Category Archives: Election Preview

Election Preview I: Colombia 2018

Congressional elections were held in Colombia on March 11, 2018. The first round of the presidential election will be held on May 27, 2018 with a second round, if necessary, scheduled for June 17, 2018. Two open presidential primaries were held in parallel to the congressional elections on March 11.

This unusual election preview below includes a lengthy explanation of Colombia’s political institutions and electoral systems, as well as more theoretical and perhaps esoteric reflections on Colombian democracy and politics which may help explain some of the main puzzles or intrigues of the country’s messy and often infuriating politics. Time dependent, I may post a second preview post prior to next Sunday’s first round ballot. I welcome readers’ questions on the topic.

Colombia’s Political and Electoral System

Colombia is a decentralized presidential republic. It has three branches of government – presidential, legislative and judicial – with, in theory, separation of powers and checks and balances. In addition to the three branches, there are two independent autonomous ‘control bodies’ (órganos de control) – the Public Ministry, made up of the Inspector General (Procuraduría General) and the Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), and the Comptroller General (Contraloría General). The Inspector General (Procurador, not to be confused with the Attorney General’s office, Fiscalía) monitors compliance with the Constitution and the laws and protects human rights and societal interests, but – more importantly – he wields significant disciplinary power over public officials, allowed to remove them from office and ban them from holding public offices for an extensive range of offences, open to discretion and abuse (see article 278 of the Constitution).


Rear entrance of the Casa de Nariño, presidential palace in Bogotá (own picture)

The President of the Republic (Presidente de la República) is the head of state, head of government and supreme administrative authority (and commander-in-chief of the armed forces). The President is directly elected to a single, non-renewable four year term in a two round election, with an absolute majority required to win in the first round. Because Colombia recognizes blank votes (votos en blanco) as valid votes, an absolute majority is not required to win in the runoff.

The original text of the 1991 Constitution limited presidents to a single, non-renewable term, thereby banning both consecutive and non-consecutive reelection (under the previous constitution, written in 1886, non-consecutive reelection was allowed). In 2004, the Constitution was amended to allow one single reelection (either consecutive and non-consecutive), setting a two term limit. In 2009-2010, a highly controversial attempt to hold a citizen-initiated referendum to allow for a second reelection (for a total of three terms) was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in February 2010. The 2015 constitutional reform abolished presidential reelection, returning to the original text of the 1991 Constitution. The President must be a natural-born citizen over the age of 30.

The President freely appoints and dismisses cabinet ministers, diplomats, directors of administrative departments and other heads of public institutions. In addition to these direct appointments, the President nominates three candidates for Attorney General (elected by the Supreme Court for a four-year term), one of the three candidates for Inspector General (elected by the Senate for a four-year term), three of the nine magistrates of the Constitutional Court (elected by the Senate from lists of three nominees, for staggered eight-year terms) and the seven members of the disciplinary jurisdictional chamber of the Supreme Council of Judiciary (elected by Congress from lists of three nominees). The President also appoints five of the seven members of the board of directors of the Bank of the Republic (central bank), in addition to the finance minister and a general director elected by the other members.

Through the government, the executive branch has significant influence over lawmaking – unlike in the United States, ministers can directly introduce pieces of legislation, and in practice it often intervenes throughout the legislative process to ensure approval of the government’s agenda (sometimes using ethically questionable, if not illegal, means). Any piece of legislation passed by Congress must be sanctioned (approved) by the President, as head of government, who has between six and twenty days (depending on the length of the bill) to object to it, either partially or in its entirety. If objected to, a bill is automatically returned to Congress, which can override the presidential objection with the support of an absolute majority of members in both houses, except if the bill is objected to on grounds of unconstitutionality, in which case the bill – if both houses insist – is sent to the Constitutional Court, which rules on the matter within six days.

According to the letter of the Constitution, the President and the government’s key powers include foreign relations, national defence, public order, the management of public administration, the oversight of public services, fiscal and economic policy.

