition to unite, under the auspices of a National Salvation Front led by Mohammed El-Baradei and Amr Moussa. However, the opposition remains divided between these secular liberals and the felools, supporters of Hosni Mubarak’s old regime. The felools, who, with Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik had placed second behind Morsi in the presidential race, have formed their own coalition and will probably find stronger support than they had in the first general elections in 2011-2012. Morsi’s governing FJP, the MB’s party, won a solid plurality in the general elections in 2011-2012, but their popularity has declined since then, rendering the outcome of this election more uncertain. The performance of the very conservative Salafists, whose Al-Nour Party had placed second in 2011-2012, will also be worth tracking.
Tunisia: Direct presidential and parliamentary elections are due to be held in June in Tunisia, following the ratification of a new constitution in February. In contrast to Egypt, the constitutional process has been less controversial and less acrimonious. The governing coalition, led by the Islamist Ennahda Party, is conciliatory and accommodating in its relations with its secular junior partners and has steered clear of religious controversy in the constitution. Tunisia still faces major economic and fiscal problems, and issues such as youth unemployment persist. These problems have weakened Ennahda, which won 37% in the October 2011 constituent elections, polls now show it slightly weaker. In the presidential election, polls have indicated a close race. Béji Caïd Essebsi, the interim Prime Minister after Ben Ali’s fall, is narrowly ahead. Essebsi has created a strong opposition party, the(Call of Tunisia which includes secular liberals, leftists and former Ben Ali supporters. Incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, the leader of the secular CPR, trails, as does Prime Minister Hamdi Jebbali (Ennahda).
Lebanon: General elections are due to be held before July in Lebanon. Lebanese politics are extremely complex and I won’t pretend that I can even begin to fully understand them, luckily this old post on another blog provides a good base. When that post was written, a fractious and ineffective pro-western and anti-Syrian coalition led by Saad Hariri had been chased out of office by the opposition, which installed Najib Mikati as Prime Minister. Hariri, the son of a prominent anti-Syrian Sunni politician assasinated in 2005 (leading to a mass anti-Syrian movement which forced Syria’s military to leave Lebanon), led the March 14 Alliance – a fractious and fragile alliance of Sunni and Christian (often hardline Christian) parties. Mikati’s governing coalition, styled the March 8 Alliance is an equally fragile multiconfessional alliance of Christian parties (Michel Aoun’s FPM) and Shiite parties, most notably Hezbollah, the militia-party branded as a terrorist organization by the west and Israel and which enjoys close ties with Syria and Iran. Hezbollah holds 12 seats in Lebanon’s 128 seat Parliament. Since 2011, Lebanese politics have been influenced by the civil war next door in Syria. Lebanon has feared that the violence in Syria would spill across the border, and to a certain extent it has. In October 2012, a senior policeman known for his opposition to the Syrian regime, was killed in Beirut. The March 14 bloc blamed Syria and Hezbollah for the attack. The upcoming elections will likely be influenced by the bloody conflict in Syria and its impact on Lebanon. Lebanese politics are still heavily marked by sectarianism, but voting outside of sectarian boundaries is increasingly common. In addition to a highly diverse and fractious array of parties who may abandon alliances very quickly, this renders the outcome of the upcoming election quite uncertain.
Pakistan: General elections will be held before March in Pakistan. Pakistan has been in a democratic transition since the 2008 elections, and the subsequent resignation of military ruler Pervez Musharraf. There seems to have been laudable progress towards democratization since then, notably with the 18th amendment in 2010 which significantly strengthened the parliament and the Prime Minister’s powers over those of the President. However, the democratization process remains quite fragile and very messy, with the state/legislators, the activist judiciary and the military all tussling for power. In June, the activist courts ousted Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani after he had refused to write a letter to Swiss authorities to open an investigation into a money laundering case involving his boss and the President, Asif Ali Zardari. The ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) nominated Raja Pervez Ashraf to replace him. The incumbent administration, led by the PPP, is fairly unpopular. Some of the problems faced by the administration have included deeply ingrained corruption, nepotism, feudal politics, terrorism, religious radicalism, political violence (notably in Karachi), floods, a weak economy/stagflation and electricity shortages in Punjab.
The PPP, ostensibly left of centre but primarily the Bhutto/Zardari family party with close ties to the Sindhi landed elite, faces a strong challenge in this election. Its traditional rival is the PML-N, a more conservative party led by Nawaz Sharif and closely linked to the feudal lords of northern Punjab. Sharif is a former Prime Minister who had opposed Musharraf’s rule, and still maintains difficult relations with the powerful military. There is, however, a new figure in these elections – Imran Khan, a former cricket player who has been in politics for some 15 years (but always got humiliated in elections). The leader of the nationalist and vaguely centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Khan has seen his popularity and his party’s membership numbers surge in the past few months. He is anti-corruption, and fairly anti-American – notably in opposition to American drone strikes in the mountains of northwestern Pakistan. The military appears suspicious of him, as do the traditional political elites, but Khan would not have gotten this far without gaining some elite support – he got the support of a few influential landlords, some technocrats and members of the PML-Q (a faction of the PML which supported Musharraf and has been left in a pitiful state since Musharraf’s fall). These elections could mark an important step in Pakistan’s messy transition to democracy, perhaps witnessing a peaceful and orderly transition of power from a democratically elected government to another (it would be a first).
Nepal: The Nepalese monarchy collapsed following street protests in 2006 and was abolished after a Constituent Assembly (CA) was elected in 2008. A ten-year Maoist insurrection between 1996 and 2006 claimed over 16,000 lives, which, combined with the King’s autocratic tendencies, led to the fall of the monarchy. The Maoists, converted to the virtues of liberal democracy, won a majority – but not an absolute majority in the CA back in 2008. They formed government, with their famed leader Prachanda becoming Prime Minister until he resigned in a row with the army and the ceremonial President in 2009. The CA had been tasked with writing up a constitution, and its mandate was originally supposed to end in May 2011 but it extended its mandate until May 2012. At that point, the courts ruled that a fifth extension of its mandate would be unconstitutional, so the CA was dissolved without it having been able to produce a constitution in four years. Originally supposed to be held in November, new elections should be held in April-May this year. In the meantime, Nepal faces a political crisis. The Maoist Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai, remains in charge, and so does the ceremonial President, Ram Baran Yadav – who is backed by the opposition parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). In 10 years of bloody conflict, the Maoists made many enemies and many question their true committment to democracy. Their opponents often contend that the Maoists would not hesitate to abandon the CA and take up arms again if things did not go their way. Now, however, the Maoists are actively pushing for new elections. The opposition seems more lukewarm at that prospect, which raises questions about how they would perform in new elections. The President has ceremonial powers, but Yadav has played a political rule – he was one of the main actors in Prachanda’s downfall in 2009 and rumours are that he might be trying to push the Maoist government out now.
