Monthly Archives: July 2014
This next post on the May EP elections covers Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia – Slovenia, which had legislative elections on July 13, will be covered separately.
Note to readers: I am aware of the terrible backlog, but covering the EP elections in 28 countries in detail takes a very long time. I will most likely cover, with significant delay, the results of recent/upcoming elections in Colombia (May 25-June 15), Ontario (June 12), Indonesia (July 9), Slovenia (July 13) and additional elections which may have been missed. I still welcome any guest posts with open arms :) Thanks to all readers!
Turnout: 23.83% (-0.7%)
MEPs: 51 (nc from Lisbon)
Electoral system: Open-list PR, 5% threshold (13 EP constituencies)
PO (EPP) 32.13% (-12.3%) winning 19 seats (-6)
PiS (ECR) 31.78% (+4.38%) winning 19 seats (+4)
SLD-UP (S&D) 9.44% (-2.9%) winning 5 seats (-2)
KNP (NI) 7.15% (+7.15%) winning 4 seats (+4)
PSL (EPP) 6.8% (-0.21%) winning 4 seats (nc)
SP (EFD) 3.98% (+3.98%) winning 0 seats (nc)
E+ – TR (S&D/ALDE) 3.58% (+3.58%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PR (ECR) 3.16% (+3.16%) winning 0 seats (nc)
RN 1.4% (+1.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Greens (G-EFA) 0.32% (+0.32%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Direct Democracy 0.23% (+0.23%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Samoobrona 0.04% (-1.42%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Poland, the sixth most populous country in the EU and the largest of the ‘new’ member-states from the Eastern enlargements, has become one of the major players in the EU and certainly the most important of the new member-states. Although Poland’s GDP per capita does not make it the ‘richest’ of the post-2004 member-states, it has the biggest economy of all post-2004 members (and the eight-largest in the EU). Under the present Polish government, more pro-European than its predecessor, Poland has taken a leading role in European politics, especially on matters related to Eastern Europe and Russia.
From 1991 until about 2007, Polish politics – similar to that of most other Eastern European post-communist states – were unstable, characterized by weak political parties coming and going, unpopular governments governing in difficult circumstances leading to a very high degree of anti-incumbency (until 2011, no incumbent government won reelection) and very large swings from election to election. The story of Poland’s post-communist left, led by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), is an excellent example of this instability. The left enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, with the election of Aleksander Kwaśniewski to the presidency in 1995, defeating incumbent President and anti-communist resistance icon Lech Wałęsa; and then with the landslide victory of Leszek Miller’s SLD in the 2001 legislative elections, where the left won 41% of the vote against a divided and demoralized incumbent right (the incumbent right-wing government, Jerzy Buzek’s AWS, won only 5.6% and lost all 201 of its seats). However, Prime Minister Leszek Miller and his party quickly became extremely unpopular due to economic policies enacted to counter high unemployment, debt and economic stagnation and by major corruption scandals, notably Rywingate (the bribery of senior politicians, likely acting on behalf of Miller and his government). Therefore, in the 2005 legislative elections, the SLD collapsed to 11% and the left has been unable to recover from its defeat.
Since 2007, politics have stabilized around two major parties complemented by minor parties; both major parties are on the right of the spectrum, although grouping the two together as ‘conservative’ parties is deceptive and obscures the wide schism – ideological and cultural – between the two parties and their supporters. Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO), which has held government since 2007 and the presidency since 2010, is a centre-right liberal conservative and pro-European party. At the outset, PO, which was founded in 2001, was a very liberal (neoliberal) party promoting aggressive economic reforms including privatizations, a flat tax, decentralization, reduction of the size of government and structural reforms. In government, however, Tusk’s party has widely been accused of having morphed into a centrist ‘party of power’ having lost its initial reformist zeal and instead motivated only by securing reelection – which it did in 2011, becoming the first Polish government to win reelection. To some extent, Tusk’s PO has been unwillingly assisted by his main opponent, Law and Justice (PiS), a nationalist-conservative, socially conservative and fairly Eurosceptic party led by former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński (2006-2007), the identical twin brother of former President Lech Kaczyński (2005-2010), who was killed in April 2010 when his presidential plane crashed while landing in Smolensk (Russia), killing all 96 passengers and crew. PiS’s very conservative and nationalist rhetoric, influenced by the very powerful and traditionalist Catholic Church in Poland, appeals to a particular segment of the Polish electorate, but at the same time it is very off-putting to the other half of the Polish electorate. PiS has not won a national election in Poland since 2007.
Therefore, although both PO and PiS are parties of the right, there are real and important ideological differences between the two. Economically, PO ostensibly supports European liberal policies, including privatizations, low taxes, compliance with EU budgetary rules and, in the long-term, adoption of the euro; on the other hand, PiS has, since its 2007 defeat, shifted towards interventionist and populist policies and opposed the government’s reforms (although, it should be noted, PiS was quite economically liberal in its own right when in power). The PO is strongly pro-European, and Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s name comes up every now and again in speculation for a potential top EU job. PiS is a Eurosceptic or anti-federalist party – it does not support withdrawing from the EU (a fringe opinion in Poland) but, similar to the British Tories (PiS are the Tories’ most important European allies), opposes a ‘federalist’ EU and often argues against further devolution of national powers to the EU in the name of Polish sovereignty. PiS was placed in an awkward position last year, as an ECR member and Tory partner, after David Cameron said that he would work to change EU regulations to withhold welfare benefit payments to EU migrants working in the UK with their families back home (and specifically mentioned Poles, one of the largest migrant communities in the UK).
PiS is often strongly nationalist – it has regularly engaged in anti-German and anti-Russian rhetoric, and a good chunk of the party – including Jarosław Kaczyński – believe that the plane crash which killed President Lech Kaczyński in Russia in 2010 was a Russian conspiracy. Law and Justice is vociferously anti-communist – it wishes to take lustration even further, by banning all university professors, lawyers, journalists and managers of large companies from holding their jobs if they are found to have collaborated with the communist-era secret service. Poland is one of the EU’s most socially conservative countries, and the Catholic Church – which in Poland tends to be highly conservative and somewhat politically active – retains a good deal of influence, although there is a strong secular or anti-clerical movement as well. PiS is the most socially conservative party, strongly opposed to abortion (which is already illegal with exceptions maternal life, mental health, health, rape, and/or fetal defects), same-sex marriage (and oftentimes hostile to homosexuality in itself) and IVF; PO is internally divided, with a powerful conservative faction opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, meaning that PO has – until recently – largely made sure to not alienate the Church or conservatives in the party.
Poland was the only EU member-state to escape recession in 2009, with +1.6% growth, according to The Economist “thanks partly to luck and partly to a mixture of deft fiscal and monetary policies, a flexible exchange rate for the zloty, a still modest exposure to international trade and low household and corporate debt”. Poland benefited greatly from EU accession in 2004, and continues to receive billions of euros worth of development funds. Fairly strong growth in 2010-2012 (averaging about 4%), a fairly low debt (51% of GDP in 2009, now 57%) and a government generally well regarded by its EU partners (notably neighboring Germany) have given Poland extra weight in the EU.
In 2011, Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s PO was reelected to an unprecedented second term, winning 39.2% against 29.9% for PiS, with both parties losing about 2% of the vote from the 2007 election. Tusk retained power, in coalition with the small agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL), a venal and opportunistic party which is amenable to a coalition with anybody to protect its rural voters’ interests and its own ministerial portfolios. In 2010, the PO had won the presidency in snap elections held after the death of President Lech Kaczyński. PO candidate Bronisław Komorowski defeated Jarosław Kaczyński 53% to 47%, and his election has inaugurated a much calmer relation between the Prime Minister and the President – between 2007 and 2010, Tusk had often clashed with his nemesis, Lech Kaczyński, and used the latter’s intransigence and vetoes to deflect blame for the lack of reformist vigour from his government.
Tusk’s reelection, and a friendly relationship between the presidency and government, boosted hopes that the new government would prove more ambitious in its agenda. Upon his reelection, Tusk outlined a reformist agenda with austerity measures to reduce Poland’s large deficit (7.8% in 2010 and 5.1% in 2011) and structural reforms, notably to the pension system. In 2012, the government passed a pension reform which will increase and equalize the retirement age for men and women to 67 by 2040 (currently, men retire at 65 and women at 60), despite major protests outside Parliament. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński embraced the protests, enthusiastically proclaiming that the crowds reminded him of his earlier glory days in the anti-communist Solidarity trade union. The opposition criticized PO for reneging on an election promise and forcing reform without consultation, but the opposition’s motion to hold a referendum on the reform was shut down by the PSL, the loyal ally which sided with PO in exchange for minor concessions on early partial retirement. Other reforms were also met with significant push-back: measures to cut the previleges of protected workers (journalists, professors), moves to liberalize a number of regulated professions while a bill to allow the state to partially cover IVF costs for both married and unmarried women faced significant opposition from the Catholic Church but also a socially conservative faction of PO led by then-justice minister Jarosław Gowin. The hardliners in the Catholic Church had at one time threatened to excommunicate any MPs who voted for anything other than banning IVF, which they described as ‘refined abortion’.
The government faced a very tough time in 2013. Economic growth has slowed, to 2% in 2013 and a projected 1.6% in 2014. The government has been assailed from every angle for a whole number of reasons. PO has again been accused of having lost its reformist energy, and focusing increasingly on what it set to be a tough fit for reelection for 2015 and eschewing more ambitious structural reforms. A recent OECD report called on Warsaw to close the productivity gap, severely trim a bloated public sector, invest in growing industries, boost productivity, liberalize labour laws to make it easier to fire employees, push Polish firms to become globally competitive and improve the ease of doing business in Poland (the country often gets poor marks, compared to its Eastern European partners, on ‘business-friendliness’ or ‘ease of doing business’ indexes) by tackling corruption and reducing red tape. Labour force participation remains low by EU levels, and Poland faces a demographic problem in the long-term because of its low birth rate and emigration which is still high. The OECD and liberal economists have also faulted the government for dragging its feet on privatization, criticizing its tendency to declare large parastatals as ‘strategic’ to prevent them from being privatized. While foreign investors and financial institutions point out the lack of reformist energy, at home, the government is criticized for the content of its austerity-minded policies and reforms (notably to labour laws). With an increasingly sluggish economy and high unemployment (9.6%, was over 10% for most of 2012 and 2013), Poles have been gloomy about the economy and increasingly unhappy with a government which seems to spend more time on ineffective crisis management than long-term reforms.
Tusk also needed to attend to divisions within his party and to take care of an increasingly prickly and inconvenient justice minister, Jarosław Gowin, the leader of a socially conservative strand in PO which clashed with Tusk and liberals on issues such as IVF and civil unions. In February 2013, Poland’s lower house, the Sejm, debated three civil union bills, and all three bills (one of which was proposed by a PO member) were voted down, with Gowin leading 46 PO MPs to vote against the PO proposal. The debate was marked by homophobic comments from PiS MPs. In April 2013, Gowin was finally sacked after he said that German scientists were buying Polish embryos from IVF procedures and using them for scientific experiments. His insensitive (especially given history between Poland and Germany) and provocative statement rattled Germany and was the last straw for Tusk, who dismissed Gowin from cabinet a week later. Gowin challenged Tusk for the PO leadership later in 2013, winning 20% of the vote, and left the party shortly thereafter. In December 2013, Gowin founded a new splinter party, Poland Together (PR). The party claims to represent the PO’s original social conservative and neoliberal (tax cuts, deregulation, fiscal orthodoxy) roots, with an added dose of so-called ‘Eurorealism’. It teamed up with recently-disbanded Poland Comes First (PJN), a failed 2010 moderate free-market splinter from PiS (2.2% in the 2011 elections). PR had four MEPs in the old EP – one from PO, one from PiS and two from PJN – who sat in the ECR group.
Responding to the troubles, Tusk tightened his grip on the PO by sidelining PO deputy leader Grzegorz Schetyna and then shuffling his cabinet in November 2013. Jacek Rostowski, his finance minister since 2007, who had received credit for his good management of the economy in the 2008-9 global recession but was facing flack for unpopular reforms, was replaced (only months after a February promotion to Deputy Prime Minister) by Mateusz Szczurek, a young economist. Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the minister of regional development, received a major promotion to Deputy Minister and a super portfolio of infrastructure and development, focused on managing new EU funds (Poland was a major beneficiary in the latest EU 2014-2020 budget).
The opposition PiS has made major gains over the past year, with a consistent advantage over PO in polls and two victories in senatorial by-elections in 2013. However, Kaczyński’s party has hesitated between tried-and-true inflammatory and polarizing rhetoric or trying its hand at a soothing, conciliatory strategy. Playing on the unpopularity of the government’s reforms, PiS reached out to those threatened by lay-offs by promising to roll back Tusk’s reforms and increased benefits for the poor – a populist and dirigiste platform similar to that which PiS had in 2011 (it had promised tax cuts for families, a two-layered income tax to replace the flat tax and opposed cutting welfare spending). In 2013, PiS successfully focused on ‘bread and butter’ socioeconomic concerns and landed some heavy blows on the government. However, there’s still been plenty of drama and traditional fire-breathing stuff from PiS. Every now and again, Kaczyński or a PiS parliamentarian brings up the 2010 Smolensk plane crash which killed Lech Kaczyński and alleges a Russian conspiracy. A good chunk of PiS’ base loves the Russian conspiracy theories, but to other voters, it often comes out as craziness. Because Kaczyński continues to be a polarizing figure, PO has managed to retain sizable support despite a clear dip in its popularity.
Kaczyński did fight off a challenge from his right, from Zbigniew Ziobro, a former justice minister and MEP originally seen as Kaczyński’s dauphin. However, after the 2011 defeat, as Ziobro criticized Kaczyński’s leadership, he and some colleagues were expelled from PiS. Ziobro founded Solidary Poland/United Poland (SP) in March 2012, a hardline social conservative (pro-life, anti-gay marriage) and Eurosceptic party. The party had 4 MEPs in the old EP, including Ziobro, and they had left the PiS’ ECR group to join EFD, because of ECR’s liberal stances on gay marriage and belief in global warming.
On the embattled left, the SLD suffered a historic defeat in 2011, with only 8.2% and fifth place behind the Palikot Movement, a new flash-in-the-pan anti-clerical and very socially liberal (pro-gay marriage, drug legalization, free condoms, legalizing abortion) led by eccentric maverick PO dissident Janusz Palikot, which finished third with 10% and 40 seats. Former Prime Minister Leszek Miller (2001-2004), whose tenure as Prime Minister was marked by unpopular orthodox liberal economic polices, pro-American stances (along with centre-left President Kwaśniewski, Poland joined the American-led coalition in the invasion of Iraq in 2003) and corruption scandals, returned to active politics and the SLD as the party’s leader. Miller has criticized the government’s policies from the left and taken on a calm and predictable image, but there were constant rumours that the SLD would join the governing coalition. This did not materialize, due to reluctance on the part of both the PO and the SLD, but there are still rumours that it’s only been delayed till after the 2015 elections.
The Ukraine crisis shuffled the cards ahead of the EP elections. Poland has a difficult history with Russia, and the country has been a strong supporter of an independent Ukraine since 1991, has actively spearheaded efforts for EU engagements with Eastern European countries such as Ukraine and successive Polish governments have usually taken strongly pro-American positions. Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government usually was friendlier and more diplomatic towards Russia than the opposition PiS, and the 2010 Smolensk plane crash led to a significant thaw in Warsaw-Moscow ties – President Kaczyński and senior Polish politicians, bureaucrats and military personnel on the flight had been travelling to a memorial for the 70th anniversary of the 1940 Katyn massacre. After the tragedy, the Russian State Duma passed a motion recognizing that Joseph Stalin had personally ordered the massacre. With the Ukrainian crisis and the Russian annexation of Crimea, Warsaw has taken a tough line against Russia.
Politically, inter-party unity soon disappeared as both the PO and PiS tried to benefit electorally from the Ukrainian crisis. Tusk, as the incumbent Prime Minister, took the lead to assume the role of a ‘strong leader’ and refocused the PO’s EP campaign around the issue of Polish and European security. He aptly invited Vitali Klitschko, a leading Ukrainian opposition leader (and now mayor of Kiev) to PO’s campaign launch and signed a cooperation agreement with Klitschko’s party, UDAR. The Prime Minister and other leading PO officials, such as foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, began adopting a PiS-like nationalist and anti-Russian tone which often drew parallels with Poland’s painful and tragic history during World War II. Finally, the government argued that the Ukrainian crisis highlighted its effectiveness in promoting Polish interests abroad by active membership in a strong, united and integrated EU without being Russophobic. In response, PiS claimed that the events in Ukraine vindicated its assertive policy vis-à-vis Russia and attacked Tusk’s apparently naive and shortsighted approach. PiS has long advocated a tough stance against Russia, notably during the 2008 Georgian/South Ossetian conflict, to counter Russian expansionism. However, voters largely sided with the incumbents, and PiS’ lead in polls tightened up significantly.
Although Ukraine was a major point of political debate, it failed to motivate voters to turn out in the EP elections. Poland saw, once again, some of the lowest turnout in the EU – only 23.8% of voters turned out to vote, down a bit less than 1% from 2009. Turnout was higher in the cities than in rural areas, with 35% turnout in the 4th constituency, which covers Warsaw and its adjacent suburban counties, 32.7% turnout in the city of Poznań, 35.9% turnout in the city of Gdańsk and 31.1% in Katowice.
The ruling PO won an extremely narrow victory over the opposition PiS, winning 32.1% against 31.8% for PiS – a difference of 24,325 votes. In terms of seats, both PO and PiS elected 19 MEPs. It is a significant victory, albeit narrow, for the ruling party. Although the low turnout means that these elections cannot be worth much, it is a symbolic victory for an embattled governing party in elections which are generally hard on incumbents. Like across the EU, EP elections in Poland are ‘second order’ elections in which voters often use the opportunity to punish incumbents without taking any risks, and as such they tend to be difficult for the incumbents – although in the 2009 EP election, the PO government – although at that time a young and popular government – had won a landslide, with 44.4% against only 27.4% for PiS. The symbolic victory is also important because these EP elections kicked off a string of four elections – the EP elections in May, followed by local elections in November, presidential elections in the spring of 2015 and finally parliamentary elections in the fall of 2015.
Nevertheless, it is far from all roses for PO: its EP victory has been assigned to the effects of the Ukrainian crisis, and the concomitant boost in the government’s popularity. However, as the Ukrainian crisis drags on and only worsens, the government’s popularity on the issue has fallen and the issue is ‘normalizing’ and no longer benefits the PO – in the long term, it’s hard to see Ukraine becoming a game-changing issue for the government – although the victory could provide momentum. PiS’ counter-offensive, attacking the PO’s credibility on security topics and trying to reemphasize domestic concerns, may have helped to reduce the government’s momentum, although PiS led (within the margin of error) most of the last polls before the election. Furthermore, regardless of the results, PO’s share of the vote is down significantly not only from its 2009 high-water mark but also its 2011 result.
Since the EP elections, the government has been hit by a firestorm surrounding a newspaper’s publication, in June, of secret tape recordings of several months’ worth of conversations involving current/former ministers. The interior minister asked the governor of the ostensibly independent National Bank for help in stimulating the economy and financing the deficit, and warned that investors would flee if PiS won in 2015; in exchange, the governor asked for the head of finance minister Jacek Rostowski. In another, foreign minister Radosław Sikorski – one of the leading foreign ministers in the EU – said that Poland’s alliance with the US was worthless and said that Poles had low self-esteem. The government and the secret service have searched the newspaper’s editorial office to identify the leaker and unsuccessfully tried to confiscate the editor’s laptop. Tusk has since regained control, somewhat, and won a confidence vote 237 to 203. He has resisted pressure to dismiss the interior minister and foreign minister and downplayed the significance and ethical issues raised by the recordings. PiS lost the advantage and was unable to get the opposition parties to agree with its proposal for a technocratic national unity government led by Piotr Gliński. Still, the issue has hurt and may continue to hurt the government. A June poll showed PiS leading by 9. A blow, but likely not a fatal blow for PO.
PiS’ narrow defeat is quite disappointing. Its losing streaks in national election continues – it hasn’t won a single national election since 2007, although this is likely the closest they’ve gotten to winning. Expecting to win handily because the government’s unpopularity and the traditional nature of EP elections, PiS found itself wrong-footed by PO’s skillful use of the Ukraine issue.
In additional good news for the government, PO’s quiet and undemanding junior partner, the agrarian PSL, had a decent election – holding its 2009 levels and its four MEPs – and the PSL’s new leader, Janusz Piechociński, who won the PSL’s leadership in 2012 after defeating longtime leader and former Prime Minister (in the early 1990s, with the ex-communist left) Waldemar Pawlak, survived his first electoral test. Janusz Piechociński, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy, had been criticized over his soft-mannered style and apparent failure to make an impact or make his party’s voice heard in government. Many in the PSL felt that the PSL was isolated in Tusk’s government since 2012, citing the lack of consultation with the PSL’s leader in the cabinet shuffles in February and November 2013. In general, the PSL has been rather undemanding and ‘constructive’ partner – basically, as long as the PO doesn’t touch the PSL’s ministerial portfolios or reform (as is said to be much-needed) the state-subsidized farmers’ social security system (a key niche topic for the PSL and its rural, agrarian base), the PSL doesn’t care much. Given internal dissatisfaction, the EP elections were seen as a first and decisive electoral test for Piechociński’s leadership. The PSL hovered dangerously close to the 5% threshold in some polls, leading to fears that it may fall below – but, as always, it held up well (despite low turnout in the PSL’s rural bases) and Piechociński can be happy.
On the left, the SLD did fairly poorly. The SLD won 9.4% of the vote and lost 2 MEPs, down from 12.3% and not performing much better than it did in 2011. Miller was likely hoping for a strong result in the vicinity of 15%, which would have boosted the SLD’s standings and allowed it to be taken more seriously ahead of the key elections next year (in which the SLD may be seeking to enter government). However, the silver lining for SLD here is that it has recovered its ‘traditional’ (post-2005) third place position in Polish politics. In 2015, it is very unlikely that either PO or PiS will secure an absolute majority – and if PiS wins, it is a major problem for them, because, as the makeup of regional executives show (PO leads or participates in 15 out of 16 voivodeship governments), PiS is politically isolated and has few allies (its prickly and insane far-right coalition partners from 2005-2007, the clerico-nationalist LPR and populist-nationalist Samoobrona, have both died off).
The SLD has also won the battle for control of the left, against the Europa Plus – Your Movement (E+ TR) coalition. The E+ coalition was launched by Janusz Palikot’s party – renamed Your Movement (TR) recently – and joined forces with smaller parties on the left and, most importantly, former centre-left President Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005). Kwaśniewski remains fairly popular at home and had an international standing while President, so there were high hopes for the alliance. However, Palikot faced criticism that he was uninterested by the actual coalition itself and just using it to build support for his own movement, while Kwaśniewski – who was not a candidate himself – seemed to give only half-hearted attention to the election (in April, he showed up to a campaign event reportedly under the influence of alcohol) and most recognized that, while still popular, Kwaśniewski is from a by-gone era and he has lost his appeal to Polish voters. The alliance began foundering as minor parties were wooed over by the SLD instead (such as the Labour Union, UP) and the alliance failed to attract many star candidates. Palikot’s own appeal since 2011 has predictably decreased significantly as well – his flamboyant, provocative and coarse style lost its charm quickly, and the party was embroiled in a few controversies (it lost the support of feminists after it dumped Wanda Nowicka, a pro-choice campaigner who was elected Vice Marshal of the Sejm, and Palikot removed her from the caucus and accused her of ‘wanting to be raped’).
Below the threshold, both Gowin and Ziobro’s right-wing political projects failed their first test. Ziobro’s SP did best, with just about 4%, while Gowin’s PR won only 3.2%.
The election was marked, finally, by the sudden success of Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s Congress of the New Right (KNP), an anti-establishment, anti-EU and right-libertarian movement. The KNP is the latest political avatar for Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran enfant terrible of Polish politics since the 1990s. In the 2010 presidential election, he won 3.5%. He may be Europe’s closest thing to American libertarianism and Ron Paul – his support with young voters on the internet, his conservative and isolationist brand of libertarianism and his history of controversial statements. His very unusual and colourful views on political issues include: hardline opposition to the ‘communist project’ which is the EU, styling outgoing EC president Barroso a ‘Maoist’, saying that democracy is the stupidest form of government (he is a monarchist), proposing to turn the EC building into a brothel, opposition to women’s suffrage (because he says women are dumber than men), eating his tax return to protest taxes, saying that women often fake rape, arguing that the difference between rape and consensual sex was very subtle, agreeing with Putin that Poland had trained ‘Ukrainian terrorists’ and arguing that there was no proof that Hitler was aware of the Holocaust. The KNP wants to reduce the government to its very bare minimum (notably by abolishing income taxes, privatizing almost everything, abolishing tax redistribution and downsizing government), but is socially conservative – it supports the death penalty, opposes abortion, contraception, IVF, euthanasia and civil unions.
The KNP owes its success – 7.2% and 4 MEPs – to young voters. It won 28.5% of the vote with those 18 to 25. This blog post said that “some sociologists have argued that many of these voters are drawn from what social commentators sometimes refer to as ‘Generation Y’: the large numbers of young and fairly well-educated unemployed in Poland who live at home with their parents and are frustrated that the country has not developed more rapidly, with an apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks stifling their opportunities.” These voters face the choice of emigration or low-skilled jobs at home. These well-educated young voters are highly active on the internet, and Korwin-Mikke is a big hit on Facebook and YouTube. Because it was an EP election, the KNP may be a flash-in-the-pan, but the KNP will try to use its success and Korwin-Mikke will use his platform in the EP (he has already promised to raise hell) to win seats in 2015 – but in a higher-turnout and high-stakes election, it is unlikely that the marginal KNP will find similar levels of support and Korwin-Mikke’s insane statements will likely be scrutinized closer by voters. Poland certainly has a long list of fleetingly successful minor protest parties who are one-hit-wonders but disappear quickly thereafter – like everybody’s favourite Beer Lovers’ Party in 1990!
There is a strong and fascinating regional dichotomy in Polish politics. The ruling centre-right PO’s support, in orange on the map above, is largely concentrated in territories which were ruled by Prussia/Germany until 1918/1945 (what is rather interesting is how PO’s support does not correlate with the western borders of interwar Poland but rather with those of the Kaiserreich in 1914); PiS’ support, in blue on the map, is concentrated in territories which were ruled by Russia and Austria (Galicia) until 1918. Overlaying the map of the 2014 EP election on the map of the region one hundred years ago, in 1914, would produce a near-perfect correlation between German territories for PO and Russian/Austrian territories for PiS. The lingering effects of the partition of Poland as it stood in 1914 is not a mere historical coincidence: all three former imperial powers ruled their Polish territories in their own distinctive ways, built (or not) infrastructure and industry and tolerated (or not) Polish institutions such as the Catholic Church. The German territories of western Poland were slightly more urban than those in Russia or Austrian Galicia, but the infrastructure was significantly more developed and industry slightly more important (notably with coal mining and the industrial basin of Silesia, although the textile town of Łódź was Russian) resulting in a significant gap in wealth and development between the German and Russian/Austrian regions, which remained far less developed, poorer and predominantly agricultural (largely in the form of small-scale, subsistence farms). The west/east divide is extremely perceptible in 1950s maps of the Polish rail network (and even in the modern rail network). However, the 1914 German territories are no longer ethnically German – Poland’s German minority nowadays only counts about 150,000 people largely in Opole Voivodeship (formerly German Upper Silesia) – and western Poland was extensively resettled after World War II – the large German population was forcibly expelled to Germany and the region was resettled by Poles, largely from the eastern territories of interwar Poland annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945. Therefore, the modern population of most of the PO-voting western regions – especially those which were German until 1945 – have only been settled by their current inhabitants for 70 years or so. The western population therefore is far less rooted in the region, while the population of Galicia and the Russian territories have seen no comparable demographic upheavals. The former German territories, partly because of Bismarck’s kulturkampf, have been less clerical than the Austrian and Russian territories, where local authorities tolerated the influence and authority of the Polish Catholic Church; under communist rule, therefore, the communist regime likely faced less clerical resistance and challenges in the ‘recovered territories’ of the west. Under communist rule, the east also tended to remain less developed – for example, collectivization of agriculture was abandoned early on in the east but was more ‘successful’ in the west. In conclusion, earlier and more thorough industrialization, better infrastructure, relative affluence, high population mobility and lower religiosity have led to more liberal and pro-European views in western Poland while a traditional agricultural past, higher poverty, high religiosity and clerical influence, low population mobility and poor infrastructure have led to social conservatism and traditionalist views in eastern Poland. To this day, eastern Poland remains poorer than urban and western Poland, although eastern Poland has been drawing in a lot of EU funds.
This divide, however, is not absolute (not all parties, far from it, have a east-west map) or frozen in time. Nor is the “German PO vs Russian/Austrian PiS” a universal rule. The east-west divide partly covers a strong urban-rural divide. Warsaw, which was in Russian eastern Poland, is a PO stronghold: the party won 43.8% against 26.5% for PiS in the Polish capital this year (a much larger margin, I will add, than those in ‘rural’ western counties). Other large eastern cities join the western cities in voting for PO, often by significant margins. The eastern city of Łódź gave 46.4% to PO against 28.4% for PiS this year. In Kraków, PO won 37.8% against 25.7% for PiS. In all three cases, these dots of orange on the map stand out from their very conservative surroundings. Lublin and Białystok, however, both went to PiS with margins over 10%. PO won some of its best results nationally in the cities of Gdánsk (54.2%), Gdynia (53.5%), Chorzów (50.8%), Opole (50.4%), Katowice (48.8%), Poznań (44.5%), Wrocław (42.9%) and Szczecin (42.7%).
One major exception to the east-west rule in the form of a ‘blue island’ in the formerly German west is the region around Polkowice, Głogów and Lubin counties in the Lower Silesian Voivodeship, the heart of the Legnica-Lubin-Głogów copper mining district, home to a major (but struggling) copper mining industry.
Turnout: 33.84% (-2.93%)
MEPs: 21 (-1)
Electoral system: Closed-list PR (d’Hondt), no threshold (national constituency)
PS (S&D) 31.46% (+4.88%) winning 8 seats (+1)
Aliança Portugal PSD/CDS-PP (EPP) 27.71% (-12.37%) winning 7 seats (-3)
PCP-PEV (GUE/NGL) 12.68% (+2.02%) winning 3 seats (+1)
MPT (ALDE) 7.14% (+6.48%) winning 2 seats (+2)
BE (GUE/NGL) 4.56% (-6.17%) winning 1 seat (-2)
Livre (G-EFA) 2.18% (+2.18%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PAN 1.72% (+1.72%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PCTP/MRPP 1.66% (+0.45%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PND 0.7% (+0.7%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PTP 0.69% (+0.69%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PPM 0.54% (+0.15%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PNR 0.46% (+0.09%) winning 0 seats (nc)
MAS 0.38% (+0.38%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Pro-Vida 0.37% (+0.37%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PDA 0.16% (+0.16%) winning 0 seats (nc)
POUS 0.11% (-0.03%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Portugal has been hit hard by the economic crisis – it was one of the so-called ‘PIGS’/’PIIGS’ countries along with Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain (and now Cyprus) and it received a bailout from the ‘Troika’. However, unlike in Greece, Spain or Italy, the economic and social crisis in Portugal has not triggered major changes in the Portuguese political or party system.
Since the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which overthrew the Estado Novo dictatorship (1933-1974), Portuguese governments usually ran deficits above and beyond the EU’s 3% deficit limit – in 2009, Portugal’s deficit was 10.2% of GDP and 9.8% of GDP in 2010 – and the size of the public sector grew exponentially (the number of public servants increased from 372,000 in 1979 to a peak of 663,100 in 2010, surpassing the average number of public servants per inhabitant in the rest of the EU). Furthermore, Portugal – which was the EU’s poorest member-state prior to the 2004 enlargement (and has since fallen even further behind) suffered from sluggish economic growth in the years leading up to the global recession and Eurozone debt crisis. For example, in 2005 and 2006, the Portuguese economy grew by only 0.8% and 1.4% (because of competition from China and Asia for the traditional textile and footwear industries) while the EU-27 grew at rates of 2.2% and 3.4% in those pre-crisis years. Portugal also had very high levels of household debt. Despite all that, governments spent quite lavishly on public works projects, bonuses and wages for public sector and parastatal bosses and mismanaged EU funds. In 2009, Portugal’s GDP fell by 2.9% and the government was forced to bailout and nationalize two major banks – the Banco Português de Negócios and Banco Privado Português – who had been accumulating loses due to bad investments, embezzlement and accounting fraud. The BPN’s president, who had close ties to several politicians including President (and former Prime Minister) Aníbal Cavaco Silva, was later arrested for suspected tax fraud, money laundering and forgery.
The Socialist Party (PS), led by moderate Prime Minister José Sócrates, was the incumbent government when the Eurozone debt crisis hit Portugal beginning in 2010. Sócrates’ PS had been elected in a landslide (winning an absolute majority by itself) in 2005, on the heels of the unpopular governments of Prime Ministers José Manuel Barroso (2002-2004) and Pedro Santana Lopes (2004-2005). Sócrates’ government was accused by the centre-right opposition of having failed to anticipate the economic crisis when he took office in 2005 and general economic mismanagement. Pressured by financial markets and the EU, the Sócrates government passed three successive austerity packages in 2004 which included tax increases, pay cuts for public servants and spending cuts. These policies did little to alleviate the crisis, as Portugal’s credit rating was downgraded and risk premiums on Portuguese bonds reached record highs. Nevertheless, the Sócrates government resisted pressure to seek European help. In the spring of 2011, Portugal was left with little option but to seek a EU bailout. However, in March 2011, the opposition parties on the left and right – which held a majority in the National Assembly – joined to reject a fourth austerity package put forward by the PS minority government and Sócrates resigned, prompting early elections in June 2011. As a caretaker Prime Minister, Sócrates finally admitted the need for a €78 billion Troika bailout.
The main party of the Portuguese centre-right is the misnamed Social Democratic Party (PSD). Portugal has an acute case of sinistrisme, where what passes as the right elsewhere in Europe shies away from adopting labels such as ‘right’, ‘conservative’ or even ‘liberal’ due to the association with the Estado Novo dictatorship in general and Salazar’s regime in particular. The PSD’s name also reflects the party’s origins and mythical founding leader, Francisco Sá Carneiro (died in 1980), a ‘Portuguese social democrat’ who developed a moderate, anti-collectivist and anti-statist form of social democracy adapted to the Portuguese context, influenced both by Catholic social teachings (humanism and Emmanuel Mounier’s personalism) and German social democracy. The PSD even applied to join the Socialist International. However, after Sá Carneiro’s death in 1980, the PSD clearly shifted to the mainstream European right (although the PSD would deny it) under Prime Ministers Aníbal Cavaco Silva (1985-1995) and José Manuel Barroso (2002-2005), who both implemented liberal economic policies. The PSD originally joined the liberal family in the EP, before leaving it for the Christian democratic EPP family in 1996. The PSD’s traditional junior ally, the People’s Party (CDS-PP), identifies with ‘centrism’ (the party’s original name – CDS – stood for ‘Social and Democratic Centre’) but lies further to the PSD’s right – socially conservative, softly Eurosceptic, mildly nationalistic and somewhat populist. The PS, PSD and CDS-PP are ideologically similar, moderate parties which have governed from the centre and found common cause in opposing the left-wing revolutionary movement in the chaotic transition years of 1974-1976 (the Processo Revolucionário em Curso, PREC), which was spearheaded by the Communist Party (PCP) and left-wing sectors in the military.
The PSD seized on anti-incumbency and the unpopularity of the PS government associated with the economic collapse to win the 2011 elections, with Pedro Passos Coelho’s PSD ultimately defeating Sócrates by an unexpectedly comfortable 10.6% margin (38.6% to 28.1%). Polls had indicated a much closer contest, but the PS ended up badly underperforming its polling. Pedro Passos Coelho, in contrast with the right-wing opposition parties in Spain and Greece, ran a brutally honest pro-austerity (and pro-bailout) campaign – most notably, Passos Coelho said that he would go beyond what the EU-IMF were asking from Lisbon, determined to make Portugal stand out (from Greece, notably) as the ‘good pupil’ of austerity in southern Europe. The PSD formed a coalition with Paulo Portas’ CDS-PP.
Portugal received a €78-billion bailout from the ‘Troika’, in return for austerity measures and structural reforms. Passos Coelho set out to go further and be even more ambitious than what the Troika asked, to meet the EU-IMF’s demands ahead of schedule and to complete the bailout program within the planned timeframe. The PSD’s platform in 2011 was unusually right-wing and neoliberal for a traditionally left-of-centre country like Portugal, including proposals for constitutional reforms which would allow private sector participation in healthcare, education, social security and the privatization of water and postal services. The government quickly set out to introduce tough austerity measures including: spending cuts (notably in education and healthcare); income and corporate tax increases; abolishing the ’13th and 14th month’ bonuses (for Christmas and July) for public servants; a continued pay freeze for public servants (and a fall in real wages from 2010); privatizations; halting public work projects (notably a high-speed railway); selling the state’s golden shares in the electricity, telecommunications and energy companies; significant hikes in electricity prices due to a major increase on the VAT on energy (from 6% to the standard rate of 23%); reduction of the public sector payroll through attrition; public transit fare increases; an increase in working hours (30 minutes per day, unpaid); devolution of powers to local governments but cuts in fiscal transfers to these same local governments and the elimination of four public holidays. Passos Coelho originally claimed that even deeper austerity was necessary because his government had discovered a €2 billion ‘hole’ in the budget left behind by the PS, but the opposition parties claimed that it was only an excuse for deeper cuts.
These austerity policies had little success in creating economic growth or even reducing the deficit. In 2011, it was revealed that the autonomous region of Madeira – the personal preserve of PSD baron Alberto João Jardim since 1978 – had been under-reporting its public debt since 2008, hiding a total of €1.218 billion in debt between 2008 and 2010, while the regional government had a total debt of €6.328 billion. Despite the scandal, Alberto João Jardim was reelected to a ninth full term in office with yet another absolute majority in October 2011, although the PSD’s support fell by 15.7%. The deficit was brought down to 4.3% of GDP in 2011 but increased again to 6.4% in 2012, before falling to 4.9% in 2013 (but, in 2011, the original Troika demand had been pushing for a 3% deficit in 2013). Portugal has been in recession since 2011, with -1.3% in 2011, -3.2% in 2012 and -1.4% in 2013. The government’s forecasts had initially predicted positive growth in 2013, but current estimates show that the economy might finally grow again only this year (+1.2% predicted by the EC). The government had more trouble than it had expected because its austerity policies in 2011 and 2012 led to a major collapse in consumer spending, and lower than expected revenues for the state. Furthermore, despite the austerity, Portugal’s bond yields remained high and refused to budge for most of 2012 (in contrast to Ireland or Spain) and Portugal’s credit rating was again downgraded – the country currently has a negative outlook BB rating from Standard & Poor’s.
The unemployment rate soared from 12.6% when the PSD took office in June 2011 to a high of 17.4% in early 2013, although it has since begun declining to stand at 14.3% in May 2014. In September 2012, ostensibly to reduce unemployment, Passos Coelho announced cuts in the social security paid by employers (from 23.25% to 18%) – financed by a concomitant increase in social security contributions from employees (from 11% to 18%), which meant a clear fall in employees’ take-home pay. The Prime Minister’s policy unleashed a firestorm of criticism – it united the radical left, trade unions and the PS against the government, and was criticized on the right by a former PSD leader (Manuela Ferreira Leite) while Paulo Portas, the leader of the CDS-PP and foreign minister, indicated his disagreement with the idea and raised the specter of a coalition crisis between the PSD and its junior partner. In late September, after a very successful strike and protest movement against the government, it was finally forced to scrap the idea of toying around with social security contributions. But forced to meet the Troika’s demands, the government chose to raise taxes. Even after the decision, the CDS-PP continued to show its thinly-veiled displeasure with the government, although the government’s junior member still voted in favour of the budget in October 2012.
However, in January 2013, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva – a member of the PSD, but who has often acted as he saw fit while President (an unconventional and often interventionist style which has won him many critics and low approval ratings for a Portuguese head of state) – announced that he would take several items from the 2013 budget to the Constitutional Court for a decision on their constitutionality. In April 2013, the court ruled that three items from the budget were unconstitutional: abolishing the ’13th and 14th month’ bonuses for public servants (on the grounds of not respecting equality between public and private employees), abolishing the ’13th and 14th month’ bonuses for retirees and a special tax on unemployment and sickness benefits. It upheld, however, a ‘solidarity tax’ on pensions over €1,350 a month. The court (who declared its ruling to be retroactive) blew a €1.3 billion ‘hole’ in the budget. The government was livid and its attacks on the court’s ruling were unexpectedly violent – accusing it of placing the country’s stability in jeopardy and fueling rumours that Portugal would need a second bailout. Yet, forced to conform, Passos Coelho announced that spending cuts would replace tax hikes in 2013. The court has continued to reject austerity measures proposed by the government, heightening tensions between the government and the judiciary. The government would like to open the constitution to amend clauses and allow for more spending cuts and a reorganization of state-provided health services and public education, as the IMF has proposed, but the PS has refused to discuss such reforms.
In July 2013, the government faced another crisis – this time within its own ranks. It began with the resignation of Vítor Gaspar, the technocrat finance minister (embattled by the failure of austerity policies which failed to meet targets), and his replacement by María Luis Albuquerque, from the PSD. Paulo Portas, the leader of the CDS-PP and foreign minister, handed his resignation to the Prime Minister – and said it was ‘irreversible’. However, Passos Coelho refused to accept his resignation and created a political crisis with an uncertain resolution – Passos Coelho tried to mediate the crisis internally by promoting Paulo Portas to Deputy Prime Minister (a new title) while the President reiterated his old demand for a ‘national salvation’ government with the PS and snap elections in 2014 after the bailout program’s conclusion. The PS quickly shut the door on any ‘national salvation’ coalition, and Cavaco Silva was forced to accept the reshuffled coalition cabinet with Portas now sitting as Deputy Prime Minister.
Portugal’s economic health has only just begun improving. The economy should grow in 2014, for the first time since 2010; bond yields have fallen; unemployment should keep falling; the debt has peaked at 129% of GDP and should begin decreasing and Lisbon is projected to finally meet the EU’s 3% deficit limit in 2013. Part of the growth has come thanks to exports, as the country now boasts a current account surplus. The country managed to successfully exit the Troika bailout program on schedule in May 2014, without a safety net line of credit. The successful exit from the bailout program was a big victory for the government, which had repeatedly insisted that Portugal would complete its structural adjustment program within schedule. The EC praised the ‘efforts’ made by Lisbon but at the same time warned against complacency and underlined the need to continue pushing forward with structural reforms. The centre-right cabinet wishes to simplify rules to set up businesses, loosen a rigid labour market and lighten the burden on firms shackled by high charges from the protected non-traded sectors (utilities etc). The OECD says such measures could lead to a significant increase in the GDP by 2020.
However, the Portuguese mood remains overwhelmingly pessimistic and gloomy, with over 90% of respondents in the most recent Eurobarometer saying that the country’s economy is in bad shape (a level similar to Greece) and a significant number of Portuguese who are unconvinced that recovery is here for the long-term. The pessimism with regards to the economy has also been mixed with anger against the government and austerity. Since November 2011, the government has faced several strikes and large protest movements (of varying success), led by trade unions. The CGTP-IS, the largest trade union confederation and an ally of the Communist Party (PCP), has usually been the most inflexible of the unions and been on the frontlines of all anti-austerity and anti-government protests. However, the effectiveness of the unions has been weakened by divisions in the wider movement – for example, in early 2012, the more moderate UGT (linked to the PS), refused to join the CGTP-IS in another strike. Many workers also stayed away from picket lines, unwilling to lose a day’s pay in a bad economy. In contrast to Greece, where protests since 2010 have often been heated, all protests in Portugal have been well-disciplined and peaceful.
Unlike in Greece but also Italy, Spain and even Ireland, the economic crisis in Portugal has not seen major changes in the political system. In addition to pessimism and anti-government feelings, common to all ‘PIIGS’ countries, Portugal has also been hit by apathy and general resignation in the face of the crisis. Voters unhappy with the government has not turned to new parties (there really aren’t any), far-right populists (like in Spain, the far-right in Portugal is an irrelevant joke) or even minor parties – instead, they’ve reacted with run-of-the-mill anti-incumbency and supported either the PS or the Communists. The PS – quite unlike the Spanish Socialists – has recovered quite nicely from its 2011 defeat under the new leadership of António José Seguro. There is little enthusiasm for the PS – in fact, most know that a PS government would apply similar austerity policies anyway (the PS has opposed the current government’s austerity policies, harshly at times but more softly than the radical left at other times) – but the PS seems to benefit from anti-incumbency and the lack of strong alternatives on the left.
The PS won the local elections in September 2013 – although the PS’ vote share fell slightly (by about 1%) from 2009, the PS won 36.3% of the vote for the municipal executives and won 149 municipalities, a gain of 17. The PS easily held Lisbon with over 50.9% of the vote, and the PS gained cities including Coimbra, Vila Nova de Gaia, Sintra, Vila Real and the Madeiran capital of Funchal (an historic defeat for the PSD). On the other hand, the PS lost Braga and Guarda to the PSD and lost three major municipalities (Loures, Beja, Évora) to the Communists. An independent candidate backed by the CDS-PP gained Porto from a term-limited PSD mayor, winning about 39.3% against 22.7% for the PS and only 21.1% to the PS.