Whereas under the 1886 constitution, the president was all-powerful with weak or nonexistent checks and balances, the 1991 Constitution has – at least in theory, if not always entirely in practice – limited executive prerogatives. For examples, the President’s power to declare states of exception (state of foreign war, state of internal disturbance, state of social, economic or environmental emergency) and rule by decree is limited in time (e.g. the state of internal disturbance is limited to 90 days, renewable twice, the second renewal requiring senatorial approval) and scope (e.g. decrees must be directly related to the situation, the Constitutional Court must rule on the constitutionality of decrees and human rights cannot be suspended).

The Vice President (Vicepresidente de la República) is elected simultaneously to the President on a single ticket (fórmula vicepresidencial). The Vice President’s only constitutional duty is to replace the president during temporary or permanent vacancies, although the President may appoint the Vice President to any office in the executive branch or entrust him/her with special assignments or responsibilities. Historically, since the office’s recreation by the 1991 Constitution, the Vice President has not been a high-profile office, unlike in the United States, and the choice of running-mates during presidential campaigns has received far less attention than in the United States. However, since 2014, there are signs that the vice presidency is becoming a more important office – both in terms of public visibility in office and its possibility as a stepping stone to the presidency. A sitting Vice President cannot run for President unless he/she resigns from office at least one year before the election.


The Colombian Congress (Congreso) is a bicameral legislature composed of the Senate (Senado) and House of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes), both elected simultaneously for fixed four-year terms beginning on July 20.

Departments of Colombia (source: Wikimedia)

The Senate will have up to 108 seats. 100 are elected in a single national constituency (which includes voters abroad) and two are elected in a special national constituency for indigenous communities. Since the 2015 constitutional reform, the runner-up in the presidential election will be automatically entitled to a seat in the Senate. As part of the November 2016 peace agreement, the FARC will be entitled to at least five seats in the Senate ex officio, for two terms (2018-2022, 2022-2026) regardless of their actual electoral result.

The House of Representatives will have up to 171 seats. 161 are elected in regular territorial constituencies corresponding to the country’s 32 departments and Bogotá (capital district) with each constituency having a minimum of two seats with additional ones for every 365,000 inhabitants (or fraction greater than 182,500 above the first 365,000). The district magnitude for the territorial constituencies vary between 2 and 18.  12 departments have 2 seats, 7 have 3 or 4, 5 have 5, 6 have 6 or 7 and three (Valle, Antioquia, Bogotá) have more than ten (13, 17 and 18 respectively). A 2005 constitutional amendment established that the number of seats by department would be adjusted on the basis of population growth, and that no department would have less seats than it had in 2002, but it has been hard to rigorously apply that rule given that there has been no legally recognized census since 1985 (there will be one this year – assuming they actually remember to recognize it by law, unlike in 2005).

3 are elected in two special national constituencies – one for Afro-Colombians (2 seats) and one for indigenous communities (1 seat). The international expatriates constituency elects one member, down from two. Since the 2015 constitutional reform, the runner-up’s running-mate (vice presidential candidate) in the presidential election will be automatically entitled to a seat in the House. As part of the November 2016 peace agreement, the FARC will be entitled to at least five seats in the House ex officio, for two terms (2018-2022, 2022-2026) regardless of their actual electoral result. The 2015 constitutional reform created a special seat for the raizal community of San Andrés and Providencia, but it has not yet been implemented by secondary legislation.

Both houses are equal in the regular legislative process, and bills may originate in either house with two exceptions (revenue bills in the House, international relations bills in the Senate). Both houses have exclusive powers, which, on balance, make the Senate superior in the formal constitutional hierarchy. The Senate, among other things, elects the magistrates of the Constitutional Court and the Inspector General (Procurador General), approves the resignations of the President and Vice President, allows the transit of foreign troops and authorizes declarations of war. The House’s exclusive powers are of lesser importance, although, like in the United States, it begins and votes on impeachment proceedings against senior public officials including the President the judges of the three highest courts (the trial is held in the Senate, although its conviction powers are limited). The House’s Commission of Accusations – which recommends articles of impeachment – is where accusations against senior public officials go to die, earning it the nickname “commission of absolutions”.