One of the blockage points in the CA has been federalism. Nepal is a mosaic of languages, cultures, ethnic groups and castes; and Nepali politics have historically been led by the upper caste elites. Ethnic and linguistic minorities (such as the Madhesi people in the plains bordering India) and the lower castes formed the backbone of the Maoist rebellion and they are now demanding ‘ethnic federalism’. The Maoists, for self-interested reasons, support federalism; though the strongest proponents of ethnic federalism are Madhesi regional parties and other ethnic minority parties. In contrast, the NC and UML – two more elitist parties which formed the moderate left-wing opposition to the monarchy – strongly oppose ethnic federalism.
Iran: Iran, one of the if not the top geopolitical hotspot, holds crucial presidential elections on June 14. The President has considerably less powers than is usually assumed, most important powers are held by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative Islamist first elected in 2005 and reelected in the controversial circumstances we all know of in 2009, may not seek reelection. Following his reelection, Ahmadinejad, who had sought to strengthen his office, was engaged in a backdoor political struggle with Khamenei, who viewed disapprovingly of Ahmadinejad’s attempt to win more powers. Conservatives close to Khamenei won a majority of the seats in legislative elections last year. The election process is tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader and his allies (the Revolutionary Guard and Basij), meaning that candidates who do not fit the regime’s image or are not approved supporters of the Iranian leadership are not able to run. This will likely disqualify a lot of reformists, crushed and persecuted following the 2009 post-election protests. It could also disqualify or seriously hinder conservatives closer to Ahmadinejad. There is no clear favourite on the conservative side, but the main names including Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (a more moderate religious technocrat), parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani (a candidate in 2005), former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati (close to Khamenei), Khamenei loyalist Gholam Ali Haddad Adel and ultraconservative nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Ahmadinejad’s favourite would be his close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, but Mashaei is widely disliked by the leadership. There are rumours that the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, is thinking of running again and has been trying to soften his image with the regime leadership in order to do so. Iran’s next president may not be as powerful as most assume, but this election can have major repercussions for the region and the world.
Malaysia: A general election must be held in Malaysia before June 27, and it appears that Prime Minister Najib Razak will go for an election in March or April. The Barisan Nasional (BN), a coalition of parochial and sectarian racially-based parties led by the Malay nationalist UMNO, has won every election since 1957, often through vote rigging or using its built-in advantages in the Malaysian political system. In the last election, in 2008, however, the BN did historically poorly, losing its two-thirds majority in the legislature, while the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, a rag-tag three party coalition led by UMNO dissident Anwar Ibrahim, did very well. The BN’s 2008 disaster led to a coup and Najib’s accession. Najib styles himself as a modern, progressive reformer who has sought to downplay old ethnic tensions and moved to liberalize the economy and loosen some of the old restrictive security, censorship and university laws. Najib, however, similar to Gordon Brown in the UK, has dithered over calling an election to win a mandate and it now seems like he will pull his government to the last possible date for an election. Najib has strong approval ratings, but the BN government is considerably less popular. It appears as if this will be one of the most closely contested elections in Malaysian history, with an energized opposition within striking distance of power. It must gain another 30 seats, but these will be hard to find – given that many lie off the mainland in Sabah and Sarawak, two oil-rich states which are solid ‘vote reserves’ for the BN (with gerrymandered seats). The BN’s goal will be to win a two-thirds majority. It must pray that Najib’s own personality shines off on his government and the BN, which is not the case today.
Japan: The recent general elections in December 2012 in Japan saw the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Shinzo Abe, return to power with a crushing two-thirds majority. The very fickle Japanese electorate sought to punish the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which had defeated the LDP with a similarly massive mandate in 2009 (after the LDP had ruled since 1955 with one short interruption). A new nationalist party, the Japanese Restoration Party (JRP), almost won as many seats as the annihilated DPJ. Abe’s election could mean some significant changes in the region in the context of Japanese-Chinese tensions over the Senkaku islands. Abe and the LDP are mow hawkish and nationalistic than the DPJ and more likely to adopt a confrontational or assertive position against China. At home, Abe and his finance minister will seek to stimulate growth through public works stimulus spending and pressuring the Central Bank to further loosen monetary policy. Abe faces his first political test on July 11, when a third of the less powerful upper house (House of Councillors) is due to be renewed. The DPJ still holds a bare plurality there, meaning that it too has a lot to lose from these elections after 2012. Abe is still on honeymoon with the voters, but will Japan’s famously fickle voters stick with him until the summer and be amenable to voting for the LDP then? After all, the LDP did not win because voters liked it or its leader (in fact, the LDP’s popular vote was quite bad) but rather because they hated the DPJ. Similarly, how will the DPJ perform a few months after its December obliteration? Finally, how will the new JRP be able to perform? In part, the JRP’s large vote came from unhappy ex-DPJ voters who might now ‘return home’.
Maldives: The political climate in the beautiful collection of atolls in the Indian Ocean has been tense since President Mohamed Nasheed, a human rights activist who had become the first democratic President of the island country in 2008, was forced to resign after protests against his decision to arrest chief justice Abdulla Mohamed (Nasheed said Mohamed had failed to act impartially in cases dealing with criminals). Nasheed was replaced by his former deputy, Mohammed Waheed. Presidential elections will be held in July. Since Nasheed’s resignation, the political climate has been very acrimonious and marked by violence and death threats against legislators or activists. The new government, notably, has been accused of pushing a conservative Islamist agenda after Nasheed had led a surprisingly liberal secular agenda in the religious Muslim nation. Nasheed, who is wanted in court for arresting Mohamed, has claimed that he was removed from office by a coup. He is now running again. There is speculation that Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the country’s former autocratic president for 30 years before his defeat in 2008, will run as well.
Australia: Federal elections must be held in Australia before November 30, and it appears as if Prime Minister Julia Gillard will be going to the polls sometime in the fall. Gillard became Prime Minister in the summer of 2010 following an internal coup within the Labor Party (ALP) which toppled Kevin Rudd, who had led the ALP to victory over Prime Minister John Howard’s centre-right Coalition (including the Liberals and the National Party). She quickly tried to win a mandate on her own terms, but the August 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament with a Green MP and four independent MPs holding the balance of power. Gillard remained in office, striking a deal with the Green and three of the independents. Despite a tense relation with the Greens, this Parliament will have lasted its full term. Gillard has struggled since taking office, with most polls showing the Coalition ahead of the ALP. The optics of coming to office as a result of an internal coup orchestrated by the ALP’s infamous factional bosses did not help matters. The deal with the Green forced her to ‘renege’ on her vow to not introduce a carbon tax (as Rudd had attempted to do), a carbon tax was passed in late 2011. The Coalition pounded on this ‘broken promise’ and it would repeal it once it is elected. The government has also struggled with some scandals involving MPs and other issues.
The opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has been successful in his relentless attacks on the government’s unpopular decisions. A focus on unpopular decisions helped the Coalition defeated ALP governments in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, and Abbott is hoping to do the same this fall. However, the Coalition faces a problem. Abbott is highly unpopular, with dissatisfaction ratings at around 60%; in fact, he is more unpopular than Gillard and trails her on the “best PM” rankings. As the election draws nearer, the ALP have eaten into the Coalition’s support a bit and as the vote keeps getting closer, Abbott’s deficit on the best PM rankings could come back to haunt him. Gillard faces a tough race, but this election is not over yet.
Other important elections in 2013 to keep an eye out for include midterm elections in Argentina and the Philippines, a general election in Honduras, legislative elections in Iceland, Bulgaria and Albania, presidential elections in Georgia and Armenia and a new race for the leadership of the right-wing opposition UMP party in France.
With the major exceptions of Italy, Germany and Australia; there are few major national elections in either western Europe, North America or down under; but there are several interesting elections in geopolitical hotspots (Israel, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan) and key elections in countries which don’t often make headlines in the West (Malaysia, Nepal, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Paraguay). Which elections in 2013 are you looking forward to the most?
As in 2010 and 2011, I wrap up this year with a reflection on what were, in my subjective opinion, the top 10 most significant elections of the past twelve months. In 2010, the United States and the United Kingdom topped the list; in 2011, Egypt and Canada topped the list.
These rankings are all subjective and there many different criterion for establishing these rankings. As in my past two rankings, my primary benchmark was to what an extent any election could/would have an important effect on the short or long-term future of the country or, in rarer cases, their consequences on the broader region. I do not feel that an election is necessarily significant merely because an incumbent party or individual was tossed out of office, given that there is no shortage of such elections which turn out to be merely anti-incumbent mood swings which ultimately have only a limited long-term or even short-term impact on the country. Similarly, it is easy to label many elections as “realigning elections” at the spur of the moment, but real realigning elections – in my opinion – remain rare occurrences, occurring at most once every decade in most developed democracies. Most elections which we call realigning elections turn out to be deviating elections down the road.
Of course, not all elections (especially in the short time frame of 12 months) – far from it – can be said to have changed a country, therefore my secondary criteria was how ‘interesting’ any given election turned out to be. An election whose outcome was decided months in advance and whose actual results were only of limited interest to a foreign casual observer were not ‘interesting’, but elections – even if not all that significant – which were closely fought or whose results turned out to be surprising can count as ‘interesting’. However, being ‘interesting’ is not enough for any given election to be included in this ranking.
2012 was an exciting year for politics and elections. There were several major elections throughout the world, on every continent, which were all fairly significant or important to that country’s political future. There was President Obama’s reelection in the United States, President Sarkozy’s defeat at the hands of François Hollande in France, the election of a new President in post-revolutionary Egypt, the first free post-revolutionary elections in Libya, a inconclusive election with major swings in Greece followed by a second, conclusive elections, Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in Russia, President Wade’s defeat in Senegal, the election of a nationalist and pro-Russian President in Serbia, Hugo Chávez’s reelection in Venezuela, the defeat of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in Georgia, an election in the Netherlands with some interesting outcomes and the return to power of two historically dominant political behemoths in Mexico and Japan. Even sub-national elections in several countries proved quite important. In Canada, Alberta’s election results turned out to be a major surprise while Quebec voters returned the sovereigntist PQ to power; in Spain, the Basque nationalists returned to power while the governing Catalan nationalists saw their ambitious nationalist agenda backfire against them; in Italy local elections and a regional election in Sicily confirmed that the country, following Berlusconi’s resignation late last year, is in an exciting and fascinating state of political flux and in India, often ignored by western election coverage, the elections in Uttar Pradesh saw the defeat of Mayawati’s incumbent government.
As in 2010 and 2011, I have given priority to national elections but I have not sidelined sub-national elections. Individual by-elections were not taken into consideration.
Once again, establishing this subjective top 10 ranking was quite difficult. There were a lot of elections for which a very strong case could be made that they deserved inclusion on this list, but at the same time, relatively few elections clearly stood out as clear and indisputable contenders for the gold, silver and bronze medals on this podium. This ranking is subjective , it is based on my own personal opinions and evaluations on the importance of each election. I more than welcome debate, disagreements and alternative rankings.
1. Greece (both elections): Greece, with its economy teetering on the verge of collapse following a prolonged economic, fiscal and social crisis, had a political crisis on top on that in May. Legislative elections in May 2012 resulted in the phenomenal explosion of the Greek political system, meaning that no governing coalition could be form. New elections barely a month later did stabilize the political situation somewhat and allowed for the formation of a tenuous pro-austerity and pro-bailout coalition led by Antonis Samaras from the centre-right New Democracy (ND). What has happened in Greece since 2009/2010 has had a huge influence and significant ramifications on European and global politics. The Greek economic and debt crisis precipitated the economic and debt crises in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Greece has become ground-zero for EU/IMF-mandated austerity policies. The survival of the Eurozone and maybe even the entire post-war European project hinged and still hinge on Greece’s political and economic future. It is often rightfully said that Greece is a domino which, if it came to fall, would trigger the (at least partial) disintegration if not collapse of the Eurozone. This year’s two elections had very high stakes, not only for Greece but also for Europe. The inconclusive first election seriously worried Germany, the EU and investors because of the risk of a political crisis in Greece and the absence of a permanent government to tackle the crisis. The second election turned into a domestic referendum on austerity policies, and captivated Europe and the world because of the very high stakes.