The PS won the EP elections with a fairly strong result (31.5%). However, the narrow margin of victory (3.8%) and the underperformance compared to polling (the PS was polling about 36-38% and predicted to win between 9 and 10 MEPs) in a context which should have been quite favourable to the opposition, makes it a very bitter victory indeed for the PS. With elections due in 2015, António José Seguro, the PS leader, may face a leadership challenge from António Costa, the popular PS mayor of Lisbon. That being said, the result can hardly be considered a victory for the centre-right governing parties, who ran a common list (like in the 2004 EP elections) known as Aliança Portugal. The two parties won only 27.7% of the vote, compared to 40.1% for the two parties running separately in the 2009 EP elections (a surprise victory for the PSD over the then-governing PS) and 50.4% in the 2011 election. The right’s result is so catastrophic that it is even lower than the result of the PSD alone in either 2011 (38.7%) or 2009 (31.7%), and the Aliança Portugal coalition also badly underperformed its polling (29-30%, predicted to win between 7 and 9 seats). The centre-right parties returned only 7 MEPs – 6 from the PSD and 1 from the CDS-PP – compared to 10 in 2009.
One of the main winners of the election was the Democratic Unitarian Coalition (CDU), the permanent coalition between the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Greens (PEV) – although the PCP is the dominant and only relevant party of the two, with the Greens more or less acting as the PCP’s section for environmental issues. The Communists remain fairly unreconstructed – the party’s logo still has the distinctive hammer and sickle and the PCP continues to issues communiqués praising communist regimes or denouncing ‘imperialism’ – although, in practice, the PCP largely offers fairly innocuous and standard-fare leftist populism around bread-and-butter issues (which makes the PCP more in touch with reality than the Greek Communists, who are completely in the 1950s). In the EP campaign, for example, the CDU called for a renegotiation of the debt, increasing national production, higher wages and pensions, higher taxes on capital gains and profits, defense of public services and defense of Portuguese national sovereignty against the EU and the Troika (held responsible for what it calls the ‘aggression pact’). The PCP The Communists have been on an upswing recently, having won their result since the late 1990s in the 2013 local elections (11%) and, with 12.7%, it has won its best result in an EP election since 1989. However, because of low turnout, the CDU’s result in terms of raw votes (416.4k votes) is lower than its 2011 intake (over 441 thousand votes, or 8%), so the result is likely one of differential turnout and the Communists’ ability to hold and turn out their loyal base. Nevertheless, the PCP did increase its raw vote in the 2013 local elections – both compared to the previous local elections in 2009 and 2011 – so the Communists have seen a real increase in support. However, their potential for growth is still fairly limited.
The Communists have retained a sizable and loyal electoral base since the Carnation Revolution, although it has seen its support decline somewhat from the 1970s and 1980s. The PCP’s electoral base is very regionalized – it retains very strong support, at all levels of government, in the Alentejo region and Lisbon’s industrial hinterland in the Setúbal Peninsula. In this election, the PCP was the largest party in the districts of Setúbal (29%) and Beja (35.3%) and placed a very strong and close second behind the PS in Évora (31.3%). In contrast, the Communists won less than 5% of the vote in the Azores, Madeira and northern districts such as Bragança and Viseu. Although Portugal is, politically and administratively, a heavily centralized state with only weak local governments, there is a real regional diversity in the country – politically, which reflects a social and economic diversity. The inland south, the Alentejo region (districts of Beja, Évora, Setúbal and Portalegre) – to the south of the Tagus river and to the north of coastal Algarve – was historically a poor region characterized by latifundios, big landowners, landless peasants, anti-clericalism and rural agitation. The Communists were well organized with landless peasants, and the party played a major role in the land seizures and aborted agrarian reform which immediately followed the Carnation Revolution. The region, which remains quite poor and increasingly dominant on the public sector (especially in suburban Lisbon), is a left-wing stronghold in which the PSD regularly places a poor third. Northern Portugal was historically a region of smallholders, small and dispersed private property and often depicted as being very Catholic. Catholic smallholders violently resisted communist collectivization and agrarian reform during the Carnation Revolution/PREC. The north has usually leaned to the PSD, but it is far from being politically homogeneous: the PS has significant support, notably in the cities – Porto, an old republican and liberal bastion and the north’s major industrial centre, but also Braga and Coimbra.
The other winner of this election – a surprise winner – was the Party of the Earth (MPT), a small centre-right green party (it is part of a rump, right-leaning green international in which the German/Bavarian ÖDP and the French MEI are the only other relevant members) founded in 1993 which has regularly participated in all elections but has never really achieved much success – in the 2009 EP elections, running as the Portuguese ally of Declan Ganley’s Libertas, the MPT won only 0.66% and in 2011 the MPT took 0.41%. Its sole parliamentarian was a regional deputy in Madeira, reelected in 2011, with 1.9% of the vote. Its success in the EP elections, with a exceptional 7.1% and nearly 235,000 votes, was totally unexpected. Nobody had predicted that the MPT would win one seat, let alone two. The MPT’s success likely owes to two factors: its top candidate and its populist, anti-establishment platform. The MPT’s top candidate on its list was Marinho Pinto, a fairly well-known Portuguese lawyer and former president of the Portuguese Bar Association, who has often attracted media attention because of his controversial statements (he famously said that Brazil’s main export to Portugal were prostitutes and he has ranted about the ‘gay lobby’ in the past). The MPT had a populist and anti-establishment platform – although a lot of the platform is mostly feel-good, touchy-feely white noise, the MPT called for a renewal of the political elite, criticized EU technocrats and their illegitimacy and attacked financial deregulation all while still being fairly pro-EU. The party’s vote distribution was fairly homogeneous – it polled quite well in Madeira and coastal districts on the mainland (Porto, Aveiro, Coimbra, Viana do Castelo), but its vote did not have any major peaks or troughs. Unlike the German ÖDP, which joined the G-EFA group, the MPT’s two new MEPs have joined the ALDE group.
A major loser was the Left Bloc (BE), a radical left party which often compares itself to Greece’s SYRIZA, and like the Greek party it was originally founded as an alliance of various hard-left movements and minor parties (Maoists, Trotskyists, anti-globalization activists, New Left, Marxists). Usually focused on social issues such as non-discrimination, abortion, same-sex marriage (both of which are now legalized and have largely dropped off the political radar), the BE quickly gained ground in the early 2000s as a hip, trendy and modern radical left party – peaking at 10.7% in the 2009 EP elections (or 9.8% in that year’s legislative elections), and surpassing the Communists. Since that high water mark, however, the BE’s support has declined as the party’s niche issues have become far less relevant and the party’s profile and credibility on economic issues is both weaker and less distinctive from the other parties (often seen as lacking ideas of its own). Quite unlike its Greek friends, the BE has been unable to benefit from the economic crisis. In the 2011 election, the BE’s support fell back to 5.2% and the party lost half of its seats. Since then, the BE’s support in polls has jumped around a bit, but it has not really made new inroads. The retirement of the BE’s longtime leader and MP (since 1999) Francisco Louçã in November 2012 and his replacement by two rather anonymous coordinators hasn’t helped. The BE also faces serious infighting. In 2011, MEP Rui Tavares defected and joined the G-EFA group in the EP, and went on to found Livre, an eco-socialist party. Other members of the BE has pressed, unsuccessfully, for the party to become a potential left-wing governing partner for the PS. On economic issues, at the forefront nowadays, the BE has trouble distinguishing itself from the PCP – it favours an audit and renegotiation of the debt, higher incomes, nationalization of bailed-out banks and rejects the Fiscal Compact – it only really breaks from the PCP in being pro-European and calling for a broad leftist government. However, the BE lacks the PCP’s advantages – the Communists have a loyal electorate, strong trade union roots and an old grassroots presence in the Alentejo and other regions. Livre, running independently with Rui Tavares, won 2.2% of the vote – a result which would allow it to win at least one seat in a legislative election.
Some small parties below the threshold did quite well too. The Party for Animals and Nature (PAN), an animal rights’ party which elected its first regional deputy in Madeira in 2011, won 1.7% nationally and 3.3% in Madeira. The Portuguese Labour Party (PTP), the fourth largest party in the regional parliament in Madeira now led by José Manuel Coelho, a populist and loudmouth critic of PSD boss Alberto João Jardim, won 6.6% and fourth place in Madeira. Nationally, the Portuguese Workers’ Communist Party (PCTP/MRPP), an old Maoist party (of which José Manuel Barroso was a member, before being expelled) last famous during the Carnation Revolution in 1974-5 for being an inflexible enemy of the PCP (a ‘social-fascist’ fraud funded by the CIA, it claimed), won 1.7%. The PCTP amusingly seems to be doing better than ever before, on the heels of a record high performance of 1.1% in 2011.
Political apathy bred by the crisis also expressed itself in the form of the lowest ever turnout in a Portuguese EP election – only 33.8% of voters turned out on May 25, compared to 36.8% in 2009. There was also a high number of white and invalid votes: 4.41% and 3.06%, compared to 4.63% and 2% in 2009.
Turnout: 32.44% (+4.77%)
MEPs: 32 (-1)
Electoral system: Closed-list PR, 5% threshold for parties only – doesn’t apply to independents (national constituency)
PSD-PC-UNPR (S&D) 37.6% (+6.53%) winning 16 seats (+5)
PNL (ALDE>EPP) 15% (+0.48%) winning 6 seats (+1)
PDL (EPP) 12.23% (-17.48%) winning 5 seats (-5)
Independent – Mircea Diaconu (ALDE) 6.81% (+6.81%) winning 1 seat (+1)
UDMR (EPP) 6.29% (-2.63%) winning 2 seats (-1)
PMP (EPP) 6.21% (+6.21%) winning 2 seats (+2)
PP-DD 3.67% (+3.67%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PRM (NI) 2.7% (-5.95%) winning 0 seats (-3)
Forța Civică (EPP) 2.6% (+2.2%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PER (G-EFA) 1.15% (+1.15%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 5.63% (-1.07%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Romania is, after neighboring Bulgaria, the second poorest member-state in the EU and also one of its newest members, having joined the Union with Bulgaria in 2007. Romanian politics in the past few years have been marked by growing apathy and dissatisfaction with the political system, as seen by the declining turnout in national elections (41.8% in the 2012 legislative election, which was actually up from 39.2% in 2008!). Politics in Romania are far more personal than ideological – although there are parties, who have somewhat coherent ideologies and do line up with European ideologies, the political debate is often largely around personality rather than ideological issues. As such, politics have tended be quite bitter and acrimonious, and it has become increasingly so under President Traian Băsescu, who leaves office later this year after ten years as Romania’s head of state. Parties have little ideological differences, and should perhaps be understood as patronage machines or personal vehicles; in contrast with other post-communist countries, however, Romania has not really seen the rapid rise and subsequent collapse of new parties. Partisan loyalty has been increasingly thin, with an increasing number of politicians who have switched parties. The parties themselves have switched alliances repeatedly in the past years, making coalitions tenuous and governments increasingly unstable. Romania suffers from a toxic conflation of political and business elites, and the media – when it is not owned outright by politicians – is intensely partisan.
The Romanian Revolution in 1989, which overthrew Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutal and ‘Sultanistic’ communist regime, is increasingly seen as an ‘internal coup’ in which second-tier Communist apparatchiks, such as President Ion Iliescu (1990-1996, 2000-2004), quickly moved in and seized power for themselves, replacing Ceaușescu’s personal clique with a new elite. This new elite proved to be corrupt, unwilling to engage in deep reform and autocratic – in power, it was predominantly concerned with shoring up its own power and settling scores with political opponents and the opposition parties. Since then, Romanian politicians and governments have often been more interested by personal vendettas against their opponents than dealing with issues such as corruption and economic reform. The National Salvation Front (FSN), the provisional government which replaced Ceaușescu and which was largely staffed by formerly sidelined Communist apparatchiks (like Iliescu) or second-tier regime and the ubiquitous secret police (Securitate), did not hold together for long and various factions alongside warring political bosses soon went their own ways. Iliescu’s faction, more allergic to reforms, eventually became the Social Democratic Party (PSD), a rather powerful collection of former communist officials, Securitate assets and corrupt local political barons. Although Iliescu’s administrations were largely marred by corruption and sluggish reforms, the PSD has become more reformist under recent leaders – critics would contend that the reforms were deceitful, aimed at tricking the EU into accepting Romania and putting up an outward appearance of change while a corrupt and autocratic elite blocked real change. The slightly more reformist and liberal faction of the FSN founded the Democratic Party (PD) in 1993, which merged with dissidents from the National Liberal Party (PNL) to become the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL).
In 2004, Traian Băsescu, a former ship captain and PD mayor of Bucharest, was narrowly elected President in alliance with the PNL, a centre-right liberal party (based on the powerful interwar party) supportive of economic reforms and neoliberal policies (such as the flat tax). Under the agreement, the PNL’s Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu became Prime Minister in coalition with the PD, the Hungarian minority party (the UDMR) and the small ‘Humanist Party’ (now the Conservative Party, PC). Băsescu, a right-leaning populist known for his hot temper and abrasive bully personality, was elected on an anti-corruption, anti-elitist and anti-communist platform. He has often lashed out at his political opponents and media critics in foul-mouthed tirades, or making offensive statements. His political opponents have repeatedly accused him of breaking or bending the constitution, and – like his predecessors – has often used his office to settle scores or wage war on his opponents. Băsescu utterly failed to live up to his promises – going after corruption in Romania is often a one-sided affair, mostly motivated by partisan ends, and Băsescu’s opponents claim that he has only used the presidency to replace an old guard with his cronies.
Given his hot temper, it is no surprise that relations between Băsescu and his first Prime Minister quickly broke down beginning in 2005-6 and culminated with Popescu-Tăriceanu dismissing all PDL ministers from his cabinet in April 2007, forming a minority government with the UDMR and PC which received support from the opposition PSD. Under the Romanian constitution, the President appoints but may not dismiss the Prime Minister, much to Băsescu’s chagrin. His opponents in Parliament voted to impeach him on fairly flimsy grounds in April 2007, but Băsescu survived the impeachment referendum in May 2007 – turnout was under 50% and thus invalid anyhow, and those who did vote opposed his impeachment with three-quarters against. In 2008, the PDL and PSD emerged from legislative elections as the two largest parties, with the PNL trailing in third. Băsescu successfully blocked the formation of an opposition PSD-PNL cabinet, and instead appointed a PDL-PSD coalition led by Emil Boc, the PDL mayor of Cluj-Napoca. However, relations between the two warring partners worsened with the very heated 2009 presidential election (in October 2009, the PSD joined the opposition parties in voting a no-confidence motion in Boc’s government), in which Băsescu faced a very difficult challenge from the PSD’s Mircea Geoană in the second round. The PNL’s first round candidate, Crin Antonescu, endorsed Geoană in the runoff. Băsescu was reelected in an extremely narrow election, with 50.33% of the vote and a 70,000 vote majority; the PSD cried wolf, but the Constitutional Court dismissed the PSD’s claims of vote rigging. Băsescu was returned to office, but the election had pushed the PSD and PNL even further away from him, creating a highly-charged and polarized political climate.
Băsescu’s Prime Minister, Emil Boc, now governing with the UDMR and opportunistic pro-Băsescu PSD-PNL dissidents, also needed to deal with a poor economy (-6.6% recession in 2009, -1.1% recession in 2010) and a large budget deficit (9% in 2009, 6.8% in 2010, 5.5% in 2011). The government received a €20.6 billion loan in 2009 from the IMF, in exchange for stringent austerity policies. Public sector wages were cut, spending was cut, the VAT was increased and social benefits were cut. These austerity policies brought a strong reaction from Romanians, who were tired of low wages and tax increases while politicians continued to line their pockets. They took to the streets in early 2012, initially to protest a health reform which would have cut benefits and privatized a good deal of the healthcare sector, but the protests later became a broad anti-government movement. They successfully obtained the resignation of Emil Boc in February 2012, who was replaced by Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, a former boss of the foreign intelligence services, who tried to form a coalition based around the same parties. In late April 2012, however, Ungureanu’s cabinet was toppled by a no-confidence motion supported by the opposition – the PSD, PNL and PC had formed an electoral coalition, the Social Liberal Union (USL) in February 2011.
Băsescu was forced to appoint Victor Ponta, his sworn enemy and leader of the PSD, as Prime Minister at the helm of a clearly anti-Băsescu USL cabinet. The new cohabitation between the two enemies of Romanian politics unleashed a major constitutional crisis, where both sides acted like elementary school kids in a schoolyard brawl. Victor Ponta was accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis – over 80 pages of his thesis were plagiarized, lifting entire pages and arguments from other authors. Ponta – who dismissed the commission in charge of academic integrity and refused to resign – claimed that Băsescu’s allies had leaked the plagiarism scandal to the press to sully him, and reacted by leaking details of corruption allegations surrounding Băsescu. Matters got even worse when, at around the same time, Ponta’s doctoral thesis advisor and political mentor, former PSD Prime Minister Adrian Năstase (2000-2004, defeated by Băsescu in 2004), was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to two years in jail (and tried to commit suicide when the police came to escort him to jail).
In June 2012, the Constitutional Court ruled against Ponta in a dispute between him and Băsescu over who from Ponta and Băsescu should have represented the country at a European summit. In reaction to this judicial rebuke, Ponta went all-out against the judicial system, claiming that the courts were stacked with Băsescu loyalists. The government threatened to fire Constitutional Court judges, fired and replaced the ombudsman with a party loyalist, seized control of the official journal, replaced the heads of both chambers of Parliament and tried to remove the Constitutional Court’s ability to rule on parliamentary matters. Ponta’s attack on judicial independence and his autocratic behaviour were badly received by the EC and EU leaders, and many began painting Ponta as Romania’s own Viktor Orbán. The EC issued a stark warning to the Romanian government in early July, and Angela Merkel minced no words in condemning Ponta’s actions. The EC has debated which sanctions, if any, should be adopted against Romania. A freeze in EU transfers was seriously considered, but the crisis derailed or at least significantly delayed Romanian attempts to join the Schengen area. Unlike Orbán however, Ponta has not been defiant of European institutions and moved to soothe fears that he was staging something akin to a coup d’état. Ponta claimed that there had been misunderstandings, and reassured that he would withdraw his controversial laws if they were to cause any trouble for Romania in the EU. The PSD’s allies in the S&D group in the EP lined up to defend Ponta, criticizing the EPP and the European centre-right governments of being biased against Ponta and unfairly attacking him, while pointing out that the EPP was far less vocal in attacking Orbán’s actions in Hungary (likely because Orbán’s Fidesz is a member of the EPP).
In July 2012, the Parliament voted to impeach the President, accusing him of usurping the Prime Minister’s powers, using the secret services against political enemies, refusing to appoint cabinet ministers, trying to influence prosecutors in criminal cases and engaging in illegal phone tapping. Băsescu has flatly denied these allegations, and regardless of their veracity, the case for his impeachment is constitutionally flimsy and is definitely politically motivated. Given that the impeachment of the President requires both support from a majority of those who voted and turnout over 50%, the government unsuccessfully tried to remove the turnout requirement to guarantee their chances of success. He was forced to reinstate the turnout requirement after domestic and European criticism. Băsescu, denouncing a constitutional coup d’état and a grave threat to democracy, called on his supporters to boycott the referendum (with the hope that less than 50% of voters would turn out and invalidate whatever the verdict was); but the referendum was a much more heated battle than the 2007 one, because Băsescu was now very unpopular – in June 2012, Băsescu’s PDL won only 15% against 50% for the USL in local elections. In the end, however, Ponta and the USL lost their gamble. Even if those who turned out overwhelmingly approved the turnout fell short of the 50% threshold required for the referendum to be valid (it was 46.5%). Ponta argued that the court should validate the result anyway, but ultimately – as expected – the courts invalidated the results before turnout was below 50%. The no-win outcome of the vote extended the political battle between Ponta and Băsescu to the December 2012 legislative elections.
Even if Ponta learned his lessons and shied away (somewhat) from overly controversial measures, his government rammed through a media bill which makes changes to the national council which regulates the mass media (considered as right-leaning); the bill seems destined at shoring up the business interests of one of the USL’s most prominent backers: Dan Voiculescu (the founder of the small ‘Conservative Party’), a former Securitate informer and a media mogul behind a large media conglomerate which owns several TV channels and print media. The PC is weak on its own, but remains a powerful and useful ally for the major parties, and it has tended to ally itself with the PSD more often than not and there’s very little sign of genuine right-wing politics or conservatism from them. The USL ran a populist campaign for the legislative elections, pledging to roll back austerity, increase the minimum wage and lower taxes (such as the VAT); the PNL’s leader, Crin Antonescu, alleged that Băsescu’s right-wing allies in the EU (Merkel) were discussing plans to ‘federalize’ Romania and warned that the country would not be the ‘servants’ of EU institutions – this rhetoric shows how little value we can attach to ideology in Romania, given that the PNL was often identified as the most pro-EU party (and the most economically liberal). The discredited and unpopular centre-right, led by the PDL, disingenuously presented themselves as defenders of Romanian democracy against a corrupt and authoritarian government.
It didn’t work, as the USL won about 60% of the vote against 16% for the PDL and its small allies, winning a two-thirds majority in both houses. The other winner of the election was the People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu (PP-DD), a new populist party founded by Dan Diaconescu, the owner of the OTV TV channel and the host of his own popular talk-show on OTV, a sensationalist and very populist ‘infotainment’ show. He had begun going after Băsescu in 2010, and grandly proclaimed himself (and OTV) to be the messiah and only opponent of Băsescu’s dictatorial-like regime. His going into politics was partly an attempt to escape sanctions for repeated violations of broadcasting rules and tax evasion. His party promised giving €20,000 to Romanians who start a business, raising all salaries and pensions and cutting salaries for MPs and top officials. The PP-DD won about 14% of the vote, electing 47 deputies and 21 senators, but Diaconescu himself was defeated – losing against Ponta in the Prime Minister’s district. Predictably, he lost interest quickly thereafter and Diaconescu’s OTV was shut down by the National Audiovisual Council in January 2013 after it was showed that OTV had not paid over 1 million lei in fines. Diaconescu was sentenced to three years in prison in December 2013 on the charge of blackmailing a mayor, and OTV has linked up with România TV, a channel owned by a PSD deputy.
Although the knives remained drawn between Băsescu and Ponta in the aftermath of the elections, with thinly-veiled threats from Băsescu that he would not appoint Ponta as Prime Minister and comments from Ponta warning that Băsescu’s time was over, both politicians ultimately agreed to settle down – guaranteeing institutional cooperation and a commitment to respect the constitution. Băsescu’s term is ending later this year, and he has seemingly shifted his attention to his own political future post-presidency and to infighting within the PDL. Ponta has not turned out to be a Viktor Orbán, although his autocratic penchants and corrupt political alliance is cause for concern. Nevertheless, the EU has been happier with Romania’s behaviour – in a recent report (by the EC Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification in Bulgaria and Romania), the EU praised the pace of judicial reform in Romania although it still listed concerns about judicial independence and anti-corruption measures.
Economically, Ponta’s government has largely continued the austerity policies and economic liberalization of his predecessors – Romania negotiated a second €6 billion loan from the IMF in 2011 and a third one worth €6.5 billion in 2013. However, the economy is now doing better – the deficit is now under the 3% limit, the economy grew by 3.5% in 2013 (and should grow by about 2.5% in 2014) and unemployment is low-ish at around 7%. In 2013, The Economist ran a piece titled ‘Romania is booming’, to allay Western European (especially British) fears of ‘massive’ Romanian and Bulgarian immigration as freedom of movement for workers came into effect for both countries in 2014. That being said, there remains significant political dissatisfaction in Romania, which has seen several major protests since 2013 from postal workers, railway employees, doctors, teachers, electricity employees, Jiu Valley miners, transport employees and students – mostly because of low wages, job insecurity, fears of mass layoffs, taxes, corruption, the IMF presence and a controversial new penal code (which would immunize politicians from corruption charges by removing their status as ‘public officials’). Although a few protests were partisan, a lot where both anti-Ponta and anti-Băsescu.
There have also been major protests around environmental issues – since September 2013, there have been large protests against an open-pit gold mining project in Roșia Montană (a concession was granted to the local subsidiary of a Canadian mining company) which managed to convince Parliament to reject the mining deal; since 2012, there have been many local protests against shale gas projects by Chevron. In both cases, protesters are angry with Ponta because he changed his mind, from initially opposing them while in opposition to supporting them while in government. In the shale gas protests, there have been accusations of police brutality against protesters.
Meanwhile, politicians shifted their attention to the presidential election in November 2014. Under the original USL agreement, Crin Antonescu was set to be the USL’s candidate for President in 2014. Once in power – and with the goal of removing Băsescu more or less done, however, the USL alliance began to show cracks in the form of tensions between the PSD and PNL, its two largest members. The USL was a ragtag alliance of diverse parties united by little more than shared opposition to Băsescu – for example, the USL included Gigi Becali, the owner of the Steaua Bucureşti football club and ultra-nationalist avowed admirer of the pre-war fascist Iron Guard movement. The PNL claimed that Ponta was trying to isolate and sideline the party, and tensions over the eventual presidential candidate increased. In February 2014, the PNL withdrew from the government and joined the opposition. Ponta formed a new government with the PSD, PC, the Hungarian UDMR and the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR, founded by opportunistic PSD-PNL dissidents in 2010 who supported Băsescu but who fled back to the PSD as soon as Băsescu became a liability – I suppose it still exists because a party registration is quite lucrative and they’re intent on milking the cow for as long as possible). Thanks to defections from the PP-DD (which has retained only 15 of its 47 deputies) and other parties, the PSD-UNPR group in the Chamber of Deputies has 184 members – up from 159 after the elections.
Băsescu lost control of the PDL, which had behaved more or less as Băsescu’s party since 2004 – even though the President is not constitutionally able to join any party and must be politically neutral. In early 2013, Elena Udrea, a former minister of regional development and close confidante of the President, was defeated in a PDL leadership election by Vasile Blaga, a former president of the Senate who wished to follow a more independent line. After her defeat, Băsescu announced that he was cutting off ties with the PDL and he formed his own party, the People’s Movement Party (PMP). The right-leaning PMP has little ideology besides supporting Băsescu. The PMP’s ranks include other Băsescu loyalists including former foreign minister Teodor Baconschi, PSD/UNPR defector and former foreign minister Cristian Diaconescu and Băsescu’s daughter, outgoing MEP Elena Băsescu. Elena Băsescu was elected to the EP as an independent candidate (backed by her father and parts of the PDL, after she was denied the PDL nomination) in 2009; prior to her election, she had been a top model and ‘showgirl’ (compared to Paris Hilton) who was ridiculed for her bad grammar and incompetence. She joined the PDL upon her election, but has since joined her father’s party. Traian Băsescu attracted controversy with pictures of him wearing a t-shirt calling to vote for the PMP, something which is likely unconstitutional because the President, constitutionally, is a politically neutral mediator between state and society who may not join any party. Ponta indeed referred the issue to the courts, with an annoyed Băsescu responding by denying that he had broken the constitution because he was free to wear what he wanted and that he’d vote for the PMP because ‘voting is not illegal’. The court found in favour of the President.
The EP elections set the stage for the presidential elections, which will see higher turnout and more interest from voters. Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s PSD-PC-UNPR alliance won the EP elections by a wide margin, taking 37.6% against only 15% for their closest rival, the PNL. The PNL’s poor result – only 15% of the vote, unchanged on its 2009 result – prompted PNL president (and presidential candidate) Crin Antonescu to resign. The party’s new leader and presidential nominee is now Klaus Iohannis, the German mayor of Sibiu and former member of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania (FDGR); Iohannis has been mayor of Sibiu since 2000, even if the German minority in the town is now tiny, and has been reelected by huge margins in successive elections (most recently 77.9% in 2012). Victor Ponta has confirmed that he will be the PSD’s candidate in the presidential election, likely entering the race as the favourite.
On the right, the PDL was crushed – its result was done 17.5% in its 2009 performance, and it lost half of its MEPs. It lost support to President Băsescu’s PMP, which won 6.2% and elected 2 MEPs. The PDL’s defeat and the PNL’s mediocre result has ushered in a major realignment of the Romanian right – the PNL and PDL have announced that they will merge into one party, and the centre-right Civic Force (FC) party led by former apolitical Prime Minister Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu may join the new party as well. It will need to face the competition of Băsescu’s allies in the PMP, who will be supporting his former foreign minister Cristian Diaconescu in the November 2014 elections, although he is unlikely to be a top contender. Shortly after the EP elections, the PNL announced that its MEPs would be leaving the ALDE group to join the EPP group, on the grounds that they didn’t want a ‘socialist president’ of the EC (although I’m really not sure how being the EPP rather than ALDE would have made that less likely).
For the third successive time, Romanians elected one independent MEP – this year, it was Mircea Diaconu, a former actor and culture minister associated with the PNL. His candidacy was originally rejected by the electoral authorities, but reinstated by an appeals court. He ran as an independent politicians persecuted by a bureaucracy which wanted to keep him from office, and his independent candidacy allegedly received underhanded support from Ponta and the Intact Media Group of Dan Voiculescu, the PC founder. Diaconu placed second in Bucharest with 16% of the vote (the PMP also placed ahead of the PDL and PNL there), and the PNL has accused him of eating into their electorate. He has joined the ALDE group and has said that he will be an honest representative of Romanians in the EP, ‘speaking the truth’ about a country which is often depicted as backwards or dirt poor by the Western media.
The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), the centre-right party representing the Hungarian minority in Romania (6.5%), lost one seat and saw its vote share fall by about 2.6% from the 2009 election. The UDMR lost votes from the last EP election, although it may have suffered from turnout changes – in 2009, turnout in the heavily Hungarian counties of Covasna and Harghita in the Székely Land was significantly above national average. The UDMR is a crucial party in coalition politics, having governed with both the PSD and the centre-right parties (PDL) in the past; the party lobbies for Hungarian minority rights, most notably for regional autonomy for the Székely Land in eastern Transylvania (the largest concentration of ethnic Hungarians in Romania) – a contentious issue debated since 1990, but which has ended nowhere each time. The UDMR’s ethnic-nationalist campaign spoke of the need for Magyar MEPs to represent Hungarians’ interest, or else their place would be taken by Romanian MEPs.
Populist parties did poorly. Dan Diaconescu’s PP-DD has collapsed, winning only 3.7% of the vote. The far-right Greater Romania Party (PRM) led by the theatrical Corneliu Vadim Tudor, collapsed – winning only 2.7% and losing its three MEPs. Tudor’s PRM offers a weird mix of nostalgia for Ceaușescu’s national communism (Tudor began his career as a ‘court poet’ for Ceaușescu, writing sycophantic poetry praising the greatness of Ceaușescu), wartime pro-Nazi dictator Ion Antonescu, irredentism (regaining the formerly Romanian territories in Bessarabia and Bukovina which are now in Moldova and Ukraine) and – historically – crude anti-Semitism. The PRM’s heyday was in the late 1990s, culminating in the 2000 presidential election in which Tudor placed second in the first round and went on to the runoff against Iliescu, drawing obvious comparisons with the 2002 election in France and Jean-Marie Le Pen. It only won seats in the 2009 EP election due to low turnout; the PRM’s support has now collapsed entirely.
On a final note, inspired by the above write-up on Poland, I note that there’s an obvious historical map hiding in the electoral map in Romania (and this is nothing new) – the ‘old kingdom’ of Romania (minus Dobruja), which was Romanian prior to 1918, is the PSD’s base; while Transylvania, the Banat and so forth – which have been Romanian since 1918 – support the right (outside the Magyar regions). In this case, I have little explanation (and would be quite curious to hear anyone’s views).
Turnout: 13.05% (-7.59%)
MEPs: 13 (nc)
Electoral system: Semi open-list PR – preferential votes for one candidate, 5% threshold – candidates receiving at least 10% of their party’s votes are elected (national constituency)
Smer-SD (S&D) 24.09% (-7.92%) winning 4 seats (-1)
KDH (EPP) 13.21% (+2.34%) winning 2 seats (nc)
SDKÚ-DS (EPP) 7.75% (-9.24%) winning 2 seats (nc)
OĽaNO (ECR) 7.46% (+7.46%) winning 1 seat (+1)
NOVA-KDS-OKS (ECR) 6.83% (+4.73%) winning 1 seat (+1)
SaS (ALDE) 6.66% (+1.95%) winning 1 seat (+1)
SMK-MKP (EPP) 6.53% (-4.8%) winning 1 seat (-1)
Most-Híd (EPP) 5.83% (+5.83%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Strana TIP 3.69% (+3.69%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SNS (EFD) 3.61% (-1.94%) winning 0 seats (-1)
ĽSNS 1.73% (+1.73%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 12.45% (-3.93%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Slovakia’s EP elections will largely be remembered for their extremely low turnout. In 2004 and 2009, Slovakia had already set the EU records for the lowest turnout in EP elections – 17% in 2004 and 19.6% in 2009 – and it did so again this year, with only 13.1% of voters (or barely 575,000 people out of a registered electorate of 4.4 million!) turning out, the lowest turnout in the EU in 2014 and the lowest turnout in any EP election ever. As in other Eastern European countries and new EU member-states, the stakes of the election and the purpose of the EP both seem extremely distant and unclear to Slovak voters; worsened this year the timing of the election – on May 24, it came right after high-stakes presidential elections on March 15 and 29 (the runoff attracted about half of registered voters), and it is likely that voters were tired of voting. Furthermore, because the presidential election and its results dominated the media’s focus, no attention was given to an extremely low-key EP campaign. As such, the above results of the EP election should – even more than the other results – be treated with caution.
One man has been at the centre of Slovak politics since 2006 – Robert Fico, the incumbent Prime Minister (2006-2010, 2012-) and leader of the ruling Smer-SD (Direction-Social Democracy) party. Fico had emerged as a forceful opponent of the second centre-right coalition government of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (1998-2006). Dzurinda’s bold and ambitious liberal ‘pro-market’ reforms (a 19% flat tax in 1994, healthcare, pensions and labour reform, privatizations) and strongly pro-European outlook (the government guided Slovakia’s entrance into the OECD, the EU and NATO) were lauded in Brussels and Washington, they were criticized by Fico’s left-wing populist party for being overly one-sided (in favour of the wealthy elite and business community) and unfair. Fico is, at the end of the day, a pragmatist and skilled political tactician, but he may rub a lot of people the wrong way by virtue of being rather mouthy, caustic and autocratic. His party won the 2006 elections, becoming the largest party, but he lacked a majority. He formed a highly controversial coalition with Ján Slota’s far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar’s People’s Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (ĽS-HZDS). Ján Slota’s party, which won a record-high result of 11.6% in 2006, is highly controversial because of its (now ex-) leader’s comments on topics such as the Hungarian minority in Slovakia/Hungary (‘a cancer on the Slovak nation’ or a ‘ugly Mongoloid people’, and he once drunkenly threatened to lead tanks to flatten Budapest), the Roma people (the best strategy for them was a ‘long whip in a small yard’) and the wartime Nazi client regime of Jozef Tiso (one of the most enthusiastic collaborators with the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’ during the Holocaust, who was proclaimed by Slota as being one of Slovakia’s greatest sons); Slota also attracted controversy for priding himself on beating up a Hungarian or how he owned an expensive Bentley. Vladimír Mečiar’s HZDS, the largest party in Parliament between 1992 and 2006, ruled Slovakia for the vast majority of its early history as an independent state between 1992 and 1998. His mildly nationalist, authoritarian, corrupt and ‘crony capitalist’ administration made Slovakia a ‘pariah state’ in Europe and delayed the country’s European integration by several years. Mečiar lost control of government in 1998, when he was replaced by a pro-European and liberal coalition led by Dzurinda and in 1999, he lost a presidential runoff election. After his defeat, Mečiar tried to make his party more palatable – it tried to join all mainstream European political groups, finally settling down with the small liberal European Democratic Party and ALDE – but the HZDS’ downwards trend accelerated and tumbled from first to fifth in 2006.
Robert Fico’s alliance with the far-right earned him widespread condemnation, and Smer was suspended from the PES between 2006 and 2008. His first government had poor relations with the local media (there exists a mutual hatred between Fico and the Slovak media, and his government passed a new media law which was widely seen as curtailing the freedom of the press) and Hungary (because of Slota’s anti-Hungarian and disputes over issues such as Slovak language legislation), but Fico remained very popular at home – he reversed some of Dzurinda’s unpopular neoliberal policies and increased social spending, although he largely kept his predecessor’s pro-European and liberal outlook. Nevertheless, Fico polarized the political culture around him. The fragmented centre-right opposition accused him of being a populist autocrat, and claimed that Fico’s economic policies – which created a large deficit (8% in 2009 and 7.5% in 2010) and increased the public debt (41% of GDP in 2010) were unsustainable and reckless. In the 2010 elections, Smer increased its support to 35% and 62 (out of 150) seats, but the SNS lost 11 seats and Mečiar’s HZDS lost all seats. As a result, the divided centre-right opposition cobbled together a shaky four-party coalition led by Iveta Radičová including Radičová (and Dzurinda’s) mainstream liberal centre-right Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party (SDKÚ-DS), economist Richard Sulík’s new libertarian Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), the more clerical and conservative Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the new liberal Hungarian minority party Most-Híd (which replaced the older and more ethno-nationalist Party of the Hungarian Coalition, or SMK-MKP). The Radičová cabinet, fractious and torn by ideological differences between its members (notably between the pro-EU SDKÚ-DS and the more Eurosceptic SaS), followed a cautious (but austere) path and did not privatize or deregulate the economy as Fico warned that they would. Smer faulted the governing coalition for high unemployment (14%) and the rising cost of living.
The unstable government fell in October 2011, when SaS voted against the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) – a matter which Radičová tied to a vote of confidence – arguing that Slovakia, as one of the poorest Eurozone members, did not have the means to bailout richer countries. Smer strategically let the EFSF fail, in a bid to force the government to call snap elections – which it did – and then vote in favour of the EFSF in a later vote – which it did. Fico sailed smoothly through the 2012 campaign, as the voice of government stability and the defender of Slovaks’ way of living and a strong welfare state. The campaign was turned upside down by the Gorilla scandal – the revelation, based on hidden secret service wiretaps from 2005-6 alleging that elected officials received millions of euros in bribes from foreign multinationals and Slovak tycoons (notably the leading investment fund Penta, dubbed the ‘fifth partner’ of Mikuláš Dzurinda’s centre-right coalition from 2002 to 2006) to win public procurement contracts and privatization deals. Ministers, foreign investors, politicians and the four parties in Dzurinda’s old coalition (including the SDKÚ-DS and KDH) were all cited – as was Fico’s Smer, which allegedly met with members from Penta (but Fico claimed to have cut all ties with Penta since, and Fico is mostly known for acrimonious relations with big business). The Gorilla scandal ruined the centre-right, particularly the SDKÚ-DS. To make matters worse, Radičová – respected for her reformist, clean and anti-corruption image – retired and SDKÚ-DS’ leadership was reclaimed by Dzurinda, who by now was a corrupt old ‘gorilla’ of Slovak politics compromised by the scandal. The libertarian SaS tried to go on an anti-corruption crusade with this, but that blew up in their face when it turned out that SaS had the file back in 2010 and that, meanwhile, SaS’ defense minister order the wiretapping of a journalist and that Richard Sulík failed to inform police that one of his MPs had been offered a bribe to vote in favour of the prosecutor general’s renomination (the ‘Sea-flower scandal’).
Smer, mostly untainted by Gorilla and the voice of stability, won 44.4% of the vote and an absolute majority by itself, an historic feat. The SDKÚ-DS, traditionally the strongest party of the divided centre-right, collapsed from 15% to 6.1% and lost 17 seats, placing fifth. The KDH, which won 8.8%, placed a very distant second while third place was taken by Ordinary People (OĽaNO), a new conservative populist party which had been aligned with SaS in 2010. SaS won sixth place, falling from 22 to 11 seats. Most-Híd lost only one seat. The SNS lost its last 9 seats, while the SMK-MKP and ĽS-HZDS remained out of Parliament (the latter won 0.9%!) – ĽS-HZDS finally dissolved itself in 2014.
Robert Fico came into office for a second term with a much stronger governing majority (without any troubling or crazy coalition partners) and on a fairly pragmatic platform. It signaled its commitment to respecting the EU’s 3% limit for deficits (requiring savings of €1.85 billion), but Fico has slammed EU-wide austerity measures for being unable to support growth and job creation. Instead, the government chose to reduce the deficit by effectively abolishing Slovakia’s flat tax, introduced by the right in 2004, by increasing corporate taxes to 25% and creating a second income tax bracket of 25% for high income. It declined to raise the VAT by 1% as it originally proposed. According to EC data, Slovakia’s deficit was successfully reduced to 2.8% of GDP in 2013. Slovakia’s economic performance has been lackluster, because of low European demand for its exports. Growth slowed from 3% in 2011 to 1.8% in 2012 and 0.9% in 2013, unemployment has remained high at 14% (and youth unemployment is very high, at over 30%). On the whole, Fico has remained pragmatic and slightly less controversial than in his first term, but his nationalist penchants and pro-Russian sympathies irk a lot of his critics. In 2013, Fico said that Slovakia had been “established for Slovaks, not for minorities” (he later insisted his words were misinterpreted); his opponents claimed he was turning to minorities as an easy scapegoat to distract attention from the crisis and unemployment. He has also been criticized by the Roma and LGBT communities – he sarcastically dismissed opponents to his proposal for boarding schools for Roma children as ‘human rights angels’ and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was passed in June 2014 with the KDH’s support. Relations with Hungary have remained frosty, largely because Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s nationalism alienates many Slovaks, who often feel threatened by the large Hungarian minority in Slovakia (about 9% of the population, concentrated in the south along the Hungarian border) – in 1938, Nazi Germany had allowed Hungary to annex southern Slovakia (and, in 1939, Carpathian Ruthenia, which was then part of Czechoslovakia) – and are irked whenever Budapest makes noises about the Hungarian diaspora. In 2010, when Orbán passed a new citizenship law making it easier for ethnic Hungarians abroad to gain the Hungarian citizenship, Smer retaliated by amending Slovakia’s citizenship law to strip any Slovak citizenship of their citizenship if they acquired another citizenship.
Fico is a very polarizing figure, who is simultaneously the most popular and least popular politician in Slovakia. Fico recently ran for the largely ceremonial office of President in the March 2014 presidential election – a risky bet likely motivated by his wish to retain power for five more years (as Prime Minister, he may lose reelection in 2016) and ‘presidentialize’ Slovak politics like President Miloš Zeman has done in the Czech Republic since 2013. He was supported by outgoing term-limited President Ivan Gašparovič, and his own ruling Smer party. Fico’s potential victory concerned many Slovaks, in part because control of the presidency would give Smer near-total control of the country – the executive, legislative, regional government (it holds 6 out 8 regional governorships) and the courts; in turn, Fico pledged to be a President who would unite Slovaks, and cited Austria’s popular and consensual President Heinz Fischer as his model. In the first round, Fico performed poorly with only 28% (although he placed first) and was thrown in a difficult runoff against Andrej Kiska, an independent businessman-turned-philanthropist (he founded two companies in the 1990s which provided high-interest loans by allowing consumers to buy appliances in installments, and later sold these firms to found a charity providing help to families with children suffering from long-term illnesses and parents who have serious diseases) who won 24%. Radoslav Procházka, a conservative KDH dissident standing as an independent on a socially conservative platform, won 21.2%; Milan Kňažko, a former centre-right cabinet minister standing as an independent, won 12.9%; Hungarian SMK-MKP candidate Gyula Bárdos took 5.1% while Pavol Hrušovský, the official candidate backed by the KDH, SDKÚ-DS and Most-Híd won only 3.3%. The vote indicated uneasiness about Fico and the prospect of ‘presidentialized’ politics, but also the continued fragmentation of the right and the little trust in partisan politicians – Kiska emphasized his political and financial independence, and attacked corruption and a public sphere characterized by ‘selfishness, nepotism, political affiliation, strong elbows and cynicism’. The second round saw a bizarre attempt by Fico to tie Kiska to the Church of Scientology, apparently because one of Kiska’s old firms was called ‘Trinangel’ and the sign of the Scientology is a triangle(!). Kiska was endorsed by most defeated candidates, and the March 29 runoff was very much a referendum on Fico (Fico said so himself) – and he lost it badly, ending up with only 40.6% against 59.4% for his rival. It was the first major electoral defeat for Fico and really shook the ruling party – his defeat drew comparisons to Vladimír Mečiar’s defeat in the 1999 presidential runoff against a liberal independent candidate. Kiska, despite (or because?) being a political novice, appealed because of his independence and rhetoric of being a President who would unite Slovaks and provide a healthy counter-power to Fico.
The EP election had little at stake, the parties (and voters) were tired and there were no great debates or nasty brawls. The vote was won by Fico’s ruling Smer-SD, but with only 24.1% and the loss of one MEP from 2009, it was a very underwhelming result which is likely due to low turnout/differential turnout (turnout was slightly higher, at 18.6%, in Bratislava, a right-wing stronghold) and demobilization of the party’s base after the blow suffered in March 2014. The other seats were won by old and new parties from the right. The opposition KDH, the main opposition party since 2012, increased its support from the 2009 election by about 2%, while the SDKÚ-DS – still suffering from Gorilla and the big defeat in 2012 – saw its support fall by 9.2% from the 2009 election (but still held its 2 MEPs). One seat was taken by a new-ish centre-right alliance of three parties: The New Majority (NOVA), the Conservative Democrats (KDS) and the Civic Conservative Party (OKS). NOVA was founded in late 2012 by KDH (Daniel Lipšic) and SaS dissidents, and it has a reformist and liberal attitude (supporting direct democracy, FPTP, direct election of judges, e-government, reducing bureaucracy and cutting taxes) and is mildly anti-federalist. The KDS was founded in 2008 by another batch of KDH dissidents, while the OKS was founded in 2001 on a Eurosceptic platform similar to that of the British Tories or Czech ODS; both of these parties are weak, although the OKS held four MPs between 2010 and 2014 thanks to an alliance with Most-Híd. The NOVA-led list won 6.8%, and its MEP joined the ECR group
SaS, which had fallen just below the threshold with 4.7% in 2009, won its first MEP – party leader Richard Sulík – with 6.7% of the vote. The libertarian party is liberal on social and economic issues – supporting fiscal orthodoxy, small government, low taxes, liberalization, the flat tax but also same-sex marriage and cannabis decriminalization (unlike almost all Slovak parties) – and mildly Eurosceptic, having opposed the Greek bailout, the EFSF and Lisbon, although the party no longer wishes to withdraw from the Euro (which Slovakia adopted in 2009). Despite its Eurosceptic stances which might have made it a better fit for the ECR, Sulík ended up joining the pro-European ALDE. The Ordinary People (OĽaNO), a populist and anti-corruption right-wing party which was allied with SaS in 2010 and become Slovakia’s third largest party in 2012, won a single seat with 7.5% of the vote.