Congress of the Republic in Bogotá (own picture)

In political culture, the Senate is clearly hierarchically superior and more prestigious, with the House being a stepping stone to the Senate in the typical political career path. Senators, in part because because they are elected in a single national constituency, are far more well-known and receive the bulk of media coverage and attention, while few representatives get national attention (those who do are those from Bogotá, often there on the way to higher places). Senatorial candidates usually unofficially run with one or more candidates for the House as a fórmula or ‘ticket’ – a way of coordinating or managing vote distribution in a competitive preferential vote system. The fórmula also have a clear clientelist function: the senator is the cacique, while his/her representatives are the operators or gamonales. But ‘non-clientelist’ senators also run with a fórmula. The fórmulas also show that, despite the national constituency, many senators have regionally-concentrated bases of support, in the most extreme of cases not extending beyond the boundaries of their departments. Senators are seen – by themselves, by voters, by observers and by analysts – as representing their region or department, and it is rather simple after each election to calculate ‘how many’ senators each department has. Most of the smaller departments are unrepresented in the Senate (unlike before 1991, when senators, like representatives were elected by department) — there have been proposals, most recently in the first versions of the 2015 constitutional reform, to create territorial constituencies to provide senatorial representation to the smaller departments.

Electoral system for Congress

Both houses of Congress are elected by proportional representation. The threshold is 3% of the valid national vote (Senate), half of the quota (House districts with 3 or more seats) or a third of the quota (House districts with 2 seats).

Parties run a single list by constituency which may be either closed (non-preferential) or open (preferential). For closed lists, the list of candidates is pre-ordered and cannot be altered, and voters only mark the party’s logo on the ballot. For open lists, voters may vote for one individual candidate on the party’s list, identified on the ballot by a number. The list is entirely re-ordered based on the number of preferential votes obtained by each candidate, with the allocation of seats done in descending order, beginning with the candidate who has the most votes. Voters may also vote only for the party list, but that vote is valid only for purposes of the threshold but not for reordering the list. Most parties run open lists, which allow for different political factions to aggregate under a single party but to avoid any infighting over list ordering.

Seats are first distributed between parties (lists) using the d’Hondt method/cifra repartidora and only then between candidates on the lists, so there is an incentive for vote pooling – or to recruit individual candidates who will win enough votes on their own to help their party over the threshold.

The current electoral system, somewhat unique in the world although similar to the Brazilian electoral system, was adopted by the 2003 political reform. Prior to 2003, Colombia’s electoral system was an astounding monstrosity – officially a closed-list single quota largest remainder (SQLR) system, parties could run more than one list per constituency, so in practice it was essentially a single non-transferable vote (SNTV) because so few lists reached the quota so the bulk of seats were allocated to lists in descending order of largest remainders. Parties – particularly the Liberal Party – came to understand that they could win more seats by running multiple list, perfecting a widespread practice which was known as operación avispa, conjuring up an image of a swarm of wasps (avispas). This electoral system reinforced and worsened the extreme personalism of Colombia’s political system, and led to the collapse of the traditional party system as personalist factions became recognized one-man ‘political parties’, the so-called microempresas electorales (electoral micro-businesses).

The 2002 congressional elections illustrate the sheer horror of the pre-reform electoral system. For the 100 seats in the Senate’s national constituencies, there were 321 personal lists from 63 parties (148 of them from the Liberal Party), with 96 lists from 41 parties obtaining seats. Only 12 seats were attributed on the basis of the quota, all other seats were therefore distributed by largest remainder, i.e. essentially SNTV. Only three lists won more than one seat.

The new electoral system, first used in the 2006 elections, was initially med by cautious optimism in the electoral studies literature. After four elections under the new system, it has – unsurprisingly – not been the silver bullet. Its greatest success has been to significantly reduce the number of parties, if only by re-ordering personalist electoral competition under the umbrella of a reduced number of recognized parties. There are fewer parties, artificially upheld by arbitrarily rigid legislation on political parties, but it is questionable whether parties are any stronger as a result. Most parties run open lists, which means that congressional campaigns remain focused on the person (candidate) rather than the party and, much like under the pre-reform electoral system, parties therefore still have very little incentive to develop coherent policy platforms for congressional elections. Open lists tend to encourage or aggravate problems including excessive personalism, internal fragmentation of parties, expensive campaigns, vote buying, clientelism, infiltration of illegal money or groups and lower female representation. The design of the ballot paper – with individual candidates, up to 100 in the Senate’s national constituency, identified by a number in a small box – is confusing to voters, so there has been a high number of unmarked or invalid votes in congressional elections (16% in 2014). Political reforms in 2015 and 2017 included proposals to gradually move towards mandatory closed lists, but this provision was removed from the 2015 reform and the 2017 political reform died. However, it is also debatable whether closed lists would be the silver bullet – you cannot change a political culture where personalism is so ingrained only through electoral reform, and intra-party democracy remains very poorly developed in Colombia (despite constitutional and legal mandates for it) so there is some degree of ‘fear’ that closed lists would lead to the ‘dictatorship of the pen’. Unfortunately, valid compromise solutions between the open lists and mandatory closed lists – like semi-open lists – are rarely taken seriously.