The clear and polarized contest between the ‘pro-austerity’ option represented by Samaras’ ND and other parties (notably the old social democratic PASOK) and the left-wing ‘anti-austerity’ option represented, partially, by both Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA had clear implications for the rest of Europe. If SYRIZA had won, on its platform of scrapping austerity (but remaining in the Eurozone), Germany and the EU would have struggled to come to agreement with the new powers in Athens and it could have precipitated a “Grexit” (Greek exit from the Eurozone) and the unpredictable consequences of such an event for the Eurozone, the EU and the rest of the world. Even if Samaras’ ND won and cobbled together a more pro-austerity coalition palatable to Berlin, Brussels and the IMF; Greece is not out of the woods for that matter and it remains in a very precarious position.
From a more domestic standpoint, this year’s two elections in Greece might have signaled a fundamental realignment in Greek politics (realignments, in my book, are rare, so any realignment is definitely a big deal) even if the long-term future of Greek politics is conditioned by the future of the Greek economy. At least for now, the elections uprooted a solid, well-implanted and established political system structured around two parties close to one another in actual policies but separated by a deep enmity inherited from the past. The economic crisis also created a crisis of legitimacy for both of these parties (ND and PASOK), as evidenced by their catastrophic results in the ‘protest’ election in May (18.9% and 13.2% respectively) even if ND recovered in June (29.7%). The social disruption created by the economic crisis and the austerity policies led to a significant radicalization of political opinions on both the left and the right, a radicalization which benefited historically minor parties (SYRIZA, KKE at the outset), new parties (ANEL, DIMAR to a limited extent) or even old parties which had been irrelevant for decades (XA). The radicalization of political opinions as an effect of the economic crisis, the disintegration of traditional civil society and the major parties’ legitimacy crisis will have significant effects for Greece (and perhaps indirect effects or repercussions on other European countries in a similar situation) in the future.
The rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (XA) party, which held up its strong support (6.9%) in the second election despite wider coverage of its violent and racist antics, was another major result from the Greek elections. It is reflective of the radicalization of opinions on the right with the rise of strongly nationalist sentiments (as a result of bailouts and austerity policies ‘imposed’ from the outside, notably Germany) and the animosity towards immigrants (the scapegoats of the economic crisis). Today, about six months after XA maintained its initially strong showing in the June election, the neo-Nazi party is getting up to 14% in opinion polls. The rise of XA, combined with the replacement of the moderate PASOK by a more ‘radical’ left-wing option, has led to comparisons with the late Weimar Republic. Time will tell if this scary comparisons will be true, but there is a non-negligible risk for significant political chaos, if not outright violence, if the situation worsens.
2. Egypt: The Egyptian presidential in May and June 2012 will prove crucial to the future political evolution of Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster and the 2011 Revolution. The presidential election marked the transfer of power from the ruling military council (SCAF) to a directly-elected civilian President, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the ruling Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)/Muslim Brotherhood (MB); albeit in return for significant constitutional concessions to the military. Morsi’s election, the ratification in December 2012 of a new constitution with Islamic overtones and new parliamentary elections in early 2013 (after the elected lower house was dissolved by the courts in June) will signal a major political shift in Egypt both from the Mubarak regime (a secular authoritarian regime close to Washington) and SCAF. The new Islamic power in Egypt will usher in some major shifts in Cairo’s foreign policy, with talks of revising the peace treaty with Israel and signals of a rapprochement with groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. As a regional power and oftentimes a leader in the Arab World, Egypt’s evolution has a major effect on surrounding countries.
The election results, from a domestic political standpoint, revealed a post-revolutionary society divided between many political factions. Morsi’s Islamist (FJP/MB) current appears dominant, but the election showed the resurgence of the felools (supporters of the former regime) around Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister who won 48.3% in the runoff; but also a sizable ‘third pole’ around Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist Nasserist who rallied a fair share of young, more liberal voters. Post-revolutionary democratic consolidation will be difficult given that different sections of the Egyptian population are on different pages. Morsi and the MB hold the reins of power, and they appear to be in the drivers’ seat, having set their mark on the country’s new constitution and consolidating their hold on power thanks to a silent alliance with the military. However, Shafik’s strong support in the runoff (and, it should not be forgotten, Sabahi’s unexpectedly strong showing in the first round, just a few points behind Shafik) revealed that a significant number of Egyptians remain wary of the new Islamist power; either remaining nostalgic of or materially attached to the former regime (especially in the old regime’s strongholds in the Nile Delta) or supportive of a secular, more liberal political model (notably the Egyptian youth in urban areas, an often disunited but vocal group).
New elections in 2013 will mark another major step in the post-revolutionary process in Egypt. For the moment, Egypt remains a fragile country, which could fall back into authoritarian rule (Morsi has already shown authoritarian tendencies, with his decrees to strengthen his own power as President) or emerge as an imperfect democracy – though perhaps not of the kind the West and the United States would like it to be. Whatever happens, the 2012 presidential election in Egypt will likely have played a significant role.
3. United States: This year’s American election was nowhere near as significant as the 2008 or 2000 presidential elections. In fact, after an expensive, long-drawn, bitter and polarizing campaign the election more or less resulted in the continuation of the status-quo. While the American election was undeniably exciting and still quite significant, I don’t think that it deserved to top this ranking. President Obama’s reelection will have consequences for the United States and the world, but the Egyptian and Greek election – in my eyes – will prove even more significant not only for those countries in particular but for the world as well. Nevertheless, because the United States is the United States and its politics have a significant effect on the world, it must necessarily take a top spot in this ranking. Once again, the overall results of the American elections were not all that surprising (even if it was a close race) and the status quo ante with President Obama facing a divided Congress. Regardless of how it happened and whether or not voters actually voted for such a state of affairs, Obama will still be in a fairly precarious legislative position and gridlock between a Democratic White House/Senate and Republican House will continue.
Rather, the significance – in the long-term – of the 2012 election will be the generational and demographic shifts it could end up representing in American electoral politics. The 2012 election proved, perhaps even more than the 2008 election, the growing weight and political importance of ethnic minorities in American electoral politics. The African-American, Hispanic and Asian vote combined to account for an even larger share of the electorate than in any previous election (even 2008) and their support proved to be the key to Obama’s reelection and the Republican defeat (across the board). The US election also signaled an important generational shift (part of which should be ascribed solely to Obama’s unique appeal), with the growing political influence of Generations X and Y (the former emerging as the new political leaders, the latter emerging as an important electorate) and the waning influence of the Baby Boom generation. This generational shift has liberalized American society, as evidenced in November with the first electoral victories for gay marriage (in four states) and the legalization of marijuana (in two states).
4. France: Presidential elections in France on April 22 and May 6 saw incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy lose his bid for a second term in office to François Hollande, the unlikely Socialist Party (PS) candidate. Despite coming closer than anybody had predicted (48.4%), Sarkozy, who had been the underdog throughout the campaign, was unable to pull what would have been one of the most stunning political comebacks in recent years. The French campaign interested foreign journalists and observers, perhaps because Sarkozy had made a mark on the world stage with his policies or his style. However, the significance of the 2012 French election does not come from Sarkozy’s defeat. Thus far, Hollande’s policies have disappointed many of his supporters, many of whom feel that his policies do not differ much from Sarkozy’s policies (much reviled on the left since his election in 2007) – even on crucial economic and fiscal matters – and that his government has been amateurish and indecisive at best; incompetent at worst. Things may certainly change between now and the next election (in 2017), but less than a year after his election, Hollande and his Prime Minister’s approval ratings are down the drain (nearly 65% disapprove – even if a lot comes from the right and centre) – one of the most rapid and dramatic erosion in a French government’s popularity (in a country notorious for turning sour on its own electoral choices very quickly). Hollande’s election was due to fairly commonplace anti-incumbent sentiments, contemporary political conditions (Sarkozy’s policies, his style of governing etc) and the ephemeral appeal of anti-Sarkozysm.
The significance, rather, of the French election, therefore lies in results and lessons concealed by the overall result. The first result of significance from 2012, in my eyes, is the reemergence of the far-right with Marine Le Pen’s first round success (17.9%, an all-time high). This result is even more significant when one considers the dire straits in which the far-right (FN) were thrust in following her father’s disastrous result in the 2007 election and the Sarkozyst ‘suction’ of a good number of FN voters. The 2012 election showed the failure of Sarkozy’s attempt to do with the FN what Mitterrand had done to the Communists in the 1980s. Sarkozy’s strategy, pursued since 2005 and throughout his presidency after 2007, was to destroy the far-right; by sinking it electorally (which it managed to do not only in 2007 but also in 2009, when Sarkozy was already quite unpopular), taking up some of its historic themes (immigration, security) and acting on them and adopting a political rhetoric and style similar to the far-right’s traditional rhetoric. Sarkozy proved unable to recognize the danger which Marine Le Pen, the patriarch’s political heir, posed to him. By repacking the FN (as an allegedly more moderate party, untarnished by her father’s foot-in-mouth disease), by widening its political focus to other issues (the economic crisis, globalization, the state) and selling its traditional issues in a more appealing manner; she managed to bring the party back from the dead. The right, now struggling to rebuild, must now deal with a vibrant and threatening far-right. The 2012 election similarly marked the emergence of a different right, as evidenced by Sarkozy’s reelection campaign – which sought to win reelection not through any triangulation or centrist appeal, but rather with a direct appeal to the right and far-right through strongly nationalist and conservative rhetoric.
In my eyes, tinted by my interest and bias towards electoral sociology and demographics, the 2012 election also represented the culmination of a realignment of the left and right’s coalitions in France – perhaps even more so than the 2007 election – and confirmed the fundamental effects of the 2005 referendum on the discourse, structure and coalitions of French electoral politics (despite Sarkozy’s defeat and the apparent victory of Hollande’s centrist appeal strategy). Hollande won with a coalition quite unlike that which had carried Mitterrand to his first victory (with a nearly identical margin) 30 years ago. The most important takeaway from this is that the left now faces a major struggle with its historic core electorate (the working-class), even if it has not lost it. In the 2012 runoff, there were wide swathes of traditionally white working-class country in which Hollande – who won the election with 51% – actually did worse than the PS candidate 17 years prior – who lost the election with 47%. The left has ways of compensating for this deficit, but this should be a major cause of concern for the French left. Indeed, Hollande’s anemic performance with his party’s old electorate came in spite of an incumbent President who was widely seen as having alienated large parts of the working-class electorate and was ridiculed by his opponents as an elitist, ‘bling-bling’ president out of touch with the concerns of the working poor. This result, unfairly ignored by most, is another important takeaway from 2012.
5. Mexico: Twelve years ago, the 2000 presidential election marked a landmark and historic realignment in Mexico’s history. Vicente Fox, the candidate of the centre-right opposition National Action Party (PAN), won the Mexican presidency, ending 71 years of semi-democratic (at best) rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Now, twelve years after losing power for the first time since its creation in 1929 and only six years after a catastrophic election which threatened the party’s existence, the PRI returned to power this year with Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in the July presidential election. Peña Nieto’s election was not all that surprising. It was, after all, a very lackluster campaign which lacked much excitement (certainly compared to the 2006 election) and Peña Nieto (EPN) had been the runaway favourite to win the presidency for well over a year – even if he won the election by a narrower margin than was widely expected, against the left’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Nevertheless, Peña Nieto’s victory and the PRI’s return to power is fairly significant – in part because Mexico is one of the world’s major economies, a significant power in the Americas and the centre of a drug war with regional and global implications.
The PRI’s return to power symbolizes disappointment with two terms of PAN rule. For reasons both within and outside its control, Presidents Fox and Calderón proved unable to live up to the high expectations which accompanied their election. Facing a divided Congress with which relations were always fairly tense, the PAN administrations did not have the courage, willpower or determination to confront the tough challenges facing Mexico, challenges which continue to weaken its economic growth, social development and democratic consolidation. The Mexican economy remained weak, because of Chinese competition during Fox’s presidency and the American recession during the Calderón sexenio. Calderón’s strategy of direct military confrontation with the drug cartels only led to a dramatic increase in violence and murders in the country, leaving many Mexicans tired of the bloodshed and thirsty for a semblance of peace. They turned to the PRI, the natural governing party which despite losing power had remained the most organized and formidable political machine on the ground, even after the 2006 debacle. The PRI’s return to power has worried many, who fear for the future of Mexico’s fairly new and maturing democracy. Such fears, howevers, are likely exaggerated. Mexico has changed considerably since the PRI last held the presidency in the 1980s and 1990s. It has a much stronger and resilient democratic system and society, which is not as willing to accept corruption, collusion and authoritarianism in the same way as in the 80s or 90s.
Peña Nieto’s victory also highlighted a growing political rift between urban and rural Mexico, a urban-rural divide which is probably deeper than ever before in contemporary Mexican politics. While Peña Nieto and the PRI found strong support in rural areas, both of his opponents fared much better in urban areas. EPN lost Mexico City, an old stronghold of the left-wing opposition (the PRD), to AMLO by a huge margin. Younger, more educated Mexicans in urban areas proved extremely hostile towards Peña Nieto and his brand of politics, which they feel still reeks of the worst aspects of the old PRI.
Actions always speak louder than words, and unfortunately in Mexican politics, bold words are only rarely followed by equally as bold actions. However, Peña Nieto has an historic opportunity to finally tackle some of the structural challenges facing Mexico – the inefficiency of the state-owned oil monopoly (Pemex), the shambolic and corrupt public education system, the inefficient and unequal social security system, the inefficient tax system or the economic monopolies held by certain influential and powerful actors (television, telephone etc). Peña Nieto may seem to be an unlikely candidate for this job, given his career as a loyal PRI cadre with close (often quite personal) links to these very monopolies and vested interests which are dragging down the country. Some of EPN’s actions might indeed be a cause for concern: his interior secretary has been accused of close ties to a major drug cartel and has an autocratic penchant. However, Peña Nieto’s early words and even deeds can inspire some cautious optimism. His government seems determined to finally open Pemex to much needed foreign investment, while retaining Mexican sovereignty over its natural resources. What is more, Peña Nieto has given some fairly firm indications that he will be taking on the shambolic public education system and directly confront the extremely powerful teachers’ union (the SNTE and its boss, La Maestra) which has been holding up any education and teaching reforms for years. His education secretary is a decade-old opponent of La Maestra, and La Maestra’s allies within the PRI (her former party) have been sidelined. The government will be introducing education reform which will wrestle control over teachers’ pay, hiring and evaluation away from the corrupt SNTE. Even more surprisingly, in his inaugural address, he said that he would work to break the duopoly in Mexican television (controlled by Televisa – a very close ally of EPN – and TV Azteca). It also seems as if Peña Nieto will be actively seeking a broad partisan consensus on this matter. A list of 95 loosely defined promises, the “Pact for Mexico”, was signed not only by the PRI but also by the PAN and even the PRD (even if AMLO’s allies opposes it and he could be creating his own party). Undoubtedly, one the actual actions and deeds of EPN’s government will be the true test for these bold words. Yet, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Could EPN’s election, against all odds, have signaled some long-overdue reforms in Mexico, which will strengthen its economy and democracy?
6. Burma/Myanmar (by-elections): By-elections are only rarely significant enough to merit inclusion on a top 10 list, but the by-elections for 45 seats in Burma (Myanmar)’s lower house, upper house and regional legislatures proved quite significant. For decades an oppressive dictatorship tightly controlled by a military junta which had used violence and bloodshed to maintain its power, Burma is – very slowly – on the road to controlled democratization. In 2011, the leader of the junta, Than Shwe, stepped down after 19 years in power. Officially, the government claimed that military rule was over and that civilians would be taking over the country. That was what they had tried to show in ‘elections’ back in 2010, but the military intended and still intends to control any democratization as tightly as possible. They reserved a quarter of seats in all legislatures for themselves, while the new pro-regime ‘civilian’ party won almost every other seat. The Burmese opposition (NLD), led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, had boycotted the election.
Since then, however, spearheaded by the country’s new civilian leadership (Prime Minister Thein Shein) and with the blessing of their military overlords, Burma has made significant progress on the road to a more democratic political system. The regime’s eagerness to break its diplomatic, economic and military dependence on China and their thirst for foreign investment played a major role in encouraging these bold moves towards democratization, which have received the blessing of the international community.
The by-elections on April 1 represented a landmark moment in this process. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and her party, the NLD, was allowed to run in these by-elections. As in the last free elections in Burma (in 1990, the results were never honoured by the military), the NLD swept nearly everything in its way. Aung San Suu Kyi herself won a seat in the lower house, and NLD candidates won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs.
Burma is not yet a democracy, and if it does become a democracy, it will likely be a ‘controlled’ democracy in which the military will have been able to secure a strong position in the new system. The military still controls Burma’s path towards democracy, which means that it could feasibly reverse all progress made to date if they started disapproving of the way things were going. In a country which has struggled to assert its sovereignty over its entire territory since independence and which has faced armed ethnic insurgencies for decades, the difficult democratization process is rendered even more difficult by the threat of ethnic/linguistic/religious violence, as evidenced this summer by bloody riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State. However, Burma made significant progress towards a freer political system this year with these landmark by-elections and the election of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the Burmese Parliament. It is too early to say how this process will end up, and it will take time (the next elections will be only in 2015), but these 45 by-elections will likely be a landmark in any democratic transition.
7. Netherlands: The Dutch election will probably not lead to significant changes in the country’s politics or the government’s policies. However, I feel as it merits some recognition. This ranking does give some weight and consideration to ‘interesting’ elections, and the Dutch elections this year was quite interesting. Even if it ultimately ended in a grand coalition between Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD and the centre-left Labour Party (PvdA) – not all that interesting – the campaign and the final outcome of the election had their share of interesting moments and surprising results. Throughout most of the campaign, the left-wing and anti-austerity Socialist Party (SP), benefiting from the PvdA’s troubles while in opposition to Rutte’s VVD-CDA cabinet (backed by the far-right PVV) and its renewed inability to motivate voters on the left, surged into first place. Just as the SP was apparently widening the gap with the PvdA, a strong debate performance by the PvdA’s new leader, Diederik Samsom, led to a rapid, sharp and dramatic swing back to the PvdA. In the end, with heavy strategic voting for Samsom and the PvdA on the left, the PvdA – against almost all expectations – was able to win a very strong second place (24.8% and 38 seats), while the SP failed to gain even a single seat from its fairly mediocre performance in the previous election. The strategic voting and the prime ministerial nature of the contest in its final stretch confirmed the fluidity and volatility of the Dutch electorate (within the broader confines of the left and right) and made for an interesting election.
This election was also significant in that it confirmed a fairly important realignment in Dutch politics, which came as a result of the 2010 election. In that election, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) – the Christian democratic party which was formed by the confessional parties which had once dominated politics in the days of pillarization – was replaced as the main force of the centre-right by Rutte’s liberal VVD. Rutte became the first liberal Prime Minister in the Netherlands since 1918. After further squandering its popularity and getting even more voters to dislike it, the CDA sunk even deeper in this election – it won only 8.5% and 13 seats – which is quite something for a party which had been the mainstay of almost every single Dutch government since 1918 and had by and large been the strongest force on the right in the Netherlands. The VVD has successfully taken the CDA’s place as the dominant centre-right party in the Netherlands, accompanied by an ideological shift to the right by the VVD, which has adopted more conservative positions on immigration, law and order or crime and retained liberal positions on economic or fiscal issues. Now in opposition, the CDA has a chance to lick its wounds and find a way to reinvent itself. But it will be hard for a party which has sunk so low and which has built itself a very damaged itself in recent years to roar back to the position it once enjoyed. In this way, this election was also significant, in confirming a fairly significant realignment on the Dutch right.
The election was also noteworthy for the backlash against Geert Wilders’ PVV, which lost 9 seats from its 2010 breakthrough result, winning 15 seats and roughly 10%. Quite significant, this was the first major setback for Wilders, the rising star of Dutch politics and a man who has had a fairly significant influence on the political discourse in the Netherlands. Already, it appears as if this was only a temporary and ephemeral setback for the far-right PVV (which is polling strongly again), which would make this result less significant in the long run. But it was, nevertheless, an important result. For the first time, voters did not play along with the PVV and Wilders miscalculated matters when he precipitated this election. His roughshod, belligerent style – which has up until now served him – might have alienated voters instead this year.
8. Libya: Around the world, the first free election ever held in Libya was overshadowed by the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and continued militancy around the country. However, the July elections for Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) – which is tasked with drafting a constitution for the country – marked a landmark moment for post-revolutionary Libya. They were the first elections since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown last year, and they were the country’s first free elections. The National Forces Alliance (NFA), a group led by former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and which has been described as liberal within Libya’s very conservative political culture, won the election for the 80 (out of 200) seats elected by proportional representation and reserved for political parties – taking 48% and 39 seats. In contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, where the first post-revolutionary elections witnessed the victory of local Islamist parties, in Libya the Muslim Brotherhood’s political front – the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) was soundly defeated by the NFA in the list vote, winning only 10% and 17 seats. Furthermore, the Homeland Party, a ‘radical’ Islamist party linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG, designated as a terrorist organization by the US), won no seats at all. The first free elections in Libyan history were a major success. Armed militants, local warlords, terrorist groups and radical federalists in the oil-rich western region of Cyrenaica were unable to disturb the election.
In a country such as Libya which had lacked even a semblance of a civil society, political organizations and organized political debate in representative political institutions for years under Gaddafi’s authoritarian and personalist rule, the transition to any kind of more democratic political regime will be difficult. The attack on the consulate in Benghazi revealed that Libya faces a terrorist threat, in addition to lingering threats to the new government’s sovereignty: local warlords, armed militants who have not disarmed following the revolution, the remnants of pro-Gaddafi gangs and ‘federalists’ who clamor for greater regional autonomy. Even more so than Egypt, Libya’s political future remains uncertain. The GNC is dominated by 120 independents and another 15 or so minor parties, which can make for political uncertainty and instability. Electing a Prime Minister was already a tortuous affair; Jibril was defeated by Mustafa Abushagur, a candidate backed by the JCP; but Abushagur’s cabinet was rejected by the GNC in October and was forced to resign. The new Prime Minister is Ali Zeidan, a lawyer and Gaddafi opponent, who has formed a cabinet including Islamists and ‘liberals’, and which respects touchy regional balances. Despite uncertainty over what will come next, the first free elections in Libya nonetheless mark a landmark in Libya’s post-revolutionary and post-Gaddafi era.
9. Serbia: Presidential and parliamentary in Serbia in May saw major changes in the country’s politics. In the presidential contest, the pro-European incumbent in office since 2004, Boris Tadić was defeated by Tomislav Nikolić, a moderate nationalist. In the parliamentary election, Ivica Dačić’s Socialist Party (SPS) – Slobodan Milošević’s old party which claims to have become more moderate – did well, placing third, allowing Dačić to claim the Prime Minister’s office, in coalition with Nikolić’s party (SNS) and smaller parties. The election of a nationalist President and the formation of a coalition government between the SPS and the SNS (excluding Tadić’s DS) represents a major political shift in Serbia, which had been governed by broadly pro-European parties and politicians since around Milošević fell in 2000-2001.
The news of this major political turnover in Serbia was greeted with some degree of concern in other European countries. Nikolić, a former ally of Vojislav Šešelj, a radical nationalist leader on trial for war crimes, claims to have moderated his positions and favours European integration in the long term. However, few seem to take Nikolić’s conversion to moderate nationalism at face value, in part because he continues to make some inflammatory statements about European integration (claiming that Serbia would be better off as a Russian province), the Balkan Wars (he denied that Srebrenica was an act of genocide and said that the Croatian city of Vukovar was a Serb city). However, Nikolić’s election and the 2012 election does nevertheless mark a shift in the political discourse in Serbia. The old polarization between pro-European/pro-Western reformers and radical nationalists (anti-European and pro-Russian) has dissipated somewhat. In 2008, Nikolić – who had been the de facto leader of the militantly nationalist Radical Party (SRS) in Šešelj’s absence – split from the SRS to create the Progressive Party (SNS), which although still fairly nationalist claims to be more moderate and pro-European. In fact, there was ultimately little difference between Nikolić and Tadić – both of whom supported European integration but opposed Kosovo’s independence (furthermore, some had become frustrated with the general lack of progress on issues such as European integration or relations with Kosovo under Tadić’s two terms) – except that the former is a more recent convert to European integration and preferred to place emphasis on economic and cost of living issues (high unemployment, low growth or corruption). These economic issues, rather than any nationalist tide (even if voters are less enthusiastic about European integration), serve to explain why Tadić lost reelection.
Most feared that the election of Nikolić would led to a major deterioration in Serbia’s relations with its neighbors in the turbulent region – notably Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. To a certain degree, this has proven true. Relations with Croatia have sunk to their lowest point in years. However, the government’s policy towards Kosovo – which declared independence in 2008 but which is not recognized by Serbia – has not been quite what could have been expected from Nikolić and Dačić. EU-sponsored dialogue between the two countries, on technical and now political matters, has made more progress than anyone could have expected. Dačić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi have developed a strong working relationship, and the two made progress on issues such as regulating border crossings. Dačić and the Serbian government seem to be coming to terms with the reality of a quasi-sovereign Kosovan state, and have pragmatically decided to cooperate rather than feud with their neighbor. The priority for Dačić and his government remains the fate and status of Serbs living in northern Kosovo. Meanwhile, Serbia may begin EU accession talks soon, after having become a candidate country in March. It may be too early to judge of what will come from this dialogue and the other policies of the new government, but could Nikolić/Dačić emerge as the unlikely leaders of major changes in Serbian politics and Serbia’s place in the Balkans and Europe?
10. Italy (local elections and Sicily regional elections): Italy on the brink of what could be the most important political realignment in the country since the collapse of the First Republic political system in 1994. Local elections this summer and regional elections this fall confirmed that the upcoming legislative elections, in February 2013, will see major political changes and could usher in a political realignment. The local elections saw the success of the left, but above that the collapse of the Berlusconian right (the PdL) and the emergence of a new anti-system and populist political movement, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) proved most important. The collapse of the Berlusconian right, which began in 2011 and was precipitated by Berlusconi’s resignation and replacement by Mario Monti as Prime Minister in November 2011, became apparent in the local elections. The PdL – but also its ally the Lega Nord, till then on an upswing – performed extremely poorly. In contrast, Grillo’s M5S, a new ideologically vague but militantly anti-system, anti-corruption, even anti-politician populist movement, surprised everybody with very strong performances. It placed ahead of the right in several major cities, and it was victorious in Parma and some smaller cities. In part, M5S picked up a good number of right-wingers unhappy with the state of their party and Berlusconi’s antics. The Sicilian regional elections confirmed the relative success of the left, the collapse (but also division) of the old right in one of its main strongholds and the success of the M5S despite a shoestring campaign with an unknown candidate.
The 2013 elections will prove crucial to Italy’s future, as they will likely lead to a fundamental realignment with the collapse of the Second Republic era, a political system structured around one man – Silvio Berlusconi. The collapse of the PdL, the emergence of a new populist force attracting many right-wing voters (similar to the Lega in the early 90s) and the centre-right/Monti’s attempts to rebuild a new post-Berlusconi centre-right all presage this coming political realignment. In the long run, however, the local elections and the Sicilian regional elections will probably have kicked off this realignment in Italian politics. The 2011 local elections (prior to Berlusconi’s resignation) showed the first cracks in his once-formidable coalition, the 2012 local elections saw this coalition crumble.
This concludes the top 10 ranking of 2012’s most significant or important elections. To restate, this exercise is very subjective and there is no ‘correct’ ranking. There are certain elections which many might feel should have been on this list, to the exclusion of some of my top 10 elections. Certainly, strong cases can be made for their inclusion – perhaps equally as strong as the case I tried to make for the ten elections featured above. I will try to justify the exclusion of some of those other elections.
The recent elections in Japan saw the traditional governing party, the LDP, return to power in a landslide only three years after being swept out of power in historic fashion. In the process, the incumbent party – the DPJ – suffered a defeat so serious that it calls into question its future as a party. In a geopolitical context of tensions with China, the election of a more hawkish Prime Minister in Japan is somewhat significant. However, I have a feeling that we tend to overstate the importance of such political changes in Japan. This election confirmed the extreme volatility of the Japanese electorate and the unpopularity of the outgoing government rather than a surge in support for the LDP. Like 2005 or 2009, the 2012 Japanese election was only another big swing of the pendulum, a big anti-incumbent wave. The new government’s policy is unlikely to lead a policy markedly different from that of its predecessor. Finally, given the rapid turnover in Prime Ministers since 2006, we have very good reason to believe that this Prime Minister will have the short longevity of his predecessor.
The coming weeks and months in Venezuela will prove very significant, in the event that Chávez dies. Chávez won reelection back in October, fending off one of the strongest challenges to his presidency yet. Venezuela is an important country, but that election was not all that significant. It did not give clues about the post-Chávez future/succession. It did show that a united opposition with a strong candidate could pose a threat to Chávez’s power, even if Chávez remained dominant; but this had been the case since 2007 and 2010.
President Wade’s defeat in Senegal almost made this list. It was, after all, one of the more significant political events in West Africa and the severe defeat of a man who had built a reputation as a nascent autocrat and national strongman is a significant event. In addition, the peaceful and democratic transfer of power from a defeated incumbent to a democratically-elected new government still remains a difficult and rare event in West Africa. However, in a local context, this peaceful transfer of power from defeated incumbent to victorious opponent is not new: it already happened in 2000, when Wade defeated incumbent President Abdou Diouf.
Subnational elections in Catalonia and the Basque Country (Spain) as well as Alberta and Quebec (Canada) all proved quite significant for the region or province in question. However, none of these elections – or other subnational elections – were significant enough in a wider, national or international, context to merit inclusion on this list. The events in Catalonia come the closest, as the nationalist policies of the regional government have a direct impact on the rest of Spain. However, the Catalan elections did not see either a strong mandate for Artur Mas’ referendum agenda or a substantial increase in overall nationalist support. While Mas still has the ability to push forward with this plan, he is now the ‘hostage’ of the more radical left-wing nationalist ERC, and there is a chance that his very poor result in the Catalan elections will short-circuit his own nationalist agenda (if Mas had won his absolute majority, then this election would certainly be on this list). In the Basque Country, the nationalists have returned to power after having lost it in 2009, but they have no intention to play nationalist tug-of-war with Madrid for the next few years at least. In Alberta, these elections saw the first strong challenge to the continued dominance of the provincial Tories since the 1990s (or even before then) and unlike previous challenges to its power which had been long-shot challenges from the unelectable Liberals or NDP, this challenge came from their right. These elections will be remembered largely for how all pollsters got it all so wrong: they saw the Tories losing power to the Wildrose, but voters reelected a strong Tory majority government. In the long run, if the PCs do come to lose power by the next election, the 2012 election will likely have marked the first major crack in their machine which ultimately brought it down. Elections in Quebec saw the nationalist PQ return to power, after nearly 10 years in opposition, but with a very weak minority mandate, the PQ government is in no position to push forward a nationalist agenda with Ottawa.
Once again, I welcome disagreements with my ranking. I do hope, however, that this ranking provided a solid overview of the main electoral events of 2012 and the significance and impact of some of these most important elections on countries, regions and the world. Stay tuned for another staple of the New Year, the What’s Hot preview of major elections in 2013.