On the Hungarian side, Most-Híd, which was founded in 2009 by former SMK-MKP leader Béla Bugár – who claimed that his former party had become too ethno-nationalist, and instead emphasized inter-ethnic cooperation, won one MEP and 5.8% of the vote. However, the SMK-MKP still showed some signs of vitality, holding on to 6.5% and 1 MEP, which may suggest (as other polls have shown) that the old Hungarian minority party may return to Parliament in the next election. Together, both parties won more than the SMK-MKP had in 2009 – unsurprisingly, because Most-Híd has some Slovak support and members.
The far-right SNS, which gained one seat in the EP in 2009, lost it this year, falling to only 3.6% of the vote. Also notable was the failure of the neo-Nazi/neo-fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS), a party which received international attention in late 2013 when leading party member Marian Kotleba was elected governor of Banská Bystrica Region with 55% of the vote (but 25% turnout). Kotleba referred to the Roma (‘gypsies’) as ‘parasites’ and, in the past, he had loudly praised Jozef Tiso’s Nazi client state during World War II and finishing his speeches with the salute of the Hlinka Guard, the paramilitary wing of the ruling party of the Slovak State. This likely confirms that his election was a one-off fluke.
Although turnout was very low and this ‘election’ is no more reliable than an opinion poll – it confirms that Smer is weakened, suffering from the blow of Fico’s defeat in the presidential race, but remains the strongest party. It will likely lose its absolute majority in the next election, meaning that it would again have a tough time finding coalition partners, but at the same time, the right is a mess. On these result, no less than seven right-wing parties would make it into Parliament, two more than in 2012. In addition, presidential candidate and KDH dissident Radoslav Procházka has founded his own party, SIEŤ (Network) on yet another right-wing, economically liberal platform. In polls so far, SIEŤ would win about 10-15% and place second, while Smer would be reduced to only a third or so of the vote. All right-wing parties could conceivably form a government, although it would be a fractious mess, or Smer may be able to form a coalition with a Hungarian party or the KDH (the two parties have cooperated in the past and formed alliances in some regions in the 2013 regional elections).
Next: Slovenia’s EP and legislative elections (May 25-July 13), Spain and Sweden’s EP elections
The next installment in our overview of the May 2014 EP elections in the European Union takes us to several small member-states but also the Netherlands.
Note to readers: I am aware of the terrible backlog, but covering the EP elections in 28 countries in detail takes a very long time. I will most likely cover, with significant delay, the results of recent/upcoming elections in Colombia (May 25-June 15), Ontario (June 12), Canadian federal by-elections (June 30), Indonesia (July 9), Slovenia (July 13) and additional elections which may have been missed. I still welcome any guest posts with open arms :) Thanks to all readers!
Turnout: 30.24% (-23.45%)
MEPs: 8 (-1)
Electoral system: Semi-open list PR (votes for party lists, voters may add a ‘plus’ to candidates they like on the list and strike through candidates they don’t like; votes for candidates = party list votes – # of strikes through + # pluses; most popular candidates on the list are elected), 5% threshold (national constituency)
Unity (EPP) 46.19% (+11.36%) winning 4 seats (nc)
National Alliance (ECR) 14.25% (+3.99%) winning 1 seat (nc)
SDP’S’ (S&D) 13.04% (-6.53%) winning 1 seat (+1)
ZZS (EFD) 8.26% (+4.54%) winning 1 seat (+1)
LRS (G-EFA) 6.38% (-3.28%) winning 1 seat (nc)
Alternative (S&D) 3.73% (+3.73%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Latvijas Reģionu apvienība 2.49% (+2.49%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Latvian Development 2.12% (+2.12%) winning 0 seats (nc)
LSP (GUE/NGL) 1.54% (+1.54%) winning 0 seats (-1)
LSDSP (S&D) 0.33% (-3.46%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.89% winning 0 seats (-1)
Latvia’s ruling centre-right party, Unity, won a very large victory in an election largely marked by very low turnout (30.2%). Latvian politics since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 have been highly unstable, and, in recent years, marred by rising voter apathy or cynicism due to difficult economic conditions and the widespread perception that Latvian politics are controlled by corrupt oligarchs. Latvian politics – more so than in Estonia or Lithuania – are also highly polarized around the very contentious issue of Latvia’s large Russian minority.
Latvia was hit extremely hard by the economic crisis beginning in 2008, the result of a housing bubble and easy credit market in the Baltic states. Latvia, which was hit the hardest of the three states, had enjoyed three consecutive years of economic growth over 10% between 2005 and 2008, thanks to economic (and political) integration with the European market since liberalization in the 1990s and the associated inflow of foreign investment, mostly in the form of credit from foreign parent banks (often Scandinavian). Most investment was directed towards the non-tradable goods sectors (real estate, construction, financial services) and domestic banks in the Baltics borrowed heavily, in Euros, from parent banks abroad on very low interest rates and were thus able to offer low-interest mortgage loans to local home-buyers. Latvian house prices expanded, on the EC’s house price index, from below 75 in early 2005 to a peak at 195.45 in the first quarter of 2008, the highest level of the three Baltic states. The Latvian case was further aggravated by higher inflation (15.3% in 2008, the highest in the EU) and greater economic mismanagement by the government, which was unwilling to do much (until late in 2007, by restricting credit) to address a rapidly overheating economy. The Latvian economy began collapsing in the third quarter of 2008, and GDP growth fell to a catastrophic -17.7% in 2009. Unemployment skyrocketed from 5.6% in December 2007 to a high of 10.8% in 2010, housing prices collapsed, the deficit ballooned from 0.7% in 2007 to 9.2% in 2009 and the country’s public debt increased from only 9% of GDP in 2007 to 44.5% in 2010.
When the recession struck in 2008, Latvia was governed – as has always been the case since 1991 – by a coalition of largely right-wing and vaguely populist parties, at the time led by Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis and the Latvia’s First Party/Latvian Way (LPP/LC), an alliance of two (corrupt and populist) right-wing parties. The government was forced to ask the EU and IMF for a €7.5 billion bailout (the World Bank, Nordic countries and EBRD also provided funds) in December 2008, with a first installement released in February 2009. The country’s catastrophic economic state in 2009, as well as the government’s woeful mismanagement of the economy resulted in large anti-government protests in January 2009 and eventually forced Godmanis to resign from office in late February 2009, after junior allies in his cabinet pulled the plug. Valdis Dombrovskis, a finance minister from 2002 to 2004 and MEP for the centre-right New Era Party, became Prime Minister in a broad right-wing coalition government which excluded the LPP/LC. The new government quickly implemented very severe and painful austerity measures, including significant increases in the VAT and excise taxes and deep cuts in public spending, wages and pensions. The government’s austerity policies impressed the IMF and the EU, and were endorsed by voters in the 2010 elections, which saw Dombrovskis’ new pro-austerity centre-right party, Unity (a merger of three parties, including the New Era and the Civic Union, which had won the 2009 EP elections), win 33 out of 100 seats. The oligarchs’ bloc – the LPP/LC and the People’s Party (TP), won only 7.8% and lost 25 seats.
Since 2010, the economy is clearly recovering (if not already recovered). Growth returned in 2011, with 5.3% growth after a three-year recession, and the economy is expected to grow by 3.8% in 2014. Unemployment, which sat at over 20% at the peak of the crisis, has since fallen to about 11.5% and is projected to drop into the single digits in 2015. As a result of the government’s austerity measures, the deficit has been reduced to only 1% of GDP in 2014. As a result, Latvia became the latest country to join the Euro, on January 1.
In 2011, a major political crisis led to snap elections in September 2011 – less than a year after the last elections – and further changes to the party system. The crisis began when then-President Valdis Zatlers used his constitutional prerogative to dissolve the Parliament (Saeima) after it had refused to lift the parliamentary immunity of Ainārs Šlesers, an oligarch-politician (a former cabinet minister) and leader of the LPP/LC who was the target of a corruption probe. As a result of Zatlers’ decision to dissolve the Saeima, he unexpectedly lost his reelection bid a few days later (the President is indirectly elected by the Saeima) and Andris Bērziņš, a politician from the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS) – itself an ‘oligarchs’ party’ whose top figure is Aivars Lembergs, the mayor of the port city of Ventspils since 1988 and one of Latvia’s wealthiest persons, was elected in his stead. As per the constitution, voters ratified the presidential dissolution in a July referendum. Zatlers formed his own party, Zatlers Reform Party (ZRP), to contest the 2011 polls on an anti-corruption and anti-oligarchs platforms. Zatlers cited Aivars Lembergs (ZZS), Ainārs Šlesers (LPP/LC) and former Prime Minister Andris Šķēle (whose party, the TP, dissolved before the 2011 elections) as the three leading oligarchs in Latvian politics. His campaign put the spotlight on the influence of powerful oligarchs/businessmen in Latvian politics and the opacity of political financing in the country, which was the only EU member without per-vote public subsidies until 2010. In the 2011 elections, the ZRP placed second with 20.8% and 22 seats, against 18.8% and 20 seats for Prime Minister Dombrovskis’ Unity party. The oligarchic parties did poorly – the ZZS lost 9 seats (it won 12.2%) while Šlesers was unable to buy his way into the Saeima again, the LPP/LC losing all seats with 2.4% of the vote (the party dissolved later, but Šlesers has returned to politics). Dombrovskis remained Prime Minister in a coalition government made up of Unity, the ZRP, independents and the nationalist National Alliance.
The largest party in the Saeima is currently the Harmony Centre (SC), a left-wing alliance which represent Latvia’s substantial Russian minority. The Russian minority in Latvia has been an extremely contentious and polarizing political issue in the country since independence. Like the other Baltic states, Latvia was annexed – illegally, say the current Baltic governments and most of the West – by the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained under Soviet rule until independence in 1991. A small Russian minority (about 11% of the population) of Old Believers and pre-war Russian immigrants existed prior to 1941, but the Soviet regime encouraged or forced ethnic Russians (and Ukrainians, Belarusian etc) to move to Latvia, settling largely in the cities to work in industry. The Russian population stood at 34% and the ethnic Latvian population at only 52% in 1989. The Republic of Latvia, upon independence, considered itself to be the legal continuation of the interwar independent Latvia, and therefore restored a 1919 citizenship law which meant that those who had moved to Latvia after June 1940 (and their descendants) were not considered Latvian citizen (unless they were ethnic Latvians) – they were widely viewed as illegal immigrants. Instead, residents lacking Latvian or any other citizenship are legally recognized as Latvian non-citizens, a status which grants them rights similar to Latvian citizens (living and working in Latvia, visa-free travel in the Schengen area, access to social services, constitutional protections) but they lack the right to vote or hold public office (even at the local level). Russia has vocally protested several times, considering them as ‘stateless persons’, a charge denied by Latvia, and organizations such as the OECD and Amnesty International have also been critical of the non-citizens status.
Today, according to the 2011 census, 62.1% of Latvian residents are ethnic Latvians and 26.9% are ethnic Russian, with smaller Russophone populations of Belarusian (3.3%), Ukrainians (2.2%) and Poles (2.2%). Since 1991, the Russian (and associated Belarusian and Ukrainian) population has decreased significantly (from 34% and 905.5k in 1989 to 586k in 2014). 33.8% of Latvians speak Russian most often at home, but only Latvian – the common language of 56.3% of the population – has official status. In 2012, a Russian group collected enough signatures to hold a referendum on the recognition of Russian as a co-official language, but the question was rejected by 74.8% of voters. The Russian population is largely concentrated in urban areas (notably in Riga, where they make up 40.2% against 46.3% of Latvians) and the poor eastern border region of Latgale, where 38.9% of the population is Russian (they make up a majority in Daugavpils city, which is less than 20% Latvian). According to the latest citizenship numbers (2014), there were over 282,000 Latvian non-citizens – or 13% of the resident population. 31.7% of Russians – and 51.9% of Belarusian and 52.3% of Ukrainians – are non-citizens, meaning (among other things) that they are not eligible to vote in Latvian elections. Compared to Russians in Estonia, there are less ‘non-citizens’ (38% of Estonian Russians have ‘undetermined citizenship’, although they have the right to vote in local elections) and while 21% of Estonian Russians are Russian citizens, only 7% of Latvian Russians hold a foreign (read: Russian) citizenship. The number of non-citizens has fallen considerably (from nearly a third of the population in 1991), due to naturalization and the access of children of non-citizens born after 1991 being eligible for citizenship fairly easily (since 2013, children born to non-citizens automatically gain citizenship if the parents wish). However, naturalization requirements are still quite stringent and may repel some: fluency in Latvian, knowledge of the basic principles of the Constitution, the national anthem and basic Latvian history and culture. However, since 1991, conditions for naturalization have been loosened significantly. For example, until 1998, there were strict windows limiting who could apply for citizenship when.
The Russian minority issue is a highly polarizing and politically-charged topic, as evidenced by the 2012 referendum. For many ethnic Latvians, the Baltic Russians are a symbol or reminder of the traumatic period of the Soviet occupation – an era associated not only with huge demographic changes, but also Stalinist terror, mass deportations and Russification policies. Therefore, the Russian minority bears the stigma of the Soviet occupation, and may be viewed by some ethnic Latvians as a ‘fifth column’ disloyal to the country. For example, the largest Russian party, SC, is accused of ties with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the SC – an alliance of parties – include unreconstructed communists. The Russian issue has a direct impact on Latvia’s political culture and party system. Because ‘the left’ is associated with communism and the Soviet Union, there is no strong ethnic Latvian left-wing party (the Russian minority parties, such as SC, are on the left, but attract little to no Latvian support) – even of a moderate, non-communist social democratic variant. Party politics are heavily conditioned by the Russian issue, with the Latvian majority voting for their parties and Russians voting for quasi-exclusively Russian parties, such as SC. No Russian minority party has ever been included in government, although there have been several attempts or talks to include SC in government. For now, the Russians’ positions on bilingualism and historical controversies (the recognition of the Soviet era as as ‘occupation’, which is not accepted by all Russians) bars them from government participation.
SC is the most successful Russian minority party in the young country’s history, and became the first such party to win the most votes in a national election (in 2011). SC leader Nils Ušakovs, an ethnic Russian, was elected mayor of Riga in 2009 and reelected in a landslide in 2013.
Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned in November 2013, after the collapse of the roof of a Riga shopping centre killed 54 and injured 41, the worst disaster in six decades in the country. Dombrovskis took responsibility for the disaster, which was blamed on various factors including negligence and work safety violations by the private company and poor building inspection by the government. Some thought that Ušakovs should take responsibility, given the local government’s control over building quality, while others blamed the national government’s austerity budget cuts (which abolished the state building inspection). To many Latvians, the collapse spoke to larger issues such as political corruption, corporate abuse (the large supermarket chain was accused of providing poor safety training, several work safety violations and poor treatment of employees paid below minimum wage) and government failures. Dombrovskis was replaced by Laimdota Straujuma, a well-regarded agriculture minister and former economist who became the first woman to be Prime Minister. She formed a government with Unity, the Reform Party (as it is now known), the NA, independents and also the ZZS (excluded from Dombrovskis’ ‘anti-oligarchs’ government in 2011).
Latvia is preparing for a general election in October 2014, so the EP elections were of less importance although still an early test for the general elections in the fall. Turnout fell to only 30%, the lowest in the three EP elections held since 2004 (in 2009, turnout was a high 53.7% due to same-day local elections, but still stood at a ‘healthy’ 41.2%), and all parties except Unity lost votes from the 2011 election. Unity won an unexpectedly massive victory, scoring 46.2% of the votes and – as touched on – won more votes (204.9k) than in 2011 (172.5k). It is likely a vote of confidence for a fairly popular government, which has presided over a strong economic recovery (Unity ran on the need to stay the course with fiscal discipline) and has been generally less corrupt than past governments. Another factor which helped the governing party was the candidacy of former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who personally received 148,056 plus votes and only 6,214 strike-throughs.
The National Alliance placed a surprise second, with a strong result of 14.3%. The party was founded in 2010-1 by the merger of two right-wing nationalist parties – the conservative right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (TB/LNNK) and the smaller far-right All for Latvia! (VL). It is a Latvian nationalist party, known for its anti-Russian positions and advocacy of tougher citizenship and language laws. The NA sits with the British Tories in the ECR group, an association which has caused headaches for the Tories since the NA’s members have participated in celebrations and commemorations for the Latvian Legion, a Waffen-SS formation of Latvian conscripts who fought the USSR during World War II. The NA’s two components have been branded as fascist or Holocaust deniers by the party’s opponents, although some of these claims are somewhat flimsy. Although the NA is somewhat Eurosceptic and anti-federalist, the Euroscepticism does not compare to the anti-EU views of far-right parties in older member-states and Latvian nationalists traditionally tend to be somewhat pro-NATO and pro-EU to oppose Russia. The party’s relative success in 2014 has been attributed to prevailing anxiety in the Baltics over events in Ukraine/Crimea, and the NA campaigned in favour of stronger pan-EU energy and foreign policies and strengthening the EU’s sanctions against Russia.
The main loser was the SC, which ran divided in this election. The largest and most moderate component of the SC alliance, the Social Democratic Party “Harmony” (SDP’S’), associated with the S&D, won 13% and only one seat, a poor result. Incumbent MEP Aleksandrs Mirskis left the SC and formed his own party, Alternative, which won 3.7% of the vote. The smaller and more radical component of the SC, the Latvian Socialist Party (LSP), ran separately this year (like in 2004 but unlike in 2009). The LSP is led by outgoing MEP Alfrēds Rubiks, a former hardline Communist Party apparatchik who opposed independence and was arrested in 1995 for ‘subverting state power’ and supporting the August 1991 coup attempt in Russia. Banned from running for or holding national office, Rubiks has been an MEP since 2009. The LSP won only 1.5% of the vote running independently, similar to its result in 2004. The Latvian Russian Union (LKS) – formerly For Human Rights in United Latvia (PCTVL) – held its sole MEPs, although its support declined further to 6.4%. The LKS/PCTVL was the most popular Russian party for a while in the 1990s, but it has gradually been decimated by the SC since 2006, and lost its last seats in the Saeima in 2010. The LKS was likely kept alive in the EP elections by its incumbent MEP, Tatjana Ždanoka, another former Communist Party apparatchik who has found herself banned from office in Latvia (former ‘active members’ of the Communist Party are still banned from public office nationally). The LKS sits with the European Free Alliance (EFA) in the G-EFA group, although there has been some recent unease between the two due to the G-EFA’s positions on the Crimean crisis.
Besides the division of the vote, the Russian parties were hurt by lower turnout from Russian voters. In Latgale region, for example, turnout was 23.4% (the lowest in the country). The SDP’S’ won only 23% against 38.7% in Riga, while in Latgale it faced strong competition from Aleksandrs Mirskis’ Alternative: the former won 20.9% and the latter won 20.3%. Alternative was the largest party in Daugavpils city and municipality, while the SDP’S’ was strongest in Zilupes, a municipality on the Russian border which is 54.9% Russian and 13.8% Belarusian, and in the city of Rēzekne, evenly split between Latvians and Russians. Alternative was weak in Riga (a bit over 2%) and totally absent from the Latvian countryside. Rubiks and the LSP retain a base in the old Ludzas District, with up to 16.6% in Ludza Municipality, a lone holdout of unreconstructed communists in Latgale. Overall, the Russian parties polled less than 5% together in most of the ethnically Latvian rural areas.
The Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), an alliance of the local Green Party and agrarian Latvian Farmers’ Union (LZU), which is more of an oligarchs’ party than anything (although it is generally eurosceptic and populist), won its first MEP, with 8.3% – a fairly disappointing result compared to 2011 and pre-election expectations. The party’s new MEP, who is from the LZU (the largest component, with 9 out of 13 MPs), will sit with the EFD group – the Greens, although to the right of other greens in the EU, are affiliated with the European Greens; many expected the LZU to sit with the ALDE, like Nordic agrarians in Scandinavia. A reason for the ZZS’ poor result – besides that it has tended to do much better in national elections – may be the ZZS’ poor result in and around oligarch Aivars Lembergs’ stronghold in Ventspils, where the ZZS won only 17% (in the city) and 25.9% (in the rural municipality) compared to 37.4% and 45.7% for Unity. The decrease in turnout and the NA’s gains were stronger around Ventspils. The ZZS is a predominantly rural-based party in ethnic Latvian regions, while the NA is stronger in urban and suburban Latvian regions.
Below the threshold, one of the most noted failures was that of ‘Latvian Development’, a centre-right neoliberal party founded by former New Era leader Einars Repše, a former Prime Minister (2002-2004) and later finance minister (2009-2010) behind the tough austerity measures during the crisis. The party spent an astronomical amount of money for one vote – about €54/vote (for all of 2.1%), beating previous records set by Šlesers in 2010 and 2011. Another new small party, the Latvian Association of Regions – a coalition of several local independents – won 2.5%, polling well in some of the strongholds of its local bosses, notably 20.7% in Preiļu Municipality in Latgale. The Reform Party, which seems to be in very bad shape, did not run.
Turnout: 47.35% (+26.37%)
MEPs: 11 (-1)
Electoral system: Semi-open list PR (preferential votes for up to 5 candidates), 5% threshold (national constituency)
TS-LKD (EPP) 17.43% (-8.73%) winning 2 seat (-2)
LSDP (S&D) 17.26% (-0.86%) winning 2 seats (-1)
LRLS (ALDE) 16.55% (+9.38%) winning 2 seats (+1)
TT (EFD) 14.25% (+2.35%) winning 2 seats (nc)
DP (ALDE) 12.81% (+4.25%) winning 1 seat (nc)
AWPL/LLRA-RA (ECR) 8.05% (-0.15%) winning 1 seat (nc)
LVŽS (G-EFA) 6.61% (+4.79%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Green Party (G-EFA) 3.56% (+3.56%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Nationalist Union 2% (+2%) winning 0 seats (nc)
LiCS 1.48% (-1.9%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Coinciding with the second round of presidential elections which interested many more voters (but still only a minority), the EP elections saw significantly higher turnout than in 2009, when, as a stand-alone vote, only 21% of voters had bothered to vote – the second lowest in the EU.
Like Latvia, Lithuanian politics since 1991 have been marked by rapid government turnover, anti-incumbency and a highly fragmented party system in which new parties regularly emerge to perform quite well (before, in some cases, crashing and burning in seconds). In the past few years, politics may have stabilized somewhat, with less extreme anti-incumbent swings in elections and a Prime Minister (from 2008 to 2012) who became the first head of government to serve a full term in office. Lithuania’s political culture, however, is rather distinct from that of Estonia and Latvia. Because Lithuania’s Communist Party, in 1989, had broken from the CPSU and endorsed Lithuanian independence, the left has been less stigmatized by its communist past than in the other countries and it has been a significant force in national politics. The current Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) was formed in 2000 by the merger of the original social democratic party (founded in 1896) and the stronger post-communist party born from the local Communist Party. Algirdas Brazauskas, the last leader of the local Communists, served as President (1993-1998) and Prime Minister (2001-2006) of Lithuania. Secondly, minority politics and issues are less contentious in Lithuania, which saw the least demographic upheavals of the Baltic states during Soviet rule. The Russian minority only makes up 5.8% of the population (and, at its peak in 1989, only made up 9% of the population against about 80% of ethnic Lithuanians) and is politically insignificant. The Polish minority (6.6%), far less controversial, is actually larger and more politically active. As a result, Lithuania adopted a fairly liberal citizenship law which effectively granted citizenship to all permanent residents in 1989.
Like Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania’s economy grew rapidly in the first years of the 21st century (growth didn’t falk under 7% between 2003 and 2008) because of the housing bubble and easy credit from abroad. Housing prices did not grow as much as in its two fellow Baltic neighbors, although the housing price index still surged from 102 in 2006 to a peak of 159 in 2008-Q2. Lithuania’s housing bubble burst slightly later and recession only hit in the last quarter of 2008, allowing Lithuania to be the only Baltic state to still record a positive GDP growth in 2008 (+3%). In 2009, however, housing prices tumbled and growth crashed to -14.8%. Unemployment likewise soared from 13.7% to 20.8% from January 2009 to January 2010. The country’s deficit blew up to 9.4% of GDP in 2009 and the country’s low government debt level increased from 15.5% in 2008 to 40.5% in 2012. Overall, the recession was less severe than in Latvia – and the country never needed to ask for a bailout from the EU-IMF, but to prevent such a scenario, the conservative government of Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius (2008-2012) implemented austerity measures including major spending cuts, public sector job cuts, some tax hikes and cuts to pensions and public sector wages. The government’s austerity policies suceeded in reducing the deficit to 3.2% of GDP in 2012 (and it dropped below the EU’s 3% limit in 2013) and the economy escaped recession as early as 2010 and recorded 3.7% growth in 2013. However, high unemployment (15-14% at the time of the 2012 election), the country’s very low minimum wage – the third lowest in the EU in 2012 and Kubilius’ perceived lack of empathy meant that the ruling centre-right Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) paid the price for austerity in the 2012 election.
The TS-LKD won 15.1% of the vote and 33 seats in the 2012 election, a loss of 12 seats. The centre-left LSDP won 18.4% and 38 seats, becoming the largest party in the Seimas. The Labour Party (DP), an undefinable populist party led by shady Russian-born businessman Viktor Uspaskich (a ‘self-made man’ who made his money in pickles and gas), recorded significant gains from the 2008 election, placing first in the PR list vote with 19.8% and ending up with 29 seats in the Seimas. Uspaskich’s DP, founded just a year before, won the 2004 EP and legislative elections, and the DP formed a coalition with the LSDP and a social liberal party. Uspaskich resigned as finance minister in 2006 and fled to Russia, after being accused of false accounting for failing to declare over €4 million in income and expenditures. Upon his return to Lithuania in 2007, he was arrested and later released on bail. Uspaskich was shielded from prosecution by his parliamentary immunity as a MEP after 2009 and as a member of the Seimas since 2012. After the 2012 elections, the DP was was the focus of 10 judicial investigations into vote buying. Algirdas Butkevičius’ LSDP was set to form a coalition with the DP and another populist party, the vaguely right-wing Order and Justice (TT) party of impeached President Rolandas Paksas (2003-2004), who had been impeached for illegally granting Lithuanian citizenship to Russian businessman (and a contributor to his unlikely bid for President in 2003) Yuri Borisov, leaking confidential information to the same man and using his power to favour friends in a privatization deal. Paksas and Uspaskich have both denied the accusations against them, claiming that they are victims of political persecution. Both the DP and TT are anti-establishment populist parties, with only vague ideologies – the former, who sits in the ALDE group, has a distinctively left-wing name and left-wing populist positions; the latter, who sits in the EFD group (but is that group’s least loyal member), has a soft-Eurosceptic and law-and-order profile, but Paksas was previously a member of the LSDP, the TS-LKD and a liberal party. At times, the promises made by these populist parties are completely unrealistic – in 2012, Uspaskich promised to totally eliminate unemployment (0%) and resign if he didn’t.
Following the 2012 election, President Dalia Grybauskaitė, a very popular former European Commissioner who was elected to the presidency in a first round landslide in 2009, announced that she would reject any coalition with the DP, arguing that a party suspected of electoral fraud with a leader under investigation for false accounting and money laundering had no place in government. Nevertheless, Grybauskaitė appointed Butkevičius to form a government, in which the DP was included. Algirdas Butkevičius, a bland and uncharismatic politician, formed a coalition government with the participation of his party, the DP, the TT and the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL/LLRA), the conservative party representing the Polish minority. Although she was unable to keep the DP out of government, Grybauskaitė intervened to keep high-profile portfolios out of the DP’s hands (they hold culture, agriculture, labour and education) while Uspaskich and his three key lieutenants are not in cabinet.
The government has appeared fairly unremarkable and uncontroversial so far. Vilnius aims to be the last Baltic state to join the Eurozone, in January 2015, and the government announced in early 2013 plans to raise taxes on high earners and property and move towards a progressive income and corporate tax to replace the existing 15% flat tax. The minimum wage was increased to 1,000 litas (€289.62/hour) and should be increased to 1,509 litas (€437.03). The DP has demanded an immediate increase in the minimum wage as a precondition for joining the euro, while the LSDP has warned that a rapid increase in one year would prevent the country for meeting the criteria for membership.
In July 2013, Viktor Uspaskich and his three associates were found guilty of false accounting (the DP avoided paying taxes and fees between 2004 and 2006 and hid up to €7 million in revenues) and he was sentenced to four year in jail. He briefly fled to Russia before returning home later in the month, and he has not served his jail sentence because of his parliamentary immunity. Furthermore, in these times of high tensions with Russia, Uspaskich’s murky business connections with Russian gas giant Gazprom and his suspected Russian sympathies have made him even more controversial. President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who has taken a very firm anti-Russian stance in the last few months – publicly saying that there is a real danger of war in Europe and that a new Cold War has begun, has excluded the DP from cabinet meetings where sensitive defense matters are discussed, suspecting that the DP is under Moscow’s influence.
In the first round of the presidential elections on May 11, President Dalia Grybauskaitė, running as an independent but supported by the opposition conservative TS-LKD and the Liberal Movement (LRLS), came out far ahead of the pack with 45.9% of the vote against only 13.6% for her closest rival, LSDP candidate Zigmantas Balčytis, who also led the LSDP’s list in the EP elections. The DP candidate, Artūras Paulauskas, a former Interim President and cabinet minister, won 12%. Former TS-LKD member Naglis Puteikis won 9.3%, the AWPL’s leader and MEP Valdemar Tomaševski won 8.2%, the mayor of Vilnius Artūras Zuokas won 5.2% and agrarian candidate Bronis Ropė won 4.1%. Although Grybauskaitė’s popularity has declined since her landslide victory in 2009, she remains highly popular, as a respected and competent strong-willed president. Recently, Grybauskaitė’s tough stances against the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and the events in Ukraine have boosted her popularity, in a country where there is very high anxiety and apprehension about Russia. In contrast, her Social Democratic opponent, Zigmantas Balčytis, urged diplomacy and conciliation with Russia while criticizing Grybauskaitė’s assertive style. The Lithuanian President has lost most of his/her power since independence, and is largely confined to a ceremonial and symbolic role while retaining some influence over foreign policy.
The second round of the presidential elections saw lower turnout than in the first round – 47.3% instead of 52.2% – but the relatively decent level of popular interest in the presidential election significantly boosted turnout in the EP election as a consequence. Lithuania has generally seen very low turnout, even in high-stakes national elections, so low-stakes elections held alone – like the EP elections in 2009 – can be expected to see very low turnout.
The opposition TS-LKD unexpectedly topped the polls, although with a paltry result of 17.4% which is down significantly on its result in 2009 (although because of turnout differences, it won far more votes than in 2009). Since its 2012 defeat, the TS-LKD went through a closely-fought internal leadership battle between former Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, who eventually retained his job, and the party’s founder Vytautas Landsbergis. The right’s victory is likely due to differential turnout, with higher turnout recorded in the cities of Vilnius and Kaunas – where the conservatives traditionally do best/better. As in 2009, turnout was also significantly higher in Polish areas, with 57% turnout in Šalčininkai District Municipality, which is over 80% Polish. The higher turnout from Polish voters explains the AWPL’s strong performance, as in 2009: the Polish minority party received 8% of the vote, higher than the size of the Polish minority in Lithuania and higher than the AWPL’s 2012 result (5.8%, the party’s best result in a national legislative election). Some have also speculated that the TS-LKD and the Liberals (who won a very strong 16.6%) may have benefited from President Grybauskaitė’s unofficial support and potential coattails from her runoff victory, with 57.9% against 40.1% for the LSDP’s Zigmantas Balčytis.
The governing LSDP and DP both fell back from their 2012 results, with the DP falling from 19.8% in 2012 to 12.8% in 2014 – although its EP result this year is an improvement on its 2009 result, which had come on the heels of the DP’s poor showing in the 2008 legislative election. Order and Justice, with 14.3%, significantly improved on its 2009 and 2012 (7.3%) result; as did the LVŽS, the Peasant and Greens Union, whose result is up on 2009 and 2012 (3.9%). As in 2009, the DP and TT were led by their respective leaders, Viktor Uspaskich and Rolandas Paksas, both of whom were elected to the EP.
The electoral commission has some nice maps of the results of the EP results here and here (you can clarify some of the problems caused by the horrible shades on my map!). I’ve noticed a fairly strong regional dimension in Lithuanian elections, with parties having fairly well-defined regional bases of support. The TS-LKD tend to perform better in the cities of Kaunas and Vilnius; the Liberals do well in urban centres, but especially in the coastal city of Klaipeda (24.9% of the vote) and the resort town of Neringa (32.8%). The LSDP is weaker in Kaunas and Vilnius (only 12.1% in the latter), and stronger in more rural areas. The DP’s support, especially in 2014, was quite concentrated: the party won 38.9% in Kėdainiai District Municipality, which is the centre of Viktor Uspaskich’s business empire (his food processing, canning and pickles company ‘Vikonda’ is based in Kėdainiai and operates several plants in the region). TT is strongest in western Lithuania, with 32.8% of the vote in Paksas’ birthplace of Telšiai but also (for some reason unknown to me) 45.2% in Pagėgių municipality and 30.3% in the heavily Russian town of Visaginas (a town built for the largely Russian employees of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, decommissioned in 2009). The AWPL, unsurprisingly, has very regionally-concentrated support as a minority party: it won 74.8% in Šalčininkai District Municipality (over 80% Polish), 54.6% in Vilnius District Municipality (53% Polish), 32.9% in the Russian town of Visaginas (the AWPL ran in coalition with the small Russian Alliance, a tiny party for the Russian minority), 22.4% in Trakai District Municipality, 17.7% in Švenčionys District Municipality and 15.9% in Vilnius city (which has a small Polish minority).
Turnout: 95.92% (+5.16%)
MEPs: 6 (nc)
Electoral system: Preferential list PR with panachage (votes for a single party list of 6 candidates, or up to 2 votes per candidate or 6 different candidates from any lists), no threshold (national constituency) / mandatory voting enforced
CSV (EPP) 37.65% (+6.29%) winning 3 seats (nc)
The Greens (G-EFA) 15.01% (-1.82%) winning 1 seat (nc)
DP (ALDE) 14.77% (-3.89%) winning 1 seat (nc)
LSAP (S&D) 11.75% (-7.73%) winning 1 seat (nc)
ADR (ECR) 7.53% (+0.14%) winning 0 seats (nc)
The Left (GUE/NGL) 5.76% (+2.39%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Pirates 4.23% (+4.23%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PID 1.82% (+1.82%) winning 0 seats (nc)
KPL 1.49% (-0.05%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Luxembourg is the second smallest of the EU’s member-states both in terms of land area and population, but it manages to punch far above its weight in EU politics. Luxembourg, which occupies a strategic position in Western Europe between France, Germany and Belgium, has a long history of close ties to its neighbors (notably with Germany until 1918) and became a leading force in European diplomacy after World War II. The country was a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which placed Luxembourg’s large steel resources under supranational control, and Luxembourg City hosted the seat of the ECSC’s High Authority. The country’s leaders have been keen promote their country’s interests and ensure their representation in supranational institutions, to prevent larger domineering powers from overwhelming smaller member-states. Since then, Luxembourg has gained a reputation as an honest broker of compromises and trustworthy intermediary in European diplomacy. The country is the main seat of the Court of Justice, the Court of Auditors, the secretariat of the EP and a secondary meeting spot for the Council of Ministers. Luxembourgian politicians play a major role in EU politics: two former Prime Ministers, Gaston Thorn and Jacques Santer, have served as Presidents of the European Commission and now former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker is set to become the next President of the European Commission. Juncker had previously been noted in his role as president of the Eurogroup. Luxembourg is said to be the most pro-European country in the EU. The country is also highly diverse and multilingual: Luxembourg has three official languages used interchangeably by a largely multilingual population, a majority of Luxembourgians speak English and 45% of the country’s residents are foreign citizens.
In stark contrast with the three previous countries I’ve looked at (Italy, Latvia, Lithuania), Luxembourgian politics have been tremendously stable for the past hundred years or so. It’s hardly surprising – it’s a small rich country where relatively little happens (outside of the two world wars). The Christian Social People’s Party (CSV), a Christian democratic centre-right party, has been Luxembourg’s traditional party of government – it has (or its pre-1944 predecessor) held the Prime Minister’s office since 1919 with the exception of 1925-1926, 1974-1979 and since 2013. However, all but one governments since 1919 have been coalition governments, traditionally led by the CSV in alliance with the two other major (albeit traditionally weaker) parties – the social democratic Socialist Workers’ Party (LSAP) or the liberal Democratic Party (DP). The CSV, LSAP and DP do differ on certain issues – the CSV remains influenced by a Catholic tradition while the DP and LSAP are secular (today, these differences are played out in attitudes towards religious education), the DP is usually the most liberal on economic issues favouring less government intervention (but is more interventionist than other European liberal parties and is hardly neoliberal) and the LSAP supports a strong welfare state and more government intervention (most recently its passionate defense of the indexation of wages to the cost of living/inflation) – but having often governed with one another, all three parties are moderate, pragmatic, strongly pro-European and fit in the broad centre of the political spectrum. The CSV, for example, has favoured Eurobonds (unlike Merkel) and preached solidarity by wealthier member-states. The CSV’s strongly federalist and even its more positions in favour of a more social and solidary Europe are somewhat at odds with the modern EPP mainstream. At the same time, Juncker has been criticized by the European left for staunchly defending Luxembourg’s status as something of a tax haven (after deindustrialization, Luxembourg reinvented itself as a major financial and corporate centre).
Parties outside the three old parties have been more ideologically defined. The Greens, one of the strongest green parties in the EU, remain rather centrist and very pro-European (although they joined the smaller parties in opposing TAFTA). However, the right-wing Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR), a former pensioners’ party, has more right-wing stances – it is the most Eurosceptic of all parties (having opposed the 2005 Constitution and Lisbon), opposes voting rights for foreigners in national elections and has a populist focus on direct democracy and less bureaucracy. The ADR has fairly stable support at 8-11% in general elections (although it fell to only 6.6% in 2013), but that’s never been enough to elect an MEP. The Communist Party (KPL) survives as a more radical fringe party, being outpolled by the newer The Left, similar to Germany’s more well-known Die Linke (favouring redistribution, higher wages, more taxes on the wealthy) but less radical (it is not anti-EU).
Juncker was the EU’s longest-serving head of government until October 2013, having held the Prime Minister’s office continuously since 1995. He was forced to resign a year ahead of schedule, in July 2013, after a scandal in the state intelligence services (SREL). The SREL was accused of irregular and illegal activities including illegal wiretaps, bugging politicians, extrajudicial operations and maintaining files on citizens and politicians while Juncker, as minister responsible for the SREL, was accused by his junior partner (the LSAP) of failing to notice and report on illegal activities and deficiencies. For the first time in decades, voters went to the polls early in October 2013, meaning that these EP elections were the first which did not coincide with a general election. The CSV remained, as always, the largest party but lost 4.4% and 3 seats, while the liberal DP gained 3.3% and 4 seats – winning as many seats (13) as the LSAP, which won an all-time low result of only 20.3%. Xavier Bettel, the young openly gay mayor of Luxembourg City and DP leader, formed a coalition government with the LSAP and The Greens.
After last year’s ‘defeat’, the CSV roared back with a major victory in the EP elections while the governing DP and especially LSAP suffered substantial loses. Because the small country elects only six MEPs, these changes were still not large enough to produce changes in the distribution of seats. The CSV won 37.7%, a result up 6.3% on the CSV’s rather poor result in the 2009 EP election (down significantly from 2004, when Juncker also topped the CSV’s list in the EP elections) and up from 33.7% in last year’s national election. I wonder if the CSV may have benefited from a ‘Juncker effect’ which boosted its result, although because he wasn’t a candidate to the EP himself (unlike Schulz and Verhofstadt), that might be grasping at straws a bit. The CSV did have a popular candidate – Viviane Reding, a three-time European Commissioner (from 1999 to 2014), most recently at the justice portfolio, and a leading European federalist. She won the most votes of any candidate in Luxembourg – 126,888. Two incumbent CSV MEPs placed in fourth and fifth place nationally.
The DP won 14.8%, a result from 18.7% in 2009 and 18.3% in 2013. Incumbent MEP and former cabinet minister Charles Goerens was the second most popular candidate, winning 82,975 votes. The biggest loser of the election, however, was the LSAP – the party collapsed to a disastrous fourth place, winning only 11.8%, down from 20.3% in 2013 and 19.5% in 2009. The LSAP has been on a clear downwards trends for a number of years now, bleeding votes to the radical left, the Greens and other parties and suffering from poor and uninspiring leadership. The LSAP’s inability to claim the Prime Minister’s office in 2013 reflected poorly on Étienne Schneider, the LSAP’s leader and current Deputy PM. The LSAP also suffered from the lack of a popular candidate: its sole MEP, former education minister (and a fairly unpopular one at that) Mady Delvaux-Stehres, placed only ninth of all candidates nationally with 33,323 votes – all six of the CSV’s candidates polled more votes individually, as did the top candidates for the DP and The Greens.
The Greens, always stronger in EP than national elections, won an excellent 15%, although that’s down from an even stronger result of 16.8% in 2009. For comparison’s sake, the Greens won 10.1% in 2013.
All other parties failed to pass the threshold: for once, the ADR did better in the EP election than last year’s national election (6.6%); The Left improved from 3.4% in 2009 and 4.9% in 2013 and the Pirates, who won 2.9%, won a solid 4.2%. The Party for Integral Democracy (PID) is a party founded in 2012 by former ADR deputy Jean Colombera, a physician who practices homeopathic medicine, supports same-sex marriage and is under investigation for prescribing medical marijuana. In 2013, it won 1.5%, and increased its support to 1.8% with 9,314 votes for Colombera himself.
The CSV topped the poll in all 106 communes, even in traditionally Socialist regions in the Red Lands (southern Luxembourg), the heart of the country’s old iron ore and steel industry. In Luxembourg City, the CSV won 37.2% (+6.9%) against 17.5% for the DP (-4.64%), 16.3% for the Greens (-3.41%) and only 11.5% for the LSAP (-4.3%).
Turnout: 74.80% (-3.99%)
MEPs: 6 (nc)
Electoral system: STV, quota threshold (quota = votes cast ÷ seats + 1, national constituency)
Labour (S&D) 53.39% (-1.38%) winning 3 seats (-1)
Nationalist (EPP) 40.02% (-0.47%) winning 3 seats (+1)
AD (G-EFA) 2.95% (+0.61%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Imperium Europa 2.68% (+1.21%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Tal-Ajkla 0.48% (+0.48%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Alleanza Bidla 0.4% (+0.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Alleanza Liberali 0.08% (+0.08%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Malta is the EU’s smallest member-state both in terms of land area and population. Having joined the EU only in 2004, Malta has a very minor role and place in the EU (unlike Luxembourg) and its politics very rarely receive outside attention (something of a pity). Compared to other EU member-states – which largely have multi-party systems or at least some strong ‘third parties’ – Malta has a very solid and rigid two-party system (despite STV) marked by high voter loyalty to their parties, very limited spillover of preferences between the two parties, very high turnout (and it does not even have compulsory voting!), closely fought elections (losing parties rarely win less than 47% in general elections) and relative pro-incumbency. The two dominant parties are the Labour Party (MLP/PL) and the Nationalist Party (PN), two parties whose ideologies and identities have evolved significantly since their origins in the 1920s, when Malta was a British colony.
The PN was founded by Malta’s local pro-Italian elites, backed by the powerful Catholic Church, opposed to Anglicization measures; the MLP was originally a pro-British and anti-clerical party which supported Malta’s integration into the United Kingdom but later became pro-independence after integration failed in 1956. Dom Mintoff, Prime Minister of Malta between 1971 and 1984 and MLP leader since 1949, came to be the iconic figure of Maltese politics in the post-war years. A strong-willed, fiery and pugnacious leader, Mintoff defended his island’s independence and neutrality tooth-and-nail; his rule saw the negotiation of full independence as a republic, the scrapping of a defense agreement with the UK, the expulsion of the NATO commander, friendly ties with Gaddafi’s Libya and communist China, the growth of a modern and advanced welfare state, nationalization of key enterprises and major social reforms (gender equality, civil marriage and the decriminalization of homosexuality and adultery). Mintoff was not afraid to pick fights with his opponents, notably the Church, who interdicted the MLP between 1961 and 1964 (and Mintoff, in his last terms, tried to wrestle control of education and healthcare away from the Church) and his opponents claimed that he was an autocrat who bullied opponents, distributed patronage, gerrymandered districts and whose supporters even physically roughed up opponents. Mintoff remained in Parliament until 1998, and successfully plotted to have the Labour government of Prime Minister Alfred Sant (1996-1998) toppled from power in 1998. He died in 2012.
The PN has usually been pro-European and pro-Western since World War II, moderating its early pro-Italian and pro-fascist nationalism early on (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, and signed a military agreement with NATO) and leading the charge for EU accession in the 1990s, with Labour opposed. In the 2003 accession referendum, Labour and Mintoff opposed EU membership and only 54% voted in favour in the end, although the MLP has since made its peace with the EU.