The sheer number of congressional candidates (2,737 in 2018) makes the vote counting process lengthy and open to manipulation and fraud, without most people noticing, particularly with individual candidates who are only a few thousand votes for gaining or losing a seat. The most serious recent case of evidenced electoral fraud is the MIRA party, which fell below the 3% threshold in the 2014 elections and lost three seats in the Senate. In February 2018, after a gargantuan process, the Council of State ruled in the party’s favour and ordered the party’s top three candidates to be sworn in as senators (although with only a few months left in the term). In short, the Council of State’s ruling (ref. # 11001-03-28-00-2014-00117-00) found evidence of unexplained irregularities (differences between individual precinct results and official consolidated results), valid votes for the party being counted as invalid because of pens’ ink stains and irregular actions in the log archives of the vote count software. Similar allegations have been made about some of the results in the March 2018 elections.

All ballots include a box for a blank vote – voto en blanco – which is counted as a valid vote. Unmarked ballots and invalid votes (mistakes, marking more than one box etc.) are counted separately but do not count as valid votes. According to article 258 of the Constitution, an election must be repeated if there is a plurality of blank votes (prior to the 2009 political reform, it required an absolute majority of blank votes). In the event that a congressional election must be repeated, lists which did not reach the threshold may not participate. There were a plurality of blank votes in the 2014 Andean Parliament elections and the 2006 and 2010 elections for the indigenous special constituency, but these elections were not repeated because of the high costs it would have involved for ‘unimportant’ elections which draw exceedingly low turnout to begin with. In fact, Colombia abolished direct elections to the Andean Parliament, a little-known talking shop widely dismissed as irrelevant, after 2014.

The ‘special constituencies’ for indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians

The Senate has a special constituency for indigenous peoples which returns two senators, and the House has special constituencies for Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples which return two and one representatives. These special constituencies were created by the 1991 Constitution to ensure special representation for groups which had hitherto been largely underrepresented in the political process.

Unlike with the Maori seats in New Zealand, there is no separate ‘electoral roll’ for Afro-Colombians or indigenous peoples, so all the different constituencies appear on the same ballot and it is up to the voter whether to vote in the national/territorial constituencies or in one of the special constituencies – but you may only vote in one (this only adds to ballot design confusion). In practice, the ‘black’ and indigenous seats are elected by very few voters – in 2014, 0.8% of votes were cast for the indigenous seat in the House (116k), 1.7% of votes were cast for the Afro seats (237k). Slightly more votes (310k or 2.2%) were cast for the two indigenous seats in the Senate. Yet, in the 2005 census, at least 1.4 million identified as indigenous and 4.1 million as Afro-Colombian.

Candidates for the indigenous constituencies must have held a position of traditional authority in their community or have been leader of an indigenous organization (accredited by the organization and confirmed by the Ministry of Interior). Candidates for the Afro constituency in the House must be “members of the respective community” and endorsed by an organization registered with the Directorate of Affairs for Black Communities of the Ministry of Interior – a much vaguer definition, which has been inconsistently applied and resulted in endless obscure legal battles. Since 2011, national parties cannot legally run for the special seats, which are therefore only contested by supposedly ethnic/racial parties or groups, which do not have to meet the threshold to maintain their party registration and face very little legal scrutiny from the authorities. The opposite, however, is not true: Indigenous and Afro-Colombian parties can endorse candidates in other elections and constituencies, which has turned many of them into highly prized ‘endorsement factories’ (fábrica de avales) or wholesale satellite parties. The 2003 electoral reform, which also extended to the special constituencies, paradoxically increased inter-party competition and party fragmentation — because it is very difficult for a single party list to be able to win both seats (a similar trend occurred in departments of low district magnitude).

The sparse literature on the special ethnic minority constituencies is largely critical and negative, for good reason. The Afro constituency has turned into a freak show, which has failed to provide any effective group representation for Afro-Colombian communities — the seats have, since 2002, gone either to celebrities or criminals, neither of which have proven to be particularly talented at representing the communities they are supposed to represent. The seats have increasingly little legitimacy in the eyes of many Afro-Colombian community leaders and activists, who have turned to NGOs and even the Congressional Black Caucus in the US to lobby for their interests.

The 2014 elections for the Afro seats turned into an absurd circus. Both seats went to the ‘Ebony Foundation of Colombia’ (Funeco), an obscure group controlled by the controversial Yahir Acuña (Afro representative 2010-14, regular representative 2014-15), investigated for parapolítica. The kicker: both of the two Afro representatives were whites (and both of them equally as shady as Yahir). Their election was challenged in court(s) on various grounds (including that they did not represent the black population), which began a protracted legal battle with a confusing series of contradictory rulings and judicial orders between and within jurisdictions – a circus whose absurdity was complemented by the death of one of the representatives, who had never been able to take her seat, which obviously began a new legal battle about who should replace her. In 2016, the election of the other representative was finally invalidated by the Council of State, which later ruled that only candidates endorsed by Afro-Colombian community councils (rather than ‘base organizations’) were allowed to run. This meant that the open seat went to the strongest candidate endorsed by a community council – which in this case was former Miss Colombia Vanessa Mendoza, who won only 500 or so votes on a list which finished sixteenth.

Eligibility and ballot access

Senators need to be natural-born citizens over 30, representatives need to be citizens over 25.

Inside courtyard of the Congress (own picture)

Anyone who has been imprisoned (except for political offences and criminal negligence); held public employment within the year prior the election; participated in business transactions with public entities or concluded contracts with them; holds ties of marriage or kinship with civil servants holding civil or political authority and those who have previously lost their congressional mandate (investidura) are ineligible; as are relatives through marriage or kinship in the same party.

Breaking the rules of ineligibility, incompatibility and conflict of interest lead to the loss of one’s mandate (investidura) – as does absenteeism, embezzlement of public funds and influence peddling. The loss of congressional mandate/investiture (pérdida de investidura), commonly known as ‘political death’, is any congressman’s greatest fear. It is decreed by the Council of State within 20 days of a request being made by the bureau of the corresponding chamber or by any citizen.

Congressmen, like all other civil servants, may be removed from office by the Inspector General (Procurador General) on ‘disciplinary grounds’ like breaking the law, infringing on the Constitution or deriving undue profit from the office. Incumbent congressmen may only be arrested and tried by the Supreme Court. A 2018 constitutional amendment guarantees congressmen and other aforados the right to a ‘double instance’ in trials – in other words, the right to appeal.

The 1991 Constitution’s aim of ‘opening’ the political system to new actors inadvertently led to the complete collapse of the party system by 2002, and strengthening and ordering the party system became one of the core objectives of the 2003 political reform – and subsequent political reforms. As a result, Colombia has rigid laws on political parties (Law 1745 of 2011) which provide, in theory, for hefty sanctions to parties and politicians who break them. Membership in more than one party (doble militancia) – which may also mean publicly campaigning for the candidate of a party other than your own – is banned, and this also requires incumbent elected officials who wish to seek reelection for a different party than they one they were elected with must resign their seats twelve months before the candidate registration period begins. Floor crossing is banned (although exceptional floor crossing windows were opened following the 2003 and 2009 political reform), which is understandable in a proportional representation system, but in Colombia this has led to absurdities like congressmen being kept a member of his party against his will, begging for expulsion to no avail.

There are basically two ways to make it to the ballot in Colombia. It is not overly difficult.

  • Endorsement by a legally recognized political party or movement. Parties lose their legal recognition if they win less than 3% of valid votes nationally for either the Senate or the House.
  • Gathering signatures as a ‘significant group of citizens’ (grupo significativo de ciudadanos) – 50,000 for Senate, 3% of valid votes in the last presidential election for President, 20% of the result of dividing the departmental electoral roll by number of seats to be filled for the House. Candidates who obtain ballot access by gathering signatures are colloquially known as candidatos por firmas (‘candidates by signatures’), similar to candidates by nominating petition in the US.

The law now allows for coalition candidates – registered with several parties or ‘significant group of citizens’ – for uninominal offices (president, mayors, governors) and the 2015 constitutional reform allows parties, who have won up to 15% of the vote combined, to run coalition lists for collegiate bodies (like Congress).

Electoral administration

Colombia’s electoral administration infrastructure is messy and convoluted. It is made up, primarily, of the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) and the National Civil Registrar (Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil) although the Council of State has the power to nullify election results. The CNE is made up of nine members elected by Congress for a four-year term, proportionally between candidates proposed by parties or coalitions. It regulates, inspects, controls and monitors the activities of political parties, certifies election results, hears complaints against electoral results and procedures, legally recognizes political parties, oversees electoral campaigns, regulates campaign finance and revokes candidacies for ineligibilities. Yet, the CNE is not an electoral court or tribunal like in many other Latin American countries, and its investigative powers and capacities are very limited in practice. The CNE is an ineffective, woefully inefficient, politicized and incompetent institution where files go to die. Despite an abundance of proposals – from politicians and civil society alike – to reform Colombia’s messy electoral infrastructure, all three existing bodies – particularly the CNE and Council of State – tend to be zealously protective of their established interests and hostile towards any change (most proposals would involve abolishing the CNE and creating an effective ‘electoral tribunal’ like Mexico’s TEPJF)

The National Civil Registrar, chosen by the presidents of the three highest courts for a four-year term, has several non-electoral duties (civil status, civil registry, birth and death certificates, national ID cards) but its electoral duties include candidate registration, voter registration, organizing and running electoral processes (including setting up voting locations, counting the votes and reporting results). If the CNE is widely derided as ineffective and politicized, the Registraduría is sometimes held in rather high regard as an effective and independent electoral body in Latin America.

Colombia’s democracy and political system

According to the 2017 edition of Freedom in the World, Colombia is a ‘partly free’ electoral democracy with an overall score of 65/100 (slightly higher than Mexico). In their view, continued violence and insecurity as a result of the internal armed conflict remains the main threat to civil and political liberties – a view which is far from wrong, although perhaps somewhat simplistic. The Economist’s Democracy Index ranks Colombia 53rd overall, as a ‘flawed democracy’, on par with Poland and a bit behind Brazil and Argentina.

The paradoxes of Colombian politics

Colombia’s democracy and political system – and their problems – require some greater explanations and comments. Colombia’s history and politics have long tended to stand out in South America as an ‘exception’ or ‘paradoxical’. The country of magical realism lives up to its name. Colombia is one of the oldest democracies in Latin America – although its actual qualification as a democracy for many of these periods is questionable – with a long tradition of regularly scheduled elections, peaceful transfer of power and quasi-uninterrupted civilian rule since the nineteenth century. The first peaceful transfer of power following an electoral-type event occurred as early as 1837. During the Depression era (1930), a very turbulent period in Latin America which saw several coups or uprisings, regime change in Colombia came through electoral means with an opposition victory in the presidential elections – although this election quickly sparked a wave of partisan violence. Presidents who didn’t serve their full constitutional terms have been the exception than the rule – unlike in Ecuador, where a president serving their full constitutional term was an extraordinary achievement until very recently. Unlike most South American countries, Colombia has had very few successful military coups and few military regimes – the most recent and famous one being General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957), who came to power in a quick coup described as a golpe de opinión by civilian supporters, and who was promptly removed from power as soon as he lost the support of the civilian political elite which had initially backed him. However, while Colombia is one of the “oldest democracies” on the continent, it is also a country with a long history of political violence, expressed in a dozen-odd civil wars in the nineteenth century, the madness of the Violencia or the barbarity of the current armed conflict in all its plural forms. Regular elections and civilian rule (not necessarily real democracy) have, for long periods of time, coexisted and collided with political violence and internal conflict.

A weak and illegitimate state

Mauricio García Villegas (2009) highlighted two structural features of the Colombian political system – the ‘inefficiency’ of the state, or its inability to control certain territories or impose its decision; and the ‘illegitimