Monthly Archives: March 2013
A legislative by-election was held in the Oise’s second constituency in France on March 17 and 24, 2013. The results of the June 2012 legislative election in the constituency were declared invalid by the Constitutional Council, for reasons related to false statements in the incumbent deputy’s campaign propaganda. A by-election was held on the same day in Wallis-et-Futuna’s at-large constituency; these were the fourth and fifth legislative by-elections since the June 2012 elections: by-elections were held in Hérault (6), Hauts-de-Seine (13) and Val-de-Marne (1) in December after the initial results of the June 2012 elections were invalidated in these three constituencies. There are two pending by-elections in the constituencies for French citizens abroad (constituencies 1 and 8), the results of the June 2012 election in those two seats were also recently invalidated by the Constitutional Council but a date has not yet been set for the by-elections.
French legislative elections or by-elections are fought on a two-round system. A candidate must win over 50% of valid votes representing at least 25% of registered voters to win outright by the first round. If a second round is organized, all candidates who have won over 12.5% of registered voters are qualified for the runoff; or, if no candidates meet this requirement, the top two candidates in the first round. In by-elections were turnout is almost always lows, this means that only the top two candidates will qualify.
The incumbent deputy in Oise’s 2nd constituency, reelected in June, was Jean-François Mancel of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). The incumbent deputy in Wallis-et-Futuna, elected in June, was David Vergé, classified as a right-winger but who sat with the Socialist (PS) group. In Wallis-et-Futuna, the ConCon also declared Vergé and some other candidates from the June 2012 to be ineligible for any elected office for a period of one year.
These by-elections come at a bad time for the incumbent centre-left government. Less than a year after he defeated incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande is nearing record levels of unpopularity, his approval ratings having sunk faster than any other President under the Fifth Republic. His approval rating currently stands at about 31%, the lowest for any President after ten months in office and approaching the record lows set by Jacques Chirac in his second term (mid to low 20s). Part of this unpopularity stems from the particular politcal and economic conjuncture. The French economy, like that of most of its neighbors, remains weak with high unemployment, low economic growth and a large public debt. The situation, naturally, was never going to brighten up miraculously with the election of a new head of state. Secondly, Hollande’s victory in May 2012 owed a lot to the ephemeral appeal of anti-Sarkozysm on the left and parts of the centre. As I noted in my analysis of the runoff last year, “the fact that the election was more Sarkozy’s defeat than Hollande’s victory and that Hollande owes his victory to anti-Sarkozysm will certainly come back to haunt the PS and Hollande in the near future, once voters forget Sarkozy and shift their judgement to the new incumbent.” While the economic context has further aggravated matters, a good part of the government’s unpopularity is of their own making.
Faced with an ever bleaker economic picture – unemployment at 10% and up nearly 1% on the previous years, flat economic growth in 2012 and a high public debt (90%) – the government has suffered heavily from the perception that it is slow to react and that it has found itself completely lost and powerless against the economic crisis. The right, which disliked Hollande from the get-go, has criticized the ‘amateurism’ and jumbled response of the government and decried its economic policies (the UMP has placed particular emphasis on higher taxes). But many on the left have felt let down by the government on the economic front. It was fairly clear that for all of the PS’s flowery rhetoric about growth, it would be forced to implement austerity measures including spending cuts in the public sector (the public sector is a PS stronghold); and it has done so, although it has disguised it as ‘efforts’. Hollande had promised to renegotiate the European Fiscal Compact to give it a more ‘pro-growth’ orientation, but he and his governing majority ultimately approved it without any major changes. The Constitutional Council has also forced him to scrap, entirely, his much-publicized 75% tax on incomes over a million euros. For many voters on the left, very little positive change is perceptible and many voters feel that Hollande’s policies are no different than his predecessor’s policies.
On a whole slew of other issues and campaign promises, the government has either ‘delayed’ reforms or watered them down fairly significantly. For example, because it lacks a three-fifths majority to pass major constitutional changes, a number of promised constitutional reforms have been have been written off the agenda. Faced with major internal unease within its own majority, the government has ‘delayed’ – probably indefinitely – a major reform to crack down on dual office holding (cumul des mandats). Proportional representations seems, once agian, to have been lost somewhere along the road. The latest round of ‘decentralization reforms’ which seem to be obligatory for every President has been delayed, held up in the Senate and met with the wrath of some local officials. While the government will likely be able to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption rights eventually, it has mobilized social conservative groups and is widely rejected by the quasi-entirety of the opposition.
On the symbolic aspect of things, Hollande had made a big deal of Sarkozy’s centralizing, autocratic and flashy (bling-bling) presidential system and he famously presented himself as the ‘normal President’ in contrast to the ‘hyper-President’ Sarkozy. Yet, the symbolic changes at that level have been slow to come. The ‘normal president’ mantra was quickly dropped. By choosing his close ally Jean-Marc Ayrault as Prime Minister (rather than party rival Martine Aubry, for example) Hollande signaled that he was continuing in Sarkozy’s, rather than Mitterrand’s, footsteps by choosing a close ally and partner as Prime Minister. While the left criticized Sarkozy for sidelining the Prime Minister and concentrating powers in the executive branch, Hollande has done largely the same. Ayrault, ten months down the road, appears effaced and a mere ‘sidekick’ in comparison to his President.
Having been in opposition for ten years upon taking office last spring, the PS and the wider ‘presidential majority’ has had some trouble adapting to the rigours of governing. Cabinet ministers, from early on, have contradicted each other or diverged from the government line publicly, and Ayrault has often appeared powerless or unable to put his ministers back in place. And the government has been hit by its first ethics scandal: the budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, a respected figure, was forced to resign on March 19 after facing allegations of tax fraud and a secret bank account in Switzerland. Meanwhile, some signs of internal disagreements between the PS and its minor allies (particularly the Greens/EELV) have appeared on some issues, while the Left Front (FG) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Communist Party (PCF) have been vocal critics of government policies.
A few government ministers have been able to escape the government’s unpopularity. Top amongst them is Manuel Valls, the Interior minister, who is the most popular in France at the moment with wide support on the left and right. He has largely continued his right-wing predecessors’ tough crime and immigration policies, notably by continuing the expulsion of the Roma and dismantling illegal ‘squatter settlements’. Valls’ tough policies on crime, security and immigration has the right worried that the PS might be succeeding at ‘reappropriating’ the security issue from them.
Despite the government’s unpopularity, the right-wing opposition has had trouble appearing as a better alternative. Sarkozy’s right-wing party, the UMP, was almost torn apart in November at the party congress meant to choose Sarkozy’s successor as the head of the party. Although both warring sides in the UMP’s civil war have since come to an agreement (a new congress in the fall, in the meantime the leadership is made up of an equal number of members from both sides), it is an uneasy truce between the two rival camps united only by their common opposition to the government. The few major UMP politicians who are very popular with the electorate at this point in time are those who are out of the limelight and the intrigues at the Parisian headquarters (Christine Lagarde as IMF managing director, Alain Juppé as mayor of Bordeaux and respected ‘party elder’). Finally, Nicolas Sarkozy’s potential ambitions for a rematch against Hollande in 2017 might be complicated by his recent indictment in an old corruption/party financing scandal.
Oise’s second constituency includes the west of the Oise department and the southwest canton of Beauvais, the main urban centre in the region. The constituency, whose borders have remained the same since 1986, is made up of the cantons of Auneuil, Beauvais Sud-Ouest, Chaumont-en-Vexin, Le Coudray-Saint-Germer, Fromerie, Grandvilliers, Noailles and Songeons. This constituency includes parts of four traditional natural regions: the Plateau Picard in the north; the Bray in the centre; the Thelle/Thérain valley running towards the south; and the Vexin français in the southwestern end of the constituency.
The common way of describing constituencies similar to this one is ‘rural’. Indeed, Beauvais is the only large city in the constituency where no other commune has over 3,000 inhabitants. However, the ‘rural’ descriptor is both deceptive and simplistic; the second constituency is much more of an exurban/small town constituency rather than a purely rural area. With the exception of the two northernmost cantons, most of the constituency is a patchwork of villages and small towns economically and socially tied to Beauvais and/or Paris. Beauvais is the only commune in the canton where over half of the economically active population are employed in the town where they live. Historically, this is also a working-class area with small industrial centres or small industries (glass-making, sugar beets, metallurgy, railway classification yards in cités cheminotes).
Politically, alongside the rest of the department and most of the region, the constituency has shifted heavily to the right and far-right over the course of the past decades. Socialist President François Hollande won 43.9% in the constituency in May 2012; about 4% worse than Lionel Jospin (PS) had done in the constituency in 1995 (remembering that Hollande did about 4% better nationally). For an even starker contrast, 31 years ago, François Mitterrand won the constituency with 51.5% in the 1981 election – nationally, Hollande and Mitterrand (1981) won by almost the exact same margin, in this constituency Hollande performed nearly 8 points worse than Mitterrand in 1981.
Nevertheless, this constituency has never really been markedly left-leaning. Less industrialized and urbanized than other parts of the department, the French Communist Party (PCF) was never as strong here than in other parts of the department, and there was some subsisting Radical strength in the more agricultural parts of the constituency (Bray) in the 1950s.
Nicolas Sarkozy won the constituency with 60.7% in 2007 and held it with 56.1% last May. In the second round, Sarkozy was victorious in every canton in the constituency with the exception of Beauvais Sud-Ouest, where Hollande won 53.4% thanks to his strength in Beauvais itself (the part of the city contained in the constituency includes a large zone urbaine sensible, a low-income urban neighborhood). Sarkozy thoroughly dominated the near totality of the ‘rural’ part of the constituency, with results above 58% in most cantons. The sole remnants of left-wing strength outside Beauvais subsist only in Sérifontaine (canton of Le Coudray-Saint-Germer, an old PCF stronghold with a large metal industry) and Feuquières, a glass-working town in the north of the constituency (canton of Grandvilliers), an extension of the ‘Glass valley’ region along the Bresle river. But whereas Lionel Jospin had won nearly 60% in both those towns in 1995, Hollande won only 53.6% in the former and 55.8% in the latter. Some isolated remnants of left-wing dominance from another era may still prop up, however, in towns such as Hermes, an old cité cheminote where Hollande won 48.7%. For the sake of comparison, Mitterrand had won majorities in six of the seat’s eight cantons in the 1981 runoff and over 54% in Beauvais SO (54.4%) and Coudray-Saint-Germer (54.4%).
Marine Le Pen did extremely well in the constituency, placing first in the first round with 27.9% against 27.6% for Sarkozy and only 22.1% for Hollande. Compared to her father’s performance in 2002 and 1995, she posted some very impressive results in constituencies just like this one across eastern and northern France. The FN has always been rather strong in this constituency, but Marine Le Pen was stronger than her father had ever been in the constituency.
The seat is an interesting mix of two distinct FN electorates: the area around Beauvais and the south of the constituency, in the Thelle/Thérain valley and the Vexin, are exurban areas drawn to Paris or smaller regional centres (Beauvais, Creil etc). The FN’s electorate there is relatively blue-collar as well, but it is of a more ideologically right-wing and périurbain subi variety. Even though the local foreign population is low (3%), because many of the inhabitants in the region tend to commute to large cities and interact/confront large immigrant populations there, the FN’s rhetoric on immigration is a powerful influence. The FN’s original support in the region came largely from these kind of areas – for example, in the 1984 Euro elections, the FN did better in the exurban-type cantons (Auneuil, Chaumont-en-Vexin, Beauvais SO) than in the industrial-type cantons (Formerie, Grandvilliers, Coudray-Saint-Germer). This is also a type of FN electorate which embraced Nicolas Sarkozy by the first round in 2007: Sarkozy won 33.4% in the first round in 2007, against only 23-24% for the mainstream right in 2002 (Chirac, Madelin, Boutin). His gains – and Le Pen’s loses – were heavier in the southern part of the constituency, the most suburban/exurban part.
However, the two northernmost cantons (Formerie and Grandvilliers) are less suburban/exurban. Demographically, they are the most working-class parts of the seat and also the most economically deprived (highest unemployment, lowest incomes); but most of the old industries are dead, and most people work outside their town/village of residence. The FN vote is more recent, and the FN support tends to be a ‘pure’ protest vote which rejects the main parties and expresses discontent but also concerns and fears with the economic situation. These voters are described as ninistes in that they identify as ‘neither left nor right’, rather than very right-wing like their counterparts in other parts of the country. Marine Le Pen performed best in these two northern cantons, winning 32% and 34% respectively. In 2007, they also showed themselves to be more resistant to ‘electoral Sarkozysm’ – Le Pen’s loses were significantly lower in Formerie and Grandvilliers than in the other cantons.
Marine Le Pen also won 31% in the cantons of Coudray-Saint-Germer and Noailles – including 38% in Hermes. Her worst results were in Beauvais SO (20.7%) and the canton of Chaumont-en-Vexin (24%), which includes more affluent and well-educated Parisian outer suburbs.
The constituency has been held by the right since it took its current shape, with the exception of 1997 when the PS’ Béatrice Marre defeated the right thanks to a triangulaire with the FN. Logically, the UMP regained the seat in 2002 with 55% in the runoff and held it in 2007 with a reduced majority (52.8%). The UMP won the 2012 triangulaire by only 63 votes.
The UMP (RPR before that) incumbent since 1978 (with the exception of 1981-1986 and 1997-2002) is Jean-François Mancel, who is also the general councillor for the canton of Noailles and was president of the Oise general council between 1985 and 2004. Fitting in with his environment, Mancel is broadly on the right of the UMP (he is a copéiste); in fact, in 1998, he negotiated electoral alliances at the cantonal and regional level with the FN. Mancel is not a particularly strong incumbent and is not very influential within the ranks of his party, he has been weakened by a number of corruption allegations.
The main candidates were the same as in the June 2012 election: Mancel for the UMP, Beauvais SO general councillor Sylvie Houssin for the PS and Florence Italiani for the FN.
The results of the first round (March 17)
Jean-François Mancel (UMP) 40.61% (+7.25%)
Florence Italiani (FN) 26.58% (+3.35%)
Sylvie Houssin (PS) 21.37% (-9.13%)
Pierre Ripart (FG) 6.64% (+1.39%)
Clément Lesaege (Pirate) 1.97%
Renée Potchtovik (LO) 1.57% (+0.84%)
Michel Ramel (DVD) 1.25%
Turnout 32.79% (blank and invalid votes: 2.76%)
The results of the runoff (March 23)
Jean-François Mancel (UMP) 51.41%
Florence Italiani (FN) 48.59%
Turnout 35.3% (blank and invalid votes: 10.09%)
The first round was a major defeat for the PS. Sylvie Houssin, the PS candidate, was eliminated from the runoff by the first round, having won only 21.4% of the vote – over 9% less than in June. The local PS candidate was badly hurt by the government’s unpopularity. As is usually the case, a large part of the left-wing/PS electorate which had voted for the PS in June 2012 did not turn out in this by-election. This had already been the case for the PS in the 3 by-elections in December (which had ended in three bad defeats for the PS, including the loss of one seat to the UMP); but it worked the other way around in 2010 or 2011, when the UMP lost a good number of its voters to abstention. The results at the communal level, turnout in the first round was clearly lower in left-wing precincts, and higher in those precincts where the FN or UMP performed better.
The two main winners of the first round were the UMP and the FN. Mancel nearly came back to his level in the “blue wave” first round of the 2007 legislative election (41.9% against 21.1% for the PS); although basically all candidates won less raw votes than in June, Mancel only lost about 5,500 votes while Houssin shed a full 9,300 votes.
The FN had a strong performance in the first round, in addition to qualifying for the runoff by finishing ahead of the PS. This is a bit different from what happened in the December by-elections, particularly the one in the Hérault where the FN had fancied its chances. In December, the FN had fallen flat on its face in the Hérault’s 6th constituency; their intakes in the two petite couronne seats where they were weak was also unimpressive. What is the difference between the two by-elections? The FN’s underwhelming result in the Hérault in December may, in part, have something to do with the local FN electorate: a clearly ideologically right-wing electorate, which has shown itself to be more susceptible to the UMP’s consistent attempts (since 2007) to woo them over. In the Hérault, many either did not turn out or supported the UMP candidate, who was the former UMP deputy (defeated by the PS in June) who himself was on the party’s right. In the Oise, however, the FN electorate is sociologically different and slightly more resistant to the UMP’s strategy. Furthermore, Mancel is not greatly appealing to many ‘soft’ FN voters.
The FG’s candidate won 6.6%, better than he had performed in June 2012 but not a remarkable gain. The FG has been attempting to profit from the government’s unpopularity on the left, and it has been a very vocal critic of Hollande and his government’s policies from the get-go. However, in both the December by-elections and this by-election, the FG’s performance – decent, but not anything to write home about – has likely been below their expectations. The PCF had similarly tried to benefit from the PS’ unpopularity at the end of Mitterrand’s second term, but its electoral performance in 1992 and 1993 showed that it had not really been able to turn the PS’ unpopularity into electoral success. Time will tell if the FG will profit from the government’s unpopularity – particularly with a sizable number of left-wing voters – in upcoming nationwide elections where turnout will be higher.
If the first round had been a major blow for the PS, the runoff was a major blow for the UMP. The boomerang came back and hit the UMP in its face. Mancel was reelected with a majority of only 768 votes against the FN candidate, with 51.4% of the vote. The FN came within a whisker of a major upset victory.
The FN’s strong performance begs one big question: where did its new voters, nearly 6000 additional votes, come from? There are, two main theories on this question: the ‘transfer’ theory and the ‘substitution’ theory. According to the ‘transfer’ theory, the FN gained votes from those who had voted for the PS (or FG) in the first round. This theory is not as crazy as it may seem. To begin with, past elections have shown that a good number of left-wing voters from the first round will vote for the FN against the mainstream rights in runoff elections where the left’s candidate was eliminated by the first round. In both right/FN and left/FN runoffs in the 2011 cantonal elections, the FN gained about 10 points from their first round result; in both right/FN and left/FN runoffs in June 2012, the FN gained about 16% from their first round result. Secondly, the left-wing base in the constituency (outside Beauvais) tends to be white working-class voters, who may realistically prefer the FN over the UMP.
There are also local circumstances at play which may explain PS/FN transfers. Although the national PS leadership de facto endorsed Mancel against the FN, the local PS candidate did not endorse any candidate. She stated that voters were faced with a choice between the extrême droite and droite extrême; two sides of the same coin. Left-wing voters had no reason to show up and ‘save’ Mancel against the FN: there were no national issues at stake, and Mancel is unpopular on the left because of his 1998 deals with the FN and various corruption clouds which have hung over his head for years.
While left>FN tranfers undeniably exist, the June 2012 legislative election showed that they were far less significant than right>FN transfers. In 9 right/FN runoffs in the last legislative election, there was only a weak correlation (0.21) between left-wing strength in the first round and FN gains between both rounds; there was, however, a 0.64 correlation between left-wing strength and a decline in voter turnout between between both rounds. Turnout declined by an average of 8% in the 9 right/FN battles in June, it only increased by 1.2% in left/FN battles. The percentage of voters who turned out in the runoff but cast blank or invalid votes was also very high (over 10%) in right/FN runoffs.
This by-election, however, is an outlier in this case. Turnout increased in the runoff, by about 2%. However, there was a major increase in blank and invalid votes, from 2.8% to 10% (about 2000 ‘new’ blank or invalid votes); the number of valid votes was actually slightly lower in the runoff than in the first round.
The ‘substitution’ theory would hold that while a larger number of left-wing voters did not turn out or cast invalid votes, that decline was compensated by the stronger mobilization of FN voters. Florence Italiani did indeed have a bigger reservoir to build on; Marine Le Pen won over 19,000 votes in the constituency in April 2012, Italiani only won 7.2k in the first round and 13,190 in the runoff. Her strong result in the first round might have allowed FN voters who had not turned out on March 17 to mobilize in her favour for the second round.
The national context during the week between both rounds might have further boosted the FN. It was, really, the dream scenario for the FN: a PS cabinet minister forced to resign in an alleged tax fraud scandal, followed by the former UMP President indicted by the courts for a campaign financing scandal; the current economic situation in Cyprus; and the Court of Cassation’s controversial decision to annul a lower court decision which had confirmed the lay-off, in 2008, of a daycare employee who had refused to remove her hijab.
The data from the 9 right/FN runoffs in June 2012 would tend to confirm that the ‘substitution’ theory is a better explanation than the ‘transfer’ electorate, although both are relatively valid. The results from this by-election, however, troubles the substitution theory a bit. That being said, we are dealing with a case unlike the 9 constituencies from June. This was a by-election, with structurally low turnout which will always tend to messy things up a bit. The low turnout levels in both rounds makes it harder for us to draw clear conclusions from the results, and makes it tough to prove either theory.
Joël Gombin did an ecological inference analysis on the runoff at the precinct level for the runoff. He found that 43% of Houssin’s voters from March 17 voted for the FN in the runoff, while remaining 57% split fairly equally (19%, 18%, 20%) between abstention, blank/invalid votes and the UMP. The 43% seems like a reasonable estimate, although it should still be taken with a grain of salt given the difficulties of analysis in low-turnout by-elections.
Indeed, at the communal level, the FN won most of the traditionally left-leaning towns in the constituency (Sérifontaine, Feuquières, Hermes, Formerie; but not Beauvais) and often by quite strong margins. And even in those towns, while turnout remained very low in both rounds, it did not decline by much (if at all) between both rounds. In some low-income precincts in Beauvais, where the left had been strongest in the first round, the FN generally did quite well in the second round despite being well below average in the first round. Yet, we should still be careful about assuming that all FN ‘extra’ votes came from the left. Nothing can prove that the same 30% turned out in both rounds, though it does appear quite unlikely that the runoff electorate would be an entirely different bunch of people than first round voters.
Gombin’s data revealed a few oddities. There is the matter that Italiani would have kept ‘only’ 62% of her first round voters and lost a quarter of them to Mancel. While it is clear that there a number of FN voters who vote for the FN in the first round as a protest vote or to send a message but who will vote for the right or left in the runoff; it is tough to see why a quarter (!) of first round FN voters would prefer to vote UMP in the runoff against the FN. Granted, some right-wingers might have been tempted to send a message by voting FN in the first round but ‘played it safe’ in the runoff, but can they account for some 25% of Italiani’s 7.2 thousand voters from the first round?
His results also indicated that about 19% of Mancel’s first round voters went to the FN in the runoff; he kept 74% of his first round intake. There has been no research, as far as I know, on the behaviour of first round mainstream right voters in right/FN runoff situations, but it can be a bit puzzling as well. One explanation which Gombin tentatively suggested was Nicolas Sarkozy’s indictment in the Bettencourt affair in the week between the first and second round, and the negative effect it might have had on some UMP supporters.
The ‘substitution’ theory has been taken up by the local PS in Beauvais, which obviously has political interest in writing off the FN’s strong performance as a result of the mobilization of the electorate rather than the result of left>FN transfers, which would discredit its ‘two sides of the same coin’ strategy. Again, however, it is foolish and overly partisan to write off any kind of left>FN transfers. Both theories are valid, although in this particular case it would seem that evidence leans towards the ‘transfer’ theory
What lessons can be taken out of this by-election? Firstly, it shows that, on the ground, the traditional ‘republican front’ strategy is basically dead and whatever kind of cordon sanitaire which might have existed on the ground in the past between the FN and the other parties is long gone. We should stop treating voters as mathematical, rational and predictable individuals who can be expected to follow the directions given by their party of choice. Despite the strong enmity between national PS and FN leadership, there is some overlap between both parties. Some left-wing voters will prefer the FN over the right when faced with that choice.
While this by-election risks re-opening the old myth that there is a massive reservoir of voters who hesitate between the PS/FG and the FN, it is nevertheless clear that a certain part of the left-wing electorate flirts the FN and is open to voting for the FN in particular circumstances. In this sense, the PS should stop treating the FN issue as something which only concerns the right, because the FN is a potential danger to the left as well (though perhaps not as much of a problem as it is for the right).
The current political situation in France is ideal for the FN. The left-wing government is unpopular, including with a good part of its historical and/or current electoral clientele; but the main right-wing opposition is struggling to keep the lid on a simmering internal civil war and it has generally failed to present itself as the sole credible alternative to the left for the moment. With a morose economic and social situation, and a political climate in which both traditional parties are unpopular; the FN has almost everything going for it as things stand. Furthermore, as this by-election further confirmed, the FN is becoming less and less ‘toxic’ and repulsive to voters and its electoral potential in the runoff – while still far, far away from the 50%+1 it will need to win power – is clearly far wider under Marine Le Pen’s leadership.
Nevertheless, we should be careful about reading too much into low-turnout by-elections and we would do well to steer away from the inevitable mass panic and pandemonium which ensues whenever the FN does well somewhere.
The by-election in Wallis-et-Futuna received next to no attention from the national media, largely because politics on those remote islands of the French Pacific are disconnected from metropolitan politics and are heavily based on local factors. Even if the national parties exist on the islands, these partisan labels are meaningless. Insular politics revolve around local personalities – especially the endorsements of various traditional rulers – and campaigns have no ideological overtones. Voters often vote for the candidate based on family ties or the endorsement of their local ruler. National political trends don’t impact local politics at all. The seat was held by Benjamin Brial, a local Gaullist baron, between 1967 and 1988; and later by his son, Victor Brial, between 1997 and 2007. Albert Likuvalu, affiliated with the Left Radicals (PRG) at the national level, defeated Brial in 2007 but went down to defeat in 2012 – he placed third with barely 17% in June. David Vergé, the victor of the June 2012 election, was aligned with the vaguely centre-right opposition in the local legislature, but he joined the PS group in the National Assembly in July.
The candidate endorsed by the UMP, Napole Polutele, faced two centre-left candidates: Mikaele Kulimoetoke (the runner-up in June 2012) and Lauriane Tialetagi Vergé (PS, the wife of David Vergé, the deputy elected in June 2012 and ineligible for elected office for one year). In the first round, he won 37.4% against 33.1% for Kulimoetoke and 29.5% for Tialetagi Vergé. In the runoff, which featured the same candidates, Polutele won with 37.5% against 32.4% for Kulimoetoke and 30.2% for Tialetagi Vergé. Turnout was 75.7% in the first round and 79.7% in the runoff.
There are, as aforementioned, two pending legislative by-elections will be called in the 1st (North America) and 8th (Israel, Greece, Turkey, Italy) constituencies for French citizens abroad. Both seats were held by PS deputies whose elections were invalidated; both were also declared ineligible for elected office for a period of one year due to irregularities in their campaign’s financing. The PS is extremely vulnerable in both constituencies, both of which favoured Sarkozy over Hollande on May 6 – in fact, Sarkozy won 63% in the eight constituency! Nevertheless, both are unpredictable because turnout will be extremely low (in June 2012, turnout was 20% in the first and 13% in the eight!) and the local right, as in June, is badly divided in both constituencies.
Parliamentary elections were held in Greenland on March 12, 2013. All 31 members of Greenlandic Parliament (Inatsisartut/Landsting), elected for four year terms by proportional representation were up for reelection. Greenland is a constituent country within Denmark. It was granted home rule in 1979, and was granted extensive autonomy and self-rule in 2009 following a referendum in 2008. Denmark retains control of foreign affairs, national defense, the police force, the judiciary and monetary policy (Denmark provides a block grant which still accounts for over half of public spending by the regional government). Greenlandic is now the sole official language, and the regional government has full control over the island’s rich subsoil resources. Despite being part of Denmark, Greenland is not part of the EU – it withdrew from the EEC in 1985.
The vast majority (85-88%) of Greenland’s population are Inuits, who speak Greenlandic, an Eskimo-Aleut language. The remaining 12% or so are European Danish immigrants. Huge swathes of Greenland are covered by a vast ice sheet, although climate change is slowly reducing the size of the ice sheet. All settlements are concentrated along the ice-free coast, and almost all of these settlements are located along the western coast. Most of remote northeastern Greenland is unincorporated, forming the Northeast Greenland National Park.
Greenland was colonized by Denmark beginning in the 1700s, and was ruled by Danish colonial administrators until 1953 (it was occupied by the US during World War II). During this time, Danish was the language of the colonial administrators and a small local elite (Danes born in Greenland or assimilated Inuits), while Greenlandic remained widely used in small Inuit hamlets and was taught in schools and used in churches. After Greenland was integrated into Denmark as a county in 1953, a modernization campaign was launched resulting in major migration, often only semi-voluntary, from hamlets to larger urban centres. The government also promoted the Danish language, pushing an aggressive ‘danishification’ campaign which saw Danish rather than Greenlandic taught in schools. Greenland finally gained home rule in 1973. The new regional government reversed the linguistic policies, instead driving a Greenlandization/inuitization campaign which replaced Danish with Greenlandic in schools. In 1994, Danish was relegated to a foreign language in all schools outside the capital, Nuuk, which has a large Danish minority.
Most Greenlanders speak both Greenlandic and Danish, some Inuits even speak only Greenlandic. Nevertheless, Danish is still widely used in business and administration and it remains associated with the upper social strata in local society. Unilingual Greenlandic speakers are often at the lowest level, with poor education and either unemployed or with a low-paying job. Bilinguals and unilingual Danes tend to form the business, political, social and cultural elites. The local population faces challenges such as low education, a lack of opportunities, low wages, unemployment and crime.
Greenland’s natural governing party between 1979 and 2009 was Siumut (Forward), a left-wing social democratic party which had led the charge for home rule in the 1970s. Being in government so long, it was accussed of corruption and nepotism in administration. Such issues contributed to its defeat in the 2009 election, won by Inuit Ataqatigiit (Inuit Community/Community of the People), a socialist and separatist which was founded in 1976. The IA’s leader, Kuupik Kleist, became Prime Minister.
The Democrats (Demokraatit) and Atassut (Feeling of Community) both lost heavily in the 2009 election, losing about 10% of the vote apiece from the 2005 elections. The social liberal Democrats are a predominantly Danish party which oppose independence, most of its leaders are Danes but it does not receive homogeneous support from Danish expats in Greenland. It won 16% in 2002 and then placed second, with 22.8% in 2005, but its support fell to 12.7%. Atassut, a right-wing and agrarian party which is similarly opposed to independence, used to be the main centre-right rival to Siumut in the 1980s, winning over 40% of the vote. But since the 1990s the party has been in free fall, having seen its support shrink from 30% in 1991-1995 to barely 11% and 3 seats in 2009. The smaller Kattusseqatigiit (Association of Candidates, K) has been represented in Parliament since 1995, peaking at 4 seats in 1999 and one seat since then. It is primarily a personalist party led by Anthon Frederiksen, the former mayor of Ilulissat. IA formed a coalition with the Democrats and K after the last election.
Greenland has rich and, to a certain extent, untapped mineral riches – both onshore and offshore. Oil companies have already spent billions exploring for large reserves of offshore oil. On land, mining companies are clamoring for access to gold and iron ore deposits; but also large and unexploited ‘rare earth’ elements which are key ingredients in modern smartphones or weapons. The IA government has stuck to its zero-tolerance policy on uranium mining, which bans the mining or sell of radioactive resources such as uranium. For a remote and sparsely populated country economically dependent on fishing and its former colonial master, Greenland is now swept up by the winds of change as it finds itself at the heart of a mineral boom with major geopolitical ramifications. Foreign mining companies, including giants such as Alcoa, London Mining PLC, are battling for mining concessions. China has taken a particular interest in Greenland, especially in its rare earth reserves. Although China currently has 90% of the world’s rare earth elements, they will not be able to keep up with Chinese, let alone global, demand in the long-term. The EU and Denmark are concerned by China’s efforts to gain a foothold in Greenland’s economy and the Arctic, and have pressured – unsuccessfully – the Greenlandic government to block Chinese access to rare earth elements, some of which are currently explored by an Australian-based mining company.
The Greenlandic Parliament approved the so-called ‘big-scale law’ on mining a few weeks ago. The law makes it easier and cheaper for foreign mining companies to start large projects in Greenland. Under the new law, any project worth over 5 billion Danish kroner would require a license from the regional government and would need to undertake an environmental and social impact inquiry. The most controversial aspect of the new law is that it allows foreign companies to contract cheaper foreign workers. The law requires that the foreign workers be paid at the local minimum wage and would be entitled to local labour rights (right to strike, collective bargaining), but because the law also allows employers to deduct costs such as insurance and food from their wages, they would likely end up being paid less than local workers. That part of the law, however, is in limbo as it will require approval from the Danish Parliament, which retains control over immigration policy. Proponents of the law argue that the law and the new mineral boom will significantly reduce Greenland’s dependence on Danish grants and diversify the country’s economy. Opponents are concerned about the environmental and social impacts of mining development and control by foreign mining giants, but also criticize the speed at which the law was pushed through. The ‘importation’ of 500-700 foreign workers in a country of 57,000 has also raised concerns amongst the local population.
Turnout was 74.2%, up 2.9% since 2009.
Siumut (S) 42.8% (+16.3%) winning 14 seats (+5)
Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) 34.4% (-9.3%) winning 11 seats (-3)
Atassut (A) 8.1% (-2.7%) winning 2 seats (-1)
Partii Inuit (PI) 6.4% (+6.4%) winning 2 seats (+2)
Democrats (D) 6.2% (-6.5%) winning 2 seats (-2)
Association of Candidates (K) 1.1% (-2.7%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Others 0% (-0.2%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Four years after being kicked out of office in monumental fashion, Siumut, led by Aleqa Hammond, roared back to power in Greenland. The party increased its vote share by 16%, taking 43% of the vote and 14 seats while the incumbent IA won only 34%, down over 9 points, and 11 seats. The governing IA-D-K coalition also lots its majority, with both of its coalition partners losing votes and seats.
Mining and the prospect of foreign workers were major issues in this elections and they contributed to Siumut’s victory. Most politicians agree on the exploration of mineral resources, but the big-scale law has stirred controversy. Siumut argued that there was too much secrecy about the various mining projects and found the government too eager to push through the law and too soft on foreign companies. Siumut ran on a populist platform which promised to demand more royalties on resources and forcing tougher rules on potential foreign investors. It also tapped into concerns that the new law was giving too much powers to foreign companies.
Inuit fishermen and seal hunters, the traditional backbone of the old economy, feel increasingly marginalized and forgotten with all these new developments. They oppose new fishing quotas, poor market access for seal skins and restrictions over harpoon guns for whale hunting. IA was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to take heed of their concerns; while Siumut promised that it would work to make economic development ‘fairer’ for all, city dwellers and villagers alike. Siumut, however, does not share IA’s steadfast opposition to uranium mining and has said that it would be open to allowing uranium mining if the ore contains a maximum 0.1% uranium oxide..
Cultural concerns also played a role in the vote. The potential ‘massive’ influx of foreign, predominantly Chinese, workers as part of new contracts (including a concession to London Mining PLC which would supply iron ore to China and employ Chinese foreign workers). In a small and largely ethnically homogeneous country, the prospect of 500-700 cheap foreign workers moving in – even on a temporary basis – scared many, who feared that they will take jobs away from locals and undermine Greenland’s ancient hunting and fishing tradition.
IA likely lost some votes to a new party, Partii Inuit, a very left-wing and separatist party formed recently by IA dissidents. The Inuit Party were the most vocal in their opposition to the big-scale law, calling for a referendum on the issue.
On the map, Siumut won every ‘city’ (the second level divisions behind the 3 municipalities) with the exception of Aasiaat (the fifth largest city), Illoqqortoormiut on the east coast (where Atassut won) and Nuuk (the largest city and capital). Siumut swept every other part of the country, likely benefiting from fishermen and hunters’ opposition to the big-scale law. Interestingly, IA did not lose as much in Nuuk – it won first place by a mile and its vote only fell by 5%. The capital city is booming and rapidly changing, benefiting from the mineral boom. Perhaps urban voters in Greenland’s largest city (over 15,000 people) were more favourable to the incumbent government’s mining policies, which has brought them tangible benefits?
Northeastern Greenland, in blue on the map, is covered by the world’s largest national park and has no permanent inhabitants. Unfortunately, polar bears and seals can’t vote. The small blue dot on the northwestern coast is Thule Air Base, a US Air Force base.
Greenland is changing extremely rapidly now, and its economy and society will likely be transformed by the mineral boom. The new status in 2009 brought the island ever closer to full independence, and many have argued that the mining boom will allow Greenland to become more autonomous from Denmark and move towards full independence. Yet, the transition to either full political independence or economic diversification is problematic. The current mining boom could allow Greenland to become a functioning independent state, but many Greenlanders are asking – at what price? There is much reluctance to sacrifice traditions or the old economy in favour of sovereignty, and many fear that Greenland could be exchanging Danish rule for rule by the special interests.
Legislative elections were held in Malta on March 9, 2013. All seats in Malta’s unicameral legislature, the House of Representatives (Kamra tad-Deputati) were up for reelection. The House consists of at least 65 members elected by single transferable vote (STV) in 13 constituencies which return five members each. However, the STV system is modified to ensure that the party which wins the most votes also receives the most seats. In the last election, for example, the party which placed second in the popular vote actually won more seats than the party which won the election, so four additional seats were given to the first-placed party to ensure that it also had the most seats. A 2007 amendment added another modification to the STV system, to ensure proportionality is respected in the case that a party wins an absolute majority of votes and seats. The amendments award additional seats to the second-placed party if their seat count is disproportionate to their popular vote result.
Although Malta uses STV, it has a very rigid two-party system since 1971. Partisanship is very high in Malta and voters remain impressively loyal to their party. As a result, Maltese elections tend to have some of the highest turnout levels in the world (outside countries with mandatory voting): turnout was 93% in the last general election (and that was the lowest since 1971!). Elections are always closely fought between the two major parties; the 2008 election was won by about 1000 votes out of nearly 300,000 votes, and the losing party rarely wins less than 47% of the vote.
The two dominant parties of Maltese politics are the governing Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista, PN) and the opposition Maltese Labour Party (Partit Laburista, MLP/PL). Both parties were founded when Malta was still under British rule.
The PN was originally founded in 1880 and adopted its current name in 1926. The PN was founded by Maltese Italians who opposed Britain’s efforts to Anglicize the educational and judicial system; at the time the PN was founded, Italian was widely spoken on the island and was the language of the local Maltese elite. After Malta was granted responsible government in 1921, the PN emerged victorious in the 1921, 1924 and 1927 elections. At this time, the PN represented the pro-Italian (often pro-fascist) faction in Maltese colonial politics; it was also closely tied to and supported by the Roman Catholic Church, which was (and to a degree still is) extremely powerful in Malta, a very religious and conservative country. The British, fearing the pro-Italian and pro-fascist sympathies of the Maltese elites and the PN, stepped in and suspended self-rule in 1933. Responsible government was restored only in 1947.
The Labour Party was founded in 1921, closely tied to the General Workers Union (GWU). The party was the junior party in a progressive ‘Compact’ government with the stridently pro-British Constitutional Party between 1927 and 1932, a government marked by a bitter dispute with the Catholic Church which resulted in the Church issuing an interdict against both parties. The MLP became dominant only in the post-war era, emerging with a large majority in the 1947 election just as the PN was still licking its wounds from the damage the war had inflicted on it. However, the MLP – led by Prime Minister Paul Boffa – went through a major split in 1950, with Boffa leaving the MLP after a dispute with his Deputy Prime Minister, the fiery Dom Mintoff. In these conditions, the PN returned to power in 1950 and was reelected by tiny margins in 1951 and 1953.
Dom Mintoff’s Labour Party won the 1955 elections on a platform of ‘integration’ into the United Kingdom, whereby Malta would be granted a devolved status similar to that of the United Kingdom but elect MPs to Westminster and have access to economic aid and social benefits. The United Kingdom was originally open to the idea, but it either soured on it or lost interest as the process dragged on. Although Maltese voters actually endorsed integration in a 1956 referendum, a Nationalist boycott and low turnout (59%) rendered the result inconclusive. Now, faced with opposition from London, the PN and the Church, Mintoff changed course and swore to fight for Malta’s full independence and neutrality. Following dismissals at the Admiralty dockyards, Mintoff and the GWU’s power base, Mintoff resigned in 1958 and called for protests. Britain responded by suspending self-rule again, restoring it in 1962.
The Catholic Church’s opposition to Mintoff and Labour – the party was interdicted between 1961 and 1964 and reading or selling party newspapers was deemed a mortal sin – allowed the PN to win the 1962 and 1966 elections. During this period, Malta signed a military agreement with Britain and became a NATO base. In 1964, the PN negotiated independence for Malta – as a member of the Commonwealth retaining the Queen as head of state and a British Governor General. Despite formal independence, British influence remained pervasive in banking, communications, the military and government.
Having patched up ties – for the time being – with the Catholic Church, Mintoff returned to power in 1971 with a bare one-seat edge over the PN (28 vs 27 seats). Mintoff was a fiery, pugnacious and strong-willed leader who was able to play off world powers against one another to ensure the independence and neutrality of his small island nation. He quickly scrapped the defense agreement, expelled the NATO commander and charged the British and Americans for the use of military facilities in Malta. Mintoff also courted Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and communist China, but also allowed the Soviet Union to store naval fuel in Malta and he received aid from Italy. He was able to play to all sides in the Cold War, in return for recognition of Maltese neutrality.
Domestically, Mintoff transformed Malta into a moden and advanced welfare state – imitating the British model. He declared Malta a republic within the Commonwealth in 1974, nationalized a number of key enterprises, expanded the public sector and implemented major social reforms including gender equality, civil marriage and the decriminalization of homosexuality and adultery. Mintoff was reelected in 1976 and in 1981 (despite the PN winning the popular vote in 1981), but characteristically for Maltese politics, he never had a solid parliamentary majority. His opponents claimed that he was an autocratic strongman who stayed in power through gerrymandering, bullying opponents, patronage and even physical bullying at the polls by his supporters.
In his last term in office, Mintoff picked a fight with the Catholic Church – aiming to wrestle control of education and healthcare away from the Church. He closed down two religious private hospitals and threatened to close down the Church’s 70 or so private schools if they did not abolish tuition fees. Mintoff resigned in 1984, and the PN returned to power in the 1987 election.
The PN government under Edward Fenech Adami, which ruled between 1987 and 1992, liberalized the economy, led a pro-European and pro-Western policy and advocated Maltese membership in the European Union. Labour opposed EU membership. When Labour’s Alfred Sant won the 1996 elections, it froze Malta’s EU application. But Sant’s government, which held a one-seat majority in Parliament, only lasted 22 months. In 1998, Mintoff – still an influential backbencher who was scheming behind Sant’s back – voted against the government on a matter of confidence and eventually brought down the short-lived Labour government. The PN returned to power in 1998 and reopened EU membership talks.
In March 2003, a referendum on EU membership was held. Of all EU membership referendums held in 2003 before the big enlargement in 2004, the Maltese vote was the only one which wasn’t a slam dunk for the pro-EU option. The Labour Party and Mintoff actively campaigned against membership, and only 54% voted in favour of membership. Because less than half of eligible voters had actually voted in favour, Labour compelled the PN to seek a mandate from voters in a snap election. The PN was returned with 35 seats against 30 for Labour, a comfortable majority by local standards. Adami was replaced by Lawrence Gonzi in 2004. In the last election in 2008, Gonzi and the PN were reelected but by a margin of only 1,580 votes.
Gonzi’s government was brought down in December 2012 when a PN dissident broke ranks and voted against the government’s budget, which meant that the government lost confidence and was forced to resign.
The PN and Labour have some ideological differences – on issues such as taxation or government intervention – but they tend to be broadly similar. While it was Eurosceptic until 2004, Labour has since made its peace with the European Union and does not advocate any Eurosceptic positions. Malta as a whole is one of the most socially conservative countries in Europe – divorce was officially illegal until 2011 and abortion remains illegal in all cases (one of the strictest abortion laws in the world) – and the PN has usually tended to be to the right of Labour on social/moral issues (Gonzi opposed the new law on divorce, supported by 53% of voters in a 2011 referendum), but even that might be changing given that both parties openly support civil unions for same-sex couples and anti-discrimination legislation.
Prime Minister Gonzi is running on his economic record, stating that he has ensured economic stability and job creation in Malta despite the global economic crisis. Indeed, Malta is performing well within the EU. Its deficit is now under the EU’s 3% limit, unemployment is low at 6% and the economy is projected to grow by 2% in 2013 (it grew by 1.2% in 2012). The only potential issues are the high public debt (71% of GDP) and a recent downgrade in its credit rating (from A- to BBB+ by Standard and Poor’s). Gonzi’s government lowered taxes, and campaigns on more tax cuts (including the income tax and property tax). Labour, led since 2008 by the 39-year old Joseph Muscat, does not have markedly different policies; it focuses on increasing women’s participation in the labour force and reducing electricity costs by 25% by building a new power station. It also promises to cut taxes and reduces ‘wasteful’ public spending.
The traditional third party is the green Democratic Alternative (AD), which has generally won about 1% in general elections although it managed a spectacular 9% in the 2004 European elections. It supports a higher minimum wage, gay marriage, drug legalization and campaign finance legislation (Malta is one of the few EU countries with no campaign finance laws).
Turnout was about 93%, sky high in any other country but fairly low by Maltese standards. The results were as follows:
Labour 54.83% (+6.04%) winning 39 seats (+5)
PN 43.34% (-6.00%) winning 30 seats (-5)
AD 1.8% (+0.49%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.03% (-0.53%) winning 0 seats (nc)
It was a massive landslide for the opposition Labour Party, which won the popular vote by 11.5% and with a 35,000 vote margin over the governing PN. Maltese elections, since the 1970s, have always been closely fought battles – the 1992 election, in which Labour won 46.5% of the vote, was considered as a PN landslide by Maltese standards. Both parties usually have a loyal, highly motivated and reliable electorate which provides them with a very high floor (but also limits them to a low ceiling); there are few voters, and elections are determined by who drives out their voters the best or manages transfers in STV most efficiently. This year, however, was different. This was the largest victory for any single party since the 1955 election – when Malta was still a British colony and at a time when the party system fluctuated more. In 1955, Labour won 56.7% against 40% for the PN. The 6% swing against the governing party this year was huge. It was not just a case of Labour holding its vote, because its raw vote total increased from 141.8k in 2008 to 167.5k this year, while the PN fell from 143.4k votes in 2008 to 132.4k this year. Polls before the election had showed that at least 8-10% of the PN’s 2008 voters were planning to vote Labour, with an additional 12-15% still undecided at the time. Labour also had a comfortable lead with first-time voters.
Malta’s economy, by EU standards, is doing fairly well and the issues which feature prominently in elections in all other EU countries today (austerity, debts and deficits, unemployment) did not really play a large role in this campaign. The PN was the victim, first and foremost, of voter fatigue. The party has been in power uninterrupted since 1998 (15 years) and for 24 years in the past 26 years since 1987. In that time, especially since 2008, there was a perception that the PN had grown complacent, disconnected/out of touch and even corrupt because of all those years in powers. The government’s decision to raise its own salaries was unpopular, as it came in the middle of the economic crisis. There have also been a number of corruption cases, including a major case involving oil procurement. The government’s recent attempt to hand over management of the island’s public transport system to a German operator was very unpopular, in fact it was the factor which caused the PN rebel to vote against the budget and bring down the government in December. High utility prices, particularly for electricity, also hurt the government.
Labour, under its young leader Joseph Muscat, has become far more appealing and less polarizing than it had been in the past. It dropped one of its major disagreements with the PN (European integration) by shifting away from its past Euroscepticism; it has also reached out to Malta’s business community. Muscat also campaigned on a relatively centrist platform, which hit all the right notes for the electorate: fighting corruption, cutting electricity prices by 25%, lowering income taxes, controlling government spending and reducing the deficit. Given the broad similarities with the PN (which focused primarily on tax cuts), it is not hard to see why a substantial number of PN supporters voted Labour this year.
In the 13 STV districts, Labour won 39 seats to the PN’s 26 seats. The PN was hurt by its terrible job at transfer management, given that Labour won the most seats (3 vs 2) in two districts – 8 (Birkirkara) and 13 (Gozo) – where the PN actually won the most votes. The 2007 amendment to ensure proportionality kicked in, as this article explains. Because Labour’s 39 members were elected with an average of 4,295 votes when the PN’s 26 members were elected with an average of 5,093 votes; the PN found itself entitled to receive four additional seats (the formula used is dividing the PN’s total first preference votes by the lowest average – Labour’s 4,295 – to get 30.8, or an additional 4.8 seats from the PN’s 26 – rounded down because the constitution says the Parliament must have a odd number of seats). The perennially unsuccessful third party, AD, has complained about the ‘perversion’ of this system because their vote count (5,506) is much higher average worked out to ensure proportionality for the two big parties – yet they will have no seats. A Labour MP now supports a constitutional amendment to grant AD parliamentary representation.
Here is a map of Labour and PN’s first pref results by district (see also: first pref winner by district, STV seats by party). There is a clean and clear geographic divide. Labour won 71% in District 2, and over 66% in the three other southern districts – Districts 3, 4 and 5. The second district covers Labour’s birthplace and heartland on the docklands south of Valletta, the capital. The south of the island also seems to be working-class areas. The PN’s best district was District 10, an affluent and residential/touristy area north of Valletta.
Malta’s election signals a major change in leadership, with Labour winning power for the first time since Malta joined the EU and later the Eurozone. As a small country in the wider EU, it is not a particularly significant election; and even domestically, given Labour’s platform and its ideological proximity with the PN, it will not signal a major departure from the former government.
Presidential, legislative and regional elections were held in Kenya on March 4, 2013. These are the first general elections under a new constitution adopted in 2010.
The President of Kenya is the head of state and government and serves a five-year term, renewable once. The Vice President is the running mate of the winning presidential candidate. In the past, the President was elected by first past the post in a single-round election with no runoff. Under the new constitution, a runoff is held if no candidate has won over 50% of the vote in the first round and at least 24% in half (24) of Kenya’s 47 counties. The office of Prime Minister, created in 2008 as part of a power sharing agreement following the 2007-2008 crisis, will be abolished and the President will regain his traditional powers as head of state and government.
However, the new constitution granted wider powers to the Parliament, which will now be composed of two houses: the National Assembly (previously the unicameral legislature) and a new Senate. The National Assembly, formerly consisting of 224 members, will now have 350 members – 290 of these will be elected by FPTP in single-member districts (whose boundaries were established by a new boundary and electoral commission, the IEBC). 47 seats will be reserved for women, with each county electing one woman. The remaining seats are reserved for special interest groups, such as young voters or people with disabilities (they will be nominated).
The Senate will consist of 68 members, 47 of which will be elected by FPTP in Kenya’s 47 counties. 16 seats are reserved for women, and it seems as if they be elected in proportion to the share of seats held by each political party in the 47 districts. Four seats are reserved for young people (2 seats) and people with disabilities (2 seats).
For the first time since independence, the new constitution devolves significant powers to 47 counties, although Kenya remains a centralized rather than federal state. Voters in each county will directly elect a governor and a county assembly (elected in single-member wards by FPTP).
The usual meme about Kenya is that it is a model of democracy, rule of law and political stability in turbulent East Africa. That is not the case, nor has it ever been the case. This idyllic image of Kenya was dealt a big blow following the contested 2007 presidential election, when supporters of the defeated candidate clashed with supporters of the incumbent president, killing up to 1,500 people and displacing up to 300,000 others. The 2007-2008 post-election violence was not an unprecedented violent outburst of ethnic violence, it was the culmination of decades and decades of ethnic politics and government-sanctioned ethnic favoritism and oppression.
Kenya gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1963 and became a republic in 1964. Kenya’s first President, who ruled the country until 1978, was Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta had been one of the main leaders of the struggle for independence against Great Britain, a movement which began in earnest following World War II. The nationalist movement was spearheaded by Kenyatta’s Kikuyu people, a tribe which lives in the interior central highlands. Under colonial rule, Britain encouraged white immigration and allowed for the growth of a white planter/grower elite in the Rift Valley and the surrounding central highlands. These large-scale coffee plantations were dependent on Kikuyu labour, the Kikuyu were subjected to the most pressure from settlers. The Kikuyu, but also the Luo, formed the bulk of the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), Kenyatta’s party and the ruling party until 2002.
After independence, Kenyatta’s policies largely favoured the Kikuyu (and their allies, the Embu and Meru). For example, white plantations were mostly broken up and given to black farmers – mostly Kikuyu – forming a black/Kikuyu elite with economic and political power. The unequal distribution of land between the various tribes, and the tradition of the ruling tribe using political/state power to further their interests at the expense of their rivals has created the current climate of ethnic animosities and resentment. In power, Kenyatta largely adhered to a conservative and pro-Western policy, in contrast to other African liberation leaders who turned to the Soviet Union and experimented with socialism or statist policies. After 1969, after Kenyatta banned the Luo-based opposition KPU, Kenya became a de facto one-party state under the KANU.
After Kenyatta’s death in 1978, he was succeeded by his Vice President, Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin. By the mid-1980s, Moi had turned Kenya into a de jure authoritarian one-party state and had concentrated power in the hands of the Kalenjin (while cooperating with the Kikuyu). Moi remained in power by exploiting ethnic tensions, political violence, inciting ethnic violence and repression of opposition. Under international pressure, Moi was forced to liberalize the country in the 1990s and open up to multi-party politics and elections. He was, however, able to win the 1992 and 1997 elections – generally free but not fair elections.
Barred from running again in 2002, Moi tried to manage the presidential succession in his favour by promoting the candidacy of Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the first President, against that of Mwai Kibaki, Moi’s former Vice President, who assembled a multiethnic opposition coalition (the National Rainbow Coalition). Moi’s strategy backfired and resulted in a humiliating defeat for Kenyatta. Kibaki won the 2002 election with 62% of the vote.
Under Kibaki’s first term, Kenya enjoyed consistently strong economic growth, up to 7% growth in 2007, but inequalities increased and corruption remained widespread and ingrained in politics. The multiethnic coalition, the National Rainbow Coalition, did not last long. In a 2005 referendum on a proposed constitution, certain members of the ruling coalition – notably Raila Odinga, an ethnic Luo, joined with KANU to successfully campaign for a NO vote.
Raila Odinga was Mwai Kibaki’s main opponent in the 2007 presidential election. Initial results indicated that Odinga had won, but the final results released by the government proclaimed Kibaki as the victor with 47% against 44% for Odinga. The election was marred by serious allegations of fraud and vote rigging, and it is indeed quite likely that Odinga actually won the election.
The election was followed by a wave of bloodshed, ethnic/tribal violence and rioting. Odinga’s Luo and Kalenjin supporters targeted Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group, followed by Kikuyu retaliation. The 2007-2008 crisis claimed up to 1,500 lives and displaced 300,000 people from their homes. The violence petered out as Odinga and Kibaki shared a power-sharing agreement at the end of February 2008 and formed a coalition government in April 2008, with Odinga as Prime Minister and Kibaki as President.
The power-sharing period since 2008 has been described by most as chaotic, but it was at least successful in restoring order (and economic growth) to the country. Kibaki and Odinga both backed the 2010 constitution, ratified by voters in a referendum. The power-sharing government finally got to work on land reform issues, creating (after much wrangling) an independent National Land Commission which has the power settle land disputes and recommend land policies.
Kenyan politics is still all about ethnicity, tribes and complex (and often short-lived) ethnic/tribal alliances. Ideology is barely a factor in electoral campaigns, and none of the leading political parties and coalitions can be said to have a coherent ideology – in fact, a lot of those parties and coalitions tend to be tribal personal vehicles for a leading politician.
Two-thirds of Kenyans are ‘Bantu’, deriving from people who came to eastern and southern Africa over 2000 years ago from western and central Africa during the Bantu Migration. The other third of Kenyans are ‘Nilotic’ people, who originally came from present-day South Sudan and speak Nilo-Saharan (rather than Niger-Congo) languages. The Bantu/Nilotic distinction has little to do with the current ethnic politics; the main ethnic groups in Kenyan politics are the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin and Kamba.
The Kikuyu (Bantu), the ruling elite under Kenyatta and arguably under Kibaki’s first term, make up about 17-20% of the population (more if their traditional Embu and Meru allies are included) and live in the central highlands. The Luo (Nilotic), make up about 10-14% of the population, reside on the shores of Lake Victoria in Nyanza Province. Barack Obama’s father was a Luo. The Luhya (Bantu) make up about 13% of the population and live in the highlands in the Western Province, north of Lake Victoria and east of Uganda. The Kalenjin (Nilotic), make up 11-13% of the population, mostly in the highlands of the Rift Valley. The Kamba (Bantu), finally, make up 10-11% of the population, found largely in areas to the east of Nairobi. Smaller groups include the Kisii in Nyanza Province, the Mijikenda along the coast, the well-known semi-nomadic Maasai near the Tanzanian border and Somalis in the arid desert areas bordering Somalia.
Elections in Kenya are about forging alliances between various rival ethnic groups against other rival ethnic groups. These alliances never last very long, and most opponents in a presidential election used to be allies in past contests against another candidate or party.
The semi-incumbent in this race is the outgoing Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, who is running under the banner of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) which includes his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Raila Odinga is the son of Oginga Odinga, a Luo who briefly served as the country’s first Vice President under Jomo Kenyatta until 1965. Oginga Odinga later founded the Kenyan People’s Union (KPU), a Luo-based opposition party, banned in 1969. Oginga and Raila were opponents of Moi’s regime, and the father ran in the 1992 elections and Raila ran in the 1997 elections. Raila Odinga briefly reconciled with Moi after the 1997 election and served in his cabinet between 2001 and 2002. He joined forces with Mwai Kibaki in the 2002 election, but he broke with Kibaki shortly thereafter and opposed the 2005 constitutional draft. Odinga’s core base of support resides, naturally, with the Luo.
His running mate this year is incumbent Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, a Kamba who is the current leader of the hilariously named ‘Wiper Democratic Movement’. Kalonzo Musyoka ran for president in his own right in 2007, as an ODM dissident, but took only 9% of the vote. The CORD is largely a Luo/Kamba alliance, but it has a base of Luhya support as well.
His main opponent is Uhuru Kenyatta, and his running mate William Ruto – together they form the Jubilee Coalition. Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, is the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta (1964-1978). His political career began, humiliatingly, in 2002 when he was promoted by Moi as his hand-picked successor but lost the 2002 election to Kibaki by a huge margin. He allied with Odinga and other politicians during the 2005 referendum. Uhuru Kenyatta served as finance minister between 2008 and 2012 and is also a Deputy Prime Minister. Kenyatta founded his own personal vehicle, The National Alliance (TNA). His running mate is William Ruto, a Kalenjin, and former agriculture and later higher education minister. He is the leader of the United Republican Party (URP).
Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are infinitely controversial politicians, given that both have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged role in inciting and perpetrating ethnic violence during the 2007-2008 crisis. Kenyatta is accused of having organized a Kikuyu militia, the Mungiki, during the violence. Ironically, Kenyatta – a Kikuyu – and Ruto – a Kalenjin – found themselves on opposite sides of the violence in 2007-2008 but they seem to have found common ground with the ICC indictments. Their ICC indictments were not a huge factor in the campaign, given that a lot of politicians in Kenya – even Odinga – want Kenyan courts rather than the ICC to settle the post-election violence from 2007-2008. The main controversy surrounding Uhuru Kenyatta at home might be the allegations that by way of his powerful family, he owns vast tracts of land in central Kenya. His rivals attacked him on this topic during debates, but he denies that he owns large expanses of land.
Kenyatta and Odinga are the two top candidates, but there is a third contender: deputy prime minister Musalia Mudavadi, a Luhya. Mudavadi, who was Kenyatta’s running mate in 2002 and Odinga’s running mate in 2007, is the leader of the Amani coalition which includes Mudavadi’s United Democratic Forum (UDF) but also the remnants of KANU, controlled by Daniel arap Moi’s son Gideon Moi. Mudavadi was initially promoted by Kenyatta and Ruto in the case that the courts did not approve their candidacies, but when it became clear that Kenyatta and Ruto would be cleared to run, Mudavadi broke with them and decided to run on his own. Mudavadi’s candidacy is supported by former Daniel arap Moi, leading some of his opponents to deride Mudavadi as Moi’s play thing and latest tool.
Ideological factors, naturally, were not a major issue in this campaign. Each candidate clearly targets particular tribes, even if they do not really use openly chauvinistic rhetoric. If there are ideological difference, Uhuru Kenyatta likely leans to the right while Raila Odinga leans more to the left – but those differences are minute and should not be taken seriously.
Turnout was 86% in the presidential election. The IEBC’s online reporting system with a map of the results for all races as results flowed in proved too good to be true, it broke down halfway through the count and threw the reporting process into the dark as the IEBC was forced to count the remaining presidential ballots manually and announce results through clunky PDF files. The results for other races (Parliament, county governors and assembly) appear incomplete and fragmentary as of now.
The results of the presidential election, as reported by the IEBC, was as follows:
Uhuru Kenyatta / William Ruto (Jubilee – TNA/URP) 50.07%
Raila Odinga / Kalonzo Musyoka (CORD – ODM/WDM) 43.31%
Musalia Mudavadi / Jeremiah Ngayu Kioni (Amani – UDF) 3.93%
Rejected ballots 0.88%
Peter Kenneth / Ronald Osumba (Eagle) 0.59%
Mohammed Abduba Dida / Joshua Odongo Onono (ARC) 0.43%
Martha Karua / Augustine Lotodo (NARC-Kenya) 0.36%
James ole Kiyiapi / Winnie Kaburu (RBK) 0.33%
Paul Muite / Shem Ochuodho (Safina) 0.1%
The IEBC has declared Uhuru Kenyatta as the president-elect, having won over 50% by the first round and taking over 25% of the vote in well over half of Kenya’s 47 counties (in 42 of them). Outgoing Prime Minister Raila Odinga, his main rival, has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the result citing fraud and mass tampering with the results, and will challenge the result in the country’s Supreme Court. The courts may decide to overturn the result, but most seem to assume that it will not do so. The outgoing President, Mwai Kibaki, has recognized Kenyatta’s victory.
With such a narrow victory for Uhuru Kenyatta in a country where elections are ‘ethnic censuses’ and Raila Odinga challenging the results, there is some reason to fear for a repeat of the ethnic violence and bloodshed which followed the controversial 2007 election. Odinga’s Luo supporters find themselves shut out from political power yet again, while Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group retains political power in Kenya (in an alliance with their erstwhile enemies the Kalenjin). Kenyatta’s victory will not please everybody, and with such a narrow mandate his legitimacy might be challenged. Kenya clearly remains split along ethnic lines, and this remains a major danger for democracy in the country.
However, Odinga, while challenging the result in court, has urged his supporters to remain peaceful. It seems rather unlikely that Kenya will suffer a repeat of the 2007-2008 crisis. Both men, despite playing on ethnic resentment and tensions for political gain, understand that the 2007-2008 crisis was utterly disastrous for Kenya’s economy and its image abroad. Furthermore, the 2010 constitutional reforms have reduced the potency of the issues which catalyzed the 2007-2008 crisis: devolution, which will allow Odinga’s supporters and minority groups to retain power at the county level; and the first steps on land reform issues which will hopefully resolve contentious land issues (naturally tied to ethnic tensions).
Kenyatta and William Ruto face major domestic challenges including a relatively sluggish economy, high unemployment (especially amongst younger Kenyans) and endemic corruption. They will also need to adapt to a new constitutional framework which has introduced major changes to governance in Kenya, most importantly devolution to county governments and a Parliament which will now include a second, upper, chamber (the Senate).
However, most interest in the new tandem which will govern the country comes from their indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for allegedly inciting and perpetrating ethnic violence during the 2007-2008 crisis. To gain an idea of how rapidly political allegiances and coalitions may change in Kenya, Kenyatta and Ruto were on opposite sides of the violence in 2007-2008: Kenyatta supported a Kikuyu militia which notably targeted the Kalenjin in the Rift Valley, while Ruto supported Kalenjin groups who targeted the Kikuyu. Grudges or at least erstwhile political rivalries don’t last for long in Kenyan politics, and both men appear to have found some common ground in their ICC indictments. Ruto’s trial is due to begin in late May, and Kenyatta’s trial in early July.
Kenyatta/Ruto’s victory places both men and their country in an awkward and unprecedented situation. The election was a success for democracy, especially if it is not followed by violence. Kenyatta was elected in an election which foreign observers confirmed was free and fair, and can thus claim democratic legitimacy despite a weak mandate and Odinga’s court challenge. However, the winners of this election are indicted by the ICC on several counts of crimes against humanity and have been summoned by the ICC. Unless charges are dropped soon, Kenyatta and his running-mate will join Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in the unsavoury club of heads of states who have been indicted by the ICC.
Sudan is widely seen in the West as a ‘rogue state’ and has long been diplomatically isolated and shunned by the international community (notably the EU and the US) under al-Bashir’s authoritarian regime. However, Kenya is a key longtime regional ally for the West located in a strategic hotspot (bordering Somalia), an economic power in the region and a democracy (albeit a troubled and imperfect one). The West cannot afford to treat Kenya as a rogue state, and it will need to find a way to adapt and work with Kenyatta’s government. Nevertheless, foreign diplomats have issued some harsh statements about Kenya. The British High Commissioner said that Britain would maintain only “essential contact” (limited and minimal diplomatic interaction) with Nairobi in the case Kenyatta won, just like Britain does with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. The US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson warned, before the vote, that “choices have consequences”. China, on the other hand, welcomed Kenyatta’s victory – unsurprisingly as China has long has its eyes set on Kenya and the African continent as a whole as the traditional European powers struggle to retain their foothold in Africa.
But many feel that the ICC’s case against the new governing tandem in Nairobi is weak. The ICC might be brought to drop charges altogether in the next few months.
It is quite possible that Kenyatta/Ruto were actually helped by the ICC indictment. Although the ICC originally enjoyed strong support when it took over the Kenyan case after Kenya itself proved unwilling to seriously prosecute those behind the post-electoral violence; the ICC has quickly lost legitimacy in Kenya. Most politicians, including Raila Odinga, now want Kenyan courts rather than the ICC handling the case. For Kenyatta and Ruto’s Kikuyu and Kalenjin supporters, the ICC indictments were perceived as attacks on their entire communities rather than just those individuals. The Jubilee alliance capitalized on such sentiments and drummed up ethnic support for their ticket, presenting themselves as victims and martyrs.
The Jubilee coalition also played on lingering anti-colonial and somewhat anti-Western sentiment with some Kenyans, who dislike being lectured on democracy by former colonial masters and resent foreign intervention into their domestic politics. The British High Commissioner’s remarks before the vote caused offense to many voters, others – including some foreign observers – criticized the West for its thinly veiled implicit backing of Odinga. Kenyans also took negatively to foreign media coverage of the election. Indeed, the dominant theme in the foreign media’s coverage of the run-up to the election was reminding viewers of the post-electoral violence in 2007-2008 and pondering whether this year’s election would be followed by a repeat of the 2007-2008 ethnic violence. In many cases, Kenyans felt that the foreign media were running with their own pre-conceptions and narratives about the election and what would come out of it. Kenyatta/Ruto’s campaign used nationalistic and anti-colonial rhetoric and voiced concern over the ‘shadowy’ involvement of foreign powers (notably Britain) in the vote.
Kenyatta struck a conciliatory note in his victory speech, promising national unity, working with opponents and the usual good stuff associated with victory speeches. But he also issued a stern warning to the international community, saying that they must respect the country’s sovereignty and the democratic will of its people. While Kenyatta and Ruto have both said that they will continue cooperating with international institutions and will attend their trial in The Hague, they have also made clear that their public duties in office would take priority and prevent them from being in The Hague continually. But despite this nationalistic rhetoric, it is still tough to see Kenyatta transforming into a ‘pariah’ leader. He has the upper hand (and democratic legitimacy) in his dealings with the international community now, but he too will need to work with foreign partners.
Obviously, the presidential results revealed that Kenyan elections and politics remain very much divided by ethnicity. This election, like others in the past, was a traditional “ethnic census” election. Tribal loyalties remain key in Kenyan elections.
Kenyatta/Ruto’s Jubilee coalition united the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups of the central highlands and the Rift Valley. The Kikuyu, like Kenyatta, had backed President Kibaki over Odinga in the 2007 election; but the Kalenjin – former President Daniel arap Moi’s ethnic group – supported Odinga back in 2007. As a result, the ticket won huge margins the Kikuyu and Kalenjin heartlands – about 90 to 95% of the vote. In the counties which make up the old Central Region, the Kikuyu heartland, Kenyatta won 93.9% of the vote. In the predominantly Kalenjin Rift Valley Region, he won 72% of the vote – and well over 85 or 90% in the Kalenjin counties in that region. It appears that Kenyatta also did well with the Maasai in Kajiado County. Not quite sure what was going on in Mandera County, that deep red (92% county) in the country’s arid and desertic northeastern corner bordering Somalia. It is a largely Somali area, but Kenyatta did not sweep Somali voters.
What might have been crucial in Kenyatta’s victory was that he, unlike Odinga, managed a respectable and substantial minority share in those counties where he lost. Perhaps a sign of the dispersion of the Kikuyu throughout southern and central Kenya? Or the divided loyalties of ‘other’ ethnic groups (like the Somali) who were not integrated into either ethnic political alliance this year?
Odinga/Musyoka’s CORD united the Luo and Kamba ethnic groups, who live along Lake Victoria and in parts of the Eastern Region respectively. The Luo are Odinga’s core supporters, and he won 98-99% in Homa Bay, Siaya and Kisumu Counties along Lake Victoria, where the Luo population is concentrated. In 2007, the Kamba had backed Musyoka’s independent candidacy (a distant third); this year they supported Musyoka on the CORD ticket. Odinga won 90.7% in Makueni County, 85.9% in Machakos County and 79.5% in Kitui County – three counties with a predominantly Kamba population. Although they were not “represented” on the ticket, Odinga also found very strong support in the Coast Region, where the Mijkenda and Swahili Muslim merchants have long been clamoring for autonomy and opposed the Kikuyu ruling elites in Nairobi. A secessionist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council, tried – without much success – to disturb the election in the coastal region. Odinga won 69.8% in Mombasa and 74.9% in the Coast Region as a whole. From the map, it also appears that the smaller Kisii, Turkana, Samburu and Borana Oromo ethnic groups supported Odinga.
Odinga was victorious by a small margin in Nairobi, with 49% against 46.8% for Kenyatta.
The Luhya, concentrated in the Western Region north of Lake Victoria and on the border with Uganda, were split in this election. On the one hand, they had voted in droves for Odinga in 2007 and some Luhya leaders backed him again this year. On the other hand, there was a Luhya candidate this year – Musalia Mudavadi, Odinga’s 2007 running-mate, now running independently with the backing of former President Moi. As expected, Mudavadi did not sweep Luhya votes but they were his only substantial support base. He took 29% (against Odinga’s 62%) in the Western Region, and won a single county (Vihiga, with 49.2%) in Luhya country. He did not do nearly as well in neighboring counties, and it does not seem as if Moi’s backing brought him any substantial Kalenjin support in the Rift Valley.
I have managed to patch together incomplete results for the other elections (source):
Jubilee 135 FPTP seats + 23 women seats > at least 158 seats
CORD 117 FPTP seats + 21 women seats > at least 138 seats
Amani (Mudavidi) 18 FPTP seats
Eagle Coalition (Kenneth) 2 FPTP seats
Others/independents 18 FPTP seats
Jubilee 21 counties
CORD 20 counties
Amani 4 counties
Others/independents 2 counties
CORD 22 governors
Jubilee 17 governors
Amani 3 governors
Others 3 governors
These results are still incomplete (they do not include the nominated seats or all of the women seats in the National Assembly). But they show that while Kenyatta’s Jubilee alliance has won a plurality of seats in both houses, it will likely fall short of an absolute majority even when all the nominated seats are accounted for. The article linked to above notes that, with appointed seats in the National Assembly, Jubilee would end up with 163 seats, short of an absolute majority (176/350). In the Senate, the Jubilee alliance will also fall short of an absolute majority. All this, of course, assumes that nobody switches sides, either to the government or to the opposition – an impossible proposition in Kenyan politics!
Within the new governing alliance, the TNA and URP won roughly the same number of seats with a slight edge to the TNA. The division between the two allies of convenience followed ethnic lines; Kenyatta’s TNA was strongest in the Kikuyu counties, Ruto’s URP was strongest in the Kalenjin counties. Within CORD, Raila Odinga’s ODM was the dominant force but Musyoka’s WDM-K was dominant in Musyoka’s Kamba strongholds and in the Coast Region.
The Senate will play a key role in the devolution process: it determines and oversees the allocation of revenue to counties, considers and votes on bills pertaining to counties and it must also the annual budgets for the new counties.
Assuming the results and the fragile post-electoral peace holds, Kenya will have succeeded in holding a democratic and relatively peaceful election. But what came out of that election – Kenyatta’s victory – is unlikely to please Western governments or foreign onlookers. The election was a major defeat for the ICC. Voters, who had once embraced the ICC, have now rejected it – raising major questions for the ICC’s legitimacy and support with the broader African population, but also the chances for real justice in post-conflict situations in Africa.
State elections were held in the Austrian states of Carinthia (Kärnten) and Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) were held on March 3, 2013.
The Carinthian state legislature (Landtag) has 36 members elected to five-year terms in four constituencies through proportional representation with a 5% threshold. The Lower Austrian landtag has 56 members elected to five-year terms in 21 constituencies corresponding to the state’s district and cities, the threshold is 4%.
In Carinthia and Lower Austria (along with Burgenland, Styria and Upper Austria), the state government is formed on the basis of the Austrian proporz principle, where each party which won over 10% of the vote receives seat(s) in the state government in proportion to their share of the vote. Although all major parties govern in coalition and hold seats in the state government, there may be unofficial working agreements/unofficial coalitions between parties in the state government to form an absolute majority in the legislature and government, leaving a smaller government party as a de facto ‘opposition’. The state governor (Landeshauptmann) is elected by the state legislature, and often comes from the largest party in the legislature and government.
Carinthia is a largely alpine state in southern Austria, the state capital is Klagenfurt. Historically, the state’s main industries included agriculture, forestry, manufacturing and mining. Today, the state’s economy is more reliant on tourism, electronics (Philips and Seimens have large operations in the state) and engineering. Carinthia has the second largest Protestant population in Austria after Burgenland, representing 10% of the population. Some rural areas in the state resisted the Counter-Reformation which nearly wiped out Protestantism in modern-day Austria.
Of lesser demographic significance but of far more political significance is a small Slovene minority in Carinthia, concentrated in the south of the state between the Karavanke mountain range (the modern border between Austria and Slovenia) and the Drava river. In the nineteenth century, about a third of the Carinthian population was Slovene; in the 2001 census, the official figure was 3% (Slovene minority groups claim that the data is flawed and underestimates the minority). Events which took place in Carinthia immediately after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 have had a major effect on the state’s contemporary political tradition. In 1918, Yugoslavian troops invaded the predominantly Slovene region between the Karavanke and the Drava river, forcing the German-Austrian state government to flee Klagenfurt. After armed clashes between both sides, the Entente powers stepped in to arbitrate a ceasefire. The parties involved agreed to hold a plebiscite in the predominantly Slovene region of the state to resolve the issue. In a 1920 plebiscite in the majority-Slovene ‘Zone A’, 59% of voters chose to remain part of Austria – a significant number of Slovenes, particularly those in the Klagenfurt basin, voted to remain with Austria rather than join the new Yugoslav state.
Despite the resolution of the issue, the armed conflict between Carinthia and Yugoslavia in 1920 (Kärntner Abwehrkampf) has played a major role in forming the state’s contemporary political traditions, by breeding pan-German nationalism and anti-Slavic/anti-Yugoslavian sentiment. Since the days of the Austrian First Republic in the interwar period, Carinthia has been a hotbed of (pan-German) nationalism. During the interwar years, the pan-German national liberal Landbund, which had a strong base with Protestant farmers, often placed second with decent results.
However, during the interwar era and during most of the post-war era, Carinthian politics were dominated by the Social Democrats (SPÖ), strong in the state partly because of its industrial and blue-collar nature. The SPÖ won the most votes in every state election between 1945 and 1999, and even won over 50% of the vote between 1970 and 1984. The longtime SPÖ Governor, Leopold Wagner (1974-1988), was very popular with Carinthian voters because of his populist and nationalist (often anti-Slovene) positions, which often put him at odds with the federal leadership of the SPÖ. However, throughout the post-war era, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) – an erstwhile national liberal party (which welcomed a lot of former Nazis) which has since become Austria’s leading far-right party – was much stronger in Carinthia than in the rest of the country. It always won double digits (in the low 10s between the mid-1960s and 1984).
Since the 1980s, Carinthia has gained national and even international prominence as the stronghold of the Austrian far-right. Jörg Haider, associated with the FPÖ’s right-wing/pan-German camp, gained control of the Carinthian FPÖ in 1983 and went on to gain control of the federal FPÖ in 1986 (defeating Norbert Steger, who had been the party’s unsuccessful liberal leader since 1980). Under Haider’s leadership, the FPÖ shifted rightwards, away from its erstwhile classical liberalism and emphasizing nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant positions. This new rhetoric propelled the FPÖ to new heights, beginning in Carinthia. Under Haider, the party increased its support from 11.7% to 16% in the 1984 state election. In the 1989 election, the FPÖ won 29% in Carinthia and became the second largest party ahead of the conservative ÖVP. Haider was able to become governor of Carinthia through a deal with the ÖVP. He was, however, forced to resign in 1991 after his controversial appraisal of the Third Reich’s “employment policies”. In 1994, the Carinthian FPÖ increased its support to 33%. In 1999, the party placed first with 42% (against 33% for the SPÖ) and Jörg Haider became governor again.
At the same time, the FPÖ reached its peak federally (second placing with 27% in the 1999 federal election) and entered the federal government in a coalition with the centre-right ÖVP. Federally, cabinet participation proved unpopular with the FPÖ’s party and caused great strains on the party. In the 2002 federal election, its support dropped to 10% although it remained in government thereafter.
In 2004, Jörg Haider won another term as governor in his Carinthian stronghold, with the FPÖ winning 42.5% against 38% for the SPÖ (the ÖVP’s support collapsed to barely 11.6%). However, in 2005, after an internal row in the FPÖ, Haider left the party and founded his own party – the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), as an ostensibly more moderate version of the FPÖ. The FPÖ, now led by Heinz-Christian Strache, won the battle for control of the far-right against the BZÖ – the former won 11% against only 4% for the latter in the 2006 federal election. However, in the 2008 federal election, Haider took the helm of the BZÖ’s federal list and led the party to 11% nationally (the FPÖ won 17.5%) – and 39% in Carinthia.
Haider was killed in a car accident 13 days after the election, in October 2008. Running on a platform of upholding Haider’s legacy, his successor as governor, Gerhard Dörfler, won an unprecedented landslide victory for the BZÖ in the 2009 state election. The BZÖ won 44.9% against 28.7% for the SPÖ.
In December 2009, as the federal BZÖ under Josef Bucher took a ‘hard liberal’ turn and adopted very liberal on economic and fiscal issues (while remaining Eurosceptic), the state BZÖ under governor Dörfler and state leader Uwe Scheuch split from the federal BZÖ and formed an alliance with the federal FPÖ. The state BZÖ became the Freedom Party in Carinthia (FPK), associated to the FPÖ as a ‘sister party’ like the CDU/CSU relationship in Germany. The federal BZÖ under Bucher later refounded their own state branch, led by Bucher.
Two events marked Austrian (and Carinthian) politics in 2012: corruption scandals and the emergence of a new political party. At the federal level, all major parties – the governing SPÖ and ÖVP but also FPÖ – have been hit by corruption scandals which have eroded their support and credibility. The FPÖ’s support declined from about 27% in spring 2012 to 20-23% today, in part because of corruption scandals involving party members (Martin Graf, a president of the federal legislature, allegedly swindled an old woman). These corruption scandals, some of which date back to the ÖVP-FPÖ government, include cases of bribery, kickbacks, money laundering and trading insider information. In Carinthia, corruption scandals led to early elections this year. Senior FPK, ÖVP and SPÖ state politicians – including Governor Dörfler, former FPK leader Uwe Scheuch and a former ÖVP leader – were named in various corruption cases. Scheuch was forced to resign as FPK leader in August 2012 following revelations that he had partook in a kickback scheme to profit from the sale of state-owned bank Hypo Alpe Adria in 2007. Dörfler is cited in a case involving the use of public funds by the BZÖ state government to send out a large mailer to all Carinthian households during the 2009 election
These corruption scandals have facilitated the rise of a new party in Austrian politics. Frank Stronach, an Austrian-born businessman who moved to Canada when he was only 18 and later founded Magna International, a hugely successful Canadian auto parts company. Stronach ran for the Canadian Liberal Party in the 1988 federal election (but was defeated) and his daughter Belinda served as a Conservative (later Liberal) MP in the Canadian House of Commons. Frank Stronach returned to Austria in 2011-2012 (where he always maintained a foothold and local notoriety) and entered politics last year with the creation of a new party, ‘Team Stronach’. Stronach’s new party has a right-wing, pro-business platform – it supports a 25% flat tax and other pro-business policies (critics contend he wishes to dismantle Austria’s popular welfare state). Stronach wants Austria to leave the Euro and return to the schilling, but on other European issues it tends to be more favourable to European integration. Unlike the far-right, Stronach is not anti-immigration. However, with his right-wing, mildly Eurosceptic and anti-corruption image, Stronach has been able to eat into the far-right’s reservoir of protest voters, left a bit disillusioned following FPÖ/FPK corruption scandals. Stronach’s party recruited cadres from the BZÖ, SPÖ and ÖVP. Team Stronach’s top candidate in Carinthia was Gerhard Köfer, a former SPÖ MP.
These two state elections were Stronach’s first electoral test before the federal elections in the fall.
The Carinthian electoral campaign was marked by the corruption scandals which hurt the FPK but also the SPÖ and ÖVP – the only party with seats in the legislature who were ‘spared’ were the Greens. The campaign also saw a bitter battle between the FPK and Bucher’s BZÖ. The BZÖ ran a notably overwrought and overdramatic campaign, likening FPK governor Dörfler to past dictators (Ceausescu, Ben Ali, Mubarak) calling on voters to “liberate” Carinthia from the corrupt (and awfully dictatorial?!) FPK. The ad concludes in style with the famous image of US soliders raising the flag on Iwo Jima during World War II – except that they’re raising the Carinthian flag in the ad.
Turnout was 75.15%, down 6.6% since the 2009 election. The final results are as follows:
SPÖ 37.13% (+8.39%) winning 14 seats (+3) > 3 ministers
FPK 16.85% (-28.04%) winning 6 seats (-11) > 1 minister
ÖVP 14.40% (-2.43%) winning 5 seats (-1) > 1 minister
Greens 12.10% (+6.95%) winning 5 seats (+2) > 1 minister
Team Stronach 11.18% (+11.18%) winning 4 seats (+4) > 1 minister
BZÖ 6.40% (+6.4%) winning 2 seats (+2)
Pirates 0.99% (+0.99%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.95% (-3.44%) winning 0 seats (nc)
It was a monumental for the entire far-right edifice and the powerful FPÖ/BZÖ/FPK machine which Jörg Haider had masterfully built since 1983. The FPK, heir to the state BZÖ which had won a big landslide (with 45%) in the 2009 election running on Haider’s legacy, was trounced at the polls and won only 16.9% of the vote. The 2009 election had come as a major surprise since all polling had shown a close race between the BZÖ and the SPÖ; many felt that the polls would be wrong again this year and that the FPK could place first again – the last batch of polls had shown the SPÖ ahead (31-32%) but the FPK not very far behind (25-26%). The polls were indeed wrong again. Except that they were wrong in the other direction: badly overestimating the FPK at the SPÖ’s expense.
The SPÖ came out much stronger than originally predicted, with 37% of the vote – up over 8 points on its disastrous 2009 result – and, for the moment, regaining political domiance in its old Carinthian stronghold. Furthermore, with the addition of the Greens’ 5 seats, the left (SPÖ-Greens) have an absolute majority (19 seats). They will likely form an unofficial coalition with the ÖVP, which would give them a two-thirds majority and the ability to do away with the Proporz system.
It was an unmitigated and unprecedented disaster for the FPK and the whole Austrian far-right. The FPÖ’s national troubles were, it is true, were worsened in the state by the corruption scandal which has badly hurt the FPK. The result was a shellacking for the FPK, which lost 28 points – the largest loss for the far-right in any Austrian election – compared to the BZÖ’s 2009 landslide victory.
Corruption was one of the biggest issues in the campaign. Indeed, according to SORA’s exit poll, 73% of voters said that ‘fighting corruption’ was very important, making it the second most important issue behind jobs. The Greens – the only party in the old legislature which did not get tied up with the corruption scandals – and Stronach were those who gained the most from the focus on corruption. The BZÖ’s hilariously overdramatic campaign focusing on corruption likely helped them save face, taking 6% and 2 seats (they missed out on a third seat, which went to the Greens, by one vote on the final count).
The ÖVP did not do all that well, but it was a decent result for the party. The ÖVP had been hit particularly badly by the corruption scandal, to the point that the ÖVP’s leader in the state was forced to resign and was replaced by a new leadership which managed to clean up the ÖVP’s image a bit before the elections.
Stronach won 11.2%, more or less in line with what the polls had predicted. Should this be considered a good start for a new party, or should it be seen as a sign that Stronach will not be more than a footnote in Austrian politics? The question seems to have divided observers and commentators. It is clear that Stronach will not win a national breakthrough this year, unless something important happens; if Stronach was expecting to revolutionize the country’s politics and score a phenomenal breakthrough, he was clearly wrong. Austrian politics are relatively stable, political ascension take place over time and not overnight, and even if there’s much discontent in Austrian politics the country is not in a state of crisis which would favour the phenomenal emergence of a brand new party (unlike in Italy). Similarly, if observers and commentators were looking on Stronach to be a top contender in this year’s federal election with a strong chance at actually winning, they were mistaken – it was clear from the beginning that while Stronach had (and still has) much potential, he would not be able to rival the dominant ‘SPÖVP’ this year. Therefore, there would be reason for Stronach and his supporters to be pleased: 11% is a good result for a new party.
SORA’s exit poll revealed interesting information. Only 29% of the BZÖ’s 2009 voters backed the FPK this year, with 23% not voting at all (explaining the huge decrease in turnout) and 22% voting for the SPÖ – not all that surprising in Austrian politics given how the SPÖ and far-right fight for the same blue-collar electorate. 11% of the BZÖ’s 2009 voters turned to Stronach this year; about half of Stronach’s voters voted for the BZÖ in 2009. The Stronach party also gained some substantial support from non-voters (21% of its voters did not vote in 2009) and the SPÖ (18% of its voters supported the SPÖ in 2009).
The Greens, according to SORA, gained ground by taking votes from basically every corner. Only 29% of its voters this year had voted for them in 2009 – 19% had supported the BZÖ in 2009, 18% had backed the ÖVP and 16% voted for the SPÖ. These gains compensated for fairly substantial loses to other parties – while 62% of those who voted Green in 2009 did so again this year, SORA reports that 19% voted for the SPÖ instead, another 19% did not vote this year and 10% (?!) even voted for the FPK on Sunday.
According to the exit polling, the average Stronach voters seems to be a young (under 30) or middle-aged male, who probably voted for the far-right parties in the last state election. For a party led by an 80 year old man, Stronach has turned out surprisingly popular with younger males: he won 20% of the under 30 vote, and with males under 30 he was only one point behind the SPÖ for first place (at 23%). Stronach’s support declined with age: 11% with those aged 30 to 59, only 6% with those over 60. This demographic profile is not dissimilar to that of the far-right: the FPÖ has tended to do very well with younger males, and less so with women or seniors. The major difference between Stronach and the far-right seems to be that while the far-right does very well with blue-collar workers (32% for the FPK vs 36% for the SPÖ) and poorly with pensioners or white-collar employees, Stronach’s support is not markedly stronger with any social category (although he does not do well with pensioners) – he polled 13% with blue and white-collar voters alike. It can be inferred that Stronach gained a lot of votes from young voters (primarily males) who had flirted with or voted for the far-right in the past. Unsurprisingly, younger voters are always more likely to form the ‘protest vote’ element of any far-right party than the ‘ideological hardcore’ element.
‘Control of maladministration’ was the most common reason given by Green and Stronach voters to explain their vote. 59% of Green voters and 69% of Stronach voters said that controlling maladministration (a reference to corruption, obviously) was a factor in their vote; in both cases, this reason placed far ahead of all other explanations and it also placed much higher than with other parties’ voters.
You can explore the results by municipality on a map here. The SPÖ did well in Klagenfurt, Villach and Wolfsberg – the state’s largest cities – although it did not do as well in Spittal. The FPK did very poorly in both Klagenfurt and Villach, falling third behind the Greens in both cities. In general, the SPÖ did best in the south and east of the state, particularly in towns with a large Slovene minority population or in old blue-collar towns. The FPK and the far-right performs best in small mountainous communities in the north and west.
Lower Austria is a large state located in northeastern Austria. It is the second most populous state in the country after Vienna, a city-state which is entirely surrounded by Lower Austria. The state is economically and politically diverse; Vienna’s influence is very perceptible in the areas surrounding the city, and the region located directly south of the capital, the Industrieviertel, is an urbanized and industrialized region. One of the largest cities in that region is Wiener Neustadt. The area around the state’s administrative capital, Sankt Pölten, is also rather industrial. Outside a few isolated industrial centres, the rest of the state has historically been a predominantly agricultural region – with a large wine growing industry.
At the federal level, Lower Austria tends to be a closely disputed between the SPÖ – which does very well in the Industrieviertel, Wiener Neustadt, Viennese commuterland to the northeast of the city and Sankt Pölten – and the conservative ÖVP – which polls extremely well in the more rural Catholic areas in the western half of the state. However, at the state level, Lower Austria has been thoroughly dominated by the ÖVP since 1945 – it has won the most votes in every state election and has always held the governor’s office. Its worst result in a state election was 44% (in 1993). Since 1992, the governor of Lower Austria has been the ÖVP’s Erwin Pröll. Pröll has governed with an ÖVP absolute majority since the 2003. In the 2008 election, the ÖVP won 54% against 25.5% for the SPÖ, marking the worst result for the SPÖ.
Erwin Pröll has remained exceptionally popular throughout his 20 years in office, and is rather influential at the national level. His nephew Josef Pröll was the leader of the national ÖVP and Vice-Chancellor between 2008 and 2011. By virtue of his absolute majorities, Erwin Pröll is also a very powerful governor who has managed to run Lower Austria as his own personal fiefdom, the detriment of his ‘allies’ in the state’s Proporz government. His opponents claim that he is a quasi-dictator and intolerant of criticism.
A fifth successive term in office for Erwin Pröll was never in jeopardy in this election. The SPÖ is weak and increasingly irrelevant. The FPÖ had a prominent but poor top candidate, 2010 presidential candidate Barbara Rosenkranz. Team Stronach’s top candidate was Frank Stronach himself.
Turnout was 70.75%, down 3.76%.
ÖVP 50.80% (-3.59%) winning 30 seats (-1) > 6 ministers
SPÖ 21.59% (-3.92%) winning 13 seats (-2) > 2 ministers
Team Stronach 9.83% (+9.83%) winning 5 seats (+5) > 1 minister
FPÖ 8.21% (-2.26%) winning 4 seats (-2)
Greens 8.04% (+1.13%) winning 4 seats (nc)
Others 1.53% (-1.20%) winning 0 seats (nc)
In contrast to Carinthia, Lower Austria’s election was unremarkable and boring. It was the customary landslide for Governor Erwin Pröll’s ÖVP and the increasingly customary shellacking for the SPÖ (which won its worst result ever again). The FPÖ, hurt by its poor standing nationally and its poor local candidate, lost fairly substantially. In the 2008 election, it had recovered a bit (10.5%) from the drubbing it suffered in the 2003 state election (4.5%) but still fell short of its record, 16.1% of the vote in the 1999 state election. The Greens, meanwhile, won their best result to date.
Team Stronach did not do as well in Lower Austria as it did in Carinthia (this was not a surprise), likely because it was not boosted by corruption scandals like those which had destroyed the credibility of the Carinthian far-right.
The exit polls were rather boring as well. In Lower Austria, most of Stronach’s vote came from those who had not voted in 2008 (39% of his 2013 electorate) but also from the FPÖ (21% of his electorate), ÖVP (18%) and SPÖ (14%). The FPÖ held only 43% of its 2009 voters, 21% voted ÖVP and 19% went to Stronach. The drop in turnout seems, mostly, due to 2008 SPÖ and Green voters not showing up.
Unlike in Carinthia, the Stronach vote did not show any correlation with youth; but it did show a very strong gender gap: 14% with men and only 5% with women. It performed best with young males but also males over 60.
You can explore the results by municipality here. The SPÖ only won a handful of towns, and the ÖVP basically won every major city in the state – even traditional left-wing strongholds such as Sankt Pölten or Wiener Neustadt. Stronach did particularly in Viennese commuterland, which is where he lives.
The next elections in Austria, before the federal elections on September 29, will be early state elections in Salzburg (in May).
Legislative elections were held in Italy on February 24 and 25, 2013. All 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and 315 members of the Senate (Senato della Repubblica) were up for reelection. There were also regional elections (direct election of the regional president and the regional legislature) in Lazio (Latium), Lombardy and Molise.
I explained Italy’s confusing electoral system, its unique political history since 1946 and the plethora of parties and coalitions competing in this year’s election in a long preview post here.
Italy is a rare example of ‘perfect bicameralism’, where both houses of the legislature hold equal powers and a government needs the confidence of both houses and legislation needs to pass in both houses. The electoral system in use since the 2006 election, however, has created an opening for political instability since both houses are elected using a different system. In the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) the coalition (but not party) which wins the most votes nationally automatically receives a majority bonus of 340 seats, corresponding to 54% of the seats in the Chamber (hence, a solid absolute majority). The remainder of the seats (besides one FPTP member for the Aosta Valley and 12 separate seats for Italians abroad) are allocated by proportional representation. In the Senate, however, the ‘majority bonus’ applies separately at the regional level, so that different coalitions end up winning the regional majority bonuses in different regions. This can mean that no single coalition will emerge with a working majority in the Senate.
There were five major contenders in this election. Pier Luigi Bersani led the centre-left coalition, which is spearheaded by Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD). Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (1994-1995, 2001-2006, 2008-2011) led the centre-right coalition, which notably includes Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party and Roberto Maroni’s regionalist Northern League (LN). Outgoing technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti led a centrist coalition which was backed by two established centre-right parties. Sharp-tongued populist comedian Beppe Grillo led the 5 Star Movement (M5S), a new anti-establishment and anti-system populist party which became popular in 2012.
The last polls, including ‘leaked’ polls which could not be legally published in the last two weeks, showed Bersani’s centre-left coalition with a consistent lead between 3 and 5 points or so over Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition. The main changes compared to the last legally published polls came with the two smaller groupings: Beppe Grillo’s support increased from about 15-16% in the last polls to 20-21% in the ‘leaked’ polls while Monti’s support fell from about 13% to 9-11%.
Turnout was 75.19% for the Chamber of Deputies and 75.21% for the Senate, down 5.31% and 5.25% from the last election in 2008 respectively. Italy’s political elite has long been perceived as corrupt, self-interested career politicians or hopelessly out of touch with their constituents. In the past, these feelings had often proven secondary for many voters. However, the economic crisis – austerity and prolonged recession – has significantly heightened feelings of alienation or resentment towards the political elites. Given how these same politicians are asking their constituents to ‘sacrifice’ themselves for the sake of economic recovery (when many have already suffered heavily from the crisis with job losses, pension cuts, lower wages and so forth), endemic political corruption and self-serving politicians filling their pockets are less easily accepted. Like in Greece, one of the first political effects of the economic crisis has been to alienate a substantial number of voters from the political system in general, leading to a significant decrease in turnout. Turnout is historically extremely high in Italy, always over 80% (often over 85%) and it used to be over 90% in the 1970s. Therefore, 75% is the lowest turnout in a legislative election since the end of the war – and by quite a distance. Turnout in the two Greek elections in 2012 had also been the lowest in that country’s democratic history.
Bad weather – including snow in the north – may also have dragged down turnout.
Chamber of Deputies
|Party / Coalition||% vote (excl. Aosta, abroad)||Change||Seats (+abroad)||Change (dissolution)|
|PD||25.42%||-7.76%||292 (+5) – 297||+94|
|Centre-left (Bersani)||29.54%||-4.05%||340 (+5) – 345||+131|
|PdL||21.56%||-15.82%||97 (+1) – 98||-111|
|Centre-right (Berlusconi)||29.18%||-20.06%||124 (+1) – 125||-158|
|M5S (Beppe Grillo)||25.55%||new||108 (+1) – 109||+109|
|SC||8.30%||new||37 (+2) – 39||+39|
|With Monti for Italy (Monti)||10.56%||+4.94%||45 (+2) – 47||-13|
|Fermare il Declino (Giannino)||1.12%||new||0||nc|
|All others||1.8%||-2.3%||4 (1 Aosta, 3 South America)||-56|
|Party / Coalition||% vote (excl. Aosta, TAA abroad)||Change||Seats (+Aosta, TAA, abr.)||Change (dissolution)|
|PD||27.43%||-6.26%||105 (+4) – 109||+5|
|Centre-left (Bersani)||31.63%||-2.93%||113 (+10) – 123||+16|
|PdL||22.30%||-15.87%||98 (+1) – 99||-14|
|Centre-right (Berlusconi)||30.72%||-18.69%||116 (+1) – 117||-45|
|M5S (Beppe Grillo)||23.79%||new||54||+54|
|With Monti for Italy (Monti)||9.13%||+3.44%||18 (+1) – 19||+3|
|Fermare il Declino (Giannino)||0.9%||new||0||nc|
|All others||2.04%||-0.76%||2 (1 Aosta, 1 South America)||-16|
Italy’s much anticipated election on February 24-25 ended with no clear winner, a potentially ungovernable country and results filled with surprises after a tense and nail-bitingly close night. Bersani’s centre-left bloc, led by the PD, emerged as the single largest coalition in both houses – with an absolute majority in the Chamber (naturally) but only a thin plurality in the Senate where it is a long way from the 158 seats needed for a majority. Berlusconi’s centre-right performed better than expected and came closer to winning than anyone had imagined – in fact, for a while it looked like Berlusconi could actually pull off a win in both houses. The only clear winner of the night, however, was Beppe Grillo’s upstart M5S, which won about a quarter of the vote nationally.
The first exit polls at 15:00 on Monday afternoon corroborated the last (leaked) polling numbers, with the centre-left coming ahead of the right by about 3-5 points. As in 2006, however, the exit polls were off. TV channels released ‘projections’ based on the trends emerging from the votes actually being counted, and these projections (for the Senate) gave the lead to Berlusconi‘s coalition rather than Bersani. Grillo’s M5S was also performing much better than in the first exit polls. Updated projections maintained this state of affairs for quite some time, and the left’s lead in the actual vote count (first in the Senate – which was counted first, then in the Chamber) shrank consistently and by a considerable amount throughout the night. The final vote ‘projections’, however, showed that the left would be able to eek out a tiny win (in the popular vote) in both houses.
On the final count, the centre-left won the Chamber of Deputies (and the 340 seats ‘bonus’) by 0.36% (124,494 votes) and the Senate by a slightly wider margin of 0.91% (281,004 votes). This is a very tight margin, but the 2006 election was even closer: the left won the Chamber by only 0.11% and actually lost the national popular vote for the Senate (but the crucial popular vote is in the Chamber). The votes received by the centre-right regionalist South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP) in the Chamber (146,804) are greater than the left’s winning margin. If the SVP had run independently, for example, Berlusconi would have won the 340 seat bonus instead.
The left ‘won’ in the technical sense, but it didn’t really win. It was very much a Pyrrhic victory for the left, with a very underwhelming result which is almost as bad as a defeat.
The Berlusconian right didn’t win, because in losing over half of its support from the last election it is definitely one of the biggest losers in this election. But it can pride itself in having lost the election by an unexpectedly tiny margin when almost everybody had bet that they would lose by a significantly larger margin.
The real winner of the election was Beppe Grillo, whose party did not even exist in the last election five years ago and which came out of nowhere in about a year to elect 163 parliamentarians and win about 25% of the vote.
The clearest loser in all this was the outgoing technocrat Prime Minister, Mario Monti, whose first (and likely only) political foray ended in disaster for nearly everybody involved. His pro-European reformist agenda which had excited his European colleagues, The Economist and the Financial Times didn’t excite anybody in his home country, where his tough medicine (austerity) for economic growth was unquestionably rejected by voters.
What happened? The final official polls, the “horse race” and “conclave” leaked polls and the exit polls on the day of had all shown Bersani’s centre-left leading by at least 3 to 5 percentage points over the centre-right.
La Repubblica still has (for now) the results of the first exit polls (in this case for the Chamber) online here. Compared to the actual results, the exit polls (which were basically identical to the final leaked polls) overestimated the centre-left coalition by at least 4.5 points. The Sky-Tecnè exit poll predicted that Bersani would win 34% of the vote, the Rai-Piepoli had given the left between 34 and 38% of the vote.
While the margin between the left and the Berlusconian right was overestimated in the left’s favour by exit polls, it was not because Berlusconi did better than what the exit polls or the final polls had indicated. The right won 29.2% of the Chamber vote and the Sky exit poll gave him 29% (Rai’s fork was 28-32%). In most of the last leaked polls, the right stood between 28 and 30% as well. It would be tempting to explain the surprising result away by saying that a “shy Berlusconi” vote, which nobody could pick up, came out. Except that it’s not what really happened. Berlusconi did not overperform his polling average, rather the left woefully underperformed its polling average.
Compared to the exit polls and final leaked polls, the biggest overperformer was Beppe Grillo’s M5S. The first exit polls had given him 19% (or 19-21%), underestimating the M5S by about 5 points. I can only guess at the various reasons for why even the exit polls proved terrible and badly underestimated M5S while overestimating the left. Perhaps there is some major flaw in the various pollsters’ methodology which made it hard for them to accurately capture the full scale of the M5S tide. Grillo appealed to a younger net-generation which distrusts traditional media sources and established institutions in civil society. It would not be unreasonable to guess that some of these voters might either choose not to respond to pollsters.
This election also had a huge number of last minute deciders. According to Demopolis, even if 52% decided over a month ago, 25% decided in the last 15 days (including 11% in the last 2-3 days). According to a similar poll by ISPO, 35% of voters decided at the last moment (only 20% did so in 2008) and 35% (rather than 53% in 2008) decided over 2 months.
The defeat of the traditional coalitions
The immediate explanation for the left’s near-defeat is that the pollsters are horrible (like they were in 2006) and that we should learn to take them for what they’re worth. But the centre-left needs to shoulder a heavy part of the blame for their horrible result. Once again, the Italian left proved how utterly inept it is at winning elections and how it almost always manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. An election which could have been theirs by a landslide turned out to be a near-loss, a narrow victory that it was practically a defeat.
Even before the election results brought even more bad news to the centre-left, it was clear that the centre-left would win by default rather than by having successfully built a wider coalition behind an popular leader and platform.
The centre-left’s leader, chosen by centre-left voters in an open primary late last year, was a poor choice. Pier Luigi Bersani is probably, at the least, a mildly competent administrator, but he is a poor politician and a low calibre leader who is a poor fit for the post-1994 ultra-personalized politics. Bersani is one of those sleep-inducing stale ‘old guard’ career politicians which the PD has a lot of (too much); a reasonably competent administrator who barely excites anybody beyond his core supporter and who find himself completely crushed by charismatic politicians like Berlusconi or Grillo. The centre-left voters last year made a poor choice with Bersani and many are likely regretting it now; his main rival in that primary, the young mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi is probably tempted to say “told you so”. It is hard to know these things for certain and we can’t change the past, but Renzi with his reformist energy and more centrist (liberal) image would probably have won this election in a much more convincing way than Bersani.
Not only did the centre-left choose the wrong candidate, the PD also led a horrible campaign after the primary. Bersani won the primary and his party dropped out of sight for a while after that, seemingly thinking that if it stayed above the fray it could glide to an easy victory. When Bersani did campaign, he unsurprisingly failed to excite anybody. Against similarly stale and unexciting opponents, this strategy would probably have worked. But again Berlusconi and Grillo, masters at their trade? It was a strategy destined to fail. Despite carrying around heavy baggage and a controversial record (to say the least), Berlusconi proved that he had remained a shrewd politician and that he still mastered television unlike anybody else. Like in the past, Berlusconi quickly seized the initiative from the left and made himself the central figure of the campaign. His simple solutions to Italy’s profound economic woes did not convince everybody, but it allowed him to reignite the Berlusconian right; his much trumpeted promise to abolish and refund Monti’s unpopular new property tax (IMU) was one of his most popular planks and he knew how to make good use of that promise. Grillo has an aversion towards television, but he knows – unlike any other politician in Italy – how to make good use of social media and new technologies to mobilize large crowds and how to seize the spotlight from his rivals. His unorthodox campaign, mixing new technologies and old electioneering (mass popular rallies in the piazzas), turned out to be a success.
Indeed, according to a post-election poll by Demopolis, only 12% of voters felt that Bersani had run the most convincing campaign (against 19% for Berlusconi and 34% for Grillo). The result of a poor candidate, a terribly-run campaign and a boring moderate platform (in sharp contrast to Berlusconi and Grillo’s outlandish promises) was that the left’s support gradually declined from about 40% following the centre-left primary late last year (when the PdL, left without il cavaliere for while, was at rock-bottom) to the low thirties in the last polls. It then severely underperformed its polling numbers on February 24-25.
The ISPO post-election poll showed that the PD had held 61% of its 2008 voters (it lost 4% of its 2008 voters to the SEL or CD). 16% voted for Grillo, 8% voted for Monti and 1% voted for Ingroia’s RC. Only 9% of 2008 PD voters did not vote in 2013.
Within the left, the PD received about 86-87% of the votes which went to the centre-left coalition. Nichi Vendola’s SEL won only 3% of the vote, and a lot of those came in the form of personal votes for Vendola is his political base of Apulia (and surrounding regions). Despite a poor showing, the SEL’s alliance with the centre-left has allowed the ‘radical left’ (ex-communist) to regain a foothold in Parliament, after the Left-Rainbow’s 2008 disaster. Within the governing centre-left coalition, Vendola is also in a fairly strong position to influence government policy, pressure the PD into adopting a more left-wing agenda or extracting (limited) concessions from the PD. However, the SEL might have suffered electorally from its alliance with the moderate centre-left, especially given the constant talk that it would probably form a post-electoral alliance with Mario Monti’s centrist block in order to govern. ‘Radical left’ and far-left voters had little interest in Bersani and his generally moderate centre-left rhetoric. The M5S attracted a lot of radical left and far-left voters who had voted PD or for the Rainbow in 2008; Antonio Ingroia’s Civil Revolution (RC) ended in a trainwreck but it too attracted some radical left voters who cared little for Bersani or the SEL.
The tiny centrist Democratic Centre (CD), allied with the centre-left, was intelligent enough to calculate that it would only survive in a coalition and, indeed, it managed to survive with a handful of seats by virtue of being the largest coalition party below the 2% threshold. Most of its support came from southern Italy. On the other hand, the rump PSI proved how utterly irrelevant it was. The Megaphone, Sicilian regional president Rosario Crocetta’s personal list which ran for the Senate in Sicily, managed to win a single seat. Crocetta’s list won 6.2% of the vote in Sicily.
Berlusconi’s result is rather spectacular, no doubt about it. But making it seem as if he was the big winner of the election and that his story is that of yet another remarkable comeback by a man who has often been presumed politically dead by his opponents is an exaggeration. His result can only be considered to be a victory when compared to the lows where his party and the broader right stood only a few months back in the summer and fall of 2012. In November and December, the PdL sat at lows of only 14-16% in polls (the PdL+Lega together polled between 20 and 25%). About two months later, he won 29.2% (and 30.7%) of the vote with 21.6% (and 22.3%) for the PdL itself. Berlusconi made a comeback during the campaign, but his gains are not as phenomenal and unprecedented as they have been made out to be. His main victory in this election was that he proved that the Berlusconian right remained a relevant actor and that it was not dead in the water, contrarily to what many might have thought (and wished) last year after the right’s abysmal results in the local and regional elections.
That being said, the Berlusconian right still lost heavily – it lost about half of its 2008 support – which makes it hard to read his result as some unquestionable victory. The established parties, both on the right and the left, lost considerable support in this election and were both victims of the Grillist surge. Berlusconi’s only success was that he beat expectations (which he is quite skilled at doing, electorally), polling better than most had thought he would and remaining a relevant and influential political actor. But he still lost over half of his support from the last election and the PdL’s result – only 22% – was a long way from the results of its predecessor parties in any election between 1994 and 2008. The Italian political system no longer revolves entirely around him, and he has lost a significant part of the electoral base which had backed him since 1994.
ISPO’s post-election study showed that Berlusconi held 49% of 2008 PdL voters (only 1% switched to the Lega). About 3% voted for the left instead, 13% voted M5S and 7% voted Monti. Compared to the PD, it is interesting that a lot more 2008 PdL voters did not vote this year (23%).
Within the right-wing coalition, one of the major losers was the Lega Nord. The northern regionalist party won only 4.1% (4.3% in the Senate), losing over half of its votes since the last election. This is the Lega’s second worst result in a general election – only the 2001 election in which it won a bit less 4% The Lega was crippled by the explosive embezzlement scandal which forced the party’s iconic and controversial boss, Umberto Bossi, to resign in April 2012. Prior to the scandal, a year ago, the Lega was riding high – polling about 8-10% in most polls, benefiting from its opposition to the increasingly unpopular Monti cabinet and its austerity measures. However, the Lega fell abruptly (down to 4-6%) following revelations that Bossi and his inner circle had massively embezzled the party’s public financing funds and used them for personal and illicit ends. This scandal was so massive that Bossi, who had been thought to be firmly entrenched as the Lega Nord’s lider maximo and was oftentimes the most prominent ‘face’ of the party, was forced to resign. Roberto Maroni, Bossi’s rival for the party’s leadership, taking the reins did not help the party overcome its abrupt fall from grace in the eyes of the electorate. The scandal destroyed the party’s image. The Lega Nord, like the M5S today, first burst onto the scene in the early 1990s as an anti-system populist party which virulent denounced the moral bankruptcy of the First Republic’s governing elites and the corruption at the highest echelons of powers. Since then, the Lega has continued to benefit from its positioning as a populist, somewhat anti-system force and often got away with consistently trying to have the cake and eat it (acting as a critic of Berlusconi while remaining in his government). The scandal hence destroyed the Lega’s image as the ‘clean’ anti-corruption, anti-system populist force. When any politician or party which presented itself as ‘anti-corruption’ is mixed up in a major corruption scandal, the stench sticks and it really hurts.
Since 1992, the Lega had also served as a receptacle for protest votes in northern Italy. It benefited from popular regional grievances against Rome and the Mezzogiorno, but also attracted protest or anti-system votes on the right (in the north). The emergence of M5S was the first major challenge to the Lega’s hegemony on the protest vote/anti-system playing field and, as a result, it is no longer the natural home for many anti-system ‘protest voters’.
Paradoxically, however, the Lega – regionally – is stronger than ever. Roberto Maroni, supported by the PdL, won the regional elections in Lombardy. With Maroni’s victory, the Lega now controls the regional presidencies of the three most important regions in northern Italy – Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont. As the Lega tries to heal its wounds and rebuild itself, its strong base at the regional level will come in handy.
Despite its horrible performance this year, writing the Lega’s obituary would be premature. The party has already faced such lows, although the presence of M5S as a powerful and more credible competitor for anti-system votes is new and could significantly hinder the Lega’s ability to rebuild. The regional grievances expressed by the Lega since the 1980s remain a potent political factor in northern Italy.
For the time being, the coalition with the PdL will probably stick. The alliance between the PdL and the Lega is a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. For the PdL, without an alliance with the Lega it would face a tougher time in the politically decisive powerhouse regions of Lombardy and Veneto. For the Lega, without the alliance with Berlusconi it would be much less influential in national politics and its representation in institutions at all levels of government would be significantly reduced. For example, in this election, without the last-minute deal with Maroni, Berlusconi would not have come close to winning a majority in the lower house and his political future would be much bleaker. For the Lega, with an alliance with Berlusconi this year, Maroni would not be president of Lombardy and the Lega would have come out even more marginalized and weakened from the election. Both parties would face a much tougher time in the case of a lasting divorce.
ISPO’s post-election study showed that the Lega retained only 42% of its 2008 voters. 14% switched to the PdL instead and 3% went for other parties in the centre-right coalition; 19% did not this year, 11% backed the M5S, 8% voted for Monti and only 3% switched to the centre-left this year (most for the SEL apparently!).
There was a tough three-way contest on the right to be the largest coalition party under the threshold. Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), a new party created by ex-AN members of the PdL with Berlusconi’s blessing, won less than 2% but it held on to a handful of seats (a bit less than it had just before the election) thanks to the ‘largest coalition party below the threshold’ clause. Not a bad result for a brand new party with less a dozen sitting parliamentarians; but the FdI-CN is less an attempt to recreate the AN of yesteryear than a political calculation by Berlusconi to shore up his support on the right.
La Destra – Francesco Storace’s right-wing nationalist party – and Grande Sud – a vaguely regionalist party in the south – did poorly; winning 0.6% and 0.4% respectively. La Destra had actually won 2.4% of the vote in the 2008 election, it likely lost some of that support to FdI (whose geographical patterns were rather similar). Grande Sud managed to win a single senator (in Calabria, with 3.2%) but the party, which – as an alliance of various regionalist parties from the southern and southern dissidents from major parties (Gianfranco Micciché) – had held a sizable number of seats in the legislature at dissolution, was swept out. In the Chamber, the GS did best in Calabria (with about 3%) but in Sicily, it won only 1.9%. Running separately for the Senate, former Sicilian regional president Raffaele Lombardo’s MPA took only 2.2% of the votes on the island, an unmitigated disaster which shows how thin support for Lombardo’s ostensibly regionalist party was.
The Grillo Phenomenon
The big winner of the election was Beppe Grillo’s upstart Five Star Movement (M5S), which was founded less than four years ago (in 2009) and which only started to receive substantial support barely a year ago (in the May 2012 local elections). Even if the M5S lacked the resources of the major parties and even if it was derided by political leaders and established media sources alike; it managed to achieve a phenomenal result – 25.6% in the Chamber of Deputies and electing a total of 163 parliamentarians. The M5S’ dramatic emergence onto the Italian political scene is comparable to Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to political power in the 1994 election, in which his new party – Forza Italia – came out of nowhere to win the most votes (21%). But Grillo’s success is even more remarkable than Berlusconi’s first success in 1994. Berlusconi was already a wealthy businessman backed by an influential media (TV) empire and he built ties with old political actors; in contrast, Grillo was ‘only’ a popular activist blogger who used his popular blog to launch his party. He could only count on the support of dedicated online and offline activists, he received no support from established politicians and did not even have any ‘star candidates’.
Grillo’s rise from blogger/activist to the leader of the single most voted party in the lower house, which happened in less than a year (in February 2012, the M5S polled about 3-6%), is the result of Italy’s contemporary socio-economic condition and the expression of deep-seated popular anger at the political class and the Italian political system in general.
The economic crisis, the tough austerity measures and reforms supported by Mario Monti’s cabinet, a prolonged recession and record-high unemployment created a climate of social frustration and anger. The impact of austerity (which included tax increases in a country with a very heavy tax burden or major cuts in pensions) on the middle-classes, low income earners, retirees and small business owners alike has been particularly tough and caused major social discontent. Austerity was resented as a diktat imposed by the country’s political elites (the casta) and foreign decision-makers (the ECB, IMF, Germany).
Like in Greece or in Spain, the political effect of austerity and its social effects was that the established political parties, which had predominated the political system for decades beforehand, lost most of their credibility in the eyes of the electorate. They are considered as the culprits for the economic mess, and their response to the crisis was deeply unpopular with the electorate.
The economic crisis and austerity in these countries, Italy included, has also led to a significant decline in public trust of democracy, political institutions and politicians. Anti-system, anti-establishment and ‘anti-politician’ sentiments which had been dormant in the past are being expressed politically through different means in different countries.
Italy’s political problems and flawed political system predate the economic crisis and denunciations of corrupt politicians, the political elites and the political system is nothing new in Italian politics – in fact Silvio Berlusconi used that rhetoric in his initial rise to power in 1994. However, the economic crisis has created new deep-seated popular anger at the political elites (la casta) who are seen as ‘parasites’ who do no good and serve their own personal interests on the back of the people. The economic crisis and the resulting credibility crisis faced by all established politicians have allowed for these sentiments to burst onto the scene.
Grillo’s campaign spewed vitriol on the entire Italian political system and its entire political leadership. Grillo does not differentiate between the left and the right because he insists that the entire Italian political system and constitutional model is rotten to its core and that the only solution to these problems would be to get rid of all these ‘parasites’ and replace the system with bottom-up direct democracy. In a climate of social anger, frustration and resentment directed towards la casta, that privileged caste of political and administrative elites which have ridiculously generous conditions and benefits while many voters suffer the weight of austerity measures and economic reforms. These same politicians ask their constituents for ‘sacrifices’ in order to restore economic stability, but at the same time political parties still receive public funding, la casta benefits from lifelong pensions and corrupt politicians continue to run wild. Grillo’s populist anti-system and anti-politician rhetoric, combined with a radically anti-austerity platform – cutting waste, giving monthly stipends to the unemployed, shortening the workweek to 20 hours, a referendum on the euro and debt renegotiation – hit the right notes with voters, both on the left and the right.
Grillo’s surge fed thus fed on three key factors: unpopular austerity, an economic crisis which has bred popular anger against privileged political elites and the discredit of traditional parties on both the left (PD) and right (PdL, Lega). Voters are tired of austerity, high taxes, endemic corruption and the widening disconnect between politicians and the electorate.
The post-election poll by Demopolis reflected that Italians, in large majority, voted for change – oftentimes drastic change. 42% said that the need for a radical renewal of the political leadership was the main influence on their vote, another 31% said that it was the need for different economic, fiscal and labour policies. Only 24% said that the top candidate or party leader was the main influence on their vote, and 9% said that local candidates were the main influence on their vote.
Grillo’s success also shows the growing political power and influence of the internet, more specifically social media. At the heart of the Grillo phenomenon is Grillo’s very popular blog and his own mobilizing power on the internet (when few Italian politicians have embraced social media) has played a key role in the Grillist surge and whirlwind success. The internet forms the backbone of the M5S, whose actual ‘headquarters’ are Grillo’s blog. The party selected its candidate through an open online primary, and Grillo has used his strong presence on social media platforms such as Facebook to mobilize dedicate activists and rally large crowds to his rallies and to his causes. Without such a strong web presence and an ability to organize support through social media platforms, the M5S would likely have had a tougher time organizing itself into a relevant and influential political actor.
The internet is no substitute for traditional political action and electioneering, however. That being said, Grillo also showed that controlling or having a strong presence on television – like Berlusconi has consistently enjoyed since 1994 – is not a necessity. Grillo bans his party’s members from appearing on television, effectively boycotting all political shows or talkshow programs on TV. In late 2012, a Bologna municipal councillor was expelled from the party after appearing on a talkshow on TV. Instead, Grillo’s offline political action and campaigning has come in the form of large rallies in the piazzas. These rallies, often organized online, predate the M5S: Grillo first organized vaffanculo days (fuck off days, rallies for political reform and opposition to the system) in 2007 and 2008. These V-days allowed Grillo’s movement to reach a much wider (offline) audience. During the campaign, Grillo managed to rally thousands to hear his speeches – loud and angry tirades against politicians, the system and the socio-economic situation – throughout Italy. A huge crowd turned out for his final rally on a packed public place in Rome on February 22.
What is the nature of the Grillo phenomenon? Who are the people behind the Grillist surge and who voted for Grillo on February 24-25? Unfortunately, there is only limited information on the demographic or even political background of Grillist voters; research on electoral sociology and related matters seems very sparse in Italy compared to other countries.
A study (done in August 2012) on Grillist supporters on Facebook by UK-based think tank ‘Demos’ offers some interesting insights into the Grillist phenomenon. The study’s findings are based on a survey of over 1,800 Grillist supporters on Facebook.
The Demos study revealed that the movement’s online supporters tended, disproportionately, to be males. A full 63% of the movement’s supporters on Facebook are males (about 54% of Italian Facebook users are males). This is in line with studies done after the 2012 local elections which found that Grillist voters tended, in large part, to be male. What is more surprising, however, from the Demos study is that the M5S’ supporters are actually older than the average Italian Facebook user: 64% of its supporters are over 30 years old (compared to 51% with all Italian Facebook users), and the M5S is actually underrepresented with the youngest age groups (16-20, 21-25). Although 12% of their supporters on Facebook are over 51 years old (against 10% of Italian Facebook users who are over 51), their supporters tend to be largely middle-aged. Other populist movements in Europe, including many far-right parties, tend to find their strongest support with middle-aged males.
The Grillist phenomenon in Italy has been linked to the brief Pirate phenomenon in Germany in 2011-2012. The M5S’ support is certainly deeper and stronger than Pirate support in Germany, given that the Pirates largely responded to ephemeral distaste with the entrenched political system while the M5S is based on deeper distrust of and opposition to the political system and entrenched political corruption. But the M5S might be attracting a similar demographic that the Pirates attracted in Germany: left-leaning males, who are rather well educated and live in urban areas, but many of whom are also unemployed or lower-income (which was the main difference between Pirate and Green support in Germany). However, the Pirates attracted mostly first-time voters, young males (many of whom were unemployed) and many students. The M5S certainly appeals to students and younger age groups as well, but the Grillist voter definitely seems to be older than the Pirate voter – perhaps a result of the M5S’ electorate being far larger than the German Pirate electorate was, even at its height.
The Demos study also showed that the M5S’ supporters on Facebook tended to be considerably more educated than the average Italian. This may reflect, in part, the digital divide. 54% of Grillo’s supporters online have a high school diploma (compared to 35% of Italians) and 27% have a university degree (compared to 12% of Italians). On this count, M5S supporters have more in common with Pirate voters in Germany (well educated) rather than right-wing populist movements in western Europe (who attract those with less education and are weak with the most educated voters).
However, the study also showed that the M5S attracted a considerable number of unemployed voters. 19% of the movement’s Facebook supporters sampled in the study were unemployed, against 8% of Italians at the time of the study. Only 50% were employed full time. 18% were students, which is much higher than the share of students in the Italian population (3%) but also much lower than the share of students in the Pirate Party’s online supporters in Germany (about 35% are students).
On political matters, the study confirms what we could have guessed: Grillist voters are pessimistic, extremely dissatisfied towards the state of Italian democracy and exhibit very deep distrust towards politics, politicians, parties and democratic institutions. The movement’s supporters more favourably disposed to activism (signing petitions, boycotts, unauthorized strikes, occupying factories or buildings) than the wider public.
66% feel that the country’s economic situation will get worse in the next 12 months, compared to 43% of Italians who think likewise. 31% even think that their own lives will get worse, compared with only 18% of Italians who say the same (and while 55% of Italians say their lives will stay the same, only 26% of Grillists say likewise.
Only 4% of respondents were very or somewhat satisfied with the state of democracy in Italy (compared to 32% of Italians) and a full 83% said they were very dissatisfied (only 19% of Italians think likewise). Most (78%) also feel things are going in the ‘wrong direction’ in Italy and in the EU (70%).
M5S supporters, unsurprisingly, exhibit deep distrust towards various institutions, organizations and traditional media outlets. 94% distrust political parties (84% of Italians), 86% distrust government (80% of Italians), 80% distrust big companies (54%), 92% distrust banks, 62% distrust the EU (49%), 82% distrust religious organizations (43%) and 75% distrust unions (56%). They also display a deep aversion towards traditional media outlets and older technologies, but are extremely keen on new technologies. 91% distrust the TV (49%), 83% distrust the press (53%) and 56% distrust the radio (40%). But 76% of Grillists trust the internet, compared with only 37% of Italians. They also tend to be more supportive of SMEs than the average Italian (61% trust vs 53% Italians trust SMEs). Interestingly, however (and in contrast with right-wing populist parties again), Grillists are not disproportionately distrustful of other people – in fact, they seem to distrust others less than other Italians do.
The top two most important issues for Grillist supporters on Facebook were the economic situation (62%) and unemployment (61%). 43% of respondents also cited taxes as one of their top two issues, 36% said rising prices/inflation, 33% were concerned about education or the environment. Immigration, housing, terrorism and foreign policy were less important for most supporters. On the particular topic of immigration, there is a clear difference with right-wing populists in other European countries: most M5S supporters favour immigration, with 56% (compared to 28% of Italians) saying that immigration is more of an opportunity for Italy.
When asked why they backed the M5S, 41% of Facebook Grillists said they backed the movement because they were disillusioned with the main parties and political system and/or wanted change. 28% adhered to the M5S’ values, 20% felt it represented ‘the people’ and 6% support the M5S because of Beppe Grillo’s personal integrity. Only 2% said that they backed the M5S because of economic concerns.
What are the political origins of Grillist voters? Prior to the 2012 local elections, the M5S’ few supporters were clearly on the left of the spectrum (48% of M5S supporters at the end of 2010 placed themselves on the left, only 11% on the right) and the M5S represented a fairly attractive option for left-wingers dissatisfied with the PD and its mediocre performance in opposition. After the 2012 local elections, the M5S’ electorate diversified politically, attracting much more support from the right and weakening the presence of left-wingers within the M5S electorate.
The Demos study in August 2012 still found that the party’s Facebook supports skewed to the left of the wider Italian electorate (the average placement on the 1 left-10 right scale was 3.88). The study’s sample had mostly voted for left-wing parties in 2008: 23% for Antonio Di Pietro’s anti-corruption IdV, 22% for the PD; but also 13% for the PdL and 5% for the Lega. 25% had either voted for other parties, not voted at all or had been too young to vote.
An ISPO study after the 2012 local elections (see here) revealed that 24% of M5S voters in 2012 had voted for the PD in 2008, 16% for the Lega, 13.6% for the PdL, 6% for the Left-Rainbow and about 4% for IdV. 30.5% had not voted or cast invalid ballots.
Demopolis’ post-election study this year analyzed where M5S had come from. 32% of them had voted for the PdL in 2008, 23% had voted PD, 13% had not voted (or were too young), 12% had backed the Lega, 11% supported Di Pietro’s IdV and 9% had voted for other parties. ISPO’s post-election study also asked a similar question to all voters. Overall, 24% of M5S voters this year had backed the PD or IdV in 2008 (21% PD, 5% IdV) and 23% had voted for the right (19% PdL, 4% Lega). 16% voted for the first time this year and 19% did not vote in 2008 (or cast invalid ballots). 16% and 13% of the PD and PdL’s 2008 voters, respectively, voted for the M5S in 2013. 11% of the Lega’s 2008 voters also voted M5S.
Mario Monti’s failure
The biggest loser in these elections was certainly Mario Monti and his centrist coalition. Monti’s decision to enter electoral politics and support a centrist coalition in these elections had excited the Italian centre-right (Casini’s UDC and Fini’s FLI) and foreign observers (the European centre-right and The Economist mostly). Monti and his allies’ goal was clearly to renew the Italian centre-right and recreate the political structure of the First Republic, with a moderate and vaguely centrist DC-type party at the core of the system which could govern either with the moderate centre-left or the right (most often with the centre-left, of course). Casini and Fini both saw in Monti their political saviour, the ostensibly popular non-politician who would lift their fortunes and allow them to retain influence over Italian politics. The Casini-engineered Third Pole with the UDC and FLI never took off and died before it reached maturity; Gianfranco Fini’s dream of renewing the Italian right and preparing it for the post-Berlusconi era had not worked out and his FLI had very low support in polls.
Things did not work out as planned for anybody in the centrist coalition. Mario Monti commanded the respect of many voters only because he was a technocrat who stood above politics and did not associate with any of the established political parties, he lost this significant advantage when he joined partisan politics himself (even if he always denied he was not really joining traditional left-right partisan politics). Monti was campaigning on an unpopular pro-European and liberal/reformist agenda which unambiguously endorsed his cabinet’s unpopular austerity policies and economic reforms/liberalization agenda. On the right, when voters faced between a charismatic populist who promised to solve problems by refunding an unpopular tax and ‘creating jobs’ or a gloomy technocrat who preached austerity and more sacrifices; the choice was quite easy.
Monti also had the misfortune of running a terrible campaign which never got off the ground – his campaign was even worse than the centre-left’s disastrous campaign (only 5% of voters felt that Monti ran the most convincing campaign). The reason for all this is quite simple: Monti is an economics professor and a pure technocrat, not remotely close to being an actual politician. He is uncharismatic, his rhetoric and demeanor is boring and stale, and he was awkward on television. This election confirmed the heavily personalized nature of Italian politics since 1994. Those politicians who do well in elections are those, like Berlusconi and Grillo, who are charismatic larger-than-life figures who master political communications. Those who don’t do well are politicians like Bersani and Monti, who are not telegenic and who are not very charismatic at all.
The result was basically a disaster for Monti’s coalition. It won 10.6% of the vote in the Chamber (barely clearing the 10% threshold to be recognized as a coalition for seat allocation purposes) and only 9.1% for the Senate. It will have a small caucus in both houses of Parliament.
In the Chamber, where the coalition’s three components each ran separate lists, about 78% of the coalition’s voters supported Mario Monti’s civic list (Civic Choice, SC) – which won 8.3%. Casini’s UDC won only 1.8% (down 3.8% since 2008) and Fini’s FLI won a disastrous 0.5%. The UDC fell below the 2% threshold a coalition party needs to win seats, but it salvaged 8 deputies by virtue of the ‘largest coalition party below the threshold’ rule. However, by winning less than 2%, the UDC destroyed the FLI. Gianfranco Fini’s party lost its two dozen seats in the Chamber of Deputies (it might have saved a few senators through the coalition’s common list for the Senate). Both the UDC and FLI felt that allying themselves with Monti would be their political salvation; it backfired on both of them. Gianfranco Fini lost reelection – interestingly, he is the second President of the Chamber of Deputies in a row to lose reelection, the communist Fausto Bertinotti lost reelection in 2008.
Other parties fell flat
Civil Revolution, a left-wing anti-corruption list led by former anti-corruption magistrate Antonio Ingroia and which included the two moribund communist parties, Di Pietro’s IdV, Naples mayor De Magistris’ new party and the irrelevant greens, fell far short of winning seats. It won 2.3% and 1.8%, underperforming its polling numbers. RC suffered from competition from M5S, which took many potential left-wing and/or anti-corruption voters the RC would have needed to win. Beppe Grillo was a far more popular option for those voters, RC never really broke out and unlike the Grillists it never attracted lots of media attention or coverage during the campaign. The RC’s failure likely spells the end of the road for Di Pietro’s IdV, already half-destroyed by deep divisions and internal rifts. Di Pietro resigned as IdV leader following the election, it is tough to see how his party would be able to survive without any parliamentarians and its long-time standard bearer. The two communist parties, PRC and PdCI, will remain deeply irrelevant.
Oscar Giannino’s neoliberal/libertarian Act to Stop the Decline went nowhere, barely winning 1% of the vote. It attracted a very economically liberal/libertarian right-wing voters, but little else besides that.
Geography of the Vote
Geographically, the election saw both persistent old traditions and voting patterns (such as the left-right divide) but also a lot of new patterns, linked to the emergence of the M5S. Grillist support was one of the most important and interesting aspect of the election, and its geographic distribution could be instructive as we try to decipher the nature of Grillo’s support.
YouTrend (and igraphics.gr, the Greek company which did those similarly fantastic map of the Greek elections last year) has produced a fantastic interactive map of the result, which allows you to explore results down to the comuni level but also visualize the support for coalitions and parties or compare 2013 results to those of the last election in 2008.
Under the current electoral law, control of the Senate is decided by elections in individual regions. The left is somewhat penalized by the concentration of some of its votes in the Red Quadrilateral, it won by about 20 points in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany and about 13 points in Umbria (in all three cases, the M5S placed second). It also won Basilicata, the centre-left’s usual southern stronghold (largely because the local DC cadres turned to the left after 1994), by 11 points over the right.
The centre-left was able to pull off important victory in “swing regions” – it won by 3 in the Lazio, Marche, Liguria, Sardinia (in the latter three cases, the M5S was second), by 0.5 in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Piedmont. However, the right was able to walk away with a bare plurality of senators (excluding the Aosta Valley, TAA and the abroad seats elected by a different system) because it managed to sweep the main ‘swing regions’ including Lombardy, Veneto, Campania, Calabria and Sicily. The left severely underperformed in Lombardy (in the senate contest), the right took the region by 7 points. It also won Veneto by 8 points. The left also did much worse than expected in Campania, the region surrounding Naples, it lost that region by an unexpectedly large 9 point margin to the right. The right won Apulia by 6 and Sicily by about 4 points (6 points over the left, which placed third). It also won Calabria by 4 points. The left’s unexpectedly weak performance nationally served as a major drag on the centre-left in individual regional Senate races and allowed Berlusconi to walk out with many more seats than originally predicted.
The centre-left won a bare plurality of seats in the Senate thanks to its results in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtiro, where the PD and its local allies (the SVP, the PATT and the UPT) won 6 seats, against only one for the PdL-Lega; and abroad, where the PD won 4 seats (out of 6).
In northern and central Italy, the traditional left-right divide remained visible. The centre-left coalition won 40.1% in Emilia-Romagna, 41.5% in Tuscany and 35.5% in Umbria (for the Chamber). The right won 35.7% in Lombardy and 31.8% in the Veneto. Piedmont remained a swing region, with the left winning the region in the Senate contest with 29.8% against 29.3% for the centre-right (it also won 28.3% in the Chamber of Deputies in Piedmont). At the provincial and municipal level, the old Red Quadrilateral/Red Zones of central Italy – the PCI’s strongholds during the First Republic – are naturally quite visible, and provided the centre-left with some of its best results in the entire country.
The centre-left won most major urban centres in the country. In the core of the Red Quadrilateral, it won 48.3% in Florence and 46.9% in Bologna. It won in Rome, with 33.7% against 27.3% for the M5S, but lost nearly 13 points compared to the 2008 election. In Milan, the Berlusconian right lost over 20 points (the left lost ‘only’ 5.6) can placed second with 29% against 33.6% for the left. The centre-left also won Venice (with 33.9% against 27.6% for M5S), Trieste (by a hair – M5S and the left both took 28.7%), Turin (34.6% against 25.6% for M5S) and Genoa (35.2% against 32.2% for M5S). In southern Italy, however, the right won Naples by a hair (30.3% vs 30% for the left) and M5S won Palermo in Sicily (with 32.8%). The right also won Bari (Apulia) and Catania (Sicily). The largest city won by the right in the north was Verona, the largest city won by the left in the south was Cagliari (Sardinia).
In the Senate, the M5S did not win any region; but in the Chamber, the M5S topped the poll in Liguria (32%), Marche (32%), Abruzzo (29.9%), Sardinia (29.7%) and did best in Sicily (33.5%). The party’s worst results, outside German-speaking Bolzano, were in Lombardy – particularly the Prealpine provinces where the Lega does best, the inland regions of the Red Quadrilateral in Tuscany and Emilia and parts of the south including Campania and the tip of Calabria. Although the Grillists won up to 40.2% of the vote in one province (Trapani in Sicily), their vote was fairly homogeneously distributed throughout the country – the worst province (besides Bolzano) was Bergamo (Lombardy) and the M5S still took 16.8% there.
The M5S’ support reveals how heterogeneous its electorate is. The party broke the traditional left-right patterns, doing best in right-wing regions (Sicily, parts of Liguria, parts of rural Lazio, parts of Veneto) but also in left-wing regions (Marche, parts of Piedmont, parts of Sardinia). It did well both in urban areas and in some rural areas, it won both left-wingers and right-wingers, both middle-class voters and working-class voters.
Regional patterns and local factors certainly played an important role in the M5S’ vote. Grillo himself is from Genoa and his movement did very well in Liguria. In the province of Turin, where M5S won 29% of the vote, it did extremely well in the Val di Susa – a valley extending westwards from Turin – taking over 40% in most comunis in that valley. In this particular case, the M5S benefited from a particular local issue: opposition to the TAV, a proposed high speed train which would connect Turin to Lyon (in France), the proposed route would go through the Val di Susa. The M5S opposes the TAV and a few of its new MPs from Piedmont are linked to the anti-TAV social movements.
Throughout the north but also in parts of central and southern Italy, it is interesting to point out that M5S did best not in the urban cores (Milan, Turin, Venice, Rome etc) themselves but rather in all surrounding suburban or exurban municipalities, so that its support forms a kind of halo around major cities. This does not mean that the Grillists did poorly in major cities – it won 25.6% in Turin, 27.6% in Venice, 28.7% in Trieste, 32.2% in Genoa and 27.3% in Rome – but it did even better in municipalities surrounding these cities. This is particularly clear in Venice, where the left won the city itself but the M5S swept surrounding areas, including Chioggia, Mira and Mirano; but also in Milan, where the M5S won only 17% in Milan itself but won well over 20% in surrounding municipalities – most of which formed part of a solidly left-wing proletarian hinterland (‘Red Belt’) under the First Republic. In Rome, the left won the capital city itself but the M5S won a lot of the city’s suburban areas; including working-class Guidonia Montecelio and Monterotondo (33% in both) but also Fiumicino (36%), Aprilia (35%) and Civitavecchia (35%). It also won Tarquinia (33%), Viterbo (32%) and Rieti (32%). In parts, there appears to be a superficial correlation between municipalities were the PCI did well in the 1970s and the 1980s and the municipalities won by the M5S.
Urban and suburban areas concentrate well educated young and middle-aged voters, which seem to have formed the core of the Grillist base. The M5S clearly won both working-class and middle-class voters in urban and suburban areas. It would be interesting to compare the M5S’ support at a municipal level in these areas with variables including unemployment. Urban and suburban areas would likely be the most sensitive to Grillo’s style of campaigning; middle-aged voters, lower middle-classes and the working-class have also suffered disproportionately from austerity measures and economic reform, and their Grillist vote expresses the despair of well-educated voters who have lost their jobs and many of whom are forced to seek employment in other regions or in other countries.
Southern Italy is a politically volatile regions, and factors such as ideology play a less important role in forming voting patterns than in northern Italy. In the 2012 local elections, the M5S did not really do all that wel in southern Italy, leading some to think that it would have a tougher time breaking through the old walls of clientelism and political traditionalism in southern Italy. But in the Sicilian regional elections in October 2012, it surprised all observers by winning 18% of the presidential vote and 15% of the list vote. In some cases, the M5S still had some trouble breaking through in rural areas of the south, particularly in Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and parts of Apulia; at the same time, however, the Grillists did extremely well in most urban areas in southern and insular Italy.
Sicily was the M5S’ best region, winning 33.5% of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies and the Sicilian provinces of Trapani (40%!), Ragusa (39%), Siracusa (37%), Caltanissetta (36.6%) and Agrigento (36%) were the M5S’ five best provinces in the country. The Sicilian results are extremely interesting, and somewhat puzzling. The Grillist’s strong performance may be due to them already having a base of elected officials in Sicily since October 2012 – the M5S also did quite well in Parma province (29%), where they have held the mayoralty of Parma since last year.
Politics in Sicily and other parts of the Mezzogiorno tends to be less ideologically-driven and more volatile than politics in northern Italy. Ideology and partisanship is a factor, but the personality of the candidate tends to play a much stronger role in the south and voters tend to be drawn to populism. The SEL’s strong performance in Apulia (6.5%), Basilicata (5.9%) and Molise (5.5%) confirms this; these are three Catholic and small-c conservative regions which are not usually associated with the SEL’s ecosocialist ideology. Rather, the SEL’s vote in these regions was a friends-and-neighbors vote for regional favourite son Nichi Vendola (regional president of Apulia).
Hence, southern and insular voters were likely drawn to Grillo because of his strong personality and his populist style – two things which southern voters tend to like in their politicians. In Sicily and the south, the Grillists likely took most of their votes from the Berlusconian rights (though they took a lot from the left as well).
In Sicily, the results at the comuni level tell us some things about the nature of Grillist support on the island. Even if his support was, once again, spread relatively homogeneously, there are a few regions which stand out. Firstly, the five aformentioned provinces are located on the southern or southeastern/southwestern coast of the island; he did not perform as well along the northern coast, particularly in the province of Messina (25.7%). Secondly, the Grillist vote was – once again – strongest in urban and suburban areas – 33% in Palermo (and even higher in some surrounding towns), 39.6% in Trapani, 38% in Marsala, 43% in Mazara del Vallo, 41% in Sciaccia, 37% in Agrigento, 39.7% in Caltanissetta, 43% in Vittoria, 41% in Ragusa, 40% in Modica, 35.3% in Siracusa, 42% in Augusta (an industrial area with a big petrochemical refinery), 32% in Catania (even higher in surrounding towns) and a low of 27.7% in Messina. He did not do as well in small towns and villages, especially in mountainous areas in the province of Palermo and Messina. Thirdly, and rather interestingly, the M5S’ map shows a superficial (although quite imperfect) correlation with those municipalities where the PCI used to poll well in the 1970s and 1980s. Trapani was also the only Sicilian province to vote for the republic in 1946; the republican vote was also stronger in those southern provinces where the M5S performed best.
While the Grillist took more from the right than from the left in Sicily and southern Italy – a region where the Berlusconian right has usually performed better than the left since 1994 – the M5S likely took more from the left in Marche, a traditionally solidly left-wing region in the Red Quadrilateral. Marche and Abruzzo are two other rather puzzling results.
Interestingly, in both regions – particularly Abruzzo – it is striking how the M5S performed best in urban/suburban areas, along the coast and in other low-lying areas while it did not do as well in mountainous regions. Similar patterns are also apparent in parts of northern and central Italy – for example, in Emilia-Romagna, the M5S did not do as well in the Apennines; and it performed poorly in the Alps. Is this only a pure coincidence and geography cannot explain anything about Grillist support? After all, the Grillist vote was very high in a bunch of rural mountainous villages in Liguria.
Or could it still be the beginnings of a (partial) explanation of the Grillist vote? Perhaps mountainous villages were more permeable to Grillo’s unorthodox style of campaigning – based on the internet and organizing large rallies in the piazzas of main towns (both of which would be more likely to reach a urban or suburban clientele) – and perhaps did not experience a ‘late swing’ to Grillo as a result? Could relative isolation from the main modes of communication and transportation still have an impact on the diffusion of new political ideologies in 2013?
In northern Italy, the M5S certainly stole a lot of votes from the Lega Nord – particularly in the Veneto. However, exploring the results at the comuni level reveals that there is no correlation – on the contrary, if there is a correlation it is probably a negative one – between the Lega Nord’s results and the Grillist vote. In Lombardy and the Veneto, the M5S polled best in urban and suburban areas – there is a noticeable ‘halo’ effect around Milan and Venice – or in other low-lying areas, such as the province of Mantova (the most left-wing province in Lombardy) or the province of Pavia (these areas are often old small industrial centres, which were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution in northern Italy). On the other hand, the Lega Nord usually finds its strongest support in rural areas, particularly the Pedemontana, the region at the feet of the Prealps and in mountainous regions themselves. The Lega won 22.5% in Sondrio, 19.7% in Bergamo, 17.6% in Brescia and 16.1% in Varese – with the exception of Varese, the M5S’ result was below the regional average (19.7%) in all those provinces.
The Grillist vote is a fascinating new political phenomenon, and it certainly merits a much more thorough explanation. Unfortunately, Italy tends to lack academic interest in electoral geography and electoral sociology. The M5S movement is a new populist movement quite unlike the traditional far-right populism seen elsewhere in western Europe; but also different from the left-libertarian populism represented by the Pirate Party in Germany. A more thorough study of its vote, down to the comuni level, would be fascinating and reveal tons about modern Italian society and the socio-political effects of the crisis in Italy.
Monti’s map was rather interesting. In part, it resembles the old map of the DC – strongholds in the north (Veneto, rural Lombardy and Piedmont) and in the conservative south (Campania and Basilicata). Monti did well in northern Italy. He won his best result, 20.7%, in the Trento – but that was largely due to an alliance with Lorenzo Dellai’s local Union for Trentino (UPT) for the Chamber of Deputies. But he still won 11-15% in most northern provinces in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Lombardy and the Piedmont. Monti’s reformist and liberal agenda was a fairly good fit for some voters in the north, traditional Christian democrats or reformist right-wingers drawn to Monti’s pro-European centre-right and more repelled by the PdL and the Lega’s shift towards populism and anti-austerity rhetoric. Northern Italy has a strong and vibrant culture of ‘progressive Catholic’ small business owners and entrepreneurs who formed the backbone of the northern DC up until 1992 and have traditionally backed the right.
By virtue of his alliance with the UDC and the FLI, whose supports lies primarily in the south and Sicily (regions where the DC vote held up better than in the north in the 1990s and where the post-DC centre has been able to do best), Monti performed quite well in the south as well. He won 19.5% in the Campanian province of Avellino, where the DC’s networks of political patronage and clientelism proved surprisingly resilient after 1994 (the PPI won Avellino in 1994 and 1996); and took 10-12% in much of the Mezzogiorno. However, Monti’s performance in the south was quite mediocre. Despite his alliance with Casini and Fini, Monti was unable to hold traditional centrist voters in the south. In these poorer and more populist regions, Monti’s liberal, elitist and pro-European style likely turned off a lot of voters.
Monti’s best results came from Italians abroad – he won second place with 18.4% of the vote in the international vote in the Camera. He took 27% in Europe, 27.8% in North and Central America and 31.2% in Asia/Africa/Oceania (it did not run in South America). This should not be too surprising: a lot of expats, particularly those who lean to the right, tend to be educated professionals or affluent businessmen and these voters would naturally love a centre-right candidate like Monti. By living abroad, they were also relatively unaffected by austerity (therefore less likely to dislike Monti because of it) and perhaps somewhat disconnected from the campaign back home.
Voting Shifts since 2008
An important key to understanding these results is the shift in votes since the 2008 election. YouTrend/igraphics.gr’s maps gives you the ability to visualize the voting shifts since the 2008 election. These shifts are extremely important in helping us understand the ideological and political nature of the Grillist electorate.
The map on the left shows the ‘trend’ in the centre-left since the 2008 election: municipalities shaded in green indicate areas where the swing against the centre-left was smaller than the national average; those shaded in red indicate areas where the swing against the centre-left was larger than the national average. Nationally, according to YouTrend’s calculations, the centre-left lost 9% since 2008. In my calculations above, I excluded the IdV from the centre-left’s vote share in 2008; YouTrend’s map includes the IdV in the centre-left’s 2008 vote share.
The left suffered heavy loses along the Adriatic coastline in Marche, Abruzzo and Molise. It also suffered similarly heavy loses in the Val di Susa in Turin province, around Genoa and Savona in Liguria, in the Lazio, in parts of Calabria (Cosenza and Crotone), Sicily and Sardinia. In Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, the left generally suffered some large loses as well; though it resisted well in mountainous regions (the Apennines) and in Piacenza (Bersani’s native province in Emilia).
From the map, it is quite clear that the Grillist vote along the Adriatic in Marche and Abruzzo fed heavily on the left. In the Lazio, the Red Quadrilateral, Calabria (and other parts of southern Italy), parts of Liguria and the islands; the left also lost a good number of votes to the M5S. Even in Sicily, the huge Grillist vote also came from the left – notice how the northern parts of the island (Messina and Palermo province) had swings lower than the national average.
In Molise, the loses are due to the IdV being counted as part of the centre-left coalition in 2008. The PD itself actually improved its vote share in the region, where the IdV vote was extremely strong in 2008 (Molise is Di Pietro’s native region).
In the north, the left’s vote generally held up a bit better. The lowest swings against the left came from Lombardy and eastern Piedmont, where the Grillist vote likely came disproportionately from the right. The centre-left had also performed poorly in those regions in the 2008 election, and it could not fall much lower.
Berlusconi’s PdL saw its share of the vote drop by about 15.8% since the 2008 election. The PdL’s heaviest loses came from Sardinia, the Lazio, parts of Sicily and Campania, and the provinces of Imperia and Savona in Liguria. The PdL vote held up much better in the north, particularly in the Veneto and eastern Lombardy. In the north, it likely managed to gain a few votes from 2008 Lega Nord voters; helping to limit the bleeding. The PdL could not fall much lower in the left-wing strongholds of the Red Quadrilateral.
Sardinia is fairly interesting. Clearly, both the left and the right lost heavily to Grillo on the island; but the PdL had been doing quite poorly in Sardinia ever since the 2009 European elections (which followed the right’s victory in snap regional elections in Sardinia). In the Lazio, the particularly heavy loses suffered by the PdL – which once again benefited Grillo. The swing in the Lazio was perhaps exaggerated by the dismal state of the PdL and the right in the Lazio after regional president Renata Polverini was forced to resign following a scandal involving embezzlement of public funds by right-wing regional councillors. In Liguria, the Grillist vote – in part a favourite son vote – gained a lot of votes from the right, particularly in the conservative provinces of Imperia and Savona.
While the Grillist vote in the Marche and Abruzzo was clearly a left-wing vote in large majority, the PdL was not immune to the Grillist surge in those regions either.
The Lega Nord lost about 4.2% nationally. Obviously, the swing was largest in those northern regions where it was strongest while the swing was much lower in central regions where it is quite irrelevant.
The Lega accounts for most of the centre-right’s loses in the Veneto, where the right’s general performance was surprisingly well. The Lega polled extremely well in the Veneto in 2008 and 2010, doing better than in Lombardy (27% in Veneto and 21.6% in Lombardy in 2008). This year, the Lega won only 10.5% in Veneto, while it won 12.9% in Lombardy. In the Veneto, the Lega mostly lost votes to the M5S, but also to the PdL and Monti.
There were also regional elections – for the regional president and regional legislature – in Lombardy, Lazio and Molise on election day.
Nicola Zingaretti (PD) 40.65% winning 10 seats
Francesco Storace (La Destra-PdL) 29.32% winning 1 seat
Davide Barillari (M5S) 20.22%
Giulia Bongiorno (FLI-Centre) 4.73%
Sandro Ruotolo (RC) 2.17%
Simone Di Stefano (Casapound) 0.79%
Alessandra Baldassarri (Fare) 0.57%
Giuseppe Rossodivita (amnistia giustizia libertà) 0.44%
Roberto Fiore (Forza Nuova) 0.37%
Luca Romagnoli (Fiamma tricolore) 0.34%
Luigi Sorge (PCL) 0.27%
Giuseppe Strano (Rete dei cittadini) 0.08%
Zingaretti Coalition 41.63% winning 18 seats
Storace Coalition 32.80% winning 11 seats
M5S 16.64% winning 7 seats
Centre (Bongiorno) 4.42% winning 2 seats
RC 2.09% winning 0 seats
Casapound 0.65% winning 0 seats
Fare 0.5% winning 0 seats
Amnistia giustizia libertà 0.39% winning 0 seats
Forza Nuova 0.27% winning 0 seats
Fiamma tricolore 0.26% winning 0 seats
PCL 0.2% winning 0 seats
Rete dei cittadini 0.09% winning 0 seats
As expected, centre-left Nicola Zingaretti – the president of the province of Rome – was elected regional president of Lazio by a solid 11% margin over Francesco Storace, a former AN regional president (2000-2005) who is now the leader of La Destra. The outgoing PdL regional president, Renata Polverini, was forced to resign following a scandal concerning the embezzlement of public funds by right-wing regional councillors who used those funds for personal purposes or to organize lavish purposes. The scandal left the regional right in disarray, deeply weakened. The young and fairly charismatic Nicola Zingaretti, the popular president of the province of Rome, ran a good campaign, and won easily.
The M5S did not do as well in the regional elections; it won 28% in the Chamber election, but its candidate took only 20% of the vote. Given that the right performed only marginally better regionally, many M5S voters at the national level must have voted for the centre-left’s candidate at the regional level. The centre, which won 8.8% in the Chamber election, also did significantly worse in the regional election.
Many Roman politicians go on to play prominent roles in national politics – Francesco Rutelli and Walter Veltroni, two former centre-left mayors of Rome both went on to lead the centre-left coalition in general elections (in 2001 and 2008 respectively). Zingaretti’s victory makes him a potential player nationally.
Roberto Maroni (Lega Nord-PdL) 42.81%
Umberto Ambrosoli (PD) 38.24%
Silvana Carcano (M5S) 13.62%
Gabriele Albertini (Monti) 4.12%
Carlo Maria Pinardi (Fare) 1.18%
Maroni Coalition 43.07% winning 48 seats
Ambrosoli Coalition 37.27% winning 21 seats
M5S 14.33% winning 9 seats
Centre-UDC (Albertini) 4.05% winning 0 seats
Fare 1.26% winning 0 seats
In the most disputed and important regional election, Roberto Maroni – the national leader of the Lega Nord – scored an important win for the Lega and the centre-right in Lombardy, Italy’s most populous region and economic powerhouse. Lombardy is a right-wing stronghold, but the resignation of longtime centre-right president Roberto Formigoni because one of his allies was accused of buying votes from the Calabrian mafia had allowed the left to hope that it could finally score a big win. It was thus a high-stakes contest for both sides: the left hoping for a major win in a right-wing stronghold, and the Lega Nord trying to conquer – with the PdL’s backing – its birthplace and the most important region in northern Italy.
Maroni won by a bit less than 5 points, a wider margin than predicted by polls (all had basically shown a close race) although the centre-left still performed decently considering the national circumstances. The M5S’ candidate did not do as well as her party did in the national election – she won 13.6% (the regional list won 14.3%) while the Grillists won 19.7% in the Chamber election. This proves that a fair number of Grillist voters preferred to vote for the traditional left or right in the regional election. Many of them likely voted for the Lega Nord: the Lega and Maroni’s personal list won 23.2% of the regional list vote put together (13% for the Lega itself), while the Lega won only 12.9% in the Chamber election. Still, a substantial number also voted for the left, which did about 10% better in the regional election than in the general election. One party which did horribly, however, was Monti’s centrist coalition. Although it had a solid candidate (Albertini is a MEP and former Berlusconian mayor of Milan), it won only 4% of the vote – while it won 12.1% in the Chamber.
Maroni’s victory is a major boon for the Lega, which paradoxically finds itself in control of northern Italy’s three most important regions while it is in a precarious shape at the national level.
Paolo Di Laura Frattura (PD) 44.70% winning 3 seats
Angelo Michele Iorio (PdL-UDC) 25.8% winning 1 seat
Antonio Federico (M5S) 16.76%
Massimo Romano (Centre-Fare) 11.01%
Antonio De Lellis (Rivoluzione Democratica) 1.12%
Camillo Colella (Lavoro Sport e Sociale) 0.59%
Frattura Coalition 50.14% winning 9 seats
Iorio Coalition 27.54% winning 4 seats
M5S 12.18% winning 2 seats
Romano Coalition 8.67% winning 1 seat
Rivoluzione Democratica 0.93% winning 0 seats
Lavoro Sport e Sociale 0.52% winning 0 seats
Angelo Michele Iorio, the incumbent centre-right regional president of the small southern region of Molise (since 2001) lost reelection by a wide margin. He had won reelection by a tiny margin in the 2011 election, but the 2011 election was overturned because of irregularities in the election. The PD’s Paolo Di Laura Frattura, who had narrowly lost the 2011 election, won in a landslide.
In the general election (Chamber), the centre-left won 28.9% against 28.4% for the right, with the M5S at 27.7%. Iorio actually did worse than his coalition did in the general election – despite his alliance with the UDC at the regional level. The centre-left candidate did much better than the centre-left did in the general election, about 16 points better. Given how the M5S underperformed at the regional level, most of these additional voters simultaneously voted for the M5S in the general election.
The regional elections all show that a substantial number of M5S voters are quite ready for the centre-left (or centre-right). Although the Grillist rhetoric is uncompromising towards other parties, the new Grillist electorate is not as uncompromising as it might appear.
What next for Italy?
On the basis of these results, Bersani’s centre-left coalition has a large majority in the Chamber of Deputies because of the electoral system and the national supermajority bonus. However, the Senate is deadlocked. Bersani’s centre-left coalition narrowly emerged with a plurality of seats – 123 – but fell far short of the 158 seats needed to form an absolute majority on its own.
Before the election, when it looked as if Bersani would win by more than a point, most had predicted that even if the centre-left was to lack an absolute majority, it could easily form an alliance with Mario Monti’s centrist coalition in the Senate and cobble together a more or less solid governing majority. That was not to be. Both Bersani and Monti did horribly, and the result is that even when put together, the centre-left and the centre lack an absolute majority on their own. They hold 142 seats in the Senate, and at least 158 seats are needed for an absolute majority (and, ideally, a stable government in Italy needs more than a bare absolute majority in the Senate to protect itself from defectors – just ask Prodi).
In a lot of bicameral countries – like in Spain for example, this would not be a major problem because the lower house is often the more powerful of the two houses and a government is able to govern even if it lacks a majority in the Senate. Italian bicameralism, however, is ‘perfect bicameralism’ – both houses are equals, they must both approve bills (and no one house can override the other house’s opposition) and – most importantly – a government may only be formed and then continue to govern as long as it enjoys the confidence of both houses. A government, however, does not necessarily fall if one of its bills is rejected by one house.
The new legislature only convenes on March 15, so Bersani and the other parties have until that date to try to reach an agreement. As per the Italian constitution, the President – Giorgio Napolitano – would likely appoint Bersani to form a government. The constitution gives him ten days following his appointment to receive the confidence of both houses.
Bersani needs to find at least 16 senators to obtain the confidence of the Senate, where abstentions seem to be counted as votes against the government. Bersani could either turn to Berlusconi’s PdL and form an unprecedented and unruly Grand Coalition with the right, or he could turn to the M5S and lobby individual M5S senators to gain their support.
A coalition with Berlusconi would have been disastrous for both sides – and it would have been the best thing ever for Grillo. There are differences between Bersani and Berlusconi, and a government which includes both of their parties would have been unruly, chaotic, unstable and unable to take action on any major issue (economic reform, corruption etc) because of deadlock between both parties. A coalition between the two old coalitions of Second Republic politics would have been perfect, politically and electorally, for Grillo. Neither the centre-left nor the centre-right were ever warm on the idea to begin with. SEL leader Nichi Vendola flatly opposed any coalition with Berlusconi and Bersani recently closed the door on any such deal.
The only option for Bersani is now to seek the confidence of at least 16 (if not more) Grillist senators. Beppe Grillo has always refused any electoral coalitions or political alliances/deals with the traditional parties, always preaching “a plague on both their houses”. Grillo’s rhetoric brands both traditional parties/coalitions on the left and right as corrupt parasites which must be overthrown and replaced with a new political order and a new political system. Bersani has recognized his precarious position and has said that he is willing to offer various concessions to the M5S – supporting a Grillist to be President of the Chamber, electoral reform and new laws against corruption. He has also more or less signaled that this would be a short-lived government, which would focus on electoral reform and anti-corruption legislation, before quickly returning to the polls – perhaps as early as the fall.
Grillo, as noted above, is the central icon of his movement. Although he claims to reject traditional party discipline and partisan hierarchy, and claims that the M5S is a movement rather than a political party; it is quite clear that Grillo is the leader of the movement/party/whatever and that he controls the M5S with an iron hand. For example, he expelled two M5S members in December 2012 – one local councillor for appearing on TV, and one regional councillor for daring to speak out about internal democracy in the M5S. The only other rather prominent and well-known figure in the M5S is Grillo’s right-hand man, Gianroberto Casaleggio – an entrepreneur and businessman. Casaleggio is a controversial figure, his opponents say he is a shadowy and mysterious ‘guru’ who controls the Grillist machine from behind the scenes.
However, the Grillist movement is thrust into uncharted waters now. The M5S now has 163 parliamentarians (109 deputies, 54 senators). Almost all of them are political novices with no prior parliamentary or even political experience. Its new caucus includes a wide array of students, businessmen, activists, environmentalists, academics, researchers and young men and women. Their leader, Beppe Grillo, did not run and will not be in Parliament – he will continue to control the movement through his blog, from the outside.
The movement’s new parliamentarians are newbies in Parliament, but they are the real kingmakers who will make or break any government and decide the country’s future. How will they act? Grillo is ‘radical’ and intransigent. He has refused any deal or parliamentary pact with Bersani, and has announced that Grillists will not give their confidence to the centre-left or anybody else. Will the new Grillist deputies follow the words of their leader and flatly deny confidence to any other party?
As a new movement born – in large part – on the internet and recruiting from different social horizons, many in the M5S’ caucus have made clear that they will act independently as parliamentarians, and vote their conscience rather than adhere to any party line or subject themselves to partisan discipline. Not much – if anything – is known about the new Grillist parliamentarians, but perhaps a good number of them are more pragmatic than their leader, and more inclined towards reaching consensus. Apparently, by the comments on his blog, Grillo’s announcement that he would not vote in favour of any government, did not go down all that well with many Grillist activists. There are signs that the Grillist electorate and perhaps the caucus is more pragmatic and would be amenable to endorsing a short-term Bersani government which focuses on electoral reform and anti-corruption laws. Some new Grillist deputies have openly said that they would support legislation which they judge to be ‘good’.
Canadian readers will be familiar with the experience of the Progressive Party in Canadian politics in the early 1920s. The M5S is by no means identical – the Progressives were always a sectional party, the M5S is anything but a sectional or regional party. However, like the M5S, the Canadian Progressives were a new movement which burst onto the scene. It represent political interests and voters which other parties had not been able to represent or accommodate, and expressed the alienation of a certain segment of voters from the traditional party system and their policies. And although the issues behind the rise of both parties are separated by over 90 years and were quite different, there were still some similarities. Like the M5S, the Progressives made a big splash in their first election (in 1921, they were the second largest party ahead of the Conservatives) and their novice MPs were forced into assuming major political responsibilities. The subsequent experience of the Progressives might be parallel to that of the M5S today.
The Progressives were quickly wrecked by internal divisions. You had the so-called “Liberal-Progressives” whose focus was on redressing short-term economic conditions for their region/electorate and integrating the traditional partisan system; many of these MPs later joined the governing Liberal Party. On the other hand, you had the “Gingers”, a radical group of novice MPs which wanted a whole new political system (they opposed representative democracy and supported some kind of group government/corporatism) and wanted more far-reaching social reforms. They refused to subject themselves to partisan discipline. Many Gingers went on to form what is today the NDP.
Could the M5S, which also has a large caucus of first-time novice parliamentarians, have the same experience as the Progressive Party? Could more pragmatic members integrate the traditional party system or at least collaborate with the traditional parties, like the Liberal-Progressives did in Canada in the 1920s? Seeing M5S parliamentarians ‘institutionalize’ themselves by integrating the current political system is certainly what the centre-left and other established parties would love to see.
For now, Bersani’s path to confidence in the Senate is to win the support of individual M5S senators. Grillo has virulently attacked him, but Bersani – to his credit – has appeared quite good at maneuvering these treacherous waters thus far and he understands that while he will not be able to convince the entire M5S or its leader, he could be able to win individual M5S senators to his side. If he does succeed in winning the confidence of the Senate, he will rely on individual M5S parliamentarians who will offer him case-by-case support for legislation. This is what is currently happening in Sicily – the regional governor, on the centre-left, lacks a legislative majority, but he wins supports on a case-by-case basis from M5S representatives. This could provide a major divide within the M5S, but it seems to be the option which most Italians – and most M5S voters – prefer.
Nevertheless, whatever emerges from the Senate after March 15 will not last for very long. The main word coming out from these election is ‘ungovernable’. Indeed, the country appears to be ungovernable and early elections by the end of 2013 seem nearly inevitable.
The two houses will need to elect a president (speaker) once they convene. Their next task – which they cannot ‘duck’ – is the election of a new President once President Napolitano’s seven year term draws to a close in April-May. Napolitano is eligible to run for reelection, but he has said that he will not seek reelection. The Italian President is elected by Parliament and regional delegates; any candidate requires a two-thirds majority to be elected on the first three ballots and only an absolute majority in the fourth and subsequent ballots. Therefore, electing a President will require a deal between the centre-left, the M5S and/or the centre-right. Mario Monti was once seen as a favourite for the ceremonial office, after his participation in this election it seems less likely. A number of names are swirling around, one of the favourites might be Giuliano Amato, a former centre-left Prime Minister who might be acceptable to the centre-right.
The constitution does not allow for the Parliament to be dissolved in the last six months of the President’s term, meaning that dissolution and early elections are impossible until May-June at the least.
Interestingly, the Italian constitution allows for the President to dissolve one or both chambers. This could allow for a snap election only for the Senate; this seems rather unlikely as there have never been elections for only a single house of Parliament in Italy, and it would likely be poorly received by the electorate.
If Bersani is able to cobble together a short-term government to prepare for new elections at the end of the year or early next year, one of the main issues he will face will be electoral reform. This election proved how unfair and unrepresentative the current electoral system is. The 2006 and 2008 resulted in a Parliament more or less representative of the voice of the electorate, because two large coalitions won – by far – most votes (99% in 2006, 84% in 2008). This year, no coalition won more than 30% of the vote and the traditional left and right blocs won only 59% of the vote together. The supermajority bonus in the Chamber of Deputies allowed the centre-left, on 29.5% of the vote, to win 54% of the seats.
The Gallagher Disproportionality Index, which measures for ‘disproportionality’ in election results by comparing the popular vote to the seat totals, was 17.34 for this election – higher values represent a more disproportional outcome, and indices above 10 tend to be quite disproportional. The indice for the 2008 Italian election was 5.7 and this is, by far, the most ‘disproportional’ election result in Italy since the war. Quite tellingly, with this result, Italy currently has the second most ‘disproportional’/unrepresentative legislature in the EU after France (17.66) and ahead of the United Kingdom (15.1). But unlike either France or the UK, Italy officially uses proportional representation.
Almost everybody agrees on the need for a new electoral law, which might be in place before any new election. But there is probably a lot of disagreement as to what electoral system should be used instead. The PD seems partial to the “French” system, with two-round voting in single-member constituencies. The M5S has often criticized the disconnect between MPs and their constituents, a disconnect made worse by the fact that a single individual may run for election in multiple constituencies and then choose which constituency they will represent. Italy already experimented with single-member constituencies between 1994 and 2005, when most deputies and senators were elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies and a smaller number elected by a PR list vote. The PD would like any electoral system which would narrow the field to two major parties, but Italy is always going to be a multi-party system. The experience with FPTP in the 1990s did not see a narrowing of the field to two parties, rather the coalitions on both sides distributed seats between the various component parties. And now, with the rise of M5S, the establishment parties might prove cooler on single-member constituencies.
Other options likely include a “German” system (either MMP or parallel voting), purer proportional representation, a reform of the current system with either a much smaller majority bonus (and changes in the Senate majority bonus system) or a “Spanish” d’Hondt PR system at a constituency level which would advantage larger parties.
In the meantime, Italy’s economy is still is a perilous position. The news of the results – Berlusconi’s near-victory, the rejection of Monti’s policies by voters, the Grillist wave and ungovernability – sent financial markets into panic mode. European markets dropped, the Euro dropped and Italian sovereign bond yields jumped. The results in Italy may have brought the Euro crisis back to centre stage and reopens the door of a Eurozone breakup. Foreign reactions to the results of the Italian election were almost overwhelmingly negative. The Economist opined that “confronted by the worst recession in their country since the 1930s and the possible implosion of Europe’s single currency, the people of Italy have decided to avoid reality.” Peer Steinbrück, the gaffe-prone candidate of the German SPD in the German federal elections this fall created a mini-crisis when he called Grillo and Berlusconi ‘clowns’.
Although Italians will probably return to the polls before long, this election will likely mark a decisive in Italian political history. Berlusconi was not eliminated and trounced as many had predicted and wished, but he is no longer the ‘central’ figure of Italian politics (although he remains very influential and important). The traditional left-right polarization was disturbed by the Grillist wave, which represents a fascinating new form of populist movement unlike other existing populist movements in western Europe. This election may not be as significant and epoch-making as the 1994 election, but it does mark at least the beginning of the end of the ‘Second Republic’ political system.
What will replace it is very unclear. Will the M5S be a passing fad and go the way of so many other populist movements, or will it become a major political actor for years to come? Where will the Italian left and right go from here? How will the Italian right manage the necessary transition to a post-Berlusconi era when Berlusconi fully retires or leaves politics? Italian politics is entering uncharted waters, and it is more unpredictable than ever.
While everybody was busy with Italy, an important by-election was held in the UK – in the constituency of Eastleigh. Chris Terry was nice enough to offer me a fantastic guest post on this by-election. Chris is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom and you can follow him on Twitter here.
A by-election was held in Eastleigh, England on the 28th of February.
The by-election was caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne MP. Huhne was a prominent Liberal Democrat, originally Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the UK’s coalition government. He had twice run for leader of the party, both times coming second. The second time he was only very narrowly beaten by 1.2% by current Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. 1,200 votes were held up in the Christmas post and an unofficial check of them revealed that Huhne had had enough votes to win the leadership, though, to his credit, he stood by the result.
Shortly after being made a Minister in Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government in 2010 Huhne had split from his wife, Vicky Pryce, a former head of the Government Economic Service. He had left her for his press officer, Carina Trimingham. The nature of this revelation caused Pryce to leak to the press that Huhne had had her claim responsibility for speeding when he had been caught by a speed camera. Lying in this way was perversion of justice, and so a court case started against Huhne and then also against Pryce, as she, too, had been complicit in this. Pryce claimed not guilty due to ‘marital coercion’, a rarely used defence in UK law. Huhne eventually pleaded guilty on the 5th of February. He has not been sentenced yet but, as it was clear he would receive jail time he resigned his seat. Pryce’s trial is currently subject to a retrial as the Jury could not reach a decision in the original trial.
The 2010 election had resulted in Britain’s first hung parliament since 1974 and the first peacetime Coalition government since before the war. After thirteen years of Labour governance Britain was suddenly faced with a Coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. During the 2010 election the Lib Dems and their leader, Nick Clegg, had become briefly extremely popular, riding a wave known as ‘Cleggmania’ from Clegg’s strong performance in Prime Ministerial debates. Polls early in the campaign had shown the Lib Dems challenging for the most votes. On election day, however, they fell back from these optimistic predictions, winning 23.0% (a gain of 1%) of the vote, and remaining in third. They also lost six seats. Nonetheless this was their strongest popular vote since 1983, and their second strongest since 1923, shortly after Labour had leap frogged them to being the main opposition to the Conservatives. They also held the balance of power in a hung parliament, and formed a Coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives.
After forming the Coalition, Lib Dem fortunes quickly deteriorated. Lib Dem voters are a heterogenous group but perhaps a majority in 2010 were either protest voters or left-of-centre. Many voters had voted for the Lib Dems because they saw them as more left-wing than Labour. A particularly symbolic moment for many was the vote on University tuition fees. The Lib Dems had long been against University tuition fees and during the 2010 campaign its MPs had signed a cast-iron pledge designed by the National Union of Students to the effect that, as a MP, they would not vote for any rise in tuition fees. This was a short-sighted policy in many ways, both Labour and Conservatives clearly favoured tuition fees in private and considering Britain’s economic position (a budget deficit equivalent to around 10% of GDP) it was difficult to see where the money would come from. The Lib Dem’s therefore ended up having to agree to raising tuition fees from a maximum of £3,000 a year; to £9,000 a year (it is very rare to see a University charging less than the maximum). The Lib Dems had had a very strong youth and student base and this was seen as a massive betrayal. The Lib Dem party itself split in the Commons. 27 Lib Dems, almost all ministers in the government, voted for the rise, 21 voted against and 8 abstained, in an atmosphere notable for the massive student protests in London.
From 23% in 2010, opinion polls indicated that the Lib Dems may have fallen into the single digits nationally, with some polls showing the Lib Dems as low as 8%, though some higher, at around 15%, with the polls mostly averaging around the 10% mark. Considering Britain’s First Past the Post electoral system if uniform swing applied this would mean the loss of a startling number of Lib Dem seats, the vast majority. However a glimmer of hope remained for the Lib Dems in their results in local elections where they demonstrated a capability to maintain strength in the areas where they have MPs and particularly against the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats as a party have often relied on strong local figures maintaining a strong profile as ‘local MPs’ and therefore having a strong personal vote. Indications were that this was continuing. A tradition of Labour supporters tactically voting Lib Dem to stop Conservatives getting in also seemed to continue. It was in areas where the Lib Dems had strong second or third places in 2010 where they lost the most votes. This suggested that the Lib Dems may save more seats than uniform swing indicated, especially as 38 of the party’s 57 seats were in seats where the Conservatives were in second place.
The Conservatives had had started in government fairly well, with a surprisingly long honeymoon period in the initial days of the Coalition in contrast to their Lib Dem partners. However since the 2012 budget things started to fall off the Conservative wagon. The government had cut the new top rate of tax introduced by Labour for those earning over £150,000 a year from 50% to 45%, whilst also removing certain exemptions from the tax code. A particularly odd argument that raged on was that of the ‘pasty tax’. The government had removed an exemption from VAT for hot takeaway food, such as pasties, a savoury pastry filled with meat and vegetables. The pasty is seen as a food of the working class, and so the ‘pasty tax’ was seen as symbolic of a government that did not understand ordinary people. Embarrassing photo ops had to be arranged where politicians explained just how much they enjoyed a pasty. At one point David Cameron was asked at a press conference when the last time he had a pasty was, he responded with a story about buying a pasty at Leeds railway station, but it was later revealed that the pasty shop he mentioned had shut down at the time he said! The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and many other prominent Conservatives come from aristocratic backgrounds and the Conservatives have often been seen as the ‘Party of the Rich’. There was therefore a contrast between the ‘tax cut for millionaires’ as Labour framed it, and a tax raise on a beloved lunchtime meal of the ordinary working man. The Conservatives have also been tainted by associations with the Murdoch press after the fall out from the phone hacking scandal and had to deal with an increasingly rebellious and unruly set of backbench MPs, who feel that the Coalition government has been insufficiently right-of-centre. Cameron has had to deal with an increasingly vocal and rebellious backbench who apparently feel that his moderation was beyond their failure to win in 2010. Unlike Blair who was able to hold moral authority over his party by virtue of his large majorities and therefore claim superior democratic legitimacy Cameron has had no such luck and many Conservative MPs feel a weak attachment to the Coalition Agreement, feeling that their party’s manifesto is more important. One particular backbench MP, Peter Bone, is well known for his almost weekly calls for Cameron to end the Coalition. While his is a lone voice, it is nonetheless a sign of the times in the party.
Labour had been launched into a leadership contest immediately after the 2010 election. The favourite was David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, a former aide to Tony Blair widely seen as on the right of the party. His main competitor was Ed Miliband, his younger brother, the former Energy and Climate Change Secretary and a former aide to Gordon Brown, who was seen as closer to the centre-left of the party. To the surprise of many commentators Ed Miliband won, just.
Ed’s earliest period in power was problematic for the party. He was painted out in the right wing press as ‘Red Ed’, opposed to any and all cuts to the state. He was seen as uncharismatic, nerdy, and even a little weird. There was a strong public perception that he had ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ with rumours that the two no longer spoke.
However as the Conservative’s problems grew Labour grew in strength in the polls, and this led to a change in the narrative about him. Ed also became more confident in front of a camera and in the Commons. While Ed still has his problems and is not riding any Obama-like wave of ascendancy, he is no longer seen as the unremitting disaster he was initially presented as.
Nonetheless, approval ratings for all three party leaders are now pretty terrible and there is a certain anti-establishment feeling in the UK. This has fed into the rise of a new(ish) force – UKIP. Originally short for UK Independence Party (the party recently changed its official name to just the acronym), UKIP was originally a very minor party, eclipsed by the similarly Eurosceptic Referendum Party of millionaire former Conservative donor Sir James Goldsmith. UKIP was originally a single-issue party with a single raison d’etre – the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. The party had done well in European Parliamentary elections in the UK, aided by a broadly Eurosceptic electorate, a proportional voting system and low turnouts UKIP had managed to get 3 MEPs elected in 1999 (coming fourth), 12 elected in 2004 (beating the Lib Dems into third) and 13 in 2009 (beating Labour into second).
UKIP had never been particularly good at winning votes in general or local elections however. In 2010 it won 3.1% of the vote in the UK, but came nowhere close to a seat anywhere, with its most prominent candidate, current leader Nigel Farage, only succeeding in third place against Commons Speaker John Bercow (by convention the three main parties do not run against the Speaker). However since 2010 UKIP has been gaining steam, pulling off a string of impressive by-election results, often coming in second, though never actually winning. The party’s best record is 21.7% of the vote in Rotherham in November 2012. The party has also climbed in the opinion polls, where it ranges between 8% and 16%. The party’s success has been due to a variety of factors. Firstly their current leader, Nigel Farage, is a ‘straight talking’ sort of politician who has become popular with news organisations due to his bombastic style replete with quips and put downs for his political contemporaries. In one infamous speech in the European Parliament he lambasted the President of the European Council, the former Belgian PM Herman Van Rompuy, as having the “charisma of a damp rag”, as “looking like a low-grade bank clerk” and as coming from a “non-country”. UKIP has also rounded its policies with policies designed to appeal to right-wing Conservatives in particular. The party increasingly concentrates on opposition to immigration and gay marriage. It is said to be pulling away significant numbers of activists from Conservative Future, the Conservatives youth wing. Finally the party appears to be benefitting from the removal of the Lib Dems as a viable protest vote.
All the seats that had been up for by-election so far had been either Labour safe seats, with the exception of Corby, a Lab/Con marginal which has tended to be the former rather than the latter in recent years. In all of these bar one notable exception (Bradford West, where the former Labour MP George Galloway won backed by his far-left RESPECT coalition) the Labour candidate had won, often fairly resoundingly. Eastleigh, however, was a LD/Con marginal. The Eastleigh by-election therefore provided an interesting opportunity for the psephologically-inclined to see how the Lib Dems might perform against the Conservatives at the next election, scheduled for 2015. It was also important to both Coalition parties. For the Lib Dems, a win would mean rare positive press, a significant morale boost for their base and a demonstration that the party was not heading towards electoral wipe-out. For the Conservatives the win was less necessary but it would show that the party was capable of defeating the Lib Dems, who hold significant numbers of Conservative target seats. Eastleigh was therefore, by many measures, the most important by-election since 2010.
Eastleigh is a railway town (a town that primarily developed because of its railway station) in the South of England. It is just 5 miles North of the city of Southampton, one of the larger cities in the South of England, besides London. Like most of Southern England outside London, Eastleigh is overwhelmingly White British, predominantly middle class, though there are working class areas, and economically active.
Up until 1994 Eastleigh had been regarded as a Conservative safe seat, won by the Conservatives at every election since the seat’s creation in 1955. In 1992 the Conservatives had won it with 51.3% of the vote, defeating the second placed Lib Dems with a majority of 23.3%. The sad death of the Conservative MP, Stephen Milligan, a rising star in the party, from what appeared to be a sex act gone wrong led to a by-election in 1994. By this point John Major’s Conservative government had become exceptionally unpopular and in the by-election the Conservative vote collapsed, with the Conservatives winning less than half of their 1992 vote, at 24.7%, coming third with the Lib Dems winning the seat with 44.3% for their candidate, David Chidgey. The seat was held by the Lib Dems from then on. The Conservatives, however, targeted Eastleigh which continually remained just out of reach. The Conservatives would gain votes, but the Lib Dems would succeed through tactical voting in their favour from Labour. Chidgey stood down in 2005, to be replaced by Chris Huhne. In doing so the party lost Chidgeys personal vote and Huhne was only able to defeat the Conservatives by 1.1% of the vote. He increased this in 2010 to 7.2%.
In many other respects Eastleigh has become something of a fortress for the Lib Dems. The party currently holds all of the council seats in the constituency, giving it a stupendous majority on Eastleigh borough council of 40-4 against the Conservatives (with the 4 Conservatives holding seats in areas outside the constituency boundaries). Remarkably the Lib Dems have even managed to gain seats in Eastleigh since 2010, gaining 2 in 2011. No other council is so dominated by the Lib Dems. They also hold all six county council seats in the constituency and even managed to top the poll locally in the super-low turnout Police and Crime Commissioner elections held last year. The Lib Dem machine in Eastleigh is infamous for its effectiveness and ruthlessness at Lib Dem ‘pavement politics’, the art of taking to the streets and campaigning viscerally on local issues. So effective is the Lib Dem machine that local businesses advertise on the back of their leaflets due to their reach. Having such a strong activist base and so many councillors gives the Lib Dems a strong advantage in terms of knowledge of the seat and voting data, something the party exploits.
At the last election the result had been as follows:
Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrat) 46.5%
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 39.3%
Leo Barraclough (Labour) 9.6%
Ray Finch (UKIP) 3.6%
The candidates and the campaign
The four most notable candidates (in order of their party’s performance in the 2010 election) were:
Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrats). The Lib Dems took the safe route with the selection of their candidate in the form of Mike Thornton. Thornton is a local councillor, which gave them the opportunity to localise the contest somewhat and avoid the associations with Nick Clegg that would have happened if the Lib Dems had run a Westminster insider. Some on the campaign trail said he was boring, but this also meant he was uncontroversial.
During the campaign it seemed as if the entire Lib Dem activist base had decamped to Eastleigh for the month. The Lib Dems have traditionally been very good at targeting seats they hoped to win and highly effective at by-elections. They are very good at focusing a campaign on local issues – in this particular case opposition to a local housing development project in a classic piece of British NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard). While all parties notionally support increasing the housing stock nationally in practice at a local level people tend to think that the houses should be somewhere else! This strategy was masterminded by former Lib Dem Chief Executive Chris (now Lord) Rennard and is known as ‘Rennardism’ in some circles. In a twist of fate for the Lib Dems, Rennard was publicly accused of sexual harassment by 10 female former Lib Dem activists during the campaign with the intimation that this is why he lost his position as Chief Exec. The Rennard allegations created significant questions for the leadership, with their knowledge of the allegations being a key question. Rumours about Rennard had circulated in the Westminster village for years, but there had never been proof. Clegg’s claim on the Sunday prior to the by-election that he had not heard the allegations before therefore stretched credibility, and he quickly had to release a statement to the effect that he had heard rumours but nothing more. The Lib Dems were therefore faced an ironic situation where they may have lost the by-election due to the behaviour of Chris Rennard, a man who had previously been seen as responsible for many historic Lib Dem by-election wins. Nonetheless the party broadly remained the favourite, though not overwhelmingly so, during the campaign.
Maria Hutchings (Conservative). The Conservatives once again ran their candidate from 2010, Maria Hutchings, a local businesswoman. This was unsurprising given that the party needed a candidate with local credentials to take on the Liberal Democrat strategy of localised pavement politics. With the party having no local councillors Hutchings almost certainly represented the person in the party who knew the seat and its voters the best.
Hutchings was on the right of the party and stated during the campaign that she would have voted against the government’s recent same-sex marriage bill, a source of consternation on the Conservative backbenches and amongst party activists. She also stated that she would have voted for a motion backed by many Conservative rebels in the Commons for a referendum on European Union membership, another source of great division in the heavily Eurosceptic party. She also uttered some statements which were seen as controversial, such as stating that she had sent her son to an independent (fee-paying) school because he was gifted and wanted to be a surgeon and therefore the right kind of education for him would be “impossible” to find in the state system. This was in contrast to Thornton, whose daughter had had a state education and who is now currently studying Medicine! Hutchings also failed to attend two hustings (local Q&A sessions) for the candidates, the first time apparently because she was campaigning with Cameron, the second because she was “meeting with voters”. This led to allegations from her opponents that the party was trying to ‘hide her’ away.
John O’Farrell (Labour). In the 1994 by-election Labour had succeeded in coming second in Eastleigh, beating the Conservatives into third place. As recently as 2005 the party could still pull in more than 20% of the vote, but their vote had collapsed to less than half that in 2010. While no one expected Labour to win the by-election unless extremely lucky, there was an opportunity here to give a sense of momentum by winning back tactical voters from the Lib Dems, and put down a marker that Labour were viable in the South of England outside London and a few urban conurbations, the weakest area for the party. Compared to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the party took a radically different tack in its approach to candidate selection, however, selecting John O’Farrell, a comedian, television broadcaster and writer, who lives in Clapham, South London. O’Farrell is best known for his appearances on comedy panel shows such as Have I Got News for You. He has run for parliament before – running in 2001 in a Conservative safe seat, he is also known in Labour circles for his bestselling book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. The book is a memoir tracing the eighteen years of opposition that Labour found itself in between 1979 and 1997 and O’Farrell’s story is a story familiar to many Labour activists and to the party as a whole – that of the transition from radicalism to moderation.
O’Farrell’s campaign was predicated on suggesting that a Lib Dem or Conservative MP for Eastleigh was essentially the same thing as they would both be supporting the same government. Being a comedian his twitter feed included many humourous quips about the by-election. O’Farrell is well known and popular within the Labour Party and I suspect his candidacy helped to galvanise supporters and donors in favour of his campaign. During the campaign O’Farrell was attacked for excerpts from his bestselling memoir when he spoke about a momentary glee on hearing about the 1984 bombing of the Conservative Party conference by the IRA and of supporting the Argentines in the Fawklands War. In the book O’Farrell highlights these as examples of what he sees as the idiocy of radical knee-jerk politics and explains that he is now disgusted by both views but this was still used as a stick to beat him with. Perhaps more damagingly however, friends of mine who were campaigning on the ground say that Eastleigh voters appeared to feel that in nominating a South London based Comedian Labour were not taking the by-election ‘seriously’.
Diane James (UKIP). UKIP nominated Diane James, a councillor and healthcare expert from Waverley in Surrey, originally elected as an independent, James had later joined UKIP. Eastleigh had a special resonance for UKIP as during the 1994 by-election their candidate had been none other than Nigel Farage, their current leader. Farage turned down the opportunity to campaign in the seat again, however.
UKIP ran a surprisingly slick campaign in Eastleigh, and managed to succeed in gaining momentum as the campaign went on. The party nonetheless gained controversy when its leaflets claimed that when immigration laws are relaxed later this year 4 million Bulgarians would come to the UK (the population of Bulgaria is 7.4 million, so this would represent a very large number indeed!) but this did not seem to hurt the party. On Election Day the party pulled ahead of the Conservatives in the betting odds and there were many rumours of a late surge for the party.
In the grand tradition of British by-elections many minor party, fringe and joke party candidates stood. In all 14 candidates stood. The others were Danny Stupple, an independent standing on an anti-gay marriage platform, Michael Walters for the English Democrats, Darren Proctor for the far-left Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and Kevin Milburn for the Christian Party. The National Health Action Party, a single-issue party that has gained some media attention for its opposition to NHS privatisation and particularly the government’s controversial new health law stood a candidate, Dr. Iain MacLennan, for the first time. Jim Duggan stood for the Peace Party, Colin Bex stood for the Wessex Regionalists and Ray Hall ran for the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet party, a single issue party which campaigns against pub closures and for the rural way of life. By-election favourites, the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, a joke party that dates back to the 1960s, ran their leader Alan “Howling Laud” Hope. Finally perennial by-election candidate, David Bishop, stood under the latest of his Elvis Presley themed joke labels, ‘Elvis Loves Pets’.
Five polls were carried out during the campaign. Three showed the Lib Dems ahead by 3-5% and two showed the Conservatives ahead by 3-4%. The most notable thing from the polls was the fall in the Labour vote and the increase in the UKIP vote. The last poll of the campaign, by Populus, showed Lib Dems 33%, Conservatives 28%, UKIP 21%, Labour 12% and Others 6%.
Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 32.06% (-14.44%)
Diane James (UKIP) 27.80% (+24.20%)
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 25.37% (-13.93%)
John O’Farrell (Labour) 9.82% (+0.22%)
Danny Stupple (Ind) 1.85%
Iain Maclennan (National Health Action) 0.94%
Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 0.56%
Kevin Milburn (Christian) 0.39%
Howling Laud Hope (OMRLP) 0.33%
Jim Duggan (Peace) 0.31%
David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 0.17%
Michael Walters (ED) 0.17% (-0.33%)
Daz Procter (TUSC) 0.15%
Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 0.07%
Turnout was 52.8%, down by 16.5% from 2010 but still a very healthy turnout for a by-election.
The Lib Dems therefore succeeded in holding their seat, something which they are exceptionally happy about. Nick Clegg described the victory as “stunning”. The Lib Dem victory does indeed have much to commend it. Despite the hard times of coalition, the Rennard scandal, the jail term of Chris Huhne which had started the whole by-election the Lib Dems had succeeded in running a well-targeted, slick campaign won on local issues, with a solid dependable local candidate. This will be the model the Lib Dems will pursue in 2015 and on this by-election gave them some confidence that they may save more seats than many expect. That said, this is a rather pyrrhic victory. The party still lost almost 15% of the vote compared to 2010, most likely to a combination of abstention of the historically unreliable Lib Dem vote and to UKIP, in the form of protest votes. In a sense they only won because the Conservatives lost almost as much of their vote as they did, and the Lib Dem loss is in line with national opinion polls too. According to an ‘exit poll’ of sorts, (with a low sample, 760) by Conservative Party election expert Lord Ashcroft, 43% of Lib Dem voters voted for the party tactically suggesting that despite the Coalition the party successfully retained Labour tactical voters. 26% of Lib Dem voters also stated that the main reason they voted for the party was local services, totally unprompted. Only 43% of Lib Dem voters said they would ‘probably’ vote for the party in 2010, however now he is the MP Thornton will no doubt pursue the traditional Lib Dem strategy of working very hard as a local MP and building a strong personal vote, so they probably have the advantage in 2015.
UKIP also pulled off a victory of sorts. While they didn’t win the seat, their 27.8% of the vote represents their best every score in a parliamentary constituency, and they came within 4.3% of victory. This gives the party a continued feeling of momentum. According to the Ashcroft polling the party won roughly equal amounts of the Lib Dem and Conservative vote from 2010 (around a fifth in both cases) and 83% of their voters said they “unhappy with the party they usually support nationally” and three quarters said that they were “unhappy with all the main parties at the moment” further evidence that UKIP’s appeal is primarily anti-establishment and ‘plague on all your houses’ based. There does indeed appear to be a late surge element – 31% made up their minds in the last week, 18% on the last day. As with the Lib Dems only 43% said they would probably vote UKIP in 2015, with 10% saying they would likely vote Conservative.
The Conservatives are reeling. Coming in second would have been poor, but understandable, coming third puts the party in an extremely difficult position. The party is calling this a mid-term protest vote and noting that voters often vote against the government in these types of elections. While that’s true, the voters did elect a MP from a party that is in the government! The Conservatives have historically been poor at by-elections as the party is bad at targeting its campaign activities, and not as good at the ‘ground war’ aspect of a by-election as other parties. Sections of the party have also blamed Cameron for moving the party too far to the left and abandoning the party’s core vote to be picked up by UKIP. However as Professor Tim Bale, the leading academic expert in the Conservative Party, notes, the Conservatives have been attempting to ape UKIP for some time in many respects in the form of Cameron’s recent call for an EU referendum and the Home Secretary, Theresa May’s promise to cut immigration by another quarter. In Bale’s view by doing so the Conservatives could be creating the impression that UKIP’s concerns about both are perfectly valid and giving the party credibility, as he puts it “Rather than shooting Nigel Farage’s fox, all Cameron has done is feed it”. The whole argument also ignores that Maria Hutchings stood on a platform that was clearly right of the party leadership. Yet the party leadership is once again under significant pressure from its activists and backbenchers to shift right as a response, and Sunday’s right wing newspapers are replete with references to getting rid of the Human Rights Act, a particular object of hatred for the right-wing media.
Labour are the only one of the main three parties to have gained votes, but they remain below 10% of the vote. This is hardly the marker that they can win votes in the South of England which the party wanted. The party appears to have made a serious tactical misstep by selecting O’Farrell. Polls suggest that the party lost around half its support over the course of the campaign with most probably going to the Lib Dems, but some also likely going to abstention or UKIP. By running a comedian from South London Labour appear to have given the local electorate the idea that they were not taking Eastleigh seriously. The party will have to work harder to convince the electorate that it can succeed in the South of England – a particular focus will be on this year’s county council elections.