The PN governed Malta for all but two years (1996-1998) between 1987 and 2013, pursuing a fairly generic pro-European, pro-Western conservative centre-right policy. With the MLP abandoning its Euroscepticism and non-aligned foreign policy (although the new Labour government has been building better economic/business relations with the PR China) and the PN moderating its Catholic social conservative stances (although Malta remains extremely socially conservative by European standards: divorce was only legalized in 2011 and Malta is the only EU country where abortion remains technically illegal in all circumstances; but the new Labour government legalized same-sex civil unions and adoptions in April 2014 with PN abstentions), the differences between the MLP and PN have been blurred – but, unlike in other EU countries, this hasn’t led to major disalignment from the major parties or weakening in partisan identities. In the 2013 election, Nationalist Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Labour leader Joseph Muscat had fairly similar policy platforms. The MLP won the March 2013 elections by a ‘landslide margin’ by Maltese standards – 54.8% and 39 seats against 43.3% and 30 seats for the PN (a 35,000 vote margin and the largest victory for one party since 1955). Because Malta’s economy is performing quite well, the PN was the victim of voter fatigue, perceptions of Nationalist complacency and aloofness, corruption scandals, unpopular policy decisions and high utility prices. Joseph Muscat, who at the young age of 40 represents a new generation of pro-European and moderate ‘European’ social democrats in the MLP, became Prime Minister.
Muscat’s government does not seem to have done anything particularly unpopular or spectacular since taking office over a year ago, with the government claiming that it has created more jobs than the PN governments and was saving families money by cutting utility rates. In the summer of 2013, Muscat was embroiled in a row with the EU over his government’s controversial plan to turn back asylum seekers – because of its location, Malta is on the ‘frontline’ of waves of immigration from North Africa, who often seek to reach the EU in makeshift boats (who often capsize, with terrible loss of life). In November 2013, the PN attacked a government project to sell Maltese (=EU) citizenship to qualified applicants for €650,000 – targeting ‘high quality’ foreigners and investors. The EP elections were something of a test for the government and opposition: the last two elections to the EP in Malta were won by the then-opposition (MLP) by unusually large margins (a 4-2 seat split in the MLP’s favour in 2009), so the PN was optimistic about its chances and the party’s new leader, Simon Busuttil, set the objective of a 3-3 split in seats.
The ruling Labour Party won the elections, with a slightly reduced majority compared to the 2009 EP elections, while the opposition PN did poorly with a result similar to its very poor 2009 result (and below its 2013 result). However, the PN can mask its disappointing result in the popular vote by pointing out that it succeeded in its objective of gaining a seat from the MLP to get a 3-3 split in seats.
The last two MEPs – from the MLP and PN – were elected on the 28th count without a quota, with PN candidate Therese Comodini Cachia winning with 206 more votes than the unsuccessful MLP candidate. The University of Malta has Excel files with full count details and party transfers. I’m not sure what explains the PN’s success at gaining a third seat in the STV count: it might be the PN having one less candidate, intricacies in the efficiency of vote transfers from PN candidates (although both MLP and PN votes transferred to their colleagues at 94% efficiency; but one PN MEP elect had his votes transfer to the eventual final PN MEP-elect on the 26th count with 99.7% efficiency vs. 93.2% for the transfer of votes for a defeated MLP incumbent in the final 28th count) and a minor edge to the PN in transfers from the green AD (although 46.7% of the AD’s votes were non-transferable, 31.2% went to the PN against 22.2% for the MLP in the 21st count).
The election saw the political return of former MLP Prime Minister Alfred Sant, whose short-lived government froze EU accession talks in the 1990s and went on to lead Labour to defeat at the hands of the PN in the 1998, 2003 and 2008 elections (as well as in the 2003 EU referendum). He is somewhat controversial with parts of the Labour base, but retains significant support. In the end, he was elected on the first count with 48,739 first preference votes (19.4%), over 12.7 thousand votes over the quota.
Minor parties improved on their 2009 performances. The green centre-left AD, led by Arnold Cassola (an academic and former Italian Green MP for Italian expats in Europe from 2006 to 2008), won nearly 3% – up 0.6% from 2009. But in 2004, the AD had done exceptionally well with 9.3% (a huge result for a third party in Malta) and Cassola was only eliminated on the final count. The far-right Imperium Europa (likely one of the EU’s most bizarre far-right parties: it supports European unity but from a white supremacist/racial standpoint and fascist/neo-Nazi orientation; in its words “A Europid bond forged through Spirituality closely followed by Race, nurtured through High Culture, protected by High Politics, enforced by the The Elite”) won 2.7%, with 6,205 first prefs for party leader Normal Lowell, up from 1.5% in 2009.
Turnout hit an all-time low of 74.8%, which is extremely low by Maltese standards (although most European countries can only dream of achieving such levels of turnout without compulsory voting) – which saw a ‘low’ turnout of 93% in 2013 (!). In 2004, turnout was 82.4% and dropped to 78.8% in 2009.
Turnout: 37.32% (+0.57%)
MEPs: 26 (nc)
Electoral system: Semi-open list PR (vote for a party or a single vote for one candidate on the list), no threshold (candidates may be elected out of list order if they win 0.96% or more of the vote; electoral alliances between parties allowed – votes cast are pooled and treated as a whole), national constituency
D66 (ALDE) 15.48% (+4.16%) winning 4 seats (+1)
CDA (EPP) 15.18% (-4.87%) winning 5 seats (nc)
PVV (EAF) 13.32% (-3.65%) winning 4 seats (-1)
VVD (ALDE) 12.02% (+0.63%) winning 3 seats (nc)
SP (GUE/NGL) 9.64% (+2.54%) winning 2 seats (nc)
PvdA (S&D) 9.4% (-2.65%) winning 3 seats (nc)
CU-SGP (ECR/EFD > ECR) 7.67% (+0.85%) winning 2 seats (nc)
GroenLinks (G-EFA) 6.98% (-1.89%) winning 2 seats (-1)
PvdD (GUE/NGL) 4.21% (+0.75%) winning 1 seat (+1)
50PLUS 3.69% (+3.69%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Pirates 0.85% (+0.85%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 1.58% (-0.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Map credit: Josse de Voogd
The Netherlands, since the mid-1960s, have gradually moved from having one of the most stable party systems in Europe to one of the most volatile, unpredictable and fragmented. Up until the 1960s, Dutch politics were divided by the strict and rigid system of pillarisation – voluntary religious, political and social segregation of society into four pillars, each with their own parties, trade union, newspaper, radio station, cultural activities/organizations, schools, hospitals and even sporting activities. These pillars were Protestant, Catholic, socialist and ‘general’ (liberal); the Protestants and Catholics’ parties united politically to rule the Netherlands for much of the twentieth century – at least one confessional party was in government between 1918 and 1994 (oftentimes all three major confessional parties were in), usually admitting the liberals or socialists to rule in coalition (for example the ‘Roman-Red’ coalitions spearheaded by the centre-left Labour Party and the Catholic party between 1946 and 1958; or the Christian democrats’ regular alliances with the liberals from 1959 to 1989), and held an absolute majority in Parliament between 1918 and 1967. The denominational pillars, especially the Catholic one, were the most organized and had the tightest grip on their masses; the liberal pillar, largely made up of irreligious or non-practicing Protestant educated middle-classes or elites, was the worst organized pillar. Voting shifts were relatively minor, and mostly happened between blocs – for example, the Communist Party (CPN) in the post-war years was gradually weakened while the Labour Party (PvdA) was strengthened. However, with the rise of a modern and increasingly deconfessionalized society in the mid-1960s, Dutch society was progressively ‘depillarised’ and the Protestant (ARP, CHU) and Catholic (KVP) lost many votes, while the right-liberals (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD), Labour and new parties on the left and centre benefited (most notably Democrats 66, or D66, a new anti-pillarisation and left-liberal party advocating for democratic reform, which was founded – you guessed it – in 1966).
Beginning in the 1970s, Dutch politics – facilitated by one of the world’s most proportional electoral systems – became increasingly volatile and unpredictable, with larger swings from election to election – D66 has a famously ‘floating’ and highly volatile electorate, as the second-choice of many liberals and leftists it has a very high ceiling but lacking a solid, loyal clientele it has a very low floor, so it has tended to collapse when it is in government but able to surge to high levels when it is in the opposition. Nevertheless, until 1994, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) – formed in 1977 by the merger of the Catholic party (KVP) and the two major Protestant parties (Abraham Kuyper’s Anti-Revolutionaries, and the Christian Historical Union or CHU) – remained the largest party in Parliament and was in every cabinet. As a centrist, middle-of-the-road and consensual party (although one which more often than not leans to the right), it retained the old Catholic/Protestant bloc’s ability to structure consensus-driven Dutch politics around itself and governed in coalition with either the right-liberal VVD or the PvdA.
For a variety of reasons including unpopular policy decisions and its own arrogance, the CDA (and its then-junior ally, the PvdA) suffered major loses in the 1994 elections, in which D66 won a record 15.5% and 24 seats. D66, whose lifelong aim had been to realign Dutch politics by throwing the Christian democrats out of power, finally got their wish in the form of an historic ‘Purple coalition’ with the PvdA and the VVD, with the centrist D66 providing the glue to hold the centre-left and centre-right parties together. The Purple cabinets led by Wim Kok, in power from 1994 to 2002, were a typically ’90s type of government: mixing economic liberalism (tax cuts and strongly favourable to free markets) and social liberalism (multiculturalism, open immigration policies, early legalization same-sex marriage, legalization of euthanasia and prostitution). Initially popular, after two terms in power, the Purple arrangement had become deeply unpopular by 2002 – both the PvdA and VVD (without mentioning D66, which had predictably collapsed upon entering government) had lost support because the Purple coalition obscured both parties’ identities and created major dissatisfaction with their voters. The PvdA became closely wedded to economic liberalism and free-market policies, losing support on the left; the VVD, less cripplingly, was forced to be quiet about immigration.
In 2002, a charismatic populist leader, Pim Fortuyn – an openly gay former Marxist sociology professor, exploited the unpopularity of the Purple government (he published a hard-hitting best-seller about the ‘wreckage’ of the Purple government) and growing concerns about immigration (particularly Muslim). Fortuyn took anti-immigration and anti-Islam positions from an original, socially liberal, standpoint, arguing that Islam was a ‘backwards religion’ and an existential threat to Dutch liberal society (he supported same-sex marriage, euthanasia, women’s rights, drug legalization). Fortuyn’s charismatic, anti-establishment, combative (notably deliberately provoking an imam by giving him gaudy details of sexual activities he had performed, and picking the fruits when the imam blew up) and foul-mouthed style was a big success in 2002, and his newly-founded personalist party, the LPF, became a frontrunner in that year’s election. However, Fortuyn was shockingly assassinated by an animal rights’ activist only a week before the election. The LPF nevertheless did remarkably well, with 17% and 26 seats, placing second. The PvdA was decimated, losing 22 seats, while the VVD also lost 14 seats. Unnoticed at the time, the Socialist Party (SP), a radical left party which had begun as an obscure Maoist cell in the 1970s, gained 4 seats to win a total of 9 (it had first entered Parliament in 1994 and made gains in 1998). Ironically, the most lasting immediate result of the Purple government’s collapse was the CDA’s resurgence and re-installation in power for 8 years. Although it had performed very poorly in opposition since 1994, the CDA benefited from its time-honoured place in the centre and became a safe, moderate option for many voters seeking stability. The CDA’s leader, Jan-Peter Balkenende, a largely uninspiring and terribly bland leader, became Prime Minister in a short-lived coalition with the VVD and LPF.
However, the LPF, lacking its charismatic leader, quickly became a clown show and new elections in 2003 saw the LPF collapse to only 8 seats (and would proceed to disintegrate completely by 2006), while the traditional parties – CDA, VVD and especially Labour – regained some lost ground. Balkenende replaced LPF with D66, which had been further weakened in the elections (to 6 seats, after having been halved in 2002). Balkenende gained a reputation for being a teflon politician, given that few people ever thought much of him and he was a poor leader, surviving the premature of his cabinet in 2006 (D66 withdrew) and managing to form another cabinet (this time with the PvdA and a small Christian party) after the early elections in 2006.
The Purple government and Fortuyn’s success have both dramatically altered political dynamics in the Netherlands, making them even more fragmented and volatile.
Fortuyn’s anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric has continued to be a central issue in Dutch political debate, reignited by particular events such as the 2004 assassination of controversial anti-Islam filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Politically, Fortuyn’s place was taken up by Geert Wilders, a former VVD MP who founded his own party, the Party for Freedom (PVV) in 2006 and won 9 seats in that year’s election. Wilders is a more traditional far-right leader, although like Fortuyn, Wilders is a charismatic and abrasive character whose party still revolves almost entirely around his personality, his mood swings and his favourite art of provocation. The PVV gained national (and international) attention by successfully (but temporarily) monopolizing debate on immigration issues and by taking up various wedge issues – banning dual citizenship, a burqa ban, a ban on the Quran, comparing Islam to totalitarian ideologies and generic attacks on Muslim immigrants (and, more recently, Eastern European workers). Like the LPF, the PVV may sometimes couch its rhetoric in social liberal language, although Wilders is a more typical right-wing populist than Fortuyn. Economically, Wilders started out on the right, supporting economic liberalism – similar to the early hard-right positioning of the FN in France in 1984 – but, like the FN, has shifted to idiosyncratic/syncretic economic stances often misleadingly said to be ‘centrist’ or ‘left-wing’. The PVV supports tax cuts, spending cuts in certain area (environmental program, foreign aid, development etc), simplifying business and ‘welfare chauvinist’ positions (limiting access to welfare benefits); but it also moved towards supporting many welfare measures or interventionist policies (child benefits, unemployment benefits unchanged, retirement age kept at 65). The PVV revolves entirely around Wilders, who is legally the party’s sole member – a unique party model, perhaps comparable only to Silvio Berlusconi’s very early Forza Italia in 1994. Wilders vets the PVV’s candidate himself, there is no party democracy and the PVV has not built a local base – in fact, even in the March 2014 local elections, the PVV competed in only two (The Hague and Almere) municipalities out of 403.
In the past decade, Dutch voters have built no strong links with any party, and switched back and forth between parties in between and during elections – although most of the swings have been within blocs, with battles on the left, right and now centre for dominance. In 2006, the SP, benefiting from the CDA government’s unpopular welfare reforms and the PvdA’s poor performance, won a record 16.6% and 25 seats but neither the SP nor the CDA had any interest in government cooperation and the SP’s support fell substantially. In 2009, Wilders’ PVV surged to 17% in the EP elections. Balkenende’s government once again collapsed prematurely in 2010, after the PvdA rejected an extension of the Dutch mission in Afghanistan agreed upon by the CDA’s Balkenende and heir-apparent, foreign minister Maxime Verhagen. By that point, Balkenende had reached his expiry date and, having failed to lead any one of his governments to their full terms, now appeared as a very weak and indecisive leader. Therefore, in the 2010 early elections, the CDA collapsed into fourth place – winning 13.6% and 21 seats, the worst result in the party’s history. Meanwhile, Wilders’ PVV surged to 15.5% and 24 seats. The other major winner was the right-liberal VVD, which had tacked right on immigration issues as well, and placed first – an historic feat for Dutch liberals – with 20.5% and 31 seats. The SP lost heavily (-10 seats), D66 began its recovery after four disastrous elections (+7 seats).
Following tortuous coalition negotiations, VVD leader Mark Rutte formed a minority government with the CDA, which received the outside support of the PVV. While the PVV quickly indicated that it felt no deep obligation towards the cabinet, Wilders basically agreed to support Rutte’s stringent austerity measures in exchange for much stricter immigration laws. The government therefore both severely tightened immigration laws and adopted austerity measures aimed at reducing the Netherlands’ deficit from 5.1% of GDP to the EU level of 3%. Wilders’ support continued to push towards the VVD, to the dismay of certain moderate liberals. For example, Rutte became a ‘hawk’ in EU bailout negotiations and in 2012 said that he would inflexibly oppose any new transfer of sovereignty to the EU. The VVD, always torn between liberals and conservatives or populist-liberals and progressive liberals, has now become one of the most right-wing and Eurocritical parties in the European liberal family (ALDE) and may perhaps be more easily comparable to David Cameron’s Tories.
With these policies, Rutte’s first government was certainly one of the most right-wing governments in Dutch history, and was extremely unpopular with the left – either for its deep budget cuts, its anti-immigration policy, its association with Wilders or all three. Economically, the opposition blamed the government’s austerity policies for throwing the Netherlands, which had escaped fairly well from the 2009 recession, into a double-dip recession with -1.2% negative growth in 2012.
Politically, the government caused problems for both the CDA and the PVV. For the CDA, their issues were quite straightforward: they continued to disingenuously claim they were centrists while supporting a very right-wing government devastated its remaining credibility and indirect cooperation with the PVV caused major strains in the CDA, particularly with the centre-left minority within the party which never wanted to go into government in the first place. For the PVV, the party’s profile began to fade after a few Wilder missteps (notably criticizing the Queen for wearing a veil while in Oman and launching a quite crass new vendetta against Eastern Europeans) and less interest on immigration/Islam (which were huge issues in 2010). In April 2012, Wilders pulled the plug on the government, unwilling to accept a new round of austerity policies and claiming that austerity would have a negative impact on social programs, notably old age security. Wilders unsuccessfully tried to adopt a new anti-EU, anti-euro and anti-austerity creed. The PVV now advocates total withdrawal from the EU and the Eurozone, and Wilders famously associated himself with Marine Le Pen’s FN.
The early 2012 elections are a textbook example of the Dutch’s electorate volatility. The campaign started out as a contest between Mark Rutte’s VVD and Emile Roemer’s SP, which had surged into a strong second or even first place in polls as the PvdA again struggled in opposition. Rutte’s policies were disliked, but Rutte was seen in a positive light as being a genuine and ‘refreshing’ leader. Roemer had become the most vocal opponent of the government’s austerity, and his party’s populist and Eurosceptic rhetoric was ostensibly popular with voters. The left-wing populist SP strongly opposes austerity policies at home or in the EU, and while the SP does not advocate for full withdrawal from the EU, the party is very critical of the ‘EU superstate’ for its advocacy of austerity, corporate interests and its undemocratic workings (it is notably the only Dutch left-wing party which is Eurosceptic). The SP therefore opposes transfers of sovereignty to Brussels, the Stability and Growth Pact, it has been critical of freedom of movement (notably for Romanians and Bulgarians, because of social dumping), the Euro (it does not support withdrawal, but at the same time it doesn’t want to save it at all costs), neoliberal trade policies and the EU common market. Much (too much, probably) is often made of the ‘overlap’ between the PVV and the SP since both parties are anti-EU populists.
The PvdA, which has been on the verge of losing dominance of the left several times in the past few years, managed to turn the 2012 election around in its favour. The PvdA’s new moderate leader, Diederik Samsom, made a good impression in the debates while the SP’s soft support came apart as its platform was criticized (an independent analysis of the SP’s platform said it would result in many job loses). Therefore, there was a sudden and rapid reversal of fortunes for the SP late in the 2012 election – which became a ‘prime ministerial election’ between Rutte and the PvdA’s Samsom. At the polls, the VVD and PvdA both did very well due to strategic voting on the left and right. The VVD won a record-high result of 26.6% and 41 seats, while the PvdA won 24.8% and 38 seats. The SP ended up with a very disappointing result of 9.7% and 15 seats, no change on 2010. Wilders’ PVV suffered a (temporary) setback, falling to 10.1% and 15 seats. The CDA suffered another major thumping, winning a record-low 8.5% and only 13 seats. D66, with 8% and 12 seats, further improved its standing. One of the other major losers was GroenLinks (or GreenLeft), the green party founded in 1989 by the merger of four parties including the New Left-type Pacifist Socialists (PSP), the Christian left/moderate green Political Party of Radicals (PPR) and a recently destalinized Communist Party (CPN) which had embraced the New Left. Since its creation, the GreenLeft has become a much more moderate party, especially under the leaderships of Femke Halsema (2002-2010) and Jolande Sap (2010-2012). The party sidelined the ‘fundi’-type radical left factions, moderated its pacifism with the Kosovo and Afghanistan issues, made a major bid to appear as a respectable and responsible potential governing party and shifted towards a kind of post-materialistic progressive green liberalism (more ‘modern’ than the PvdA) under Halsema and Sap. Although Halsema was fairly successful, and the party won 10 seats in 2010, what did the party in was its 2012 decision to help the outgoing VVD-CDA government to pass its budget before snap elections (after the PVV left the coalition). The GreenLeft joined a ‘Kunduz coalition’ (named for the coalition of parties which approved the 2011 extension of the Dutch policing mission in Kunduz, Afghanistan) with the two governing parties, D66 and the ChristianUnion (CU). Although the GreenLeft managed to get environmental policies and a withdrawal of budget cuts to arts and culture, the damage was done and added to existing internal strife.
The coalition negotiations proved unusually short by Dutch standards, with the formation of a VVD/PvdA coalition government by November 2012. It is a Purple-type government, lacking D66 as a ‘mediator’. Since 2012, the Dutch electorate has been tremendously volatile with one key underlying trend – both governing parties have become extremely unpopular and would be headed to a landslide defeat in the next election. The PvdA quickly lost the ‘additional’ strategic votes it had won from the left. The VVD’s support suddenly collapsed in November 2012 after the coalition agreement talked about increased health premiums for high-income earners – the VVD’s core electorate.
The Purple-ish Rutte II government has since continued with austerity policies (perhaps slightly less ‘extreme’ than those of his first right-wing cabinet) while the economy has continued to struggle. The economy shrank by 0.8% in 2013 but should grow by 1.2% in 2014; unemployment has grown from about 4% in 2011 to a projected high of 7.4% this year. The country’s deficit is now below the EU’s 3% limit (-2.5%), exports are doing well and the debt is not huge (73.8%); instead, what has been dragging the economy has been the very high levels of household debts (110% of GDP, encouraged by fully tax-deductible interest payments on mortgages) creating low consumer confidence and public consumption. Following a significant slump in house prices, 16% of households owed mortgages higher than the value of their house. European Commissioner Olli Rehn has cheered on the government’s spending cuts and austerity, even demanding that they cut even more, but many have said that the cuts serve to further undermine consumer confidence and worsening the economy.
The government has continued to take hardline stances in the Eurozone crisis. The PvdA finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, is the new president of the Eurogroup and was seen as responsible for the (disastrous) tough position against Cyprus in 2013. The current President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, has said that Rutte threatened to leave the Eurozone in 2012 if the EU pushed through a ‘reform package’.
The PvdA ‘talked left’ (left-ish, to be fair: Samsom, at the time, was compared to François Hollande – when that comparison wasn’t an insult! – and still does remind me of Hollande) in 2012 but has since definitely ‘walked right’; the party has always been quite moderate since 1994, pragmatically supporting economically liberal, free-market policies when it is in government. The party has a real threat to its left in the form of the SP, but it also has the imperative to be moderate if it is to be in governments (bad memories of 1977, when a very strong but quite left-wing PvdA under Prime Minister Joop den Uyl found itself removed from power by a CDA-VVD coalition because its demands were too much for the CDA) and also has rivals to its right (in the form of D66). How can the PvdA ‘hold the left’ while remaining centrist enough for government?
In polls, Wilders’ PVV, whose radical anti-EU platform seemed to be working, surged to new heights – up to 27-31 seats in polls, leading the field or tied with the VVD. On the left, the PvdA’s numbers have tanked, now being pegged below 20 seats in all but one poll in 2014, and being outpolled by the SP, which has polled up to 24-25 seats.
The EP elections were preceded by local elections in March 2014. Besides local parties, a fixture of Dutch local politics (especially in the Catholic south), the main winners were D66 and the SP while the clear losers were the governing VVD and PvdA. The VVD’s support fell from 15.7% to 12.2%, while the PvdA fell from 15.7% to 10.3%; on the other hand, the SP increased its vote share from 4.1% to 6.6% and D66 went from 8.2% to 12.1%, surpassing the PvdA and falling right below the CDA and VVD. D66 won eye-catching victories in three of the country’s four largest cities: Amsterdam – a stronghold of the PvdA/SDAP for nearly 100 years, The Hague and Utrecht. In Amsterdam, D66 doubled its caucus from 7 to 14 councillors, while the PvdA lost 5 and ended up with 10. The SP, with 6 councillors in Amsterdam, also doubled its caucus. In The Hague, D66 won 8 seats (+2) against 7 for the PVV (-1) and 6 for Labour (-4). In Utrecht, D66 displaced the GreenLeft to become the largest party, with 13 seats (+4) against 9 for the GreenLeft (-1) and 5 for Labour (-4). In Rotterdam, the local party Leefbaar Rotterdam – a right-populist party formerly led by Pim Fortuyn which first broke through in the old Labour stronghold in 2002 – won 14 seats (nc) against a disastrous 8 for Labour (-6) and 6 for D66 (+2). The SP did well in smaller towns, although it became the largest party in the leftist university town of Nijmegen. In Amsterdam, D66 has since formed an unusual coalition with the VVD and SP to remove the PvdA from power.
The PvdA suffered historic, first-in-a-generation loses in many cities – Amsterdam but also Groningen, Enschede, Deventer, the northeastern provinces and a further collapse in Rotterdam. It was therefore ousted from government in cities where it had been in power for over 6 decades – Amsterdam, Utrecht, Maastricht. The VVD also suffered some major loses, although its loses were often due to local squabbles.
However, the main takeaway by the foreign media from these local elections was another outburst by Wilders, whose party ran in only two municipalities and lost votes in both. Playing a crowd of supporters in The Hague, Wilders asked his supporters if they wanted ‘more or less’ Moroccans in the city and the country, to which his supporters elatedly answered ‘fewer!’. Wilders promised them that “we’ll arrange that”, clearly implying that he wanted to deport all Moroccans from the country. His little circus backfired terribly: two PVV MPs, one MEP and 8 of the PVV’s 9 councillors in Almere left the party over Wilders’ comments. The PVV’s numbers in polls declined, although there was no ‘meltdown’ – like other far-right parties, the PVV’s support is increasingly resilient and resistant to their leaders mouthing off. Nevertheless, the comments further isolated the PVV. The CDA, still reeling from the effects of its indirect coalition with the PVV, has shifted towards the centre with pro-European and pro-immigration positions and has explicitly ruled out a future coalition with the PVV. Rutte’s VVD was the last party still open to working with the PVV, but after the Wilders outburst, Rutte publicly condemned Wilders’ comments and ruled out a coalition with the PVV.
The EP elections were marked by low turnout (in a country where turnout is still quite high in parliamentary elections), with only 37.3% turning out, a bit more than in 2009. The local elections in March saw all-time low turnout of 54%. Low turnout obviously favours the parties with the most disciplined and loyal electorates – the CDA and the small Christian parties, most significantly – while it hurts parties such as the PVV whose electorate does not turn out loyally. All major parties except the GreenLeft, Party for the Animals (PvdD) and pensioners’ party 50PLUS won less votes than in 2012.
The big winner of the EP elections was D66, which won 15.5% – one of the party’s best share of the vote in any national election – and gained one seat (electing 4 MEPs). D66, which was in a severe slump between 1998 and 2006, has been gaining strength – fairly slowly, but surely – since the 2006 election. The centrist party can be in a rather enviable and beneficial position when it is in opposition – it is often known as the ‘second choice party’ in the Netherlands, and has the ability to attract a lot of well-educated, middle-to-high income urban voters with little loyalty to any party. From the left, it can take centrist-leaning urban voters from the PvdA; from the right, it can take moderate affluent liberal voters from the VVD (and some economically centrist votes from the CDA) – and can top that off with some centrist green liberal voters from the GreenLeft, whose electoral clientele is broadly similar to that of D66. In governments, D66 tends to lose its distinctiveness and attractiveness to annoyed voters of governing party. In opposition, D66 leader Alexander Pechtold gained a profile and popularity on the centre/centre-left as the most vocal opponent of Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration and anti-EU politics. The PVV and D66 are polar opposites, in terms of ideology and voters: the former is anti-EU, anti-immigration, fairly socially conservative and backed by low-income, less educated oters; the latter is strongly pro-EU (federalist), enthusiastically pro-immigration and pro-multiculturalism, very progressive on ‘social issues’ and liberal on economic matters, supported by well-educated, high-income voters in urban centres.
Since D66’s success at the local polls in March, the party has leaped into first place in polls and it has been maintaining a stable yet extremely narrow lead over other parties (at most +4 seats) since then. Historically, D66 polls well in mid-term votes, but its support – like in 2010 – may decline as national elections draw nearer, with right and left-wing supporters opting to vote strategically instead.
Traditionally a centre-left (left-liberal) progressive party defined by its secular, reformist, socially liberal and pro-immigration views, D66 has shifted towards the right on economic matters in recent years. Not all that surprisingly for a moderate social liberal party – similar to Denmark’s Radikale Venstre – D66 supports balanced budgets, flexible labour laws, free markets, economic liberalization and doing away with some older aspects of the welfare state (in Amsterdam, for example, it campaigned to privatize the property market while the PvdA supports the city’s publicly-subsidized non-profit housing corporations) although at the same time it is very big on investing more in education/R&D. The party remains very strongly pro-EU, pro-immigration and socially liberal. Traditionally placed either on the right of the centre-left or in the centre, D66 appears to be an increasingly centrist party.
While the PVV and SP have opposed the current government at every turn, D66 has been selling itself as a ‘constructive opposition party’ and, in the Senate, where the VVD-PvdA lack a majority, D66 has sometimes collaborated with the government parties to help them pass their legislation in exchange for concessions on pet issues like education (the Christian parties have also helped the government). D66 had already been a ‘constructive ally’ of a CDA-PvdA government between 1989 and 1994, and that had led them to their record-high result of 15.5% and 24 seats in the 1994 election.
The CDA came in second in the vote share, with 15.2%, but because the CDA had an electoral alliance with the CU-SGP and 50PLUS (where their votes are pooled together and treated as a single party for purposes of seat allocation), it won 5 seats – one more than D66, which placed narrowly ahead of the CDA in terms of votes. It is a mixed result for the CDA – on the plus side, the party lands in a symbolic second after the fifth-place humiliation in 2012 and its result is higher than in 2012 (8.5%) although only in terms of share of the vote; on the downside, the CDA’s result is down 4.9% from the 2009 EP election and the CDA could be expected to perform well in a low-turnout election because its old, largely rural and religious electorate turns out more reliably than most. CDA leader Sybrand Buma, a Frisian Protestant, was elated by the CDA’s relative decent showing in the March local elections (where the CDA lost only marginally from the last local elections in 2010); never mind that the local elections were the CDA’s worst performance in local elections – and now these EP elections are still the CDA’s worst performance in a EP election. Under Sybrand Buma, the CDA has moved back towards the centre – the ‘radical centre’ – and pro-EU, social justice talk to make everybody forget the disastrous trauma of the Rutte I government for the CDA. If national polls are to be trusted, it has worked some, because the CDA could win up to 22 seats in the next election (that would be an historically poor result, equivalent to the CDA’s result in 2010) – so while it has recovered some voters, who likely went (strategically) for the VVD in 2012, it has failed to breakthrough and find those ‘floating’ middle-class suburbanites who had voted CDA in the mid-2000s. The centrist shift may have worked, but it may also look as if the CDA is a party which is willing to say or do anything to remain in power.
The PVV had a surprisingly disappointing result, winning only 13.3% of the vote, down 3.7% from the PVV’s breakthrough performance in the 2009 EP elections. Given that Wilders’ party is still on track to win a strong result in the next election – the PVV is currently pegged at roughly 20-24 seats (slightly below its 2010 result) – the PVV’s poor performance in the EP elections is likely more a sign of differential turnout, with the PVV’s protest voters lacking the motivation to go out and vote, than a clear trend. Turnout was indeed lower in regions where the PVV is strong – 28.2% in Rotterdam (where the PVV won 18.7%), 30.5% in Almere (where the PVV won 18.9%), 33.6% in the southern province of Limburg and 34% in the northern province of North Brabant.
Differential turnout may also explain why the SP did not do as well as it could have in a high-turnout national election. Although the Socialists landed ahead of the PvdA in the vote count – but the PvdA saved their third seat because of an electoral alliance with the GreenLeft – its result is below its current national polling average (20-22 seats, which would likely about 12-14% of the vote). Turnout was low where the SP does well, notably in the party’s southern strongholds (the provinces of North Brabant and Limburg, with 11.8% and 12.7% of the vote this year) or the poor municipalities of eastern Groningen province along the German province in the northeast.
The governing parties – VVD and PvdA, especially the latter – did poorly. Although the VVD’s result is up marginally on the party’s poor showing in 2009, if you compare to the VVD’s results in 2012 (26.6%) and 2010 (20.5%) it is a poor result for Prime Minister Rutte’s party, which has likely lost some votes to D66 (and even more to abstention, given that D66 did not win more votes than in 2012). The real loser was the governing PvdA, which won only 9.4% – by far, the party’s worst result both in terms of raw votes and percentage of the vote, in a national election. Because of an electoral alliance with the GreenLeft, it managed to retain its three MEPs. As was likely predictable from the moment the PvdA signed up for a Purple-ish coalition with the VVD in 2012, on a platform which included a good dose of austerity, it suffered major loses both to its left and right. The PvdA has been decimated with working-class, low-income voters alienated by the party’s liberal economic policies in government: an old poll in February showed that the PvdA’s support with low-income voters has collapsed from 29% to 12%, while the SP’s support with these voters increased from 18% to 24% since 2012. Labour’s support with low-education voters has also collapsed, again largely in favour of the SP and the PVV (although the PvdA itself likely has lost more to the radical left than the far-right since 2012). On the other hand, Labour has also suffered an outflow of well-educated, higher-income voters to D66 – with highly educated voters, the PvdA’s support fell from 26% to 10% with D66 moving up from 14% to 25%. The PvdA would likely win about 9% and 12-14 seats if an election was held tomorrow. Of course, the PvdA has seen bad times before, and, as we saw in 2012, managed to spectacularly recover. For most of 2012, the PvdA languished in fourth or worse place behind the SP, and then recovered very nicely at the SP’s expense. However, this time might be quite different…
The ChristianUnion (CU) and Reformed Political Party (SGP) are two small orthodox Protestant (neo-Calvinist) parties, who run together in EP elections since 1984 but who remain two separate parties in national elections. The CU, founded in 2001, was formed by the merger of two small orthodox Protestant parties – one of them a sectarian party formed by ex-ARP members of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated), dissidents from Kuyper’s Gereformeerde Kerken in 1948, the other a very similar party formed by ARP members who opposed the merger with the Catholics in 1975. The SGP is the oldest continuously-existing party, formed in 1918, by orthodox Protestant members of the ARP in opposition to female suffrage. The SGP is the best example of what the Dutch commonly call ‘testimonial parties’ – ideological parties focused on representing their principles and not pursuing coalition participation. The SGP represents the most orthodox and traditionalist members of bevindelijk gereformeerden churches and groups – fairly obscure (even to most Dutch!) orthodox Protestant/Calvinist groups emphasizing personal religious experiences and who remain loyal to traditions and old customs, rejecting some new technologies and scientific developments. While the CU is a more ‘modern’ party and not a testimonial party (having participated in the last Balkenende government), it remains very conservative on social issues (abortion, drugs, families, homosexuality, euthanasia, prostitution) but its interpretation of the Bible and the Gospel leads it to centre-left views on economic matters, immigration, foreign aid and the environment. The CU has criticized Wilders’ appeals to Judeo-Christian values in the past. The SGP is one of Europe’s most unique parties – the party famously banned women from joining until the courts forced it to accept them back in 2005 and its website is closed on Sundays. It has very conservative views on social issues, rejects freedom of religion (we should settle for freedom of conscience instead) and the SGP’s avowed end goal remains a Protestant theocratic state. In recent years, the SGP has kind of exchanged its traditional anti-papism/anti-Catholicism for anti-secularism and anti-Islamism. It has a very ambiguous relationship with Wilders’ PVV, at times joining him in opposing Islam and ‘Islamization of the Netherlands’ but remaining somewhat reticent to fully join him, likely realizing that some of the religious traditions which some of the SGP defends for its voters are quite similar to some Muslim religious traditions which the PVV incessantly denounces. Both the CU and the SGP have been ‘constructive opposition’ parties since 2010, helping the VVD-CDA and now VVD-PvdA governments to pass some pieces of legislation in the Senate. The SGP has never participated in government (but came very close in 2003) and likely never will.
The SGP has an extremely stable electorate, having won two or three MPs in every elections since 1925 – the SGP has a small, loyal and high-turnout base but it has extremely little appeal to other parties (it likely exchanges voters only with the CU and CDA, and even then); the CU has a wider and slightly less stable clientele, similarly religious but with more outreach to conservative and religious voters who may find the SGP a bit too much. Both parties are heavily concentrated in the Netherlands’ Bible Belt, a central chain running from Zeeland to northern Overijssel.
In a low-turnout EP election, the CU/SGP did well, improving from a combined result of 5.2% in 2012 to 7.7% in 2014, because of both parties’ ability to hold their reliable, loyal and high-turnout voters. In 2009, the CU joined the ECR group while the SGP, apparently because of its views on women, was unable to join and instead went to EFD. The SGP has now joined the ECR – the British Conservatives’ inconvenient group allies in the EP can now include a theocratic party!
The GreenLeft had, like in the local elections, a mixed result. On the one hand, its performance is down on the last EP election and that means that the GL loses one MEP and about 2% from the 2009 election. On the other hand, the GreenLeft has begun recovering from the 2012 rout, being one of the few parties to actually win more raw votes in the EP election than in the last national election and boosting its vote share from 2.3% to 6.9% – although it may end up with less than that in a national election, as many of its leftist supporters will end up voting strategically. The GL suffered a few bad months after the 2012 disaster, as the internal bickering continued – GL leader Jolande Sap, held responsible for the disaster because of her ill-advised cooperation with the centre-right government in 2012 and psychodrama in the party, was forced against her will. Her successor, Bram van Ojik, an old-timer who comes from the PPR, has kept a low-profile and steered clear on controversy, aiming to rebuild the GL through hard work in Parliament. Sooner or later, however, the GL will likely need to face the issue of what kind of party it wants to be – being a social liberal, green progressive party can’t be it, because those kinds of voters can already vote D66.
Another ‘testimonial party’ – although of a very different kind – joined the EP. The Party for the Animals (PvdD), a small animal’s rights party which has had seats in the Dutch lower house since 2006, won 4.2% of the vote (a result significantly above what it wins in national elections), thereby passing the unofficial 4% threshold to get a seat. The PvdD is predominantly a single-issue party (animal rights, vegetarianism) whose focus is expanding awareness of the issues it promotes and helping other similar parties around the world to grow in size (it is the only animal’s rights party in the world with parliamentarians). The party is moderately Eurosceptic, although from an interesting and unique standpoint of the poor conditions of animal welfare in the EU. The party has joined the GUE/NGL, like the new animal rights MEP from Germany.
50PLUS, a new-ish populist pensioners’ party with 2 MPs, won 3.7%, falling just short of a seat. A nice symbol of the volatility of Dutch politics – 50PLUS actually experienced a brief surge, peaking at about 20 seats, in early and mid-2013.
The NRC has interactive maps of the results by municipality, and shaded maps showing the parties’ votes and changes in their vote share from 2009. D66 dominated urban areas – the party won the cities of Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Eindhoven, Tilburg, Groningen, Breda, Nijmegen, Enschede, Apeldoorn, Haarlem, Amersfoort, Arnhem, ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Zwolle. The party won its best results in the highly-educated university towns of Utrecht (26.2%), Leiden (25.6%), Amsterdam (24.8%), Delft (24.6%), Wageningen (22.7%) and Groningen (21.2%). In cities, D66’s electorate is predominantly made up of well-educated, high-income (upper middle-class) young professionals – while there is a large overlap with the GreenLeft, the GL usually does better with less affluent well-educated young people (most likely recent graduates, mid-level public servants, teachers, NGO workers, and poor-yet-hip young urbanites) while it doesn’t have D66’s support in affluent elite neighborhoods and suburbs. This year, D66 also did extremely well in some affluent communities in the Randstad (het Gooi) and across the country – 26.4% in Bloemendaal (North Holland), 25% in Bussum, 25.3% in Naarden, 24.6% in Heemstede, 26.9% in Oegstgeest (in South Holland, right outside Leiden), 25.2% in Muiden but also 23.7% in Haren, an affluent town outside of Gronigen and the most affluent region in the poor provinces of the northern Netherlands. These results indicate that D66 likely ate into the VVD’s traditional electorate in its affluent suburban bases. Outside of the urbanized Randstad mix of cities and suburbs and other cities in the country, D66’s support in rural and poorer regions is significantly lower.
The CDA has held on to a predominantly rural and elderly electorate, heavily concentrated in the eastern provinces (Overijssel, 25.5%; Friesland, 20.8%; Limburg, 20.4%) while it did very poorly in the urbanized provinces (North Holland, 9.99% and fifth; South Holland, 12.4% and fourth; Utrecht 12.6% and third) and even worse in the actual cities (4.1% in Amsterdam, eight behind the PvdD; 6.9% in Utrecht; 6.5% in Almere; 8.5% in Rotterdam and 8.4% the Hague). The CDA has retained its Protestant electorate better than its Catholic vote in the southern provinces of Limburg and North Brabant, where a lot of the vote has gone towards populist parties such as the PVV and the SP. The CDA’s remaining strongholds in the east reflect rural and elderly Protestant and Catholic areas, former strongholds of the old ARP (or CHU) in the north or, less often, the Catholic KVP. Compared to 2009, the CDA lost heavily in Catholic areas in the south but it made some gains in a small region in eastern Overijssel which is largely Catholic.
The PVV has a very regionally composite electorate, with the common strand throughout these regions and voters being lower levels of education, generally lower levels of income (although the PVV’s support is less defined by income than the SP, and may pull low-income white working-class voters in cities as well as ‘worried’ or ‘excluded’ lower middle-classes in ‘growth centres’ and suburbs) and blue collar occupations (construction, distribution, manufacturing, transportation, sometimes agriculture). The PVV remained the strongest party in the province of Limburg, Wilders’ native province (and a bit of his support there is a favourite son vote, in a Catholic region which has tended to like personalities more than parties), with particularly strong support in his native Venlo (23.5%) and the old mining basin in southwestern Limburg (peaking at 31.5% in Kerkrade) – regions where local employment has been under severe pressure and strains for quite some time. In the urbanized Randstad, the PVV topped the poll in Rotterdam with 18.7% against 17.6% for D66 (the PVV’s support is down from 22.7% in 2009), making it the largest city in the country where D66 did not come first. Compared to Amsterdam, the large industrial port city of Rotterdam is a less gentrified city, retaining a larger white working-class alongside a very large population of non-western foreigners (36.7%). The PVV also placed first with 28.3% in Spijkenisse and 23.5% in Schiedam, two lower-income suburban municipalities outside of Rotterdam. The PVV placed a close second with 15.4% in The Hague, one of the most socially mixed cities in the country, combining some affluent seafront communities, a progressive downtown, some of the poorest immigrant neighborhoods in the country and old working-class villages. With 16.1%, the PVV was the largest party in the Zaanstad, a municipality made up of Amsterdam’s old working-class industrial suburbs.
Despite losing nearly 10 points from 2009, the PVV topped the poll in Almere (with 18.9%) – a planned city on the artificial islands of Flevoland built in the 1970s-1980s as suburbs for Amsterdam. In Almere, the PVV performs best in the older neighborhoods, where local middle-classes who face long commutes to work are worried about the deterioration of their neighborhoods and social decline (and immigrants: a lot of Amsterdam’s newer suburbs, such as Almere but also Purmerend, where the PVV also placed first with over 20%, are ‘white flight’ communities). The PVV polls well in stagnating old industrial and peripheral areas – Helmond (North Brabant, 21.6%), Roosendaal (North Brabant, 20.3%) or Delfzijl (Groningen, 15.6%); as well as the middle-class ‘growth centres’ which swelled in the 1980s to accommodate Holland’s suburban growth – 18.7% in Zoetermeer (outside the Hague) and 24.7% in Hellevoetsluis (South Holland).
The PVV also did well in the left-wing oriented eastern regions of the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe provinces, areas which used to be Communist and Labour strongholds (the region has been voting for the left since 1918). This is a poor region (one of the poorest, in fact – the poorest municipality in the country seems to be Pekela, which is located in the province of Groningen) with high unemployment, historically marked by large farms (often peat bogs) owned by a small elite of landowners employing many poor landless seasonal agricultural labourers and later by small factories or paper mills (many of which have since closed). Some regions, such as the town of Finsterwolde (now in the Oldambt municipality), were Communist strongholds (the CPN won over 50% in Finstertwolde until 1981!) – in fact, the NCPN (the hardliner communist party formed by anti-GL activists) still won over 50% in the 1994 local elections in the Reiderland and was still the largest party in 2002 but got supplanted by an even more hardline splinter party of their own, the United Communist Party (VCP) which nevertheless became the second largest party in the Oldambt municipality in 2014, behind the SP, with 16% and 4 seats (a gain of 2). The region has given high support to protest parties in the past – the LPF in 2002 did very well, for example. The PVV won 22.7% in Pekela, 15.4% in the Oldambt, 19.2% in Vlagtwedde and 16.5% in Bellingwedde. It also gave strong results for the SP – which was the largest party in the Oldambt and Bellingwedde (with 19%), among a few other towns. The animal’s party (PvdD) also did well – with over 5% in Vlagtwedde, Bellingwedde and Menterwolde; the PvdD’s stronger support in protest-oriented regions differentiates it from the other ‘green’ parties (D66 and GL), who are weak in these poor regions.
The PVV’s best municipality was Rucphen (North Brabant), with 37.5% – a town which has usually given strong support to past radical right parties (the Farmers’ Party in 1967 and the Centre Democrats in 1994, and which now gives huge numbers to the PVV, especially in Sint Willebrord, an old bricklayers’ and carpenters’ village. The PVV also won 34.8% in Edam-Voledam in North Holland, an old fishing community with a tradition of anti-government sentiments.
The VVD mostly topped the poll in its affluent suburban bastions – 27.3% in Wassenaar (outside The Hague), 30.4% in Laren, 25.6% in Blaricum, 29.5% in Rozendaal, 24.4% in Bloemendaal (but D66 topped the poll here).
The SP has a very strong historical base in the south, particularly in the northeast of the North Brabant province and northern Limburg. The municipality of Oss, a town with an industrial past, was home to SP’s first major leader Jan Marijnissen and the party has had councillors in Oss since 1976, back when the SP was a Maoist grouping polling 0.2% nationally. The SP has also performed strongly in nearby Boxmeer, home to SP’s current leader, Emile Roemer. In North Brabant, an old Catholic region where the KVP had a stranglehold on Catholics of all social classes until the 1960s and barred the PvdA from building a base, the SP has been able to build a strong base with low-income, working-class voters thanks to community work at the local level (providing money to charity groups, providing local doctors and the like). Catholicism in the south may have created a more conservative, hierarchical and authoritarian culture and could be leading to strong support for populist parties like the SP and PVV; or the SP’s style of politics – quite local and personality-based – may have partly replaced the clientelistic networks of the KVP. In any case, the south is more volatile and fickle than other regions, often serving to magnify national trends (for the PVV in 2010, for the SP in 2006 etc). This year, the SP won 11.8% in North Brabant and 12.7% in Limburg; the SP was the largest party in Oss (with 17.5%) and Gennep (21.2%, across the Meuse from Boxmeer in Limburg). Compared to 2009, some of the SP’s biggest gains came from Boxmeer and surrounding towns (the SP went from 14.4% to 24% in Boxmeer), reflecting the new personal vote for Roemer (who became leader in 2010). However, the SP has also gained a new base in the north – it won 12.9% in Groningen province (against 13.2% for the PvdA), as discussed above with strong results in these old leftist/communist bases. The SP also polls well in low-income urban areas – for example, it took 13.4% in Zaanstad and 14% in Spijkenisse. Its support in the very leftist university of Nijmegen (14.2%) comes mostly from the lower-income areas of the west end, the various pre-war and largely post-war developments.
The GreenLeft’s support is closely correlated to that of D66, with the differences noted above (notably: GL lacking D66’s appeal in wealthy suburbs, which makes GL an even more urban-based party). The GL won 16.3% and second in Amsterdam (in its old base, the PvdA won a disastrous third with 14.3%), 18.5% and second in Utrecht, 18.5% and second in Nijmegen, 19.9% and second in Nijmegen, 13.9% and second in Leiden and 14.2% and third in Groningen. The GL also has strong results in other well-educated progressive cities, such as Haarlem (12.1%) and Arnhem (11.5%).
The CU/SGP was the largest party in several municipalities in the Bible Belt, and even in the province of Zeeland (with 18.7%), where there are a lot of orthodox Protestants. The CU/SGP’s best result, unsurprisingly, came from the old fishing island (and famously parochial and close-knit village) of Urk (in Flevoland), a SGP stronghold where the two parties combined won 73.5%, up from 57.2% in 2009 due to gains from the CDA). Other strong results came from similar orthodox Protestant communities – Staphorst (57.2%), Nunspeet (48.1%), Bunschoten (45.7%) or Hardinxveld-Giessendam (49.2%) in the Bible Belt. In contrast, the CU/SGP found next to no support in the Catholic south (2.1% in North Brabant – and most of it came from four Protestant municipalities, 0.9% in Limburg) or the secular urban North Holland (2.6%). The Bible Belt’s very conservative culture can be noted on other non-political issues. For example, vaccination rates against mumps, measles and rubella are significantly lower in the Bible Belt (because vaccinations are seen as not trusting God as the guardian of diseases and other calamities) and the 2004-5 measles outbreak was concentrated in the Bible Belt.
The PvdD, as noted above, has stronger (comparatively) support in protest-oriented areas than D66 or the GL, but it also has a base in urban areas – it won 5.6% in North Holland and 6.1% in Amsterdam, although the correlation with university cities is weak: the PvdD did better in Almere (6.1%) than Utrecht (4.5%) or Wageningen (3.9%).
The EP elections show that Dutch politics today remain a fascinating mess. As of today, you have a practical five-way battle for first place (!) – D66 seems to be ahead, but narrowly; the VVD has definitely fallen off but not collapsed, the CDA has recovered but only weakly, the PVV strong although not as strong as in 2013 and the SP roughly pegged with the VVD, CDA and PVV. Naturally, as past experience shows, these trends are unlikely to hold up in a national election, and the PvdA – for example – could recover at the SP’s expense. In short, anything could happen.
The European Parliament elections were held in Italy on May 25, 2014. Alongside them, the first round of municipal elections in nearly half of all communes and regional elections in two regions were held.
Italy is famous in Europe for its convoluted, complicated, arcane, peculiar and often very theatrical politics – in short, a political system which may often confound general explanations of European politics. The past five years, in particular the last two or so of them, have been extremely rich in momentous and consequential events which have fundamentally changed the way Italian politics had operated since 1994. Perhaps less dramatic and rapidly than in Greece, it would certainly appear that Italy is undergoing a major political realignment whose final outcome is still very uncertain and whose evolution has continued to defied all predictions. The ongoing changes in the party system and upcoming changes to the electoral system and constitutional structure of Italy may augur the creation of a ‘Third Republic’ to replace the Second Republic (1994-?). The EP elections added to the increasingly open-ended and unpredictable nature of contemporary Italian politics: Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s governing centre-left Democratic Party (PD) won an unexpectedly massive victory at the polls.
Italy elected 73 MEPs to the European Parliament, one more than in the 2009 election (under the Nice apportionment rules) – but Italy had received its 73rd seat in 2011, following ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon. The Italian electoral law for the EP was adopted in 1979, for the first EP elections, making it the oldest electoral law in Italy. Under the current version of the law, members are elected by semi-open party-list proportional representation with a 4% threshold (adopted in 2009) in five multi-member constituencies: Northeast Italy (Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy – 20 MEPs), Northwest Italy (Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Emilia-Romagna – 14 MEPs), Central Italy (Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio/Latium – 14 MEPs), Southern Italy (Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria – 17 MEPs), Insular Italy (Sicily and Sardinia – 8 MEPs).
Unlike in France, the threshold is applied nationally rather than regionally, and the parties’ seats are then distributed to the individual constituencies based on the lists’ results therein (Hare-Niemeyer method, highest remainders). Italian voters may cast up to three preferential votes for candidates on a party list, but under a recent amendment, a voters’ preferences will be ignored if they are not distributed between candidates of different genders. Lists must therefore obtain 4% nationally to win seats, but there is an exception for linguistic minority parties (French, German and Slovenian) who may ally themselves with a national party, pooling their votes together and receiving a seat if the minority party wins over 50,000 votes nationally.
In Italy, candidates may run in more than one constituency, something which is extremely rare in other EU member-states. In 2009, for example, then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was the lead candidate of his party, the People of Freedom (PdL) in every constituency and was elected to the EP from every constituency. That same year, the then-leader of the Lega Nord, Umberto Bossi, was also the Lega’s top candidate in every EP constituency.
Turnout in Italian elections – at all levels – have traditionally been extremely high, especially given that voting is not mandatory. There has, however, been a very obvious downwards trend in turnout in all elections in the past decades, with turnout in national elections falling from over 90% in the 1970s and 88% in 1983-7 to historic lows of 78.1% in 2008 and 72.3% in the last election in 2013. In EP elections, although Italy remains one of the few EU countries without mandatory voting where turnout has remained over 50%, turnout has declined quasi-consistently (with the exception of an increase in 2004) from 86% in 1979 to 66.5% in 2009 and a new low of 57.2% this year.
Like everything in Italian politics, the history of EP elections since 1979 is marked by a pre-1994 and post-1994 difference, between the First Republic (1979, 1984 and 1989 EP elections) and Second Republic (1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 EP elections) elections. Under the First Republic, in line with the general tradition of that era of the partitocrazia, the EP elections did not see major differences from the results in national elections or wild swings from one election to the next. Nevertheless, the 1984 EP elections were the first and only national elections in which the Italian Communist Party (PCI) surpassed the natural governing party, the Christian Democracy (DC), due to the recent death of popular PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer (though even in that case, the differences between EP election and 1983 national elections were minor). Since 1994, EP elections have seen – in line with the political culture of the Second Republic – wilder swings and an exploded and unstable party system. The 1994 EP elections, right in the aftermath of Silvio Berlusconi’s victory in the 1994 elections, saw Berlusconi’s party win its best national result ever (30.6%). The 1999 EP elections, held during a centre-left government, saw Berlusconi’s party – in opposition – win the most votes (25.2%) and set the stage for his return to power in 2001. However, in 2004, held when Berlusconi’s three-year old government was at its lowest point in popularity, the centre-left coalition (L’Ulivo) swept the board with 31.1% against 20.9% for Berlusconi.
In the 2009 EP elections, then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – the histrionic business magnate at the centre of Italian politics since 1994, won yet another convincing electoral victory over the left, one year after Berlusconi was elected to a third term in power (Berlusconi won the 1994, 2001 and 2008 elections and served thrice as Prime Minister, from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011). Berlusconi is a highly controversial but also highly interesting and unique political figure in contemporary Western Europe. A prominent businessman, Berlusconi made his fortune in the 1980s with Fininvest, a financial holding company which still controls a football club (AC Milan) and a powerful private media empire (Mediaset, which controls about 35% of the TV market in Italy).
In 1994, the ‘First Republic’ collapsed, opening a major void on the right of the political spectrum which was up for grabs. The First Republic a fairly stable (the heavy turnover in cabinets obscured constants in the partisan makeup of said cabinets and electoral trends) but also very corrupt fossilized political system structured around the catch-all Christian Democracy (DC) party and its minor allies (Socialists, Liberals, Republicans and Democratic Socialists) and united by the very potent threat posed by the Italian Communist Party (PCI), one of Western Europe’s strongest and most influential communist parties during the Cold War. Since 1991, the First Republic collapsed first as the Cold War ended and huge corruption scandals and investigations which revealed that the governing parties, led by the DC, were rotten to the core. The DC and Socialists scuttled themselves altogether, the PCI responded to the fall of communism by transforming itself into a modern social democratic party (the PDS), the old neo-fascist/far-right Italian Social Movement (MSI) rebranded itself as the post-fascist and moderated National Alliance (AN) under Gianfranco Fini and new parties emerged forcefully – most notably, the regionalist/separatist populist Lega Nord in northern Italy. The DC’s collapse opened up a big void on the right and centre, one which would not vote for the ex-PCI under any circumstances (thanks to decades of instinctive anti-communism), but which was left homeless by the collapse of the DC and other parties. Berlusconi, a very shrewd and talented political operator, understood the opportunity which existed (and realized the consequences that the likely left-wing victory in the 1994 elections would have on his personal business empire, built up in good part due to his ties to prominent politicians in the old system) and decided to ‘enter the field’ with a new party, Forza Italia, founded just months before the 1994 elections. In regionally-differentiated coalitions with the Lega Nord and the AN (and small centre-right remnants of the DC), Berlusconi won the 1994 elections but his government quickly collapsed due to conflicts with the Lega. In 2001, Berlusconi, who had reconstructed a right-wing coalition with the AN, Lega and the ex-DC centre-right (what is now the Union of the Centre, UDC) since his 1996 defeat, won a large victory over the left. Despite many coalition crises and his growing unpopularity, Berlusconi accomplished a rare feat – remaining Prime Minister throughout the term of Parliament (until 2006) – but was defeated by a hair in 2006. In 2008, Berlusconi roared back like the proverbial phoenix and merged his Forza Italia with Fini’s AN in a new party, The People of Freedom (PdL).
Forza Italia, especially at the outset, was much more of a marketing product than traditional party (academic literature has described it as a ‘media-mediated personality party’, ‘patrimonial party’ or a ‘business firm model party’) – hierarchical, limited membership, a heavy personalist focus on the media-savvy personality of the leader and political strategies imported from the private sector (focus groups, marketing techniques, reliance on polling). Ideologically, Berlusconi’s parties, although nowadays affiliated with the EPP, have been populist more than traditionally conservative – despite being in power regularly since 1994, Berlusconi’s anti-system and anti-establishment rhetoric (in which Berlusconi presented himself as the businessman who challenged a corrupt party system and promised to apply his ‘entrepreneurial success’ to politics) continued to prove electorally successful. While Berlusconi has used neoliberal language of low taxes and small government since 1994, in practice he has mostly sought to adapt his politics to pre-existing socioeconomic contexts and he has a deft ability to switch positions according to context and region (appealing to both anti-tax and anti-government northerners and state-dependent southerners). Despite countless corruption scandals and a fairly mediocre – at best – record while in government (indeed, he basically spent most of his last term as Prime Minister fighting his own judicial battles and staying out of jail), Berlusconi’s political survival through countless tests since 1994 has been nothing short of remarkable. Although he has been defeated in three legislative elections, two of them were unexpectedly close and the last one (1996) was largely due to the division of his original 1994 coalition. Each time, Berlusconi has made good use of his domineering media personality to shift the focus on him in every election and seize the spotlight through various carefully-staged media events or rhetorical flourishes (his 1994 ‘entrance into the field’, his constant anti-communist rhetoric, the constant use of the myth of the ‘creative entrepreneur’ fighting a vast leftist conspiracy, a ‘persecution syndrome’, his Manichean outlook of good and evil, his 2001 Contratto con gli Italiani, his 2006 and 2013 promises to abolish – and, in 2013, refund – a property tax on primary residences).
The left – with weak leadership, deep divisions between its countless parties and factions defined largely in opposition to Berlusconi and its inability to challenge Berlusconi’s control of the media campaign – failed to measure up to Berlusconi, especially in 2001 and 2008, but the left’s narrow victories in 2006 and 2013 when they should have won by a mile were also quasi-defeats. The Italian left since the 1990s has been a very complex web of alliances, parties and factions – ideologically, it runs the gamut from old-style communists (usually outside the mainstream left and irrelevant since 2008) to ex-DC moderate centrists and liberals. The main ideological groupings traditionally being social democrats (most with PCI roots and former members of the PDS/DS) and moderate centre-left Christian democrats (most with DC/PPI roots and former members of the Daisy party) – but in all cases, the participation of groups to the left (communists, socialists, ecosocialists) and right (conservatives, libertarians) of these main factions have complicated governance (notably in the days of The Olive Tree coalitions) and election strategies. Since the creation of the PD in 2007, the traditional ideological lines have remained important, but there has been a growing divide between an ‘old guard’ of the party – mostly traditionalist social democrats with centrists and younger leftist allies (Young Turks) – and a ‘modernizing’ and reformist wing – traditionally liberals and centrists, with some social democrats. The ‘old guard’, whose most famous name is former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, suffers from an increasingly negative image because of its association with backroom politics, underhanded political maneuvers, stale leadership and inability to successfully take on Berlusconi.
Berlusconi’s charm and political power worn off beginning in 2010. That year, Berlusconi’s parliamentary majority was severely reduced with the defection of Gianfranco Fini, the former AN leader and Berlusconi’s one-time heir apparent, and his colleagues. Berlusconi’s undoing, however, came with the worsening of Italy’s economic situation in 2011. Since the 1980s, Italy’s economy has generally been struggling largely due to weak governments unable or unwilling to reform Italy’s economy, tackle ingrained corruption or challenge established economic and political structures, but also to its lack of competitiveness (unit labour costs in Italy since the birth of the euro in 1999 have risen must faster than in other EU countries and productivity declined). In 2011, Italy’s debt-to-GDP ratio was actually the second largest in the EU behind Greece (121% of GDP), although because most of Italy’s debt is domestically-owned and Italians have a high level of savings and low household debt, the impact hasn’t been as catastrophic as in Greece. However, in 2011, because of weak growth (Italy was in recession in 2008-2009 and only grew by 0.4% in 2011), budget deficits and debt levels over EU limits, the risk of ‘contagion’ and Berlusconi’s poor economic stewardship (preoccupied with his own financial and sexual scandals), Italy’s economy teetered on the cliff and was said to be on the verge of default. In November 2011, Berlusconi finally lost his majority in the Chamber of Deputies and resigned after the Parliament passed a final austerity package. Berlusconi’s own political failures since 2008 and doubts over Berlusconi’s leadership and personal behaviour were widely blamed for fueling market and EU anxieties about Italy’s precarious economic condition. Berlusconi maintains that he was forced out of office by a conspiracy led by his EU partners (indeed, EU leaders such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy had grown exasperated with him and lost faith in his abilities, and contributed to the pressure which led to his ouster). At home, after remaining popular in 2009 and 2010, Berlusconi was quickly becoming very unpopular – the PdL suffered some stunning defeats, including in Berlusconi’s Milanese heartland, in the May 2011 local elections and the government was defeated on ‘abrogative referendums’ in the summer.
The ceremonial President, Giorgio Napolitano, got the main parties – including the left and right – to agree to a technocratic (or ‘technical’) government led by Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner and a respected economist. The new government’s immediate task was to ‘save’ the Italian economy from collapse through urgent reforms. Monti immediately set to work on passing an emergency austerity package which significantly raised taxes and cut pensions. His government also undertook several other major reforms aimed at liberalizing and reforming the Italian economy. His government passed measures aimed at introducing more competition in monopolized and noncompetitive sectors (taxis, pharmacies); a pension reform which pushed the retirement age to 66 and attacked ‘special retirement plans’; a labour market reform along the lines of Denmark’s flexicurity model which reduced guarantees for employees; and got serious on targetting the very high rates of tax evasion in Italy. Monti managed to save Italy from default and he took the first steps in righting the ship before it sank. His reformist policies won him the plaudits of investors, foreign markets and his European partners and he reduced the deficit to 3% of GDP in 2012. However, Monti, while still respected by most Italians, lost in popularity because his policies contributed to increased unemployment (from 9.3% when he took office to 11.9% in February 2013 and 12.6% today) and a severe recession in 2012 and 2013 (-2.4% and -1.9% respectively).
Monti resigned in December 2012 after the PdL withdrew its support from his government, and called for elections in February 2013 after Parliament approved the 2013 budget. The 2013 election should have been a cakewalk for the centre-left coalition: Berlusconi and the PdL were both badly weakened in 2012, Berlusconi’s own uncertainty about his candidacy in 2013 (he originally announced he would not run in October, but changed his mind two months later and the Lega – which had been a powerful and influential junior ally in Berlusconi’s last government – saw its high support evaporate after the Lega’s longtime leader Umberto Bossi was implicated in damaging corruption scandals. However, the centre-left coalition’s candidate – elected in an open primary in late 2012 – was Pier Luigi Bersani, a competent administrator but a very bland, unexciting and dull campaigner. The centre-left was victorious, but with a majority of less than 1% over Berlusconi’s PdL-Lega coalition (29.5% to 29.1% in the Chamber election), whose strong performance – despite major loses from 2008 – was one of the main surprises of the election. Although Berlusconi didn’t work for everybody, his populist anti-austerity and soft Eurosceptic message allowed him to roar back with a strong result and another near-win. The other momentous event from the polls was the remarkable result won by the Five Star Movement (M5S), a radical anti-system/anti-establishment populist party led by Genoan comedian Beppe Grillo, who won 25.5% in its first election. Mario Monti’s centre-right, liberal and pro-austerity alliance (with the UDC and Fini’s FLI) did poorly (10.5%).
Beppe Grillo’s M5S (founded in 2009) is often lumped with other populist and Eurosceptic parties in Europe, but the M5S is an extremely peculiar party which is quite unlike the traditional right-wing populist party or the radical left (SYRIZA types). The movement – it refuses the pejorative ‘party’ label – was born from and remains centered on Beppe Grillo’s very popular website/blog, and the M5S places a large amount of emphasis on ‘internet direct democracy’ – it often asks its loyal activists to vote on major issues (policy, strategy, candidates, party discipline) online and the M5S’ leaders have used social media to reach out to their supporters and organize Grillo’s large public meetings. With the internet forming the M5S’ backbone and considering the importance it plays in organizing and mobilizing its dedicated online activists, the M5S has some similarities with the Pirate movement in the rest of Europe. Ideologically, the M5S is primarily a populist anti-establishment movement – a rather radical one at that. Grillo grew in popularity for his foul-mouthed tirades against Italy’s corrupt ‘parasitic’ political ‘caste’ (la casta, which enjoys famously generous benefits and conditions) and calls for the destruction of the ‘rotten’ political system and its replacement by vaguely-defined direct democracy. Grillo strongly opposes the public financing of parties (the M5S itself has refused its public funding and its parliamentarians have restituted parts of their wages to help pay off the debt or promote small businesses). Like Berlusconi, Grillo enjoys provocative statements – he said that politicians were worse than the mafia and issued a tongue-in-cheek call on terrorists to blow up Parliament – and theatrical politics – he swam across the Strait of Messina to Sicily during the campaign for the Sicilian regional elections in October 2012. Grillo was successful because, in times of hardship, his radical anti-system message resonated well: most Italians do perceive their politicians (and oftentimes rightly so) as corrupt, selfish, self-absorbed, incompetent or stale hacks and careerists.
Given the centrality of the populist rhetoric, it is hard to define the M5S ideologically. Originally, the M5S was on the left or far-left: the party’s “five stars” refer to public water, public transportation, development, connectivity (internet freedom) and the environment. The M5S supports ‘degrowth’, a radical green and anti-consumerist ideology who argue for lower production and consumption because overconsumption has caused environmental issues and social inequality. As a result, the M5S has been hostile to large infrastructure projects (the Strait of Messina bridge and the Lyon-Turin high speed rail in the Val di Susa) and strongly supportive of clean energies and public transportation. The movement has also taken more left-wing stances on same-sex marriage, internet accessibility, public services. On the other hand, Grillo himself has adopted tough stances on immigration: he opposes jus soli and in October 2013, he attacked the efforts of two M5S parliamentarians to repeal the Bossi-Fini law which criminalized illegal immigration; however, in early 2014, Grillo was defeated by his own supporters on the issue – in an online vote, M5S activists voted in favour of efforts to repeal the law (which has since been repealed with the left’s support). On economic matters, the M5S does not fit traditional ideologies: it is against monopolies and anti-tax, but also anti-austerity and generally opposed to the power of big businesses and corporations (private or public). Grillo opposes the Euro and has lamented the ‘lovely old days’ of the lira when Italy could devalue its currency by 40-50%. (you can download the M5S’ platform in English here)
Grillo is a highly controversial figure. To his critics, Grillo is an irresponsible and dangerous demagogue who runs his party with an iron-fist (to many, direct democracy is but a façade and Grillo and his éminence grise/guru Roberto Casaleggio run the show). Indeed, since the party gained prominence in the 2012 local elections, several M5S members and elected officials have been expelled from the party (after being pilloried by Grillo on his blog) for going against the party line on various issues (for example, appearing on TV shows when Grillo strictly prohibited M5S members from doing so).
Because of Italy’s notoriously horrible (former) electoral law, Bersani’s coalition won an absolute majority in the lower house – the Chamber of Deputies – by virtue of having won the most votes nationally and being entitled to a majority bonus granting the largest coalition an absolute majority. But since the Senate has such bonuses apply only regionally, Bersani’s coalition fell short of an absolute majority in the upper house – with 123 seats to Berlusconi’s 117 and Grillo’s 54. Under Italian ‘perfect bicameralism’, a government requires the confidence of both houses; but from the results, it was clear that Bersani would not be able to govern (even in coalition with Monti’s amenable centrist coalition) unless he allied himself with Berlusconi (which would defeat the left’s entire raison-d’etre since 1994) or convincing some Grillists to support him. Bersani unsuccessfully tried to convince the M5S or parts thereof to back him in a stopgap coalition committed to constitutional, electoral and political reform. Grillo and Casaleggio, neither of whom are elected, strongly opposed Bersani’s overtures and blocked the M5S from allying with Bersani.
In April 2013, when it came time for Parliament and delegates from regional councils to elect Italy’s ceremonial President, the political crisis and infighting on the left boiled over to create utter chaos. The PD unwisely allied itself with Berlusconi and the centre on a common presidential candidate, but this alliance (and the candidate – Franco Marini, an 80-year old former trade unionist and technocrat) incensed the PD’s ally to the left (Nichi Vendola’s Left Ecology Freedom or SEL) and Bersani’s rival within the PD, Florence mayor Matteo Renzi. The alliance failed to elect Marini due to defections on the left. On a fourth ballot, the PD and the SEL supported Romano Prodi, a former centre-left Prime Minister and respected senior politician, but Prodi fell far short of the required votes because his candidacy was likely an underhanded ploy by Massimo D’Alema (and perhaps Renzi) to scuttle Bersani. An unprecedented last-ditch exit route was found prior to the six ballot: the left, right and centre convinced incumbent President Giorgio Napolitano, due to retire like all his predecessors before him, to run for reelection (and win) as a solution to the crisis. In return, Napolitano compelled the left and the right to form a grand coalition led by Enrico Letta, a 47-year old centrist from the PD.
Letta formed a coalition with Berlusconi’s PdL Mario Monti’s Civic Choice (SC) party, the PD and independents. Angelino Alfano, then seen as Berlusconi’s dauphin, became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and the PdL had four other ministers (Infrastructure and Transports; Health; Agriculture, Food and Forestry; Constitutional Reforms). The opposition was led by the fiery M5S, the Lega Nord and the SEL. Letta’s government quickly found itself undermined by both the PD and the PdL. The former was setting up for a leadership crisis after Bersani’s resignation in the wake of the presidential election chaos, and Matteo Renzi – hardly enamoured by Letta – was the favourite to win the PD’s leadership in December 2013. Berlusconi understood that he held the government hostage, and would grudgingly tolerate it as long as it served his own interest. For example, he managed to get Letta’s government to scrap the IMU, the property tax on primary residences which Berlusconi had successfully campaigned against in February. Later, in May-July, Alfano got into hot water when the wife of an exiled Kazakh political dissident was unceremoniously arrested by Italian authorities and deported to Kazakhstan. Alfano was widely suspected of having intervened in the operation (because Berlusconi is a good friend of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Italy’s main oil firm (ENI) has an 17% stake in a Kazakh oil field). Berlusconi stepped in to prevent Alfano from getting into any sort of trouble, and it worked: the PD (minus a few Renzi allies) voted against a M5S-SEL motion of no-confidence in Alfano.
Economically, Letta’s government main priority was to restore investor confidence in Italy and reorient economic and fiscal policies in a ‘pro-growth’ and ‘pro-jobs’ direction in the midst of prolonged recession and rising unemployment. The government promised to cut employers’ welfare contributions, tax breaks for energy-saving home improvements, expand a guarantee fund for small and medium enterprises and it said it would consider benefits for families and children. Once in office, the government sped up payments of €40 billion in public administration debts, approved tax incentives for employers to employ young workers and began working on a privatization program. For some, Letta’s government has been insufficiently bold in tackling vested interests and promoting competition, largely because both the PdL and PD are tied to special interests and have little interest in disturbing that.
In the meantime, attention turned to Berlusconi’s judicial travails. Il cavaliere‘s innumerable run-ins with the law is nothing new; the business magnate has been indicted on charges of tax fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, bribery, false accounting, violation of antitrust laws, libel, defamation and under-age prostitution. However, until August 2013, Berlusconi had never been convicted of anything – he was acquitted, cases dragged on exceeding the statute of limitations, aptly passed amnesty laws to save himself or changed the law to legalize the alleged offences. In October 2012, an appeals court in Milan confirmed a lower court judgement in late 2012 which had found Berlusconi guilty in the ‘Mediaset’ case, where he and his media giant company (Mediaset) were accused of tax evasion and tax fraud for illicit trade (and false accounting) of movie rights between Mediaset and secret fictive foreign companies in tax havens. The appeals court sentenced him to four years in prison and a five-year ban from holding public office. Berlusconi appealed the case to the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest appeals court. Much to Berlusconi’s chagrin, the Court of Cassation proved exceptionally quick at issuing a decision on the case – on August 1 2013. The court confirmed the lower courts’ verdict, with a four year prison sentence but asked the Milanese appeals court to review the length of the ban from public office. A 2006 amnesty law, ironically voted by the left to reduce prison overcrowding, automatically commuted Berlusconi’s jail sentence to one year and since he is over 70 and not a repeat offender, he will not serve any jail time: he was given a choice between house arrest or community service, opting for the former. The Legge Severino, adopted in December 2012 by the Monti government, bans any politician convicted to over two years’ imprisonment from holding or running for public office for six years and supersedes the October 2013 judgement of the Milanese appeals court, which shortened Berlusconi’s ban from public office to two years
On June 24, a penal court in Milan had found Berlusconi guilty of child prostitution and abuse of power in the world-famous Rubygate case, where Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, who was a minor at the time (in 2010) and abusing his powers to have her released from police detention in 2010 (on the pretext that she was Hosni Mubarak’s niece). The court sentenced Berlusconi to seven years in prison and a lifetime ban from public office, but he will appeal the decision. The Appeals Court is set to rule in July 2014. Berlusconi is still involved in three other ongoing cases. A trial on the bribery of a centre-left senator in 2006 to topple Prodi’s government will open next year; in March 2013, he was sentenced to a year in jail in the ‘Unipol’ case (confidential wiretaps by Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, on conversations between a former Governor of the Bank of Italy and a centre-left politician); the Constitutional Court is set to rule on a defamation case concerning Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate (famous for his corruption-busting work during the 1990s Mani Pulite operations) and the former leader of the Italia dei Valori (IdV) party. Berlusconi, in 2008, had accused Di Pietro of obtaining his degree only with the complicity of the secret services. In 2010, a court in Viterbo acquitted Berlusconi because parliamentary immunity bans any prosecution against words spoken in the exercise of a parliamentary mandate; however, a higher court overturned the decision in 2012.
Berlusconi now faced the threat of expulsion from the Senate. A defense organization sprung up around the embattled leader, who argued – again – that he was the target of a political witch-hunt by ‘red’ judges and complained that the ordeal was taking a toll on him (unable to sleep, lost 11kg and that he was psychologically tormented). Berlusconi’s closest allies pleaded that he be granted agibilità politica (political freedom) through a pardon by President Napolitano or Letta’s intervention. The PD knew that Berlusconi would condition his support for the government to his agibilità politica, but it also knew that intervening in Berlusconi’s favour would be the last straw for the left’s supporters. Meanwhile, Berlusconi announced that the PdL would be disbanding and that Forza Italia would return. Posters in major Italian cities announced that il cavaliere was ancora in campo per l’Italia (‘still in the field for Italy’).
However, the Berlusconian right began showing public cracks in September 2013. That month, while a Senate committee began debating Berlusconi’s expulsion (decadenza), Berlusconi huffed and puffed and, on September 28, ordered the PdL’s ministers to resign from Letta’s cabinet. The pretext was the government’s decision to raise the VAT by 1%, but nearly everybody saw through that – the real reason was that Berlusconi was threatening to pull the plug on Letta over his judicial travails and upcoming expulsion vote. Letta called for a confidence vote on October 2, in the run-up to which Berlusconi continued breathing fire and attacking the government. However, when the vote came, Berlusconi did a double-face and the PdL joined the left and centre in voting for Letta, who won the Senate’s confidence easily 235 to 70. It appears that Berlusconi twisted and turned in agonizing indecision, facing an extremely rare internal revolt. Indeed, all but one of the PdL ministers – who obeyed Berlusconi’s original order – shortly thereafter said it was perhaps a bad decision. One of them was Alfano, who led the doves (colombe) in the PdL – moderates (ex-DC and ex-Socialists) and ministers who placed political stability over Berlusconi’s personal interests. The doves faced the hawks (falchi) and loyalists (lealisti), hardline supporters of Berlusconi who came from the party’s right-wing liberals (Giancarlo Galan, Daniele Capezzone), hard-right (Daniela Santanchè) or camarilla (Raffaele Fitto, Mara Carfagna, Renata Polverini). The hawks-loyalists lost, the doves won and Berlusconi, to save face at the last minute, went with them. It was a shocking twist from Alfano, a Sicilian Christian democrat who had been a subservient justice minister between 2008 and 2011 (passing laws to save his boss from prosecution) and been groomed as Berlusconi’s loyal successor and political ‘son’ (despite Berlusconi publicly insulting him).
On October 4, the Senate committee voted to recommend Berlusconi’s expulsion, sending the matter to the Senate as a whole, and at the end of the month the rules committee called for it to be a public vote (in a private vote, Berlusconi may have tried to bribe PD lawmakers as he had in the past).
Still undeterred, Berlusconi pressed on with the transformation of the PdL into Forza Italia. On November 16, Berlusconi dissolved the PdL into a new Forza Italia. However, one day prior, the ‘doves’ led by Angelino Alfano announced that they would not dissolve into Forza Italia and formed their own party, the New Centre-Right (Nuovo Centrodestra, NCD). The NCD includes all five centre-right ministers in the Letta government, the former Lombardian regional president Roberto Formigoni and his allies, members of the Catholic lay movement Comunione e Liberazione, former members of the DC who joined the centre-right from various post-DC Christian democratic parties (Carlo Giovannardi, in the UDC until 2008), former members of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), Renato Schifani – the former President of the Senate and architect of an unconstitutional immunity law in 2004 and the incumbent regional president of Calabria Giuseppe Scopelliti. Today, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia has 69 deputies and 58 senators against 28 deputies and 33 senators for the NCD.
On November 26, as the government was preparing to pass the 2014 budget, Forza Italia withdrew its support from the government and, the next day, voted against the budget which nevertheless passed the Senate 162 to 115, with the NCD’s support. That same day, the Senate finally voted on Berlusconi’sdecadenza under the Legge Severino by public ballot. Berlusconi’s supporters, symbolically dressed in black in the Senate or rallied in front of Berlusconi’s Roman residence, desperately tried to delay the vote or have it held by secret ballot. Berlusconi warned the PD and M5S senators from voting against him, so that they were not later “ashamed in front of their children”, he also insisted on a re-trial, claiming new evidence and witnesses. All to no avail, as the Senate voted 192 to 113 to expel Berlusconi from their ranks. The PD, M5S, SEL, SC, UDC and two small centre-left groups voted in favour, while Forza Italia, the Lega Nord, the NCD and a centre-right autonomist group voted against. The NCD in doing so signaled that their split was not as much against Berlusconi himself as against Berlusconi’s political strategy, which makes the Alfano dissidence different from Gianfranco Fini’s very public split with his former ally in 2010. Indeed, Alfano said that he was still Berlusconian – but “in a different way”.
On December 8, the PD held its long-awaited leadership election. Matteo Renzi, the 39-year old mayor of Florence, who had lost the 2012 centre-left primaries to Bersani, was the favourite. Unlike Bersani, Renzi comes from a PPI (one of the DC’s successor parties) background and joined the PD from the centrist Daisy. Renzi made in name in politics, as president of the province of Florence between 2005 and 2009 and as mayor of Florence since 2009, as a ‘scrapper’ (rottamatore) who took on the political elites (within his own party) and reducing waste, mismanagement and the size of the local public administrations. Despite being only in his first time as mayor and fairly new to politics, he made a name for himself largely by being a competent municipal administrator and his populist/anti-establishment persona which is popular in Italy. Ideologically, Renzi is on the party’s right and challenges the traditional ‘dogma’ of the centre-left (which is nevertheless very moderate in practice). In 2012, Renzi proposed tax cuts for employees, a €100 increase in employees’ net salary paid for by a 15% cut in the costs of public administration, financial support and credit for SMEs, labour market flexibility (flexicurity) along the Scandinavian/Danish model, financial incentives for foreign investors, cracking down on tax evasion and civil unions for homosexual couples. A ‘straight-talker’, he also took strong stances against corruption – abolishing public subsidies to parties (abolished recently by Letta, responding to a M5S demand), reducing the number of parliamentarians, greater accountability of public officials to their constituent (he favours a French electoral system) and constitutional reform to reduce the Senate’s powers. He is often compared to (and accepts such comparisons himself) to Tony Blair and his New Labour.
In 2012, Renzi’s anti-establishment and reformist ‘Third Way’ policy proposals worried some left-wing voters and he won only 39.1% in the second round of the primary against Bersani, the PD’s leader and candidate of the traditional ‘old guard’ and PD establishment. However, after the 2013 election debacle, the PD was ready for a shake-up with Renzi. In the open primaries which attracted 2.8 million voters, Renzi won 67.6% against 18.2% for Gianni Cuperlo (the oldest establishment candidate, with a PCI background and backed by Bersani/D’Alema and the ‘Young Turks’ on the left) and 14.2% for Pippo Civati (a young anti-establishment candidate from the left, who supported an alliance with the SEL and M5S and had opposed Letta’s government).
The day before, incidentally, the Lega Nord held a leadership election of its own. The historic leader of the party, Umberto Bossi, had been forced to resign from his leadership positions in April 2012 following a crazy scandal in which Bossi and his ‘magic circle’ were accused of embezzling the party’s public financing funds and using the money to pay Bossi’s son. The scandal badly hurt the party, which suffered major loses in the February election, and led to Bossi’s replacement by his rival and one-time deputy, Roberto Maroni. Although the Lega still allied (reluctantly and in return for juicy concessions) with Berlusconi in the last election, Maroni and his followers have tended to be far less supportive of the Lega’s traditional ties to the centre-right (Bossi strongly supported the alliance with Berlusconi in the last few years). The leadership battle opposed Umberto Bossi to Matteo Salvini, a MEP. Salvini was supported by Maroni. Salvini won in a landslide, 81.7% to Bossi’s mere 18.3%. His election signaled a return to fundamentals for the Lega Nord: more independence from the centre-right, hardened ‘Padanian’ nationalism/separatism, strong anti-immigration stances and Euroscepticism (Salvini once decried the euro as a crime against humanity).
On December 4, the Constitutional Court two key parts of the electoral law were unconstitutional. The Italian electoral law (known as the Legge Calderoli, or unofficially the legge porcellum – piglet law – or porcata – literally ‘shit’, as described by its own sponsor, Roberto Calderoli) was passed by Berlusconi’s government in 2005 in an unsuccessful attempt to save the right in the 2006 elections. The law, whose effects we witnessed in the February election, guarantee an absolute majority in the Chamber to whichever coalition wins the most votes nationally by granting them 340 seats (55%), even if said coalition wins only 29% as in 2013! In the Senate, however, the majority bonus is applied regionally (but three regions have no majority bonus) so there is no guarantee that the winning coalition will have an absolute majority in the Senate. This means that the winning coalition either lacks a majority in the Senate (2013), has so tenuous of a majority that it makes it vulnerable to any dissent within the often-fractious coalitions (2006) or the majority is strong but still vulnerable to large blocs of dissent within the coalition (in a landslide election like 2008). The Court declared that the majority bonuses in both houses were unconstitutional and also ruled against the closed party lists, which prevent voters from indicating preferences for candidates on a party list.
In January, Renzi wasted no time and negotiated an agreement over a new electoral law with Berlusconi – the two men agreed to adopt a new electoral system which would guarantee strong governing majorities, abolish perfect bicameralism and reduce the cost of politics. Renzi’s alliance with Berlusconi on the electoral law and his announcement of two other priorities (civil unions and a new immigration law) signaled his energy and stamina, but it also made some in the PD uncomfortable about the moral implications of allying with somebody sentenced by a court and created troubles with the PD’s governing partners – the NCD and the centrists – who feared what an agreement between the two major parties over the electoral system would mean for them. The new electoral law, adopted by the Chamber of Deputies in March 2014, will only apply for the Chamber (a constitutional reform to significantly reduce the Senate’s powers and perhaps turn it into a much less powerful regional chamber like the Bundesrat) and is known as the Italicum. It does not make the electoral system any less convoluted: under the new law, closed lists with 3-6 candidates will run in about 120 multi-member constituencies in Italy – either individually or in coalition. A coalition will need to pass a 12% national threshold, individual parties a 8% national threshold and parties within a coalition will need 4.5% nationally. If a coalition/party obtains 37% of the vote nationally, it wins a 15% majority bonus meaning that it may win up to a maximum of 340 seats (there is no majority bonus if a list wins over 340 seats). If no coalition or party wins 37%, a runoff between the top two lists is organized, in which the winning list receives 321 seats with remaining seats attributed to other lists who met the thresholds in the ‘first round’ (as I understand it). The Chamber of Deputies has produced research files simulating the new system on the last three elections, including a runoff in 2013. It also has, in Italian, some handy infographics which clarify things somewhat. The Chamber rejected amendments to alternate men and women on party lists to ensure gender parity.
By February 2014, Letta was increasingly isolated and facing rumours that Renzi was pressuring him to resign in his favour. Letta’s government was criticized, notably by Renzi, for the slow pace of reforms. By February 11-12, Letta pressed Renzi to publicly detail his intentions and tried to appear tough, but unlike in October 2013, he found himself beaten by Renzi. On February 13, the PD executive voted 136-16 in favour of Renzi’s proposal for a new government for a new phase and to speed up reforms. Despite his very public displeasure with what had transpired, Letta had no choice but to hand his government’s regination to Napolitano the next day. On February 17, Renzi was officially tasked with forming a new government, which was sworn in on the 22nd. The Renzi government includes only 16 full ministers (one of the lowest), half of which are women (but if junior ministers and secretaries of state are included, the government remains overwhelmingly male) and has the lowest average age (47) of any Italian government. The government’s junior allies – the NCD, UDC, SC and minor centrist parties – remained in government, and there was little turnover of their ministers – Angelino Alfano remains Minister of the Interior, although he is no longer Deputy Prime Minister. There was significant turnover of PD ministers, with younger pro-Renzi members filling portfolios and women taking some important portfolios (foreign affairs, defense, constitutional reform). The economy portfolio was retained by an independent technocrat.
The very rapid (and, to casual followers of Italian politics, unexpected) succession of events which led to Renzi’s accession to power was received negatively by most Italians, including PD voters with an otherwise good opinion of Renzi. PD supporters felt that Renzi was making an enormous mistake, because of the optics of the situation (making him look like a backstabber, and the very traditional First Republic backroom replacements of governments without elections) and the potential that actually leading government would tarnish Renzi’s star profile. Few predicted that the government will be able to last until the end of the legislature’s term in 2018, as Renzi wishes.
Renzi unveiled his proposal for pro-growth stimulus reforms in March. His landmark initiative is a proposal to cut income taxes on lower income taxpayers, giving them a tax credit of about €80 per month for an overall cost of €10 billion to the state, to be financed by some deficit spending (but Italy has pledged to respect its European commitments), cuts in unproductive spending and administrative reforms, a raise in capital gains taxation and savings from lower interest rates. The government also plans to cut taxes on work, speed up the payment of the debt and a labour reform which would include universal unemployment benefits. These measures are ambitious and greeted with cautious optimism from voters, but the government will need to work with a difficult economic situation: although Italy’s economy should grow in 2014 (+0.6%), the debt is at over 135% of GDP and unemployment remains frustratingly high at 12.6% (far higher for youths).
The EP election was fairly important, as it was the first nationwide test of public opinion since 2013 (there have been local elections and several regional elections since, though) and the first electoral test for Renzi. EP elections in Italy, like in other countries (notably France), are an opportunity for smaller parties to test their strengths running individually. It was unclear where public opinion really stood, although most polls indicated that the centre-left had a narrow lead over the Berlusconian right coalition and the M5S was moving closer to its 2013 results after dropping off a bit after the election.
The PD renewed its ranks somewhat, once again promoting younger women to top spots on the party’s lists (but in the open-list system, their election is not guaranteed even with a top placement on the list). The PD’s campaign was pro-European and emphasized that ‘Italy was changing course’ and that Europe should follow suit. The party promoted a pro-growth agenda to reduce youth unemployment, grow the economy and build a ‘social Europe’. The PD was associated with the the South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP), the dominant centre-right party in the German-speaking province of Bolzano (Südtirol/South Tyrol) whose sole MEP (elected thanks to the threshold exception for linguistic minority parties) sits with the EPP group (the PD sits with the S&D group). The SVP itself was allied with an autonomist party in the neighboring province of the Trentino (the PATT) and the party representing the Slovenian minority (SSK) in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
The M5S has been uncompromising in its opposition to the government, and Grillo, leading his movement from outside Parliament, has remained controversial and abrasive. However, the M5S has struggled somewhat since February 2013 (even if it retains solid support). A new party in Parliament, with a caucus heavily made up of first-time, inexperienced novice politicians drawn from different social horizons and drawing on different political traditions and ideologies, it has had a tough time adapting to Parliament – especially how their leadership and many of the parliamentarians themselves consider the Parliament to be a corrupt and illegitimate institution which should, in a perfect world, be abolished and replaced by internet-based direct democracy. Beppe Grillo is an autocratic leader, who is rather intolerant of any dissent or criticism, and doesn’t hesitate to insult any critics – internal or external, politicians or journalists – with crude ad hominem attacks. Grillo just recently allowed his followers to go on TV, which he had until then boycotted. His angry followers often enthusiastically join Grillo’s countless attacks on his ‘enemies’ launched from his blogs. By now, several deputies and even more senators have been expelled or voluntarily left the M5S – from 109 deputies and 54 senators, the M5S is down to 104 and 40 respectively. Most recently, in February 2014, four M5S senators were expelled following an internet vote (in the unique Grillist tradition, expulsions are voted on by M5S’ online activists) for criticizing Grillo’s behaviour during a consultation with Renzi, which Grillo had been forced (by his members) to attend.
The M5S’ European campaign focused on seven points: a referendum on Euro membership, abolition of the Fiscal Compact, adoption of Eurobonds, alliance of Mediterranean countries for a common currency (Euro 2), investments in innovation to be excluded from 3% deficit limit calculations, financing for domestic agricultural activities and abolition of the balanced budget requirements.
Forza Italia – Berlusconi’s party, now centered around the pro-Berlusconi hawks (falchi), loyalists (lealisti) and mediators (moderates) – has remained a significant force, despite Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate in November 2013. Berlusconi is still facing pending trials, most significantly in the Rubygate prostitution case, and is also forbidden from leaving the Italian territory without a judge’s permission (his passport has been seized). Berlusconi announced his intention to run for the EP in May 2014, despite being barred from holding or running for public office. In March 2014, the Court of Cassation confirmed the judicial two-year ban from holding public office, effectively barring Berlusconi from running for the EP. In early May 2014, Berlusconi began serving his one-year community service at a home care centre for elderly dementia patients, where he must work for four hours a week. Some of Berlusconi’s closest allies have also felt the pressure of the judiciary: Marcello Dell’Utri, one of Berlusconi’s oldest allies, was sentenced by the Supreme Court to seven years in jail in 2014 for tax fraud, false accounting and complicity in conspiracy with the Sicilian Mafia. Dell’Utri had fled to Lebanon before the sentence fell, but he has since been arrested by Lebanese authorities and is awaiting extradition to Italy.
There is increasing speculation that Berlusconi is preparing a dynastic succession. Marina Berlusconi, his eldest daughter (at 47) and president of the Fininvest holding company, is often cited by the media and Berlusconians alike as the preferred heir, but she does not appear interested. Her younger brother, Pier Silvio, vice-president of Mediaset, is more discrete and denies any political ambition even if he is said to be brilliant. Barbara Berlusconi, the eldest (29) of three children with his ex-wife Veronica Lario, now has a position on the board of AC Milan but is not usually seen as a future politician.
Forza Italia ran a populist, Eurosceptic and anti-German campaign. Berlusconi, his usual self, said that “for Germans, the concentration camps never existed” and continued babbling about the President (who didn’t pardon him) and the judges (who took a political decision). The party ran in coalition with smaller parties: whatever is left of UDEUR (the party of venal and corrupt incumbent MEP Clemente Mastella who was formerly allied with the centre-left until he pulled the plug on Prodi’s cabinet in 2008), the Grande Sud (a southern ‘regionalist’ party made up of three regional parties in Sicily, Campania and Apulia largely made up of PdL or MPA dissidents) and The Populars of Italy Tomorrow (an empty shell of pro-Berlusconi UDC dissidents in the south).
Under Matteo Salvini, the Lega Nord has regained some lost support and the party has been reoriented on a more anti-EU and anti-immigration platform. For example, under Salvini, the Lega, whose MEPs sat with the UKIP’s EFD group in the last EP, allied himself with Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Heinz-Christian Strache in the EAF; for the EP elections, the Lega Nord dropped the traditional word ‘Padania’ at the bottom of the logo in favour of the slogan ‘Basta €uro’ or ‘enough Euro’. The Lega ran in coalition with Die Freiheitlichen, a right-wing populist German party which is the second-largest party in the German-speaking province of Bolzano (Südtirol/South Tyrol) and the Movement for Autonomies (MPA), the Sicilian-based party of former regional president Raffaele Lombardo. Matteo Salvini was the party’s top candidate in every region, something which is legal and somewhat commonplace in Italy (in 2009, Berlusconi was the PdL’s top candidate in all EP constituencies despite being the sitting Prime Minister, and Umberto Bossi also topped all the Lega’s lists that year).
On the right, the new Brothers of Italy (FdI), a national conservative party founded by PdL members in December 2012, ran independently. The FdI emerged in late 2012, largely founded by ex-AN members of the PdL who had come from the AN’s moderate pro-Berlusconi ‘liberal conservative’ faction. Although they were somewhat critical of Berlusconi, the FdI received Berlusconi’s blessing as he hoped that it would create an outlet for right-wing and nationalist voters who were a bit queasy with him but could nevertheless be brought to still support him indirectly. The party joined the centre-right coalition in the 2013 election, but opposed the Letta government. Under the leadership of Giorgia Meloni, the FdI has shifted towards the right, making a clear bid to reclaim the identity of the former AN (whose members are divided between Forza Italia, the FdI and various small hard-right parties) but also informally associating with Marine Le Pen at the pan-EU level (although there is no formal alliance, unlike in the case of the Lega). The former mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, a former fascist who was defeated for reelection in 2013, has since endorsed the party. The FdI successfully won the right to rename itself ‘Brothers of Italy-National Alliance’ and use the logo of the old AN in its logo. The FdI’s appropriation of the AN identity has irked smaller parties with roots in the old party, notably Francesco Storace’s La Destra, a hard-right splinter of the AN (from 2007) now allied with Berlusconi. Giorgia Meloni was the FdI’s top candidate in every constituency.
Angelino Alfano’s NCD, for its first election, ran in alliance with Pier Ferdinando Casini’s Christian democratic Union of the Centre (UDC), which had found itself obliterated in the 2013 election (1.8%) when it ran in coalition with Mario Monti. The alliance is unsurprising: the NCD and UDC are both likely too weak to win more than 4% on their own, both are junior allies in the Renzi government, the UDC has been looking (unsuccessfully) to build a new centre-right/centrist coalition (often seen as a neo-DC) with Berlusconian dissidents (first Fini, now Alfano) and both the NCD and UDC are ideologically very similar (most of the NCD’s members are ex-DC southerners, and the NCD is effectively a Christian democratic/social conservative party similar to the UDC). Both Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the NDC-UDC are part of the EPP, but given Berlusconi’s new anti-EU (and anti-Merkel) populist campaigns, the NCD-UDC fits in much more nicely in the EPP mainstream while Berlusconi is a bit of an Orbán in the EPP. Two NCD cabinet ministers were top candidates: Maurizio Lupi (transports) in the Northwest and Beatrice Lorenzin (health) in the Centre.
Mario Monti’s hastily assembled and fractious party for the 2013 elections, the Civic Choice (SC), had managed to win 8.3% of the vote in the 2013 election (in the process, decimating Casini’s UDC and killing Fini’s FLI) but the SC has since collapsed. Monti lost control over his party, and in response to the growing tensions between him and other SC members, decided to resign as the SC’s president in October 2013. The party then split between the pro-Monti liberals, who supported a centrist strategy (anti-Berlusconi but also anti-UDC) and were liberal reformists and the Christian democrats, including Mario Mauro, who were open to alliances with Berlusconi and close to the UDC. The party was pretty equally divided between both wings, but the liberals took control of the SC and have since aligned it even closer to the PD-led centre-left alliance and the Renzi cabinet. The Christian democrats split off and created Populars for Italy (PpI), which formed a common group with the UDC in Parliament (Per l’Italia). The PpI-UDC group has 10 senators (7 for the SC) and 18 deputies (27 for the SC).
The SC participated in a common liberal list for the EP elections, European Choice (SE) with the smaller Democratic Centre (CD), the neoliberal/libertarian Act to Stop the Decline and other tiny parties. The SE affiliated with the ALDE at the pan-European level (although one MEP who supported the SE, ex-AN member Cristiana Muscardini, sat with the ECR) and was endorsed by ALDE presidential candidate Guy Verhofstadt and former Italian Prime Minister and President of the EU Commission Romano Prodi.
On the left, several communists and ecosocialist/radical left parties in opposition to the government formed a common alliance, L’Altra Europa con Tsipras, to support the GUE/NGL presidential candidacy of Greek SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras. Although launched by independent left-wing intellectuals, the partisan base of the alliance was formed by Nichi Vendola’s Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) – the only party of the radical left with seats in Parliament (3% in 2013 in alliance with the PD), the moribund Communist Refoundation Party (PRC), Antonio Ingroia’s anti-corruption movement (Ingroia, a leftist magistrate, was the top candidate of the leftist Civil Revolution alliance in 2013 with the PRC, Greens, Italian Communists and IdV, but won only 2.3% and has since collapsed), the Italian Pirates (seemingly a very tiny party) and the South Tyrolean Greens (already allied with the SEL in 2013). The SEL, which did fairly poorly in 2013, saw its support increase somewhat in the early days of the Letta government but it has since struggled. Nichi Vendola is less active in national politics and the SEL has been hurt by internal divisions, as a few parliamentarians have left the caucus to cautiously support Renzi (encouraged by his tax policies) while the SEL leadership remains firmly in the opposition. The Other Europe with Tsipras led an anti-austerity but pro-European leftist campaign and hovered around the 4% threshold for most of the campaign.
The weak and irrelevant Italian Greens ran a separate list, Greens Italy-European Greens – an alliance of the old moribund Federation of the Greens and the new Greens Italy, a party founded in 2013 by environmentalists from leftist and rightist parties (PD, MSI-AN, PdL, FLI, Radicals) and led by prominent Italian Green leader and former MEP Monica Frassoni.
Italy of Values (IdV), an anti-corruption party formerly led by famous Milanese magistrate Antonio Di Pietro (who is Berlusconi’s bête noire), won 8% in the 2009 EP elections at the peak of the IdV’s success as part of the centre-left coalition with the PD. Since 2009, however, the IdV has collapsed due to significant infighting between Di Pietro’s centrist/moderate leadership and the far-left direction supported by Luigi de Magistris, a former prosecutor and mayor of Naples. de Magistris’s supporters left the party, but IdV was left badly beaten and further worn out by corruption allegations and the M5S’ growth as a more forceful and radical anti-establishment protest option. Di Pietro has since left the party’s leadership and the IdV appears to be quasi-defunct. The IdV’s MEP sat with the ALDE, although the IdV was an Italian oddity with its anti-corruption populist politics and hardly your usual EU liberal party.
Turnout: 57.22% (-7.83%)
MEPs: 73 (+1)
Electoral system: Limited preferential list PR (up to 3 preferences), 4% national threshold (50,000 vote threshold for linguistic minority parties allied with a national party), five constituencies (Northeast Italy, Northwest Italy, Central Italy, Southern Italy, Insular Italy)
PD (S&D) 40.81% (+14.69%) winning 31 seats (+10)
M5S (EFD) 21.15% (+21.15%) winning 17 seats (+17)
Forza Italia (EPP) 16.81% (-18.45%) winning 13 seats (-16)
Lega Nord (EAF) 6.15% (-4.06%) winning 5 seats (-4)
NCD-UDC (EPP) 4.38% (-2.13%) winning 3 seats (-2)
L’Altra Europa con Tsipras (GUE/NGL) 4.03% (-2.49%) winning 3 seats (+3)
Fratelli d’Italia-AN 3.66% (+3.66%) winning 0 seats (±0)
European Greens-Green Italy (G-EFA) 0.91% (+0.91%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Scelta Europea (ALDE) 0.72% (+0.72%) winning 0 seats (±0)
IdV (ALDE) 0.66% (-7.34%) winning 0 seats (-7)
SVP (EPP) 0.5% (+0.03%) winning 1 seat (±0)
Io Cambio-MAIE 0.18% (-0.05%) winning 0 seats (±0)
In the EP elections, Matteo Renzi’s PD won an unexpectedly massive victory with 40.81% of the vote, the largest percentage share of the vote for an Italian party nationally since 1958 and the PD’s best result in any national election. Despite significantly lower turnout (-18%), the PD also won more votes (11.2 million votes) than in the 2013 general election (8.6 million votes in the Chamber). Electing 31 MEPs to Brussels, the PD is now the largest single national party in the EP and in the S&D group (ahead of the German SPD). The PD’s landslide was totally unexpected: the last public polls before the legal polling blackout during the last two weeks of the campaign showed the PD leading the M5S by about 6-10 points (the PD beat the M5S by nearly 20, and all polls showed the PD at 30-33%) and there were apparently well-founded rumours during the blackout that the M5S was polling closer to the PD in the final stretch (Grillo notably attracted a much larger crowd at his big rally in the Piazza San Giovanni in Rome than Renzi did a few minutes away at the Piazza del Popolo). Many were taken aback by the PD’s success, notably Grillo who had been characteristically virulent and hyperbolic in the days preceding the vote (saying that if the M5S won, ‘the system would fall’). For Renzi, the PD’s victory is not just pleasing information – it provides him with much-needed democratic legitimacy from the Italian electorate. Grillo and Berlusconi never failed to remind their listeners that Renzi took office without any popular mandate and therefore lacked democratic legitimacy. In a major boost for Renzi’s standing as Prime Minister, he can now fall back on the PD’s landslide victory to strengthen his leadership.
He has already used his new weight in the PD to his own advantage: a PD senator who was proving a thorn in the side in a Senate committee was turfed from the committee and chose to ‘auto-exclude’ himself from the PD.
The M5S did poorly, with only 21.2% of the vote and suffering major loses from the party’s record 2013 result, falling from 8.7 million votes and 25.6% to only 5.8 million votes. It was a very poor performance for Grillo, who had made the EP election about Renzi and forcing Renzi to enter the fray personally to defend the PD – Grillo attacked Renzi’s tax measures (his ‘€80 charity’) and was certain that the M5S’ tremendous activist base and mobilizing capacity in the piazze would certainly translate into strong support. Immediately after the election, Grillo tried to spin the M5S’ poor performance by noting that it was Italy’s second largest party and attacked retirees (the M5S’ weakest demographic, by far) for ‘not wanting change and not preoccupying themselves with the faith of their grandkids’. He promised that while the M5S did not vinciamo noi (we win [now]) it will vinciamo poi (win [later]). However, the M5S and Grillo proved more pragmatic and reasonable as the immediate furor died down. An internal party document leaked by the media blamed a ‘destructive energy’, a ‘disturbing message, unreassuring and unrealiable’ campaign and lamented the M5S’ decision to ignore TV shows in a country where 15-20 million inform themselves through television. Grillo, on June 15, said that his party was ‘serious’ and open to talking to the government over the electoral reform (for which the M5S has published its alternative to the Renzi-Berlusconi Italicum, with preferential PR in a single round).
Which group the M5S would fit in in the new EP was always a major mystery, because of the M5S’ ideological peculiarity compared to other parties in the EU, even ‘fellow’ populist movements. Although some assumed that given the little obvious links with existing groups, Grillo would prefer to have his MEPs sit as non-inscrits, it would seem that the advantages which accrue to MEPs aligned with a EP group convinced Grillo to push for the M5S’ membership in a parliamentary group. By virtue of the M5S’ rather leftist views on many issues, many presumed that the Greens-EFA or even GUE/NGL groups would be the most likely candidates, but Grillo instead decided to meet with UKIP leader Nigel Farage although the M5S still opened talks with the G-EFA as well. It soon became clear that Grillo’s sympathies leaned strongly towards Farage and the UKIP’s EFD group, which led the G-EFA to reject M5S’ advances in early June. ALDE also rejected working with the M5S, although I doubt that ever was a serious possibility. On June 12, the M5S finally held an online referendum for its members to decide on the M5S’ group membership in the new EP – the choices were between EFD, the ECR and non-inscrit status, although the cards were heavily stacked in favour of EFD. In a low turnout vote, 78% of M5S supporters voted for the EFD – the anti-EU, Eurosceptic, anti-establishment rhetoric of Farage and his colleagues and the EFD’s status as a fairly ‘loose’ group likely heavily pushed the M5S’ supporters towards them (over a ECR group which is far more ‘establishment’, as Farage pointed out in a video recorded for M5S supporters). Likely as a result of the entrance of the 17 new Grillist MEPs, the EFD group renamed itself ‘Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy’ or EFDD.
Berlusconi did even worse: with only 16.8%, it is an absolute disaster for Forza Italia – its 4.6 million votes on May 25 a far cry from the 7.3 million won by the PdL in 2013. It is worth pointing out that Berlusconi was not a candidate (he still has an ability to draw out additional votes which his party itself is unable to get out in local or regional elections) and the party likely put less effort into these elections than it would in a general election (and it was a bit sidelined in the media with a focus on a Renzi-Grillo battle), but it’s still a very poor result for the party given that Berlusconi still took centre-stage in the Forza Italia campaign. Berlusconi downplayed the results by blaming the low turnout – 57.2% is very high turnout for a EP election in a country where voting is not mandatory, but it is quite low compared to past EP elections in Italy and all other types of elections in a country with a high-turnout tradition. He regretted not winning over 20%, but, of course, there’s no questions asked about his leadership. Berlusconi remains a major political player and a force to be reckoned with in Italian politics, to the displeasure of many EU countries and Italians.
The Lega Nord won 6.2%, a small but significant improvement from the Lega’s disastrous 2013 results (4.1%) and a gain in raw votes as well (up to 1.68 million). However, it is down from the Lega’s record-high performance in the last EP election, when it had won over 3 million votes and 10.2% (electing 9 MEPs). Matteo Salvini has managed to slowly lift the Lega’s fortunes after the 2012-2013 disaster, although it’s still a tough spell for the party. The Lega scored minor gains outside of ‘Padania’ with its primarily anti-immigration/Eurosceptic creed, but it remains – obviously – a northern regionalist party in terms of support.
On the centre-right, the NCD-UDC alliance won 4.4%, down 2.1% on the UDC’s performance alone in 2009 and still a fairly weak showing for Alfano’s new party (and another terrible result for a UDC which appears in terminal condition since 2013). As with past Berlusconian splinters – Fini’s FLI in 2010-2013 (reminder: for all the talk of Fini replacing Berlusconi as the leader of the right, the FLI ended with 0 seats in Parliament and less than 0.5% in 2013) – the Italian right-wing electorate still prefers Berlusconi to any ‘polished’ or ‘moderate’ dissident. Berlusconi is a polarizing figure, with a majority of Italian voters having no time for him but who still commands the often quite motivated support of millions of Italians through his charisma and stamina after 20 years in the political arena. Unsurprisingly, it looks quite unlikely that Alfano will succeed in his goal of preparing the field for Berlusconi’s retirement/death and the realignment of the right which will naturally ensue – in a general election with the new electoral law, a NCD-UDC coalition which wins 4% will not have any seats! The only thing which Alfano could say to spin the poor result was that he remained one of the main pillars of the government – a silent call for Renzi not to get carried away and forget about his increasingly minor allies?
Fratelli d’Italia-AN was the largest party below the threshold, at 3.7% and just over 1 million votes. It is far from recreating the old AN, but the FdI is up from just below 2% and 666k votes in 2013.
The radical left Tsipras list landed just above the threshold, with 4% and 1.1 million votes; up marginally from the SEL’s 3.2% in 2013 but actually down from the combined result of the parliamentary SEL+extraparliamentary RC in 2013 and the combined result of the proto-SEL coalition and a communist list in the 2009 EP election (3.1% and 3.4% respectively for a total of 6.5% in what was hardly a good year for the Italian radical left). The IdV collapsed to only 0.7% of the vote, as expected.
The other list ‘supporting’ a EC presidential candidate – the pro-Verhofstadt SE, did far worse than expected with only 0.7% of the vote – actually landing behind the Greens list, which won 0.9% (not too shabby considering the miserable state of the green movement in the country). This confirms that, come the next general election, the SC will be the latest short-lived Italian fad party to join the long list of such parties since 1994.
The PD’s large victory is the result of a few different factors. Firstly, there was a clear Renzi effect which saw a direct transfer of votes from voters who had backed other parties in 2013 to the PD in 2014 (despite the lower turnout). The effect is the result of significant albeit cautious optimism in Renzi’s new government and his leadership – his energy, youthfulness, frenetic activism and his ability to do something concrete for once (electoral law, tax reform, gender parity). This article (in Italian) by the Centro Italiano Studi Elettorali shows that the PD was rated as the most credible party, far ahead of the M5S and FI, on nearly all issues – most notably on the economy and employment, although it does seem important to note that on nearly all top issues, a larger number of voters found no party whatsoever to be credible. Nevertheless, the PD had a significant advantage over the M5S and FI on issues which mattered, while FI lacked a single ‘niche issue’ (besides taxes) and the M5S was limited to expertise in its ‘niche issues’ of fighting la casta and the costs of politics. The article also found that voters’ assessments of party credibility mattered most to PD and M5S supporters, while Forza Italia’s supporters voted for Berlusconi’s party for ideological reasons rather than assessments of party credibility on issues (unsurprisingly). The problem for the M5S here is that, by focusing quasi-exclusively on issues such as political corruption and the political system, it fails to appear credible on issues which matter to more Italians.
According to an IPR analysis, about a quarter of the PD’s vote was cast ‘thinking only about Renzi’ (the rest was cast ‘thinking solely about the party’), which would mean that the Renzi effect was worth 10.8% to the PD, adding that amount to the 30% of votes which went to the PD for traditional partisan reasons – a number which would make sense, given that the PD’s base in normal circumstances seems to be about 30% of the vote or a bit lower. The Renzi effect has had people asking if the election was a victory for the PD or rather a victory for the ‘Party of Renzi’.
Of course, the flip side here is that a vote based on cautious optimism and the temporary credibility of one party over another is very volatile. Indeed, the other main lesson of this election is the confirmation of the extreme volatility of the Italian electorate in recent years. According to a study by Demopolis, only 53% of those who voted in 2013 ‘confirmed’ their vote in 2014 by voting for the same party while 45% of 2013 voters either did not vote or voted for another list. The 2013 election was also quite volatile – only 54% of 2008 voters ‘confirmed’ their vote in 2013 and 39% voted differently or did not vote. With this in mind, the PD’s success in 2014 could prove remarkably short-lived if Renzi and his government don’t live up to expectations.
The other major factor behind the PD’s vote is differential turnout. Geographically, turnout was down from 2013 (-16.5%) in every region and down from 2009 (-7.8%) in all but two regions. As is usually the norm in Italian elections, turnout was lowest in the Mezzogiorno and the islands, with 51.7% turnout in the Southern EP constituency and 42.7% turnout in the Insular EP constituency, compared to 61.8% in Central Italy, 64.5% in Northeast Italy and 66% in Northwest Italy. It is tough to see obvious links between turnout and partisanship geographically, although the central zona ‘rossa’ – the historic left-wing (formerly PCI) strongholds of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria and Marche – saw the highest turnout at 68.2% overall (over 70% in Umbria and Emilia-Romagna) and also the lowest decline in turnout (-12.3%) of any major region (north, south and Red Zone) from the 2013 election.
Exit polls and vote flow analyses, however, showed clear differential turnout in the PD’s favour. The centre-left, in short, was able to mobilize its electorate far better than the M5S or the Berlusconian right, who had many voters sit out the EP elections. Several pollsters and academics have done their own analyses of vote flows compared to the 2013 election, and despite different numbers in the details, the broad picture is similar. Demopolis looked at the 2013 votes of ‘new non-voters’ – those who voted in 2013 but did not vote in 2014 – and found that 34% had voted M5S, 31% had voted PdL, 22% had backed another party and only 13% supported the PD. Looking at it from a different angle, Tecnè reported that 42% of the PD’s 2013 voters did not vote, compared to 53% of Grillist supporters in 2013 and 50% of PdL voters. SWG had the most complex and detailed vote flow analysis, and found that the M5S lost 2.660 million votes to abstention, the PdL/FI lost 1.750 million and the PD lost only 1.400 million of its 2013 voters to abstention.
This article published by the Centro Italiano Studi Elettorali calculated voter flows in major cities using election results while another article looked at Milan and Rome in more detail. In all seven cities sampled, the PD’s retention of its 2013 vote was quite extraordinary – ranging from 95% in Florence to 71% in Palermo. Outside Palermo, the the PD did not lose more than 10% of its 2013 vote to abstention – for example, in Milan, only 2% of the PD’s 2013 voters did not vote in 2014. It is even more striking if you compare the PD’s electorate’s behaviour to that of M5S and PdL voters in 2013. In Venice and Palermo, over half of the PdL’s supporters did not vote in 2014, and over 40% did not vote in Rome. In Rome, Milan, Parma and Palermo, over 40% of the M5S’ supporters did not vote in 2014 (and 38% in Florence and 35% in Venice). The radical left – SEL and RC in 2013 – also saw a number of their voters sit out in May 2014, notably in Venice (where 50% and 45% of RC and SEL voters respectively didn’t vote).
The PD’s ability to retain its 2013 electorate so well combined with the demobilization of M5S and Berlusconian supporters from 2013 contributed heavily to the PD’s success. But the PD also gained votes from other parties, given that it not only ‘held’ its 2013 votes it also gained votes from 2014 despite lower turnout (the only other lists who increased their votes from 2013 were the Lega and FdI). The main source of new votes from the PD was, unsurprisingly, Mario Monti’s old SC, which is practically dead. According to SWG, the PD gained 1.270 million votes from the SC – only 170,000 of the SC’s 2013 voters went for the ‘European Choice’ list in this election and 250,000 went for Alfano’s NCD-UDC. 850,000 of the SC’s 2.82 million voters from last year did not vote in 2014. The flow analyses cited above confirm the exit polls: in the seven cities sampled, the PD won between 44% and 60% of the SC’s 2013 voters while another 10-15% went for Alfano. According to SWG, about 1.090 million M5S voters switched to the PD (that’s about 12.5% of M5S supporters from 2013) – again confirmed by flow analysis at the municipal level – in five of the seven cities (not Milan and Rome), the PD won between 6% and 17% of M5S votes. A smaller amount came from the ex-PdL (430,000), again a small transfer corroborated at the local level. The PD also gained smaller number of voters from the radical left (420,000 from ‘other centre-left parties’ in SWG, presumably SEL), the UDC-FLI (110,000) and other centre-right parties in 2013 (90,000). The PD only ceded 350,000 votes to the M5S, 230,000 to the Tsipras list and very small numbers to the right – for a total of 2,050,000 2013 votes lost (largely to abstention) more than compensated by the 4,570,000 votes the PD has gained since 2013 – including 1.14 million from people who hadn’t voted in 2013 but did so in 2014.
Demopolis reported that 66% of the PD’s 2014 voters had already voted PD in 2013 – it gained 13% from the SC, 9% from Grillo, 7% from non-voters and only 5% from the PdL.
The M5S and FI suffered the bulk of their loses to abstention – overall, SWG estimates that the M5S lost 4.56 million votes (and gained 1.66 million) from 2013, while Forza Italia lost 3.69 million and gained only 960,000 votes from 2013. As noted above, a small albeit not totally insignificant percentage of M5S and FI voters from 2013 switched to the PD this year. The M5S lost some votes to the Lega (-240k), FI (-130k), FdI (-130k) and Tsipras (-120k); FI also lost some support to the M5S (-410k), the NCD (-470k), the Lega (-340k) and FdI (-220k). Forza Italia gained very little votes from other parties. The flow analysis in the seven cities found similar results, with local differences – in the north, FI lost up to 6% (in Milan) of its 2013 vote to the Lega Nord; throughout the country, FI lost about 2-5% of its 2013 vote to Alfano’s folks and about 7% to the FdI.
For Tecnè, Grillo and Berlusconi only held 34% of their 2013 vote and lost most heavily to abstention with single-digit loses to the centre-left. IPR’s analysis unwisely focused only on 2013 voters who voted in 2014 and ignored the significant number who didn’t do so.
According to SWG, the Lega Nord lost 500,000 votes – the three-fifths of those votes were lost to abstention – and gained 800,000 votes – +340k from Forza Italia, +240k from the M5S, +140k from other parties and +80k from 2013 non-voters. Interestingly, the vote flow analysis in the cities shows that the Lega’s 2013 electorate may not have been all that loyal – it held only 46% of its 2013 vote in Milan, 43% in Turin and 44% in Venice (although these are three northern cities where the Lega is particularly weak), with a fairly significant number of 2013 Lega voters opting for other parties in the EP election (in Venice, 36% apparently voted PD; in Milan, it shed 18% to FI and 10% to the PD).
The NCD-UDC list, in SWG’s analysis, found 470,000 of its 1.2 million votes from the PdL, 200,000 from the UDC and 250,000 from the Monti SC. It gained a small number of votes from the M5S, and even less from others, the PD and 2013 non-voters. In the Rome and Milan analysis, the study showed that the NCD-UDC’s voters in 2014 had split their votes fairly equally between Monti and Berlusconi in 2013 (in Milan – where it did well – it got 44% from the PdL and 36% from the Monti list, in Rome it got 47% from Monti and 37% from the PdL.
The vote flow analyses reveal, unsurprisingly, that we cannot assume that the Tsipras list simply won the votes of those who had backed the SEL and RC lists in the 2013 election. According to SWG, the Tsipras list gained the most votes (440,000 out of 1.1 million) from the SEL with smaller amounts from the PD (230k), RC (200k) and M5S (120k). This would mean that about 40% of the SEL’s 2013 voters and only 26% of the RC’s 2013 voters went to the Tsipras list this year – a result confirmed municipally, with between 35% and 58% of the SEL’s voters in our seven cities voting Tsipras and between 13% and 31% of RC voters from last years going for Tsipras. The RC’s 2013 voters also went to the M5S in fairly significant numbers (between 12% and 40% across the seven cities) and a good number – up to half in Venice – not voting. The SEL, in contrast, lost mostly to abstention and the PD with only minor leakage to the M5S.
Finally, as noted above, the 2013 SC Monti vote went heavily towards the PD (45% in SWG) – no surprise here – and only 6% per SWG went to the SE list (in the municipal election, the SE polled too poorly for it to be analyzed). Another 250,000 (per SWG, or 8%) went to the NCD-UDC and 850,000 did not turn out (30%).
In Rome and Milan, the FdI’s electorate was largely made up (about 40%) of people who had already voted for the Berlusconian centre-right in 2013 (the analysis linked to above includes 2013 FdI voters with the PdL), but it also drew a significant (but not very large) number from Monti, M5S and the PD.
An Ipsos Italia exit poll also reported similar results in its flow analysis – the tremendous retention of its base by the PD, the heavy loses of nearly all other parties to abstention, the PD gains from the old Monti centre (and some from the SEL+RC) and a fairly good vote retention from the Lega.
The PD’s victory changed the demographic makeup of its electorate somewhat. The most remarkable result, noted by most Italian pollsters, was the very marked improvement of the PD with entrepreneurs and self-employed workers – a demographic which had voted heavily for the right in 2008 (68%) and split between the M5S and the right in 2013 (40.2% for Grillo vs. 34.6% for the right and 16.4% for the left). According to Demopolis, the PD now won 33% of their votes and EMG reports that the PD took 30.7% with them against 25.1% for the M5S and 18.5% for FI. Ipsos’ data differentiates between entrepreneurs/managers/liberal professions and self-employed/traders/craftsmens – mixing the traditionally anti-leftist vote of self-employed workers and entrepreneurs with the anti-Berlusconi vote of liberal professions, but the PD won 35.3% with the former category and 30.1% with the latter (vs. 25.6%/31.2% for the M5S and 14.2%/17.8% for FI respectively), confirming a major swing to the Renzi-led PD with self-employed workers and entrepreneurs. According to Ipsos’ more detailed socioprofessional breakdown, the PD did best with pensioners (50.5%), employees/teachers (43.1%), students (41.1%), housewives (38.5%) and workers (35.8%) – more broadly, with public sector dependent employees (42.8%). The M5S did best with the unemployed (32.7% – first ahead of the PD) and workers (30.5%) but very poorly with housewives (15.4%) and pensioners (7.4%). FI did best with housewives (24.3%), the unemployed (20.1%), pensioners (20%) and self-employed traders and small businessmen (17.8%). The Lega Nord, at 8.2%, also did best with self-employed traders and small businessmen, and also performed well with workers (7.1%) and pensioners (6.9%). The NCD-UDC did best with entrepreneurs, managers and liberal professions (6.1%) and students (6%). The Tsipras list won 8% with students and 5.7% with employees and teachers, doing strikingly better with public sector workers than private sector workers (7.1% vs. 3.5%).
There is, as you may have guessed from Grillo’s comments about retirees not voting for their ‘grandchildren’s future’, a huge generational gap in the M5S’ support – nothing surprising for a new and flashy party – the party’s support is highest with younger voters (according to EMG, 32.5% with those 18-34) – or, for Ipsos, particularly middle-aged adults (33.5% with 33-44, 26.6% with those 45-54) – but, at any rate, the M5S’ support with older voters is extremely weak: Ipsos reports only 17.4% for Grillo with those 55 to 64 and 6.4% with those over 65, a result corroborated by EMG and Tecnè. In 2013, according to the CISE, the M5S’ support dropped from 38.4% with the youngest cohort (18-29) to 8.8% with the oldest (65+), a 29.6% gap compared to 12.7% for the PD and 18.5% for the PdL. Again in 2014, the PD and FI’s support both increased with the age of the voter – peaking at 50.2% for the PD and 22.1% for FI with voters over 65. The PD’s age gap is not as wide, because it still retains solid support with younger voters (32.9% with those 18-29 according to EMG, compared to 11.4% for FI), but both it and FI had about half of their 2014 electorate made up of voters older than 55 (compared to only 20% for the M5S). On the left, the Tsipras’ list support was much stronger with younger voters – up to 7.6% with those 18-24, attracting a crowd of well-educated young professionals and especially students (up to 8-9% with students).
The M5S did well with fairly educated voters – only 11% with those without any diploma or only elementary education (but I suppose this educational group is disproportionately old) – although with those who have a high school diploma or middle school education (27.4% and 20.5% respectively in Ipsos) and not with university graduates (17.8%). The PD did best both with university graduates (as did Tsipras) and those with no education (unlike the Tsipras list, but like FI); FI’s support decreased with higher educational achievement.
Ipsos’ exit poll also included interesting data on the ‘media gap’, religiosity and ideology. Unsurprisingly, the M5S did best – by far – with voters who inform themselves mostly through the internet, winning 38.7% against 28.8% for the PD, while M5S support was below national average for all other media sources, although in terms of makeup of its voters, 32% informed themselves mostly through TV (and 31% through the internet, obviously far more than the 15% of all voters who get most of their news online). Unsurprisingly, FI did best – 22% – with voters who inform themselves solely through TV, while PD voters are more likely to read newspapers or inform themselves mostly through TV. Religiosity continues to impact vote choice, although not where one may expect it: the M5S and Tsipras list did significantly better with non-religious voters or lapsed Catholics (27.7% M5S support with those who never attend mass, and they make up a third of the party’s electorate; half of the Tsipras list’s voters never attend mass) while the NCD-UDC’s support was heavily biased towards the most religious voters – half of its voters attend mass weekly. The PD showed no correlation with religiosity, and actually scored major gains since 2009/2013 with weekly mass-goers, winning 43.3% of their votes. Berlusconi’s support with the most religious Catholics has declined significantly from 2009, but he remains strongest with monthly mass-goers (22.9%) and weakest with irreligious voters.
The ideological self-identification of voters offers an interesting portrait of the M5S electorate. While the PD, FI, Lega, NCD-UDC, Tsipras and FdI voters identify neatly with their ideological families – half of the PD and FI’s voters identify as centre-left and centre-right respectively and most of the remainder as left or right – the M5S’ electorate draws from all ideologies. 20% of the M5S’ voters identify as left-wing, but 15% identify as right-wing; overall, 38% identify with the left/centre-left and 32% with the right/centre-right. Compared to all other parties, however, a very large proportion of the M5S’ supporters do not identify with any ideology (they make up 17% of its electorate and the M5S won 53.5% with these voters). Unsurprisingly, Grillo has picked up voters across the spectrum, combining voters who identify with both extreme ends of the ideological spectrum and many voters who do not fit anywhere.
YouTrend has an excellent interactive map of the results. The PD won all but three provinces in the country – FI won the province of Isernia in the southern region of Molise, the Lega Nord was victorious in the Alpine Lombard province of Sondrio while the SVP (allied to the PD) won 48% in South Tyrol (province of Bolzano-Alto Adige/Bozen-Südtirol). The PD did very well in the traditional left-wing zona ‘rossa’ in central Italy, winning 56.4% in Tuscany and 52.5% in Emilia-Romagna. In Matteo Renzi’s home province (and longtime left-wing stronghold) of Florence, the PD won its best national result, 61.8%, up over 17% from the PD’s result in 2013. The M5S’ support was generally similar to its 2013 spread, although it took a much more ‘southern’ orientation in 2014. The Grillists sustained their heaviest loses in central Italy and parts of the north, and help up better in the south – and even improved on the 2013 result by 0.8% in Sardinia (where the PD’s results were mediocre), taking 30.5% on the island (its best national result). In contrast, the M5S won only 16.7% in Tuscany (-7.3%) and 15.7% in Lombardy (-3.9%). Forza Italia also did better in the south and Sicily, although it still won good results in traditionally conservative provinces of the Piedmont and Lombardy. Compared to 2013, the Lega Nord’s biggest rebound came from the Veneto, where the Lega won its best national result (15.2%, compared to 14.6% in Lombardy, the Lega’s other major northern base) – up 4.7% from the 2013 election. Many noted that, in the Veneto region and notably the province of Verona, where the Lega received its third-best result (19.6%), top candidate Matteo Salvini was outpolled by Flavio Tosi, the mayor of Verona and leader of the Liga Veneta. Tosi is a more traditional conservative (keener on the free market and not anti-Euro), who had opposed Umberto Bossi but now seems to be taking his distance from Salvini’s anti-Euro line and alliance with Le Pen. The NCD-UDC list did best in the south – taking 6.6% in the Southern Italy constituency and 7.5% in the Insular constituency, compared to about 3% in the north of the country. The Christian democratic tradition remains strongest in the south, where old clientelistic political traditions remain strongest – although the leadership of both the NCD and UDC, drawn from the old DC, are largely southern (Alfano is Sicilian – the list won 9.1%, its second best result, in Sicily). Tsipras’ support was far less reflective of old Communist support and was instead largely urban (particularly urban areas with a university) – its best provinces (except for South Tyrol, where it was backed by the local Greens, and the Francophone Aosta Valley where no local list ran in 2014) were Florence (6.5%), Bologna (6%), Livorno (6%) and Trieste (5.9%). It also performed above its national result in Milan, Rome, Turin and Pisa. Finally, FdI’s support was strongest in the Lazio (5.6%), a traditional base of the neo-fascist or post-fascist right.
Regional and local elections
Regional and local elections were held alongside the EP elections.
In Piedmont, an early regional election followed the cancellation of the 2010 regional elections by the regional court on account of irregularities (falsification) in signatures for a small list allied with the right. The president of the region, Roberto Cota (Lega Nord), had already been placed under investigation and later indicted (in January 2014) for embezzlement, fraud and illegal financing. He is notably accused of using his expenses to pay for items including green underpants and sex toys. The region, traditionally the major swing region between left and right in northern Italy, had been gained by Cota – backed by Berlusconi’s PdL and the Lega – in 2010, notably due to an early M5S winning 4.1% and allegedly ‘spoiling’ the election for the centre-left incumbent. Piedmont has long been one of Italy’s major industrial heartlands, notably around the regional capital of Turin but also in other towns across the country. Historically, the PCI had strong support with working-class voters in Turin’s suburbs (which welcomed a large population of immigrants from southern Italy) and other industrial centres (Alessandria, Novi Ligure, Vercelli); today, the left has been weakened outside of Turin, but retains strong support in the province of Turin itself. The M5S has been very strong in the Val di Susa region in the province of Turin since 2010, due to its identification with and support of the very strong local movement against the Turin-Lyon high-speed train (TAV).
The left’s candidate was Sergio Chiamparino, the former PD mayor of Turin (2001-2011), supported by the PD, SEL, a civic list, a local centrist party (Moderati), SC and IdV. Roberto Cota did not run, and the right’s candidate was Gilberto Pichetto, a former regional vicepresident and senator from Forza Italia, supported by FI, the Lega and small parties. Davide Bono, an incumbent M5S regional councillor who had already won 4.1% in 2010, ran for the M5S. There were also FdI and NCD-UDC candidates.
Sergio Chiamparino (Centre-left/PD) 47.09% winning 32 seats (10 president’s list, 17 PD, 2 civic list, 1 Moderati, 1 SEL, 1 SC)
Gilberto Pichetto (Centre-right/FI) 22.09% winning 9 seats (6 FI, 2 Lega Nord, 1 president’s list)
Davide Bono (M5S) 21.45% winning 8 seats
Guido Crosetto (FdI-AN) 3.73% winning 1 seat
Enrico Costa (NCD-UDC) 2.98%
Mauro Filingeri (PRC) 1.12%
In the list vote for the regional council, the Lega Nord’s support fell from a strong 16.7% in 2010 to 7.3%. The FI’s result was about 10% lower than the PdL’s 2010 showing, while the PD’s list (36.2%) gained 13% from 2010. Detailed interactive maps are available here.
Abruzzo is a largely mountainous or hilly southern region, traditionally right-leaning, which has become the most affluent region in southern Italy. The right had gained the region from the left in a narrow battle in 2008, an early election which had followed the arrest of the incumbent centre-left president, who had himself gained the region from the right in 2005. The incumbent president, Giovanni Chiodi of Forza Italia, has also been mixed up in corruption scandals. The left’s candidate was Luciano D’Alfonso, a former Christian democratic mayor of Pescara.
Luciano D’Alfonso (Centre-left/PD) 46.26% winning 18 seats (10 PD, 4 civic lists, 1 CD, 1 SEL, 1 IdV, 1 president’s list)
Giovanni Chiodi (Centre-right/FI) 29.26% winning 7 seats (4 FI, 1 NCD-UDC, 1 civic list, 1 president’s list)
Sara Marcozzi (M5S) 21.41% winning 5 seats
Maurizio Acerbo (PRC) 3.07%
The right’s defeats in Piedmont and Abruzzo, along with a (narrow) defeat earlier this year in Sardinia, means that the Italian right only holds the regions of Lombardy, Veneto (both with the Lega Nord), Campania (with FI) and Calabria (with the NCD). The Aosta Valley is led by a local centre-right coalition, excluding the Italian right, because Aostan politics operate in their own cocoon. Since the last regular regional elections in 2010, the left has gained no less than seven regions from the right in early or regularly-scheduled regional elections.
Municipal elections were held alongside the EP elections on May 25, with a runoff on June 8. According to La Repubblica, the centre-left won 164 out of the 243 largest communes which held local elections, against 41 for the centre-right and 24 for civic lists. The M5S won three communes. In terms of provincial capitals, the PD gained 11 and lost 6.
The left gained Pescara (Abruzzo), Bergamo (Lombardy), Cremona (Lombardy), Pavia (Lombardy), Campobasso (Molise), Biella (Piedmont), Verbania (Piedmont), Vercelli (Piedmont), Sassari (Sardinia), Caltanissetta (Sicily) and Prato (Tuscany). The right gained Potenza (Basilicata), Urbino (Marche), Foggia (Apulia), Perugia (Umbria) and Padua (Veneto). The M5S gained Livorno (Tuscany). The left’s defeat in several cities, after its landslide in the EP elections, somewhat mitigated the talk about the PD landslide, and may confirm the theory that the PD’s victory held quasi-exclusively to Renzi and that in a runoff ballot without any Renzi effect, the PD’s performance was far less impressive. Nevertheless, the PD still gained several cities – including large ones such as Bergamo and Pavia – and easily held others such as Florence (with 59.2% in the first round).
Two of the most striking defeats for the left came from Livorno and Padua. Livorno, a major working-class industrial and harbour city in Tuscany, had been governed by the left (the PCI, historically) since 1946 and it is a left-wing stronghold to this day (in the EP election, the PD won 52.7% vs 22.5% for the M5S), with a strong base for the radical left as well. The incumbent PD mayor was retiring this year. In the first round, the M5S candidate placed a distant second with 19% against the centre-left’s 40% and 16.4% for a radical left candidate. In the second round, the M5S candidate won 53.1% against 46.9% for the PD. Between both rounds, turnout dropped from 64.6% to 50.5%, and the PD was particularly hit by demobilization from the EP election (the PD candidate’s raw vote declined from the first round), but the M5S candidate likely won the votes of those who had backed the radical left and maybe the weak centre-right (7.3%) in the first round. In the M5S’ other municipal victories, they have usually come after weak distant second showings in the first round, through the mobilization of all voters who had backed other eliminated candidates in the first round – left or right. For example, in the port city of Civitavecchia (Lazio) – an old PCI stronghold which has drifted right since 1994, where the M5S defeated the centre-left incumbent, the M5S polled 18.3% in the first round to the left’s 26.6% and won 66.6% in the runoff thanks to low turnout (from 72.7% to 52.7%) and support from eliminated centre-right candidates (18.2% and 12.2% in the first round) and the radical left (10.9%).
The left suffered a bad defeat in Perugia (Umbria), where the right overcame a 20-point gap in the second round to win 58%, although turnout fell by 20%. In the southern city of Potenza, an FdI candidate backed only by Mario Mauro’s small Populars, gained the city with 58.5% in a runoff against the left, which had polled 47.8% in the first round against only 16.8% for the FdI (the centre-right and centre won the bulk of the remaining votes). Turnout collapsed from 75.1% to 48.4%.
In Padua, the third largest city in the Veneto, Lega Nord senator Massimo Bitonci, supported by FI and the centre-right, defeated the PD incumbent with 53.5%, with turnout 10 points lower than on May 25. It is interesting to point out that, in the election for city council, the Lega did poorly with only 4.9% (down from 11% in 2009), while the top scoring list on the right was a civic list with 16.7%. On the other hand, the PD did quite well in northern Italy (especially Lombardy). Its most notable victory was in Pavia (Lombardy), where the centre-left candidate defeated FI incumbent Alessandro Cattaneo, a young ambitious politician sometimes described as the centre-right’s Renzi. With turnout nearly 15 points lower, the left overcame a 10-point gap in the first round to win with 53.1% (the right’s support, in terms of vote, fell from the first round).
Although I speculated about a potential ‘Renzi effect’ in the first round and its drop-off in the second round, preliminary research suggests that it may have been the municipal elections which had the greater impact on the EP election than the other way around. A CISE study reports that turnout on May 25 declined by 23.5% from 2013 in communes with no local elections while it fell by just 3.4% in those which did hold municipal elections. The gap in turnout change is greatest in the south, where the difference between the two types of communes is 26.8%, over 10 points more than the region with the second-highest difference. In the south, turnout in local elections was even higher than in the 2013 election!). Additionally, while the PD performed better by an average of 2.5% in communes without local elections than those with, Forza Italia’s support declined less (-3.3%) from 2013 in towns with local elections than those without (where it was about -4.5% lower than in 2013).
The EP elections saw a rather phenomenal showing for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s centre-left PD, a vote of cautious optimism and confidence in his new government which has gotten off to a solid and energetic start – but also a vote which is more reflective of the pitiful state of the PD’s opponents. The result is quite significant – more significant than a low-turnout EP election would normally be – because it is effectively a popular mandate, indirectly, for a Prime Minister who won that office through backroom wheeling-and-dealing rather than through the polls. That unexpected popular mandate has left the PD’s opponents, particularly Beppe Grillo, quite confused. In polls taken since the EP elections, the PD has suddenly surged into a significant lead over the right and Grillists, averaging about 40-42% against 19-21% for the M5S, 15-16% for Forza Italia and 6-7% for the Lega Nord. Somewhat ironically, the PD’s landslide makes a snap election less likely, because the opposition and the PD’s junior allies have no interest in an election now. It is now a fairly serious possibility that the Parliament elected in 2013, widely seen as an unworkable mess which wouldn’t last two years, may actually serve its full term to 2018. However, Italian politics remain in a fascinating state of flux – nothing here indicates that the PD’s current success will endure for a long time, and nothing indicates that Italian politics are anywhere close to stabilizing at some level.
After France, this post looks at the EP election results in some of the most important member-states in EU affairs today – Germany and Greece (as well as Hungary, important in its own way).
These posts do not include, generally, descriptions of each party’s ideology and nature. For more information on parties, please refer to older posts I may have written on these countries on this blog or some excellent pre-election guides by Chris Terry on DemSoc.
Note to readers: I am aware of the terrible backlog, but covering the EP elections in 28 countries in detail takes quite some time. I promise to cover, with significant delay, the results of recent/upcoming elections in Colombia (May 25-June 15), Ontario (June 12), Canadian federal by-elections (June 30), Indonesia (July 9), Slovenia (July 13) and additional elections which may have been missed. I still welcome any guest posts with open arms :)
Turnout: 48.12% (+4.85%)
MEPs: 96 (-3)
Electoral system: Closed list PR, no threshold (effectively 0.58%)
CDU (EPP) 30.02% (-0.7%) winning 29 seats (-5)
SPD (S&D) 27.27% (+6.5%) winning 27 seats (+4)
Greens (G-EFA) 10.7% (-1.4%) winning 11 seats (-3)
Die Linke (GUE/NGL) 7.39% (-0.1%) winning 7 seats (-1)
AfD (ECR) 7.04% (+7.04%) winning 7 seats (+7)
CSU (EPP) 5.34% (-1.9%) winning 5 seats (-3)
FDP (ALDE) 3.36% (-7.6%) winning 3 seats (-9)
FW (ALDE) 1.46% (-0.2%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Pirates (G-EFA) 1.45% (+0.5%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Tierschutzpartei (GUE/NGL) 1.25% (+0.1%) winning 1 seat (+1)
NPD (NI) 1.03% (+1%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Family (ECR) 0.69% (-0.3%) winning 1 seat (+1)
ÖDP (G-EFA) 0.64% (+0.1%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Die PARTEI 0.63% (+0.6%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Others 1.76% winning 0 seats (nc)
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, Horst Seehofer’s Christian Social Union (CSU), won the EP elections in Germany with 35.4% of the vote. Germany is widely seen as an ‘island of stability’ (and economic prosperity) in the midst of the EU, having managed to weather the economic doldrums which have hit most of the EU fairly well. With a population of nearly 82 million people, Germany is the most populous member-state of the EU and it has always been one of the key ‘engines’ of the EU, often in tandem with France. This has been particularly true in the last five or so years, for a variety of reasons. Politically, Germany’s leadership has been remarkable stable for nearly ten years – Angela Merkel, who took office as Chancellor in November 2005, is now the EU’s longest-serving head of government (after Estonia’s Andrus Ansip resigned early this year) and the country’s party system, despite minor but relevant shakeups since 2009, has not experienced the dramatic ups-and-downs, shifts or realignments seen in Greece, Italy, Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Ireland and even the UK. Economically, Germany has the EU’s largest economy – and also one of the healthier economies in the EU. Since 2010, Germany’s unemployment rate has declined from 8% to 5.3% (a feat which many of Germany’s neighbors and partners, notably France and Italy, can only dream about). Although economic growth has been unremarkable, Germany has a balanced budget and its public debt (77%) is declining. As the economic and political powerhouse of the EU and Eurozone, therefore, Germany has come to assume a leading role in the Eurozone crisis.
Merkel, with the Eurozone debt crisis, has gained an image as a tough and inflexible advocate of austerity policies, debt/deficit reduction in Europe’s most heavily indebted countries (Greece, Italy, Spain etc), enforcing strict fiscal rules in the EU (the European Fiscal Compact) and steadfast opposition to the idea of ‘Eurobonds’. Germany has been at the forefront, furthermore, of negotiations related to bailout packages for Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus. As a result, Merkel has become perhaps the most important European head of government – though also one of the most divisive/polarizing. In Germany, Merkel’s Eurozone crisis policy has been relatively popular, despite substantial opposition to the idea of German taxpayers ‘bailing out’ countries such as Greece and Spain. The European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which allows for loans up to €500 billion for member states of the eurozone in financial difficulty and in which Germany is the single largest contributor (27.1%), recently survived a judicial challenge and was confirmed by the Constitutional Court.
Between the 2009 federal election, which saw Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU form a black-yellow coalition with the free-market liberal Free Democrats (FDP), and the 2013 federal election last September in which Merkel’s CDU/CSU won a landslide result (41.5%) and formed a Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), Angela Merkel’s popularity increased dramatically while that of the FDP collapsed just as dramatically. In the 2013 election, polls showed that Germans were particularly optimistic and upbeat about their country’s economic future.
Germany’s strong economic conditions are a result of structural factors (strong export market in Asia for German cars, machinery and equipment; specific demographic factors; Germany’s geographic location etc) and, Merkel’s critics point out, economic reforms undertaken by the red-green cabinet before 2005 (labour market reforms with Agenda 2010, cuts in welfare/unemployment benefits with Hartz IV). Some analysts worry that Germany’s current economic climate is not sustainable in the long term and warn that certain reforms must be undertaken if Germany’s economic health is to remain so strong in the next years. For example, Germany has a very low birthrate and skills shortage is a particularly big issue. The OECD has said that Germany will need to recruit 5.4 million qualified immigrants between now and 2025, and in August the government published a list of skilled job positions to recruit non-EU foreign labour. With the economic crisis, Germany has already welcomed thousands of southern European immigrants, particularly younger and educated citizens, fleeing huge levels of youth unemployment in Spain, Italy, Greece and so forth. Regardless, in the eyes of most voters, Merkel (and, by extension, her party) have come to stand for economic stability and growth in chaotic and uncertain times; a steady and reliable hand at the helm. Fairly or unfairly, the widespread perception in Germany is that Merkel is a strong and capable leader who has been a steady hand in turbulent waters, who has successfully protected Germany from European economic turmoils. In 2013, Merkel’s CDU played on her personal popularity, and ran a very ‘presidential’ campaign which heavily emphasized Merkel, and campaign posters drove the above ideas home: Merkel’s face with the words ‘stability’/’security’/’continuity’. Exit polls in 2013 showed that many of the Union’s voters said that their top motivator in voting for the CDU/CSU was Merkel alone (in contrast, only 8% of SPD voters said that their top motivator was the SPD’s disastrous top candidate in 2013, foot-in-mouth victim Peer Steinbrück).
Domestically, Merkel’s political longevity and her ability to destroy her junior coalition partners (the SPD from 2005 to 2009 and the FDP from 2009 to 2013) owes a lot to her local reputation for legendary fence-sitting and pragmatism. Merkel has often been perceived as lacking any ideological direction of her own, instead she has run things on the basis of shifting her policies and adapting herself to what was popular. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, which reopened Germany’s very contentious nuclear energy debate, Merkel made a monumental U-turn and announced that Germany would shut down all nuclear reactors by 2022. Just a year before, her government had overturned a red-green decision to shut all reactors down by 2022. Strongly anti-nuclear public opinion, which threatened the CDU’s standings in crucial state elections in 2011, strongly pushed Merkel to do a 180 on the issue. Since then, Merkel and the CDU have promoted renewable energy, which is off to a tough start. A government renewable energy surcharge, which will increase electricity bills by about 20%, is unpopular (see this article in Der Spiegel for more on Germany’s energy transformation). In the 2013 election, there were few differences between the SPD and the CDU/CSU’s platforms, because the Union effectively blurred major policy differences between them on the SPD – the few differences concerned tax increases (the SPD and Greens supported tax increases for the wealthy, the Union rejected tax increases) and the universal minimum wage (the Union opposed it in the 2013 campaign, but didn’t care much about it in the end) – while they agreed on matters such as gender quotas in management positions, freezing rent, renewable energies and the bulk of EU policy (although Merkel reiterated her tough anti-Eurobond stance and strict application of the Fiscal Compact).
Already between 2005 and 2009, Merkel’s first Grand Coalition cabinet, the government’s policies had been quite moderate and even leaned towards the SPD on some issues (Keynesian-style deficit spending, healthcare reforms in a pro-public healthcare direction, VAT increase for infrastructure development, introducing legal minimum wages in some industries). The SPD did very poorly in the 2009 European elections, and a few months later it won a record low 23% of the vote in the 2009 federal elections. The SPD was unable to campaign on its significant achievements in influencing policy and tempering the CDU/CSU’s more right-wing policies while in the Grand Coalition; it bled votes to all sides (non-voters, Greens and the Linke being the top beneficiaries) as a result of strong voter discontent with Agenda 2010/Hartz IV. The SPD was badly hurt by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s highly controversial welfare reforms, and it has torn between a desire to continue appealing to the centre as Schröder successfully did in 1998 and 2002 and an urge to move back towards the left following left-wing backlash to Agenda 2010 after 2004. The SPD’s platform in 2013 was quite left-wing – emblematic of the SPD’s post-Schröder swing to the left, the party being pushed to left as Merkel successfully adopted SPD planks and a general shift of all parties (except the FDP) to more leftist positions since 2009 and especially 2005. In 2013, the SPD’s support increased to 25.7% of the vote, but it remained miles behind the CDU/CSU. The SPD was unable to sucessfully challenge Merkel, even on her government’s weak suit – social justice, a major concern for German voters these days (or rather, while the SPD’s social policies were more popular, the SPD lacked the CDU’s credibility on Eurozone and economic issues) – and shackled with a poor chancellor-candidate (Peer Steinbrück, the infamous ‘gaffe-machine’).
Between 2009 and 2013, the FDP, Merkel’s junior partner after the 2009 elections – in which the right-liberal FDP, on a platform of low taxes and surfing on right-wing unease with the fairly moderate record of the CDU-led government between 2005 and 2009, won an historic high of 14.6% – collapsed. The FDP’s performance in the black-yellow government was widely judged, even by its 2009 supporters, to be ineffective and incompetent and their actions reinforced the old image of the FDP as an exclusive club for special interests and high earners. Merkel steamrolled the FDP and by not lowering taxes, she effectively drained the FDP’s main plank of all meaning. In 2013, therefore, the FDP’s calls for tax cuts certainly rang hollow. The party, which had been in every Bundestag since the end of the War, suffered a defeat of epic and historic proportions: 4.8%, falling below the 5% threshold for seats in the Bundestag and finding itself without any MPs. In past (and recent – Lower Saxony in 2013) federal and state elections, the FDP had survived ‘close calls’ thanks to ‘loan votes’ – CDU supporters voting (on their second, PR, vote in Germany’s two-vote system for federal and most state elections) for the FDP to allow the party, the CDU’s preferred coalition partner, to retain seats. Loan votes and locally-focused FDP campaigns had allowed the FDP to survive in several state elections after 2009 (even as the federal party was in full collapse mode), but these dynamics were in-existent or insufficient in September 2013 – after the Lower Saxony election in 2013, which saw the black-yellow government lose to red-green despite the FDP’s success, there was a backlash against loan votes for the FDP, based on the erroneous claim that black-yellow would have been reelected without the loan votes (however, exit polls in September 2013 showed that a bit less than half of the FDP’s voters were tactical voters). The liberal party has lost its raison-d’être in the eyes of many voters. In the past two decades or so, the FDP’s niche had been lower taxes. Having been utterly unable to deliver on the one issue which defined it and which attracted so many voters in 2009, the FDP lost all credibility and effectively a good chunk of its raison-d’être. The FDP effectively dropped/lost the issue of civil rights/individual liberties to the Greens (and now, the Pirates) in the 1990s after approving wiretaps and voting against civil unions, there is now a serious risk that the FDP has lost the taxation/small government/economic liberalism issue to the CDU and the FDP’s right-wing supporters have in part shifted over to the new, anti-Euro Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The AfD was founded in February 2013, mostly by ex-CDU academics and private sector figures. The AfD’s unifying plank is opposition to the Euro (but not, it insists, the EU) – Bernd Lucke, the party’s leader, argued that the Euro was unsustainable and that it should be scrapped. Economically troubled southern European countries should abandon the Euro while northern European countries including Germany and Austria could form a smaller Eurozone in the north. The AfD claims that is not against the EU, but the party wants to reduce the scope of the EU’s power and supranational aspects, opposes Turkish membership and is against taxpayer-funded bailouts. The AfD is a right-wing party, but it is not really clear what it really stands for. The party’s leadership is economically liberal (in the European sense), but the party’s membership is not quite as convinced by the leadership’s liberalism: members voted to oppose the EU-US free trade deal, despite support from the leadership. Some AfD members and candidates have shifted to the right and embraced social conservative and traditional Christian ‘moral values’, which has reportedly displeased some liberal supporters. The AfD has rejected claims that it is anti-immigration, but the AfD was the only major German party to praise the results of the recent Swiss referendum curbing freedom of movement. The party’s opponents on the left have accused it of pandering to anti-immigration and xenophobic sentiments. The AfD won 4.7% of the vote in the 2013 election, mostly protest votes which came, predominantly, from the FDP, other parties and Die Linke.
The AfD goes out of its way to promote a respectable and clean image of itself, rejecting ties and comparisons to right-wing populists and the far-right in other EU countries. Far-right parties such as the FN and Geert Wilders’ Dutch PVV tried to woo the AfD, but the Germans strongly rejected any cooperation with these less respectable, more extremist parties. It has even rejected overtures from UKIP, criticizing the British party’s anti-EU and anti-immigration stances; although it has been reported that some members of the AfD are supportive of an alliance with UKIP and its partners in the EFD group in the EP. Instead, the AfD has been trying very hard to be accepted as an ally of the British Conservative Party, to fit the general image of a respectable, rather moderate centre-right but Eurosceptic party (notwithstanding the Tories’ ECR ties to more inconvenient parties in Poland and the Baltics). The AfD’s campaign to woo the Tories, something welcomed by some Tory/ECR MEPs, to their side was complicated by Merkel and Berlin-London diplomatic channels. Merkel is said to have warned or pressured David Cameron against developing formal ties with the AfD. However, on June 12, the ECR group voted to accept the AfD, unofficially by a narrow vote of 29-26 in which 2 Tory MEPs defied Cameron’s wishes by voting in favour of the AfD. 10 Downing Street will hope that this embarrassing defeat for Cameron in ‘his’ EP group will not endanger his highly-important relationship with Merkel.
The AfD was joined by Hans-Olaf Henkel, a former president of the German employers’ federation (BDI) and manager at IBM Germany, in January 2014. An advocate for a division of the Euro between a stable northern zone and an unstable southern zone, Henkel was second on the AfD’s list for the EP behind party leader Bernd Lucke.
After the 2013 election, a Grand Coalition with the SPD was the only realistic option on the table. The only other coalition option was a black-green coalition, between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, but the federal Greens, who had ended up performing quite poorly in the election, had burned too many bridges with the CDU/CSU during their rather left-wing campaign. The Union and the SPD reached an initial agreement on a coalition program on November 27, but for the first time, one of the coalition parties – SPD – had taken the decision to submit any coalition agreement it would sign to ratification by its membership in an internal vote. On December 2014, with high turnout, 76% of SPD members voted in favour of the deal. The internal vote was a bit stacked in favour of the yes, because SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel put his job on the line and strongly promoted the terms of the Grand Coalition agreement. Furthermore, in the unlikely event that SPD rejected the agreement, there was the threat of snap elections (which the CDU/CSU would have won by a similar margin as in September 2013).
On the whole, the SPD got a fairly good deal out of the CDU/CSU, considering the weak bargaining position they were in. The new government’s policy program includes two of the SPD’s main promises from 2013: the introduction, from January 1 2015, of a universal minimum wage at €8.50 (with only minors, interns, trainees or long-term unemployed people for their first six months at work excluded; some companies will have until 2017 to phase in the new minimum wage) and allowing workers who have contributed for 45 years to retire early at 63 (currently 65). The SPD also won a liberalization of Germany’s dual citizenship laws, which will no longer require German born-children of non-EU/Swiss citizens to choose, at age 23 (provided they’ve lived in Germany for 8 years or graduated from a German school), between their parents’ and German citizenship. On economic matters, there will be no tax increases (a key CDU demand) but the government promises new investments worth €23 million in training, higher education, R&D and transport infrastructure among others. To please the CDU/CSU, the government’s pension reform also includes a measure to increase the pensions of older mothers who raised children before 1992. To please Bavaria’s CSU, the new government is supposed to implement a toll on foreigners using German autobahnen, but many doubt the controversial policy will go ahead given that Berlin needs to find a way to ensure that Germans don’t pay the toll and make it compatible with EU legislation. The new government is committed to the energy transition, to gradually wean Germany off of nuclear energy by 2022.
In the cabinet, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel is Vice-Chancellor and minister of the economy and energy – responsible for the energy transition. Andrea Nahles, a former SPD general secretary from the party’s left, became minister of labour and social affairs, pushing forth the pension reform. In the CDU, the promotion to the defense ministry of Ursula von der Leyen, who had been labour minister under black-yellow, was widely read as a sign that Merkel was grooming her as a potential successor. Wolfgang Schäuble, the CDU finance minister since 2009 associated with austerity policies and Germany’s ‘tough’ line, retained his job. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD’s 2009 chancellor-candidate who is perceived as being pro-Russian, returned to the foreign ministry – a job he had held under the first Merkel Grand Coalition.
The coalition’s platform was criticized by employers, who were particularly up in arms about the pension reform – both the SPD’s retirement age changes and the Union’s pension boost for older mothers, which they claim will cost Germany €130 million by 2030. The conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the tabloid Bild were both critical of the coalition agreement. Abroad, The Economist has criticized Merkel’s temerity and the lack of structural reforms, arguing that the government’s various interventionist mini-reforms risks squandering the country’s past economic progress.
The new government has been fairly quiet. In February, it ran into a mini-cabinet crisis following the surprise resignation of a SPD MP (Sebastian Edathy) who later fled the country after police searched his house and claimed that he was the client of a Canadian-based international child pornography ring. The CSU agriculture minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, was forced to resign after it was revealed that, while interior minister in October 2013, he had informed Gabriel of an investigation against Edathy and in doing so likely breached an official secret. The SPD’s leadership is suspected of having tipped off Edathy (and prompting him to resign from the Bundestag before his parliamentary immunity was stripped), and the CSU demanded that the SPD’s parliamentary whip step down. Because of the CSU’s sabre-rattling, the Grand Coalition was briefly at risk of premature death, but the events in Ukraine in late February-early March 2014 meant that the scandal finally blew over. Federally, polling numbers have not budged much since September 2013: the CDU/CSU is down from 41.5% to about 39% in polls but still miles ahead of the SPD, which is stable at its 2013 levels. The Greens, who won only 8.4% in 2013, are now back up to 10-12%; Die Linke are in the 8-10% range, above their 2013 result (8.6%). The FDP is still dead, and the AfD would likely win seats in the Bundestag in the next election, because it’s now polling at 6-7%, above the 5% threshold in federal elections.
There was a major and significant change in the electoral system ahead of the EP elections: in February 2014, the Constitutional Court ruled that the 3% threshold was unconstitutional and ordered for it to be scrapped entirely. In 2009 and prior EP elections, a 5% threshold had applied, but it had been lowered to 3% by the major parties after the Constitutional Court had struck down the 5% threshold in November 2011. The new rules were obviously a huge boon for small parties – a category which now includes the FDP.
Merkel’s CDU/CSU emerged victorious in the EP elections, and Merkel expressed satisfaction with the Union’s performance and its majority over the SPD. However, with only 35.4% for the CDU and CSU, it is a poor result for Germany’s senior governing parties, which is down both from Merkel’s own landslide result in September last year (41.5%) and the Union’s result in the 2009 EP election (37.9%) and past EP results (2004 – 44.5%, 1999 – 48.7%, 1994 – 38.8%). In 2013, Merkel’s own personal popularity had been the reason for the CDU’s success and the party had likely received votes which went more to support Merkel the Chancellor than to support the CDU/CSU the party. Therefore, in an election without Merkel on the ballot, some loses could be expected.
The main reason why the Union parties did poorly is because the CSU’s result in Bavaria was unexpectedly bad: the ruling hegemonic party in conservative Bavaria received only 40.5% of the vote in the Land, down 7.6% from 48% of the vote in 2009 (and 49% in the 2013 federal election and 47.7% in the 2013 state elections, held a week before the federal election). The result came as a surprise, because state-level polling in Bavaria for the EP had showed the CSU in its usual high-40s territory, and the CSU had done fairly well (by Bavarian standards, which means winning in the usual landslide) in local elections held in the state in March 2014. Over the past few months, the CSU has grumbled against some of the government’s policies – Bavarian Minister-President Horst Seehofer, the powerful boss of the CSU and the state, opposes the construction of high-voltage power lines which would transmit wind energy from the North Sea to southern Germany, and the CSU has continued playing its populist, regionalist messages (against EU and federal bureaucrats, against foreign drivers clogging up Bavaria’s autobahnen, against immigrants receiving welfare benefits).
One reason for the CSU’s poor turnout may have been the low turnout – only 40.9%, which is about 7% less than in the country and actually down 1.5% from the last EP election in Bavaria. In contrast, turnout in the rest of Germany increased by 4.9% from 2009. There was, as in 2009, a clear correlation between higher turnout and local elections being held the same day – turnout was highest in the Rhineland-Palatinate, reaching 56.9%; it was up 16.8% from 2009 to 46.7% in the Eastern state of Brandenburg, where there were no local elections alongside the EP election in 2009. However, turnout is not the only explanation, because the CSU’s raw vote did not hold stable – the party lost nearly 330,000 votes from 2009. The CDU’s support increased in Baden-Württemberg, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (Merkel’s home state, where she did very well in 2013), Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. The CDU suffered substantial loses in Berlin (-4.2%, but turnout increased 11.5%), Hamburg (-5.1%), Hesse (-5.8%) and Schleswig-Holstein (-3.5%).
The SPD, in contrast, performed quite well – 27.3% is a significant improvement on the party’s last two disastrous performances in the EP elections (21.5% in 2004 and 20.8% in 2009, both of them historic lows for the SPD), and the SPD has increased its vote total from about 5.5 million to 8 million. Martin Schulz, the PES’ ‘presidential candidate’ and the SPD’s top candidate, likely accounts for (part of) this good result. An Infratest dimap exit poll showed that Schulz was the favourite EU Commission candidate in Germany over Juncker, 42% to 24%, and even received the preference of 23% of CDU/CSU voters. 76% of SPD voters said that Schulz was an important reason that they voted SPD, against only 55% of Union voters who said that Juncker was an important reason that they voted for the CDU/CSU. The SPD was criticized for an ad campaign which said that “only if you choose Martin Schulz and the SPD, can there be a German President of the European Commission”.
The SPD has also performed surprisingly well, so far, in the Grand Coalition (unlike in 2005-2009). So far, many of the new government’s popular policies – the minimum wage, the pension reform and the dual citizenship reform – all bear the SPD’s mark, a surprisingly good record for what is a weak junior governing partner. 59% of SPD voters were happy with the federal government’s performance, compared to 79% of CDU/CSU voters and 53% of all voters.
The Greens placed third, with 10.7% of the vote, which is down 1.4% on their record-high performance in 2009 (12.1%) but an improvement on the Greens’ poor result in last year’s federal election, when the party won only 8.4%. The Greens’ result in 2013 came as a shockingly bad underperformance by the party, which had been on an upswing since 2007 and especially since 2010-2011 (marked by the Greens’ victory in the 2011 Baden-Württemberg state elections, where the Greens overtook the SPD and the left won enough seats to form a green-red coalition with the Greens in the driver’s seat). The Greens ran a woefully bad campaign in 2013, unwisely seeking to put an emphasis on their left-wing (similar to the SPD, furthermore) position on economic/social issues (with tax increases which the Greens had lots of difficulty defending and framing correctly) rather than their niche environmental issues where the Greens are most popular and credible. The Greens’ left-wing oriented campaign, under Jürgen Trittin, aimed to deflect left-wing criticism that the Greens were just waiting to dive into a black-green coalition with the Union, but instead it just nudged the Greens way too close to the SPD in a position where they would not dare criticize the SPD’s failings (notably on hot-button transportation and infrastructure kerfuffles). The Greens were also hurt by controversies stemming from a terribly overblown faux-scandal about ‘veggie-days’ (allegedly a Green plan to ‘force’ meat-free days in public cafeterias, even though they already existed) and a difficult series of revelations from the Greens’ ties to the pedophile movement in their foundational years. Since the last election, the Greens have been rebuilding, but it’s been difficult. In the Infratest dimap exit poll, 81% of voters said the Greens lacked a strong leader and 70% said they had difficulty seeing what the Greens stood for.
Die Linke placed fourth, holding their ground from the last election and gaining votes thanks to the higher turnout. It was an average result for the party, a bit below its result from 2013 (8.6%). Die Linke had hoped to gain from the SPD’s participation in cabinet, and tried to target left-wing voters disappointed with the SPD’s participation or performance in the Grand Coalition government. However, unlike in 2009, Die Linke proved unable to benefit from the SPD’s government record, largely because the SPD has been performing reasonably well in government thus far. The party still has trouble breaking out of its peripheral role in the German political system: after the party effectively supported or accepted the Russian invasion of Crimea and opposed Ukraine’s “fascist” government, the prospect of participation in a leftist coalition with the SPD and the Greens distanced itself, because the SPD demand that Die Linke drops its most contentious foreign policy planks (opposition to NATO, Euroscepticism) in order to be accepted into government. Die Linke lost votes in its East German, ex-GDR strongholds – its support in the East fell from 23% to 20.6%, its worst result in the old GDR since the first post-reunification EP elections in 1994; but it gained support in the West, increasing from 3.9% to 4.5%. In 2013, the results had also shown a trend towards a more nationalized vote, with Die Linke slowly building a still very small but substantial electorate in the West while being on a net downwards trend in the East, where the party faces demographic problems (aging electorate, out-migration, more affluent East German cities and social changes in the old GDR) and intense competition for protest voters.
The AfD did well in East Germany (8.3%), better than in the West (6.8%). Overall, across the country, the AfD had an excellent result, with 7% of the vote and 2.070 million votes, up from 4.7% and 2.056 million votes in the 2013 federal election. The exit polls showed that the AfD’s electorate largely consisted of protest voters, with highly specific concerns – currency stability (a major issue for 41% of the AfD’s voters), social security and immigration (a major issue for 40% of AfD voters but only 13% of the broader electorate); the AfD’s voters also stand out of the German political mainstream by expressing negative views towards the EU, the Euro, the desirability of deeper European integration and being rather pessimistic about the economy. For example, while the electorate which voted on May 25 was by and large strongly pro-European (actually, even more-so than in the past), with only 16% saying that EU membership brought more disadvantages (compared to 44% who said it brought mostly advantages, up from 25% in 2010), 70% saying that EU countries should act together more often and only 20% saying that Germany should return to the Deutsche Mark; the AfD’s supporters took opposite views on these issues, with 44% (the highest of all parties, with Die Linke in second at 19%) of AfD voters saying that the EU brought more disadvantages, 67% saying that EU member-states should act more independently/alone, 52% saying the EU’s open borders are threatening German society, 39% wishing to return to the old currency (one will notice, however, that not even a majority of AfD supporters support dropping the euro) and 78% opposing bailouts for other EU member-states (compared to 41% of German voters). The AfD is already a very polarizing party: 47% of voters considered it a right-wing populist party, which is not a popular label to be identified with in Germany, and 41% said that while it did not solve problems “it called them by their names” (80% expressed similar views regarding Die Linke).
The AfD appears to be responsible for a good part of the CDU and CSU’s losses. Infratest dimap’s vote-transfer analysis has some suspect findings, but it reports that, compared to 2013, the AfD gained 510,000 more votes from the Union, 180,000 from the SPD and 110,000 from Die Linke; in 2013, the AfD had pulled a diverse electorate, although most of their voters came from the smoldering ruins of the FDP, Die Linke and other parties. According to the vote-transfer analysis from this year, the bleeding from the FDP to AfD was more limited (-60,000) – instead, we are told that the FDP lost a good number of votes to the SPD (60,000) and the Greens (40,000). The city of Munich (Bavaria) also conducted a vote-transfer analysis for the city, compared to the 2009 EP elections. In Munich, the CSU lost 21,100 votes – or 16% of its 2009 voters – to the AfD, providing the new party with its largest bulk of voters (smaller quantities came from the FDP – 2,200 votes; the FW – 2,400 votes; non-voters – 2,100 votes; and other parties – 1,800 votes). In Bavaria as a whole, the AfD did quite well, taking 8.1% of the vote, nearly doubling their percentage from 2013. It did best in Munich’s suburbs in Upper Bavaria and in Swabia. Interestingly, in Munich, the FDP lost most of its 2009 voters – 42% of them (or 22,500 votes) the SPD, which is more than a bit unusual given that, in 2013, the FDP had lost 38% of its voters to the Union and only 9% to the SPD.
The Infratest dimap vote-transfer analysis showed that the Union parties, compared to 2013, also lost heavily to the SPD (-340,000) and Greens (-270,000); the SPD suffered loses, from 2013, to the Greens (-110,000) and AfD, but made up for them by gaining from the Union and FDP; the Greens suffered minor loses (-30,000) to the AfD but gained 2013 votes from all parties, mostly the two largest ones; Die Linke lost substantially to the AfD but gained, weirdly, 100,000 from the Union and 50,000 from the SPD. The analysis reported by Infratest dimap on the ARD website (linked above) seems very suspect and incomplete, given that it makes no mention of 2013 voters who did not vote this time. The Munich analysis appears more reliable, and the comparison is being made to the same kind of election.
The new electoral rules allowed seven small parties to make their entrance into the EP. Besides the FDP, which won a disastrous 3.4% and lost 9 of its MEPs, the largest minor party to make it in were the Freie Wähler (Free Voters), a confederation of various community/local lists and independent candidates which are present throughout Germany but quite strong in Bavaria, especially in local elections. The FW are very hard to pin down ideologically, with an eclectic mix of socially liberal policies, conservative policies or economically liberal policies, and a heavy focus on issues such as direct democracy, local autonomy and local/parochial concerns. The FW have a soft Eurosceptic side. The FW have, as noted above, run in state elections across Germany, but the only region where they have achieved considerable success at the state level is in Bavaria, where the FW won 10% in 2008 and 9% in the 2013 state election. The party won 1.5% of the vote across Germany, and 4.3% in Bavaria (down from 6.7% in the 2009 EP election, where FW was led by ex-CSU maverick Gabriele Pauli). The FW broke 2% in BaWü and Rhineland-Palatinate, but were under 2% in every other state (they had some success in Thuringia and Saxony, but FW had next to zero support in the city-states, NRW, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein). The FW’s new MEP, Ulrike Müller (a Bavarian state MP), is individually affiliated with the small liberal European Democratic Party (EDP) and will sit in the ALDE group. A sign of how local and candidate-based the FW’s support is: the FW’s best result in Bavaria came from the Oberallgäu kreise in Swabia (13.7%), where Müller is from. In 2009, the FW had done best around Fürth in Middle Franconia (where Pauli is from), and poorly in Upper Bavaria and Swabia.
The Pirate Party won 1.5% of the vote and one seat; that vote is up a bit from 2009, when the Pirates were just getting started, but actually down from the party’s results in the 2009 and 2013 federal elections (2% and 2.2%). The Pirates famously rode a brief nationwide wave of momentum following the 2011 Berlin state elections, but that collapsed beginning in late 2012, under the weight of controversies, small scandals, public scrutiny into the party and a perception of the party as a single-issue party with no positions on major issues. The Pirates are nowhere close to regaining lost support: they have serious internal conflicts (largely between moderate left-libertarians and far-left anti-fascist movements), the party’s membership numbers have declined quite significantly, As in past elections, the Pirates drew a disproportionately young, urban (and likely male) electorate: it did best in Berlin (3.2%) and its best results generally came from university towns, such as Darmstadt (Hesse), the district where the Pirates won their highest result this year (3.6%). Their sole MEP will join the G-EFA group, like the two outgoing Swedish Pirate MEPs.
The Tierschutzpartei (Animal Protection Party) is a small animal right’s party, founded in 1993, is fairly similar to the Greens but with the added weirdness and quirkiness which usually characterizes these specifically pro-animal parties. The party has no particular base in any state or region, and is generally a non-factor in elections (0.3% in 2013), but in low-stakes EP elections (it already won 1.1% in 2009), it appears to be able to gain a few extra votes across Germany because of its name (in these kind of elections, parties with non-controversial names or names like ‘family’ or ‘animal protection’ which are cute and friendly buzzwords, tend to have small boost which can bring them up over 1%). Indeed, the party’s support was evenly distributed throughout Germany, ranging from 1% to 1.8%. The party will join the GUE/NGL group.
The far-right neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), which did not run in 2009, won 1.3% and 1 vote (for Udo Voigt, the NPD’s crazy former leader who has praised Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess in the past). The NPD, which experienced a brief revival in the early 2000s which brought them into the state parliaments in Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, has been declining in recent elections. In 2013, the NPD fell to only 1.3%. The NPD, constantly under investigation by the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (to the point where the common joke is that most NPD members are actually police informants) and facing renewed calls for its banning, is also weakened by financial problems and very negative media coverage of the far-right with the trial of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) Nazi terrorist group. Nevertheless, the NPD retains a small base in the most deprived regions of East Germany, where the NPD won 2.9% of the vote (and 3.6% in Saxony). The NPD, like the Greek and Hungarian Nazis, are untouchable parties – the EAF, for example, rejected the NPD. Udo Voigt will sit as a non-inscrit.
The Family Party, a minor socially conservative Christian democratic party with a small traditional base of support in the Saarland, won 0.7% (which is actually less than in 2009) and qualified for one MEP, who will sit with the AfD and the British Tories in the ECR group. Like with the Animal Protection Party, the Family Party likely benefits in these low-stakes elections from its name, a cute and friendly buzzword. The Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP) is a Bavarian-based conservative green party (although it has shifted to the left recently, while retaining a ‘pro-family’ and socially conservative orientation unusual for the left-wing green movement), founded back in 1982 by right-wing socially conservative Green dissidents. The ÖDP has received a stable 1-2% of the vote in Bavarian state elections since the 1990s, but the party is largely absent from other states. In Bavaria, the ÖDP won 2.7% of the vote this year, up from 0.6% in 2009. It peaked at 6.7% in Memmingen. Outside Bavaria, the ÖDP’s best result seems to have come from BaWü (only 0.7%). The party’s new MEP will sit with the Greens. Finally, the last seat was won by an unusual party – Die PARTEI (literally The PARTY), a satirical protest party founded in 2004 by the editors of the satirical and provocative magazine Titanic. Die PARTEI often mocks the empty slogans and rhetoric of the major parties and calls major politicians ‘stupid’. The party’s most famous and long-lasting promise is to rebuild the Berlin Wall around East Berlin and the former GDR, a pledge which it has now amended to include building a wall around Switzerland (the party’s response to Switzerland’s recent referendum on freedom of movement). When the party is serious, its platform is usually quite left-wing. In this election, Die PARTEI also promised a ‘lazy rate’ (a quota for lazy people and loafers), redistributing all income over €1 million, abolishing DST, limiting executive pay to 25,000x that of the average worker, ‘fucking’ the US-EU FTA and changing the voting age so that only those between 12 and 52 can vote. Die PARTEI has small strongholds in left-wing inner city areas, those trendy and cosmopolitan urban areas where the Greens and Die Linke (in the West) do very well in. It won, for example, 3.8% in Berlin’s famous Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district and 4.2% in the inner-city Hamburg district of St. Pauli.
Die PARTEI has promised that its MEP will resign the seat monthly, so that every candidate on the list will get a chance to serve for 30 days in the EP. In between the satire, Die PARTEI has suggested that it may be looking into joining a group, perhaps the Greens-EFA.
Turnout: 59.97% (+7.43%)
MEPs: 21 (-1)
Electoral system: Open-list PR, 3% threshold; mandatory voting (unenforced)
SYRIZA (GUE/NGL) 26.57% (+21.87%) winning 6 seats (+5)
ND (EPP) 22.72% (-9.58%) winning 5 seats (-3)
XA (NI) 9.39% (+8.93%) winning 3 seats (+3)
Elia (S&D) 8.02% (-28.63%) winning 2 seats (-6)
To Potami (S&D) 6.6% (+6.6%) winning 2 seats (+2)
KKE (GUE/NGL > NI) 6.11% (-2.24%) winning 2 seats (±0)
ANEL (ECR) 3.46% (+3.46%) winning 1 seat (nc)
LAOS (EFD) 2.69% (-4.46%) winning 0 seats (-2)
Greek European Citizens 1.44% (+1.44%) winning 0 seats (±0)
DIMAR (S&D) 1.20% (+1.2%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Union for the Homeland and the People 1.04% (+1%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Greek Hunters 1% (-0.26%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Bridges (ALDE) 0.91% (+0.91%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Greens-Pirates (G-EFA) 0.9% (-2.59%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Others 7.95% winning 0 seats (±0)
Greece has been at the centre of EU politics over the last five years, as the country which has suffered the longest and the most from the Eurozone debt crisis. As a result thereof, no EU member-state has seen political changes as radical as those which have taken place in Greece since 2009. The Eurozone crisis which has the leading issue in European politics for the past 4/5 years began in Greece shortly after the October 2009 legislative election in the country.
The root causes of the Greek (and, to a lesser extent, European) crisis were the country’s excessively high budget deficits and public debt. Since joining the EU in 1981 and especially since the mid-1990s, successive Greek governments customarily ran increasingly large structural budget deficits which by extension meant that Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio increased to reach unsustainable level by the time the 2007-2008 global recession triggered the economic and debt crisis in Greece. The crisis, however, was not caused – as is widely believed – by huge government expenditure or even a particularly generous welfare state (the popular ideas of lavish social benefits, ‘lazy’ Greeks not working hard enough and long paid vacations were largely myths) but rather by problems in the revenue side of the equation – tax evasion has famously been described as a ‘national sport’ in Greece, and the government’s unwillingness and inefficiency at collecting taxes has meant that the state has lost billions of euros in revenue. Greece’s tax evasion problem was compounded by a very large black market (about a quarter of the economy). Other factors which contributed to make the Greek debt crisis particularly catastrophic were the country’s very high external debt, a large trade balance deficit, heavy government borrowing and political corruption (since the restoration of democracy in 1974, Greece’s political system has been notoriously clientelistic).
By the time of the October 2009 election, Greece had already been in recession since 2008, its shipping and tourism industries having been hit particularly hard by the recession. The ruling conservative New Democracy (ND) party called early elections, which it lost to the opposition Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) of George Papandreou, the third generation in a long political dynasty in post-war Greece (his predecessor, ND leader Kostas Karamanlis, was also the son of a former Greek Prime Minister). Upon taking office, the new PASOK government revealed that the country’s deficit and debt was much worse than previously thought, with the deficit revised to be an alarming 15.7% of GDP and the public debt at 129.7% of GDP – Greece now had the largest deficit and debt-to-GDP ratio in the EU. Events accelerated in early 2010, as it became apparent that Greece was unable to borrow on the markets and was forced to asked for a loan from the EU and the IMF to cover its costs. Credit rating agencies, in April 2010, downgraded Greece’s sovereign debt rating to ‘junk’ while speculation on a potential default and exit from the Eurozone (a ‘Grexit’) ran wild. In May 2010, Greece was granted an initial loan of €110 billion from the ECB, EU and the IMF (a powerful trio which has become known in Greece and other countries as the ‘Troika’) in exchange for the approval of an unpopular austerity package by the government. The Papandreou’s May 2010 austerity package, the third set of austerity measures in only four months, included further cuts in public sector salaries, limits on employee bonuses, cuts in pensions and tax increases across the board (the VAT, luxury taxes, property taxes, excise taxes). However, initial austerity measures only worsened the economic crisis, while Greece became dependent on bailout funds to foot its bills and was thus forced to adopt a fourth austerity package in June 2011 to access the next installment of bailout funds. Despite massive protests and a general strike, the Papandreou government passed the new austerity package which now included a plan for privatizations (with a target of €50 billion in revenue), more tax increases and pension cuts.
Austerity measures adopted to meet the Troika’s strict conditions for the bailout had a disastrous impact on Greece’s economy and society, while doing nothing to turn the ship around – in fact, fears of a Greek default and ‘Grexit’ only increased in 2011. Greece, in recession since 2008 with a GDP shrinkage of 3.1% in 2009 and 4.9% in 2010, saw its economy shrink by a full 7.1% in 2011 and 7% in 2012. Unemployment increased from 10.4% in the last quarter of 2009 to 20.8% in the last quarter of 2011, and reached a high of 27.8% in the last quarter of 2013. Unemployment has hit young people the hardest, with over 60% of them currently unemployed. Major spending cuts have crippled Greece’s healthcare system (while unemployment left many without access to public healthcare), with most hospitals and the clinics in precarious conditions; the suicide rate has increased while there have been reports of an increase in HIV infection rates and a malaria outbreak for the first time in four decades. Greece’s public debt reached 148.3% of GDP in 2010 and 170.3% in 2011, while the budget deficit fell to 10.9% in 2010 and 9.6% in 2011
In October 2011, when an agreement on a second multi-billion euro bailout including a debt restructuring (a haircut of 50% of debt owed to private creditors), Papandreou shocked and seriously angered the Troika and EU leaders by announcing a referendum on the deal. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to withhold payment of the next installment of bailout funds, and under intense EU, Troika and domestic opposition pressure, Papandreou was forced to renege on his idea and pushed out the door. A new national unity government led by an independent technocrat, Lucas Papademos, with ministers from ND, PASOK and the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). Increasingly exasperated with what they saw as Greek politicians unwilling to implement the required austerity measures or being woefully ineffective at putting them in practice (for example, the government has missed privatization targets by miles for several years), the Troika – especially the Eurozone and Germany – became even tougher in their demands for austerity and economic reforms in exchange for a second bailout. In February 2012, to access the second bailout from the EU-IMF, Papademos’ government passed a fifth austerity package including tough cuts in the minimum wage, pensions, spending, the definitive elimination of a paid ’13th month’ salary, job cuts in the public sector, more privatization and structural reforms to liberalize ‘closed professions’. Despite major opposition from the streets, LAOS (which left government as a result) and over 40 dissident MPs from ND and PASOK, the austerity package was passed by Parliament and Greece was cleared to receive a second bailout of €130 billion with a debt restructuring agreement (worth €107 billion) with private holders of Greek debt to accept a bond swap with a 53.5% nominal write-off. Greece’s ten-year government bond yields shot through the roof at the time of the second bailout and debt restructuring, reaching nearly 40%.
The economic crisis had huge repercussions on the Greek political system. Since 1981, Greece had a fairly stable party system dominated by two major parties – the conservative ND and the social democratic PASOK, although both were clientelistic patronage machines with a very strong dynastic tradition (both ND and PASOK were founded by prominent Greek dynastic politicians – Konstantinos Karamanlis for ND and Andreas Papandreou for PASOK) and rather different from the ‘average’ conservative and social democratic parties in Europe (if such a thing exists). PASOK, for example, lacks the trade union roots and ties or the Marxist background of many older social democratic parties in the EU. Although under Andreas Papandreou PASOK pursued a very left-wing re-distributive agenda and created Greece’s welfare state, PASOK can still be somewhat accurately described as the modern heir of Venizelism, a uniquely Greek liberal-nationalist ideology (it certainly inherited the Cretan stronghold of the Venizelists). After Andreas Papandreou’s death in 1996, PASOK progressively abandoned its early leftist, nationalist and Eurosceptic orientation, and both ND and PASOK became far closer ideologically than they would care to admit, although both remained bitter rivals because of tradition and political culture (with the exception of a brief period of instability and caretaker governments in 1989-1990, ND and PASOK had never governed together before 2011). At the helm of an increasingly unpopular government associated with austerity and the country’s economic collapse, the bottom fell out of PASOK progressively between 2010 and late 2011, and collapsed beginning in the fall of 2011, as Greece’s situation looked more desperate and catastrophic than ever before. ND’s support, in opposition under the leadership of senior politician Antonis Samaras, held up fairly well (albeit at historically low levels in the high 20s-low 30s) until early 2012. In opposition, ND hypocritically opposed the first three rescue packages in 2010 and 2011 (Dora Bakoyannis, a former foreign minister and Samaras’ rival for the ND leadership in 2009, was even expelled from the party in May 2010 for voting in favour of a EU-IMF loan; she went on to create her own pro-austerity liberal party, DISY); even under Papademos’ technocratic cabinet, ND tried to have the cake and eat it – Samaras promised to renegotiate the second bailout agreement after his party begrudgingly supported it, even if the Troika (exasperated by Samaras’ waffling and lack of commitment) made it clear that there could be renegotiation. In the Papademos government, both ND and PASOK (and LAOS, much to its chagrin) became associated with the unpopular austerity policies, which caused major internal dissent within party ranks.
The bankruptcy of the traditional political system allowed new parties – often quite radical – on the left and right to rise to prominence. On the left, the traditional third force in Greek politics has usually been the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the country’s oldest parliamentary party. While the KKE’s electoral base is larger than that of many communist parties in the EU today, it has a very low ceiling because the party basically operates in an alternate reality – after the fall of communism, instead of evolving the KKE doubled-down on arcane and archaic quasi-Stalinist Marxist/Soviet rhetoric from the 1950s about the revolution, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The KKE has successfully retained a loyal electorate, providing it with a fairly high floor but also a very low ceiling because the KKE’s rhetoric lacks credibility in practice (besides pretending that the Soviet Union and Joe Stalin are still alive and well). Although the KKE’s support rose to 12-14%, it never surged. Instead, the main beneficiary of PASOK’s collapse was the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), traditionally a rag-tag coalition of New Left parties and ideologies (eurocommunists from the KKE (Interior), a moderate 1968 splinter from the KKE; democratic socialists, eco-socialists, social democrats, left-wing Eurosceptics, Trotskyists) which enjoyed a late surge in early 2012 on the back of the popularity of the anti-austerity message of SYRIZA’s young leader, Alexis Tsipras. Although one might expect common ground, there is intense hatred between the KKE and SYRIZA (in fact, it often appears as if the KKE hates SYRIZA more than any other party, fascists included), with the former considering the latter as ‘opportunists’ and a ‘bourgeois front’ to trick ‘the proletariat’ into perpetuating capitalism (the KKE is anti-capitalist, anti-EU and anti-Euro). The Democratic Left (DIMAR), a moderate 2010 splinter from Synaspismós (the largest component in SYRIZA) with a nominally anti-austerity but pro-Euro platform, also tried to benefit from PASOK’s failings.
On the right and left, several parties led by anti-austerity dissidents from PASOK and ND emerged, although only one, the right-wing populist Independent Greeks (ANEL), a nationalist anti-austerity party led by ND dissident Panos Kammenos and created in February 2012, has been electorally successful. Kammenos is famous for his rabble-rousing nationalist (often anti-German) and anti-austerity rhetoric, with a certain penchant for tinfoil hat conspiracy theories and defamatory statements about his opponents (he has branded ND as ‘traitors’ for accepting the austerity memorandum and has been sued for libel/defamation several times).
On the far-right, the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) – a nationalistic, anti-EU and anti-immigrant party (one which also believed in 9/11 truther theories and was originally anti-Semitic) founded in 2000 – waffled over austerity, voting in favour in 2010 but against in 2011 before joining Papademos’ cabinet in late 2011 but leaving in 2012 by voting against the second bailout. LAOS’ indecision crippled the party, and provided a political void to be filled by Golden Dawn (XA). XA was founded by Nikolaos Michaloliakos in 1993, but until 2010, XA largely operated in the mysterious underworld of far-right/neo-Nazi activism and never won over 1% in any election, although XA’s violent street gangs were active and dangerous (in 1998, XA’s deputy leader killed a leftist student). XA’s first electoral success came in the 2010 local elections, in which the party won 5.3% of the vote and one seat (for Michaloliakos) in Athens. XA lies at the fringe of the far-right constellation in the EU: while it is an intellectually lazy trope to throw the word Nazi at all far-right parties, such a label is fully accurate for XA. Although the party has toned down the open Nazi fanboyism and admiration of the Third Reich which was a mainstay of XA in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Michaloliakos penned articles and essays which heaped praise on Adolf Hitler) and once in a while denies that it is Nazi, the party uses Nazi symbolism regularly (the party’s logo is similar to the Nazi Swastika, XA members have often given the Nazi salute, XA MPs wear Nazi symbols) and XA leaders and MPs continue to deny the Holocaust (Michaloliakos recently denied the existence of gas chambers and XA spokesperson Ilias Kasidiaris, who has a Swastika tattoo, denies the Holocaust and has quoted from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) or use explicitly racist and anti-Semitic language (describing immigrants as sub-humans). Nevertheless, X also draws inspiration and ideological references from Greek history: Michaloliakos was briefly a member of EPEN, a far-right party founded by former dictator Colonel Georgios Papadopoulous (1967-1973), XA has praised the Colonel’s junta (the authoritarian military regime which ruled Greece from 1967 and 1974) and openly admires Ioannis Metaxas’ authoritarian-nationalist 4th of August Regime (1936-1940).
XA is radically anti-immigration – immigration has been an increasingly important phenomenon in Greece (and, nowadays, traditional Albanian immigration is slowly replaced by increased immigration from Pakistan and other Asian or African countries), and immigrants have been an easy scapegoat with the crisis (seen and depicted as stealing jobs from Greeks). XA called on the deportation of all immigrants from Greece while XA’s thugs have regularly beat up immigrants and non-whites. XA is also strongly anti-austerity, anti-bailout and anti-Euro; the party’s broader foreign policy expresses support for Greek irredentism and a very hardline stance on the Macedonian naming dispute. In a society marked by the breakdown of public services and increasing poverty, XA has built a strong grassroots support base by offering charitable and social services (food distribution, support for the elderly, protection for victims of crimes) explicitly reserved to Greek nationals or even XA members. In stark contrast to Golden Dawn’s “humanitarian” work, the party is distinguished from other far-right parties in Europe by its use of violence – XA’s blackshirt vigilantes and street gangs have regularly beaten up and assaulted immigrants and leftists (and often with the police’s silent acquiescence, given that the police is alleged to be tolerant or even supportive of XA) and Kasidiaris famously physically assaulted two left-wing MPs during a TV debate in 2012.
The May 2012 election was an ‘earthquake elections’ which saw the old political system destroyed and several new forces achieve remarkable success. ND won only 18.9% of the vote, the party’s worst result in its history, although it still topped the poll in an extremely exploded and fragmented political scene. On the left, PASOK collapsed into third place, winning only 13.2% of the vote – over 30% lower than in 2009. Left-wing (or far-left) anti-austerity SYRIZA replaced PASOK as the main party of the left, with 16.8% of the vote (a remarkable result for a party whose original ceiling was 5%); KKE, on the other hand, won a decent but comparatively paltry result of 8.5% (only a 1% improvement on its 2009 result and nowhere near the KKE’s historic highs). ANEL won 10.6%, making it the fourth largest party. XA surged to 7% of the vote and 20 seats, while LAOS’ support collapsed to 2.9% and it lost all 15 of its seats. DIMAR won 6.1% of the vote. In addition, the parties below the 3% threshold combined to win 19% of the vote (more than the largest party!), divided between greens (2.9%), three unambiguously pro-austerity and right-wing liberal parties (including DISY, 2.6%), far-left outfits and Greece’s hilariously fragmented communist parties. Even with Greece’s 50-seat majority bonus for the winning party (which historically provided one-party absolute majorities), no party or obvious coalition came close to commanding support of a majority of Parliament – Samaras, Tsipras and PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos (Papandreou’s former leadership rival and his last finance minister) all quickly failed in their bids to form governments and there was no solution but to call for new elections in June.
The June elections quickly polarized into a contest between ND and SYRIZA, erroneously simplified to a ‘referendum on the Euro’ (implying that a SYRIZA government would default and withdraw from the Eurozone, which may have been the case but SYRIZA claims to support Eurozone membership and the EU in the abstract) or perhaps more accurately a ‘referendum on austerity’ (although ND didn’t campaign on austerity per se, it was widely understood to be a vote ‘in favour’ of the memorandum conditions). EU leaders quickly made clear that Greece would either need to respect the second bailout deal and associated austerity or be compelled to default and withdraw from the Eurozone – therefore voting for SYRIZA became a double-edged sword: a vote against austerity (SYRIZA promised growth through consumption, tax increases on the rich and businesses, raising social benefits and wages and nationalization of banks and strategic sectors; it also said it would suspend loan repayments until growth returned and would renegotiate the interest due) but also a high likelihood of a messy default and ‘Grexit’ (which, most predicted, would have wreaked havoc and thrown Greece into an even deeper depression). In the high-stakes contest, both ND and SYRIZA saw their support increase: ND won the election with 29.7% and 129 seats against 26.9% and 71 seats for SYRIZA. All other parties except DIMAR lost votes: PASOK receded even further to 12.3%, ANEL lost over 3% and fell to 7.5% and the KKE collapsed, losing 4% and winning only 4.5%. XA’s support proved surprisingly resilient despite intense media focus on the party, holding 6.9% of the vote. DIMAR won 6.3%. Parties below the 3% threshold fell to only 6%, with severe loses for the liberal right (DISY allied with ND, a liberal DX-Drasi won only 1.6%), LAOS, the Greens and the far-left.
ND and Samaras were able to form a ‘pro-memorandum’ and ‘pro-Eurozone’ cabinet with the support of PASOK and DIMAR (the latter, a small centre-left party, criticized SYRIZA for not giving guarantees on continued Eurozone membership and sought a national unity coalition), although at the outset both PASOK and DIMAR declined to directly participate in the government itself and instead opted to propose independents and technocrats for their portfolios (in other words, let ND deal with most of the crap). The finance ministry went to Yannis Stournaras, an independent economist.
Samaras’ government came in facing a new crisis: the Troika was demanding that Greece find a further €13.5 billion worth of austerity savings (spending cuts and tax increases) for them to release the scheduled disbursement, while Athens asked for a two-year extension of the deadline for the country to be self-financed (out of the bailout). The Troika, especially the EU and ECB, were in little mood to be accommodating, judging that Greece had failed miserably at implementing past legislated reforms and often exasperated at Greek politicians’ behaviour. Within the government, Stournaras (and Samaras) found themselves somewhat undermined by PASOK and DIMAR, which at times were more interested by their own political calculations (in PASOK’s case, a desperate bid for survival) while DIMAR quickly became rather reluctant to support tough austerity measures. As in the last Parliament, the need for further austerity measures divided the major parties and have steadily reduced the sizes of the ND, PASOK and DIMAR from their election day levels. On November 7, the Parliament approved the sixth austerity package (despite protests, DIMAR’s abstention and some dissidents from ND and PASOK), with €13.5 billion in cuts and tax hikes between 2013 and 2016. The package included more cuts on pensions, salary cuts (for public servants, academics, judges, doctors), cutting 110,000 public sector jobs by 2016, an increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67 and capping earnings in parastatals. In exchange, the Troika agreed to reschedule Greece’s debt and grant Athens two more years to reach a primary budget surplus of 4.5% of GDP.
Some economic indicators showed a very minor improvement in 2013, although unemployment hit a record high of nearly 28% (up from 24% in May 2012) and the public debt further ballooned to 175.1% of GDP (but should now begin falling, to 154% of GDP in 2017). Nevertheless, the recession was ‘less severe’ as the economy shrank by ‘only’ 3.9% in 2013 compared to 7% in 2012. The budget balance was -12.7% in 2013, due to the one-off costs of bank recapitalization, but Greece posted its first structural budget surplus in 2013 (+2% of GDP). Tourism was good in 2013, and the economy is expected to grow for the first time since 2007 in 2014, with a 0.6% growth rate in 2014 and 2.9% in 2015 according to EC estimates. The government’s structural reforms and labour market reforms have been said to significantly improve the ‘ease of doing business’ in Greece, although foreign investors remain very slow to test the waters. Unemployment has declined slightly to 26.8% in March 2014 and the EC projects it will fall to 24% in 2015. Yields on ten-year bonds have fallen below 8%, from a peak of well over 40%. In April 2014, Greece returned to the international bond market after four years with a €3 billion issue of five-year bonds. Nevertheless, the recovery remains very slow and extremely fragile. Furthermore, when it comes, it will take years for Greece to recover fully from a six-year long recession – for example, Greece’s nominal GDP is now €181.9 billion compared to €233.2 billion pre-crisis, in 2008. The crisis and austerity have pauperized a very large share of the population, with estimates that about 35% of the population lives in poverty or a precarious situation. The recession has wiped out millions of jobs, shut down thousands of businesses, put over three-fifths of young Greeks out of work (and forced thousands to emigrate to Germany and other countries) and public services will likely be in ruins for years.
The Troika has warmed up to the Greek government and Samaras (whom they initially disliked for his behaviour while in opposition and his reckless talk of renegotiating the bailout), and, prodded by the IMF, has come around to accept that Greece will not be able to repay all the money it owes. However, the government has continued to be weakened by corruption/tax evasion cases and difficulties at implementing its reforms. Since 2012, the government – and PASOK – have been embroiled in a corruption/tax evasion case surrounding the handling of a list with the names of thousands of suspected tax evaders, which France had handed over to the PASOK government in 2010. Now, former PASOK finance minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou is alleged to have removed the names of three family members from the list before transferring its contents to a USB while the tax authorities never received instructions to further pursue the investigation. Papakonstantinou faces a parliamentary inquiry. Evangelos Venizelos, PASOK’s current leader (and foreign minister since June 2013), who was finance minister from 2011 to 2012, is said to have kept the USB in his drawer for more than a year before sending it to Samaras and Stournaras. The government’s privatization program has continuously failed to meet its targets. They managed to sell Opap, the state gambling monopoly, to a consortium of Greek and east European investors but a Russian Gazprom bid for DEPA, the natural gas monopoly, fell through. This means that Greece has failed to meet the original privatization target of €50 billion and has been forced to scale back its privatization goals repeatedly. Greece still faces funding gaps in 2014 and 2015, requiring more bailout funds. Since late 2013, there has been talks in high circles that Greece will need a third bailout.
In June 2013, Samaras unilaterally and peremptorily closed down ERT, the state broadcaster, and sacked its 2000+ employees; announcing that a much leaner organization will replace it. The government’s decision, likely made to impress Troika inspectors. Six days later, the Council of State suspended the government’s decision to interrupt broadcasting and shut down ERT’s frequencies while rebel journalists continued operating a rump channel on other frequencies. Although ERT was widely described as corrupt, mismanaged and politically subservient; Samaras’ unilateral decision, which was opposed by PASOK and DIMAR (in fact, only XA and LAOS supported the government’s shutdown of ERT), provoked a firestorm of opposition. DIMAR decided to withdraw from government in late June 2013, prompting a cabinet shuffle which saw PASOK politicians enter cabinet – with Evangelos Venizelos as deputy Prime Minister and foreign minister.
In late 2013, Parliament narrowly approved a 2014 budget with further austerity measures and a controversial new tax package and in March 2014, it approved structural reforms. In both cases, the government’s majority in Parliament was extremely narrow – at about 152 to 153 votes, just over the absolute majority threshold (151) and always vulnerable to more dissidents. SYRIZA has been clamoring for early elections for quite a while now, and may finally get its chance next year: in early 2015, the Parliament must elect a new President, a procedure which requires a three-fifths majority on the third ballot (two-thirds on the first two ballots), and if this majority is not met, mandatory new elections are held for Parliament. Together, ND and PASOK only have 152 seats left, in addition to 13 from friendly DIMAR and a large number of various dissidents sitting in a 17-strong independent caucus and 6 miscellaneous unattached independents. SYRIZA has said that it will not support any candidate for President, and if he and other parties (ANEL has never missed an opportunity to help SYRIZA undermine the coalition, while XA and the KKE would never offer support) and independents deny the government a 180-seat majority to elect a consensus president, new elections would be held by March 2015. The government insists that it will see Parliament to the conclusion of its constitutional term in 2016, but its majority is very shaky.
In a bid to increase its credibility and international support, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras has attended several conferences and left-wing political rallies across the EU, becoming the posterchild for the EU’s fledgling anti-austerity and anti-neoliberal radical left. At home, SYRIZA has merged its many components in a single party (there was some question from the election law whether or not SYRIZA as a coalition rather than a united party would have been eligible for the 50-seat majority bonus at the polls) and broadened its base, welcoming ex-PASOK members or improving ties with Greece’s powerful Orthodox Church (still considered as the official religion and prominent in education). SYRIZA has not moderated its rhetoric, opposing austerity – promising to break ties with the Troika, audit Greece’s debt, undo many reforms and privatizations while still reassuring foreign audiences that SYRIZA does not want to leave the Eurozone. The KKE has continued to exist in its alternate reality, waging a war of words against SYRIZA (described as opportunists ‘making a systematic effort to rescue capitalism in the eyes of the working people’).
XA’s support has increased in polls since the last election, polling up to 15%. The party’s activities – charitable, violent and cultural (nationalist/fascist torch-lit rallies) – increased in 2012 and 2013, but the government, police, judiciary and Parliament dragged their feet on the question of XA – hesitating over which attitude to adopt against XA’s racist violence, hate speech (Holocaust denialism) and criminal activities. In September 2013, anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by an XA member in Athens, unleashing a wave of condemnation from all parties (XA included) and the government, and finally pushed Samaras to take stronger anti-fascist/anti-XA stances. A police crackdown led to the arrest of several XA members, including XA leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, who remains in jail awaiting trial. Prosecutors are attempting to connect XA’s leadership to activities including murder, attempted murder, explosions, possessing explosives and robbery.
The EP elections were therefore fairly important in Greece, and they were tied to the runoffs in local and regional elections (the first round of those elections was held on May 18). SYRIZA topped the poll, as had been widely expected, with 26.6% of the vote, a result which is just below the party’s result in June 2012 (26.9%) and over 100,000 votes lower (turnout dropped from 62.5% to 60%, SYRIZA’s vote from 1.655 million to 1.518 million). While SYRIZA has been tied with ND or narrowly ahead in most polling for the next general election, the party has generally to consistently improve its predicted vote share on its June 2012 result. This may indicate that SYRIZA hit its new ceiling in June 2012, and now struggles to attract new voters from the rank of non-voters (the turnout in the EP election was high, but it was at an all-time low in June 2012) or other parties (the KKE has slightly improved on its disastrous 2012 result, to 6-8%, while DIMAR will likely fall below the 3% threshold in the next election). In the new open list system, SYRIZA’s most popular candidate (and MEP-elect) was 92-year-old war hero Manolis Glezos, who famously tore down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis in 1941 and then became a persecuted and later exiled icon of the Greek left. Since 1974, he has been a leftist writer and active in politics (for PASOK in the 1980s and Synaspismos/SYRIZA since the 2000s). He won more votes (448,971) than any other candidate.
ND, the senior governing party, did very poorly with only 22.7% and a bit less than 1.3 million votes, down from 29.7% and 1.825 million votes in June 2012. ND continues to poll much better – about at its 2012 levels or slightly below – in polling for the general election, but it may have done poorly at the EP and local elections as voters felt freer to oppose the government (without risking anything). Its coalition partner, PASOK, disguised itself as Elia (‘The Olive Tree’), an electoral alliance of PASOK and several new small parties (such as Agreement for a New Greece and Dynamic Greece, two small parties founded by former PASOK members). It won 8% and fourth place, down from 12.3% for PASOK in the last general election and a loss of nearly 300,000 votes. Nevertheless, 8% for Elia turned out to be a surprisingly strong performance from the moribund PASOK, which is polling at about 5-6% in national polls. Yet, a bad result is still a bad result, and PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos’ hold on the fractious party was weakened by the weak result. Former Prime Minister George Papandreou, still a PASOK MP, seems to be organizing opposition to his old rival within PASOK, and Papandreou is said to have opposed PASOK’s transformation as Elia.
Some of PASOK’s lost support likely went to To Potami (The River), a new centre-left and pro-EU party founded in February 2014 by journalist and TV personality Stavros Theodorakis. The party can be placed on the centre-left of the spectrum (its MEPs have joined the S&D group, after hesitating with ALDE and the Greens) and it professes to be pro-European, but a lot about the new party is very vague – most of its talk revolves around meaningless buzzwords about reform, change and bland centrism/progressivism. Theodorakis toured the country with his backpack and gave low-key speeches on topics such as meritocracy and tax evasion. There have been claims that To Potami is financed by business interests to deny SYRIZA victory in the next elections, but Theodorakis denies such allegations. His party won 6.6% and two seats. The party did best in Crete (10.1%), an old Venizelist PASOK stronghold which has moved firmly into SYRIZA’s column since June 2012.
XA did very well, winning third place with a record 9.4% and 536,910 votes – in both cases, a marked improvement on its June 2012 result (6.92% and 426,025 votes). Although it no longer polls in the double-digits since the murder of Pavlos Fyssas and the crackdown on XA, the party has further expanded its base and retains a potential of up to 15-20% (based on polling regarding voters’ attitudes towards XA). Although the literature has often focused on XA’s activism in the populous central urban region of Attica (Athens-Piraeus), XA’s electorate is spread out across the country – it won 9.8% in the region of Attica (with results over 10% in all urban and suburban electoral districts of Athens and Piraeus) but its best prefecture was Laconia (15.5%), an old conservative stronghold in the southern Peloponnese, followed by the conservative Macedonian prefectures of Kilkis (13%) and Pella (12.8%).
The KKE expanded its support from 4.5% to 6.1% since the last election, which had been disastrous for the Communists, but 6.1% remains a weak result down on the KKE’s result in the pre-crisis 2009 EP election and on the low end of the Communist Party’s average range of support in the past. It has failed to regain a lot of the votes it had lost to SYRIZA in June 2012, when exit polls indicated that up to one-fifth of KKE’s May 2012 voters had voted for SYRIZA. In one of its terribly verbose and arcane Central Committee communiqués, the KKE announced that it would be leaving the GUE/NGL group (shared with SYRIZA) to sit as non-inscrits. It criticized the ‘altered nature’ of the group, which it claims has moved towards a single line (it blames Die Linke and, of course, SYRIZA for this development). The KKE had already been one of the least loyal members of the GUE/NGL, and the KKE’s 1950s-style Soviet-Stalinist silliness has been increasingly out of place in the GUE/NGL which has increasingly moved towards hip, New Left-style movements focused on immediate concerns (anti-austerity, anti-liberalism etc) and new ideologies (feminism, environmentalism).
ANEL did poorly, taking just 3.5% and narrowly clearing the threshold. This is down on 7.5% in the last general election (itself down on over 10% of the vote in May 2012) and a loss of nearly 265,000 votes. The party has been weakened by infighting and perhaps less interest in Panos Kammenos’ flamboyant antics; I presume that many of ANEL’s voters may have shifted to XA, although exit polls from June 2012 indicated that ANEL’s losses largely split between SYRIZA and ND with only limited loses to XA.
Several parties won significant support below the threshold. LAOS, defending two MEPs, won 2.7%, a weak result nonetheless up on the party’s June 2012 result (1.6%). ‘Greek European Citizens’ was a liberal list led by German FDP MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis (German-born, but of Greek descent), whose Hellenophilia and opposition to Greek austerity had become a poor fit in Germany’s FDP. The right-wing liberal list (Bridges), an alliance of Drasi and Recreate Greece (DX), won only 0.9%. It won 1.4%, with very strong results in random prefectures (Grevena in West Macedonia – 12.5%, Lasithi and Heraklion in Crete – 14.4% and 7%). DIMAR won only 1.2%, a terrible result which is a poor sign for the party ahead of potential early elections in 2014/2015. The Union for the Homeland and the People (1%) is a new right-wing party led by former ND Minister of Public Order Vyron Polydoras (2006-2007), who voted against a tax bill in late 2013 and had previously called for ND to work with XA against the Troika, and ex-ND/ANEL MP Christos Zois. The Greens, defending one MEP, won only 0.9% of the vote.
One small party had tremendously local appeal: the Party of Friendship, Equality and Peace (KIEKF/ΚΙΕΦ), a small party representing the small Muslim minority in Thrace (Turkish and Pomak) and which had at least one MP in the Parliament between 1996 and 2012 in alliance with PASOK (or ND, in 2004) but lost its seats after supporting DISY in May 2012 and DIMAR in June 2012. The party won 0.75% nationally, but won 41.7% in Rhodope prefecture (which is majority Muslim) and 25.9% in Xanthi prefecture (which has a very large Muslim minority) in Thrace. Except limited support in Evros (1.5%), the party won only 172 votes (out of 42,627) outside of those three prefectures!
Local and regional elections were overwhelmingly (and, compared to 2010 result, unusually) dominated by local considerations with weaker results for SYRIZA but also ND, while independent candidates – often elected on PASOK’s ballot in 2010 – did well. The major races were the mayoral contests in Athens and Thessaloniki – both cities gained by PASOK-backed candidates against ND administrations in 2010, and the governorship of the region of Attica (won by PASOK in 2010, the first election for regional governments following a regional and municipal downsizing and restructuring plan passed by PASOK alongside austerity measures). In Athens, incumbent independent mayor Giorgios Kaminis – backed by PASOK and DIMAR – was reelected in a tight runoff ballot against SYRIZA candidate Gavriil Sakelaridis, winning 51.4% to 48.6%. In the first round, the incumbent won 21.1% against 20% for SYRIZA, 16.9% for ND, 16.7% for Ilias Kasidiaris (XA) and 7.4% for the KKE. However, SYRIZA narrowly won the Attica region, with 50.8% in the runoff against the independent (ex-PASOK) incumbent; in the first round, SYRIZA won 23.8% against 22.1% for the incumbent, with ND (14.1%), XA (11.1%) and the Communists (10.7%) trailing. With a population of 3.8 million and the largest GDP of all regions in the country, Attica is by far the most important of Greece’s 13 regions and the office of regional governor is one of the most important devolved government positions in Greece – therefore, it will be SYRIZA’s first chance to lead a government. In Thessaloniki, popular incumbent left-wing mayor Yiannis Boutaris was reelected with 58.1% in the runoff against a ND candidate (a former Minister for Macedonia and Thrace); in the first round, SYRIZA won only 10.6% against 36% for Boutaris (who was backed by PASOK, DIMAR and Drasi) and 26.2% for ND. XA won 7.7%. In the region of Central Macedonia, the second-largest region (1.87 million) in Greece, independent conservative governor Apóstolos Tzitzikó̱stas (backed by ANEL, LAOS and Vyron Polydoras’ Union for the Homeland and the People) was reelected over a ND candidate (a former Greek basketball player and coach turned politician), with 71% in the runoff; in the first round, Tzitzikó̱stas won 32.8% against 18.6% for ND and 11.7% for SYRIZA.
ND won seven regions, SYRIZA won two while the remaining four regions were won by independent candidates. Besides Attica, the only other region won by SYRIZA were the Ionian Islands, where the radical left took 59.9% in the runoff against the ND incumbent. ND held Thessaly, while ex-PASOK independents incumbent held Crete and Western Greece in runoff battles against ND (by a very tight margin in the latter, by a landslide in the former). In mayoral contests, the KKE gained Patras (Greece’s third largest city), an independent (an ally of shipping tycoon and Olympiakos football club owner Vangelis Marinakis) gained Piraeus from ND, SYRIZA gained Larissa from ND while ND-DIMAR gained Heraklion from a PASOK independent.
Overall, according to an estimate by the pollster Public Issue, ND won 26.3% of the national local election vote on May 18 followed by SYRIZA (17.7%) and PASOK (16.2%). Independents and other parties won 11.5%, the KKE won 8.8%, XA won 8.1%, DIMAR won 3.8%, ANEL took 3.2% and far-left ANTARSYA won 2.3%. Compared to the 2010 local elections, ND’s support is down 6.3% and PASOK lost 18.5%, while SYRIZA gained nearly 13%. Compared to the last legislative elections in 2012, SYRIZA and ND are both down (-9.2% and -3.2% respectively) while PASOK is up (+3.9%) – as well as KKE (+4.3%) and XA (+1.1%). PASOK resisted well at the local and regional level, while SYRIZA’s performance was considerably weaker locally, but expectations for the radical left were low because SYRIZA lacks the local grassroots base of ND and PASOK. Therefore, SYRIZA was still counted as one of the main winners, while ND and PASOK both did comparatively poor. XA also did well, especially Ilias Kasidiaris in Athens, XA’s main local government base.
On June 9, Samaras shuffled his cabinet, changing several ministers and portfolios. Yannis Stournaras was replaced in finance by another technocrat, Gikas Hardouvelis, whose work will focus on structural reforms (liberalization of ‘closed professions’) and continuing the Troika’s reforms. Otherwise, the promotion of the right within cabinet was noted, with a new hardline conservative – Sofia Voultepsi (who claimed that refugees were ‘unarmed invaders’ controlled by ‘the Turks’) as government spokesperson while Makis ‘The Hammer’ Voridis, an hammer-wielding fascist and anti-Semite in his youth, returned to cabinet as health minister (a former member of LAOS, he was already a minister under Papademos and joined ND after LAOS left the Papademos cabinet).
Turnout: 28.97% (-7.34%)
MEPs: 21 (-1)
Electoral system: Closed list PR, no threshold (effectively 0.58%)
Fidesz-KDNP (EPP) 51.48% (-4.88%) winning 12 seats (-2)
Jobbik (NI) 14.67% (-0.1%) winning 3 seats (nc)
MSZP (S&D) 10.9% (-6.47%) winning 2 seats (-2)
DK (S&D) 9.75% (+9.75%) winning 2 seats (+2)
E2014-PM (G-EFA) 7.25% (+7.25%) winning 1 seat (+1)
LMP (G-EFA) 5.04% (+2.43%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Others 0.92% winning 0 seats (-1)
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s governing right-wing Fidesz won a landslide in the EP elections, a few months after Orbán was reelected to a second term in office in legislative elections back in April 2014. Orbán is a highly controversial leader in Europe, whose government and policies have been decried by foreign and local opponents as being dangerously autocratic and intolerant of criticism and democratic norms. Yet, fresh from a very comfortable victory to a second successive term in office back in April, Orbán is nevertheless still hugely popular at home and he is one of the EU’s strongest and most popular leaders. Orbán and his party have, since the fall of communism and the first free elections in 1990, evolved from an anti-communist and liberal/libertarian party of fiery student leaders to a conservative party with strong dirigiste inclinations on economic issues and a certain nationalist tint. Fidesz has been the strongest right-wing party in the country since 1998, traditionally the main rival to the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which grew out of the old communist party into a very centrist and pro-European party which has often been keener than Fidesz on neoliberal economics or austerity polices. Orbán already served as Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002, before losing the 2002 and 2006 elections to a Socialist-Liberal (SZDSZ) coalition. However, the last MSZP-SZDSZ government, led by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2009), led to the near-total destruction of the MSZP as a major party. Shortly after a narrow victory in 2006, a secret speech given by Gyurcsány was leaked; in this expletive-filled speech, Gyurcsány said that the government had been lying since he took office and that it had done nothing it could be proud of. Despite mass protests, Gyurcsány did not leave office until early 2009. In April 2009, Gyurcsány resigned and was replaced by Gordon Bajnai. A little-known politician, Bajnai cobbled together a coalition with the SZDSZ, and took office on a program of major spending cuts. The Hungarian economy was badly in crisis in 2009, with growth falling by nearly 7% and the country struggling to cope with a high deficit and the largest debt in Eastern Europe (80%). In 2008, the IMF and the EU granted Budapest a $25 billion loan, but Hungary needed to cut spending and implement painful structural reforms (pensions, most notably) to keep up with IMF guidelines. The government, despite resistance from sectors of the MSZP, cut spending by nearly 4% of GDP, cut social spending and public sector wages and cut social security contributions (to increase Hungary’s low employment rate). The government won plaudits abroad for its orthodox fiscal management, but with high unemployment (7.5% in 2006 to 11% in 2010), high corruption, criminality problems and the legacy of 2006, the MSZP remained deeply unpopular at home. In 2008, Fidesz, leading a policy of obstinate opposition to the government, had successfully organized and passed a referendum in which voters abolished healthcare user fees, daily fees for hospital stays and tuition fees introduced by the MSZP. The MSZP was defeated by Fidesz by wide margins in the 2006 local elections and 2009 EP elections.
The 2009 EP elections saw the strong performance of Jobbik, a far-right party which won 14.8% of the vote and 3 MEPs. Nationalism has been a key issue in Hungarian politics since 1920, and Hungary’s contemporary politics and political culture cannot really be understood without understanding the legacy of the Treaty of Trianon (1920) on Hungary. Defeated in World War I, Hungary lost 72% of its pre-war territory and 64% of its pre-war population; it also lost access to the sea and the country’s industrial base was separated from its sources of raw materials. Although the territory which Hungary lost had a non-Hungarian majority, large ethnic Hungarians minorities now lived outside the country’s border, especially in Slovakia and Romania. Since 1990, Hungarian governments have not sought a revision of the borders, but it has, from time to time, advocated for the rights of Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries – there are substantial Hungarian minorities in neighboring EU member-states Slovakia (8.5%) and Romania (6.2%) and this has severely complicated and, at times, poisoned Hungary’s relations with its neighbors (especially Slovakia). The economic crisis led to an upsurge in nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment in Hungary. Politicians on the right, including many in Fidesz, lashed out at ‘foreign speculators’ and foreigners (and Jews) who allegedly controlled Hungary’s wealth, and irredentist visions of Greater Hungary also increased. Anti-Roma views, a favourite of the far-right across Eastern Europe (and now Western Europe), also gained steam. The Romas numbered around 309,000 in 2011 (3-4% of the population). The Hungarian far-right depicts them as criminals, stealing Hungarian jobs and leeching on welfare money.
Jobbik is a far-right and ultra-nationalist party founded in 2003; it is one of the EU’s most distasteful far-right parties, in a league of its own with the likes of XA. In 2007, Jobbik founded its own civilian militia/paramilitary group, the Magyar Gardá, a charming collection of uniformed thugs and fruitcakes. The Magyar Gardá was ordered to be disbanded by a court order in 2008. Jobbik has the traditional populist, anti-establishment, anti-globalization, ethno-nationalist, socially conservative anti-European rhetoric of much of the far-right, but it adds irredentism and particularly virulent anti-Israeli/anti-Semitic ramblings (it denies claims that it is anti-Semitic, claiming to be anti-Zionist/anti-Israeli, but denunciations of Israel/Jews as ‘conquerors’ and greedy capitalists is commonplace; and many Jobbik politicians have said anti-Semitic things in the past, and in 2012 a Jobbik deputy leader famously asked for the Jews in Parliament and government to be ‘tallied up’).
Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz roared to a tremendous landslide victory in the 2010 legislative elections, ending up with 52.7% of the vote and 263 out of 386 seats while the MSZP was absolutely obliterated, being reduced to only 19% and 59 seats. Jobbik won 16.7% and 47 seats. With a two-thirds majority, Fidesz and the very strong-headed Orbán quickly moved to shore up their own power over Hungarian politics. The result has been extremely contentious, giving Orbán (to outsiders, and many Hungarians) all the trappings of a Vladimir Putin-like autocratic leader who crushes independent institutions. Orbán quickly moved to dismiss the heads of several government agencies and institutions while a Fidesz drone was elected to the presidency. The government confronted the Constitutional Court after the highest judicial body invalidated a law which would impose a 98% tax to all public sector severance payments over $10,000, backdated to January 2010. Fidesz reacted with legislation which removed the Court’s power over the state budget, taxes and other financial matters; a few months later, it was the independent budget watchdog (the Fiscal Council) which was axed in favour of a new council stacked with Orbán allies.
In 2010 and 2011, a new media law attracted significant controversy, especially as debate coincided with Hungary’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2011. The new law forced all media outlets (print, broadcast, online) to register with a new media authority, which can revoke licenses for infractions and a new media council, which can impose fines for violating some very vaguely defined content rules, allegedly to protect the people’s ‘dignity’ or for ‘inciting hatred’ against minorities, majorities and so forth. The members of these new bodies are all nominated by the ruling party. The furor it raised caused Fidesz to temporarily retreat. In 2011, the Constitutional Court excluded print and online media from the scope of the media authority’s sanctioning powers and struck down clauses which limited journalists’ ability to investigate (confidentiality of sources etc). However, in 2012, the EU still felt that amendments to the law had not addressed most of its problems with Hungary’s law. Fidesz and its allies control most of the domestic media, and government is the largest advertiser in the country. In 2011, the media council did not renew the license of an anti-Orbán radio station. Under new media rules, the funding for the public media is now centralized under one body, which had laid off over a thousand employees as part of a streamlining process. There have been major concerns with regards to self-censorship by journalists and the pro-government sycophancy of much of the media. In 2013, Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report rated Hungary as ‘partly free’.
In April 2011, the Parliament adopted a new constitution to replace one written by the communists in 1949 (but obviously heavily amended since 1989). The new constitution, described as socially and fiscally conservative, beginning with preamble references to the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen, God, Christianity, the fatherland and family values, a constitutional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and a ‘golden rule’ limiting the public debt to 50% of GDP. Certain policy areas, such as family policy, taxation, pensions, public debt, morality, culture and religion were classified as areas of ‘cardinal law’ which may only be altered with a two-thirds majority. Clauses about ethnic Hungarians abroad, which opened the door to voting rights in Hungarian elections, irked Slovakia. The opposition MSZP and the green-liberal Politics Can Be Different (LMP) walked out of the drafting process, dominated by Fidesz, demanding a referendum on the matter and decrying the lack of consultation. However, with a two-thirds majority, Fidesz easily adopted the new constitution despite the opposition of the centre-left and far-right and protesters outside Parliament.
In 2013, new controversial amendments removed the Constitutional Court’s ability to refer to judicial precedent predating the January 2012 enactment of the constitution and may no longer reject constitutional amendments on matters of substance (only on procedural grounds). The amendments also included other laws struck down by courts in the past, including strict limits on advertising during election campaigns (a rule seen as favouring Fidesz).
A judicial reform placed significant power over the judiciary in the hands of the new National Judicial Authority, whose head is the wife of a Fidesz MEP who drafted most of the new constitution and whose powers include nominating many local and higher-court justices.
Upon taking office, the new government alarmed investors when some Fidesz leaders mentioned the word ‘default’ and warned that Hungary could become Greece. Foreign investors went into a frenzy, badly hurting confidence in the Hungarian economy even if its fundamentals were much stronger than those of Greece. Orbán quickly moved to smooth out the crisis by announcing new economic measures in June 2010: cuts in income and corporate taxes, the introduction of a 16% flat tax on incomes, a temporary windfall tax on banks, banning mortgages in foreign currencies and cuts in public spending. The government promised to reduce its budget deficit to 3.8% of GDP, a target agreed upon with the IMF and EU in 2008; its economic program aimed to reduce corruption, common petty scams and corrupt dealings in Hungarian businesses and create jobs.
The windfall tax on banks, aimed to raise 0.5% of GDP ($560 million), worried foreign banks in Hungary. In July 2010, the EU and IMF broke off talks with Budapest over the renewal of a $26 billion loan. The EU-IMF were worried about the windfall tax on banks, and demanded stronger commitments to spending cuts and structural reforms in state-owned enterprises. With talks broken off, Budapest announced new economic measures in October 2010: temporary ‘crisis taxes’ on largely foreign-owned telecommunication, energy and retail companies, renegotiation of public-private partnerships, a tax break for families with children and redirecting private pension fund contribution to the state. Orbán said that it was time for those with profits to ‘give more’. The main victims of the ‘crisis taxes’ on telecommunication, energy and retail were foreign companies. The government announced that those in the private pension system who didn’t opt back into the state pension fund would lose all rights to a state pension.
In 2011, the government detailed its spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit to a targeted 1.9% of GDP in 2014. These included an extension of the bank tax, but also cuts in state subsidies for disability pensions, drugs and public transportation and a postponement of corporate tax cuts (from 19% to 10%) until 2013. The government refused to call these measures ‘austerity’. In November 2011, after disappointing economic results, the government reopened talks for assistance (which it called ‘a safety net’) from the IMF. Although the government successfully cut the deficit in 2011, growth remained low, the forint fell and bond auctions failed. The government’s opponents gloated at the failure of Orbán’s ambitious gamble of ‘economic independence’ from the major global financial institutions. In December 2011, the EU and IMF once again broke off preliminary talks, over concerns over new legislation which weakened the powers of the governor of the central bank at the expense of the Prime Minister.
In early 2012, the European Commission launched legal action against Budapest on three issues (independence of the central bank, independence of a new data protection authority, the forced retirement of over 200 judges who were older than 62), a decision which led to more nationalist flourish from Fidesz but did force Orbán to be a bit more conciliatory.
Hungary’s economy faces challenges – the country slipped back into recession in 2012 and growth was only 1.1% in 2013 and Hungary remains Central/Eastern Europe’s most indebted country (79% of GDP) – but the deficit has fallen to only 2.2% of GDP and unemployment has recently declined below 10% (9.1%) and the overall economic performance has not been all negative. Furthermore, many aspects of Orbán’s populist and nationalist economic policies (denouncing the IMF/EU, high taxes on banks and largely foreign-owned companies, cuts in income taxes for families, a law allowing Hungarians to repay their mortgages in foreign currency at very good terms while banks are forced to swallow the difference) have been very popular with Hungarian voters. To the crowds, Fidesz plays very heavily on nationalist sentiments – with speeches from Orbán and his stooges decrying ‘colonization’, lashing out at foreign bankers, European bureaucrats and IMF technocrats, but is far more polished when actually working with said technocrats.
Fidesz’ case has also been helped by the centre-left’s increasing fragmentation and its troubles at picking up all the pieces from its historic defeat in 2010. The MSZP, led by the rather hapless Attila Mesterházy, has faced competition from two new parties led by former Prime Ministers: Ferenc Gyurcsány founded the Democratic Coalition (DK), a centre-left liberal party slightly to the right of the MSZP in 2011; Gordon Bajnai founded Together 2014 (E14) in collaboration with anti-Orbán civil society movements and later teamed up with Dialogue for Hungary (PM), a party founded by dissidents from the green LMP over the LMP’s refusal to ally itself with E14 and later the MSZP and DK. The MSZP, DK, E14-PM and a new Liberal Party formed a common front – Unity – for the April 2014 elections.
Despite a very anti-Orbán campaign from the centre-left, it was no match for Fidesz, which was easily reelected with a reduced majority. Fidesz won 44.9% against 25.6% for Unity and 20.2% for Jobbik; but thanks to Hungary’s mixed-member system (lacking a compensatory element) and Fidesz’s changes to it, Fidesz was able to narrowly retain its highly important two-thirds majority in Parliament. During the campaign, the ruling party was also unduly advantaged by “restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the State” (citing the OSCE’s report) which resulted in Fidesz’s domination of the airwaves. Nevertheless, the election was still won fair and square by Orbán, while the liberal and pro-European centre-left barely improved its result from 2010. Offering clear and tangible benefits to a large mass of voters and a simple populist-nationalist message, Fidesz blew the centre-left – mostly reliant on sophisticated attacks on Orbán’s autocratic tendencies and purported threats to democracy – out of the water. The far-right, which also has a clear and simple message (the vilification of enemies, real or imagined, the creation of scapegoats and a campaign more populist than extremist), also did well. Orbán, like Jobbik to a lesser extent, has created and mobilized a mass following for himself, with supporters who worship him as a nationalist icon fighting for freedom and national sovereignty.
Cultural arguments, as I had explained in my post on the Hungarian elections back in April (see link above), would posit that Orbán (and Jobbik’s) popularity in Hungary stems from the absence of a long experience with democracy (under Miklós Horthy in the interwar era and then under communist rule during the Cold War) and a tradition of strongmen who still retain some amount of goodwill (Miklós Horthy, who remains a controversial icon for nationalists, and communist-era dictator János Kádár), which has in turn created a yearning for ‘strong leaders’ (like Orbán) who embody national unity and express some sort of ‘siege mentality’ (particularly powerful in Hungary, which continues to struggle with the Trianon trauma/tragedy). Additionally, what experience Hungary has with democracy since 1989 has been tainted by corruption (although Orbán is no cleaner himself and a new camarilla of petty oligarchs dependent on Fidesz largess has replaced an old petty oligarchy who prospered under the MSZP) and unpopular neoliberal/capitalist policies. The economic reforms in the 1990s did not produce the sense that things are looking up, breeding a lingering current of negative views towards ‘capitalism’. The claim is that the neoliberal reforms resulted in foreign intrusion, the cheap selling out of Hungary’s wealth and businesses, unemployment, corruption, inefficient government and increased criminality. The left has accepted capitalism as the doxa or dominant paradigm, but to voters instinctively angry at the ‘capitalist’ system, only Jobbik and, to a lesser extent, Orbán present appealing alternatives. The left, in part due to its own failures and in part thanks to a pro-Fidesz media, has been associated with neoliberal reforms and corruption (indeed, during the April campaign, a MSZP stalwart was arrested for tax evasion – $1,000,000 in a secret account in Austria); it has additionally failed to renew its leadership (Gyurcsány is damaged goods, Mesterházy’s competence is limited and only Bajnai seems more solid) or its base (it has an aging electorate, while Jobbik eats up young anti-system voters).
In a very low turnout and low-stakes election, Fidesz performed very well, taking 51.5% of the vote. It was one of the largest victories for a ruling party in these EP elections (after Malta, which has a very stable two-party system), although the record low turnout means that Fidesz’s raw vote was quite poor (1.19 million, down from 2.26 million in April 2014 and the lowest vote for Fidesz in an EP election). For the centre-left, after uneasy unity in April, the EP election was to be a ‘safe’ chance for each party to measure its forces and prove itself independently. The result was an absolute disaster for the MSZP, which won 10.9%, the party’s lowest result in its history (with only 252,000 votes). It ended up in a terrible third place, placing behind Jobbik. While Jobbik’s second place showing, the first time it has come second in a national election, is highly symbolic and only intensifies the blow to the MSZP, the far-right’s result was fairly paltry: Jobbik’s popular vote share is down significantly on its historic 20.2% it took in April 2014 and down from its 2009 EP election result. I suppose, in a low turnout election, its poor showing can be attributed to Jobbik’s base of protest voters in low-income small town regions not showing up. Turnout was indeed below average in many of Jobbik’s strongholds in the east of the country, and significantly above average in Budapest (38.8%), where Jobbik has its worst results in the country.
Jobbik’s second place showing owes to the division of the left. The MSZP remained the largest centre-left party, but its three rivals had strong showings: Ferenc Gyurcsány’s DK won 9.8% and proved to be a strong challenge to the MSZP not only in urban Budapest but also in rural areas (12% in the metro districts and county towns, 9.3% in cities and 6.6% in villages; Gordon Bajnai’s E14-PM won 7.3% with a strong performance in the largest urban areas (10.5%) but poorer results in towns and villages (5.6% and 3.7% respectively) while the green-liberal LMP, which had saved its parliamentary presence by a hair in April (5.3%) barely passed the threshold this time again (5.04%). In Budapest, the traditional redoubt of the left (especially in this era of Fidesz hegemony), the MSZP placed fourth behind Fidesz (43.8%), DK (13.1%) and E14-PM (13.1%) with only 11.5%. Jobbik won only 9.9% in the Hungarian capital, and the LMP won 7.9%. The MSZP did best in Csongrád County (16.7%, including the university town of Szeged) and the poor eastern counties of Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg (14.6%) and Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén (13.2%); the DK and E14-PM both had their best results in Budapest, although DK also did well in Komárom-Esztergom County (11.6%) and Baranya County (10.6%). The far-right’s best result came from Heves County (22.9%), a poor eastern county home to Jobbik leader Gábor Vona (he is from Gyöngyös). Jobbik also broke 20% in neighboring Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén and Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok counties.
Next: Italy – complex and confusing as always, but so fascinating every time, requires its own separate post to clearly break down a very significant EP election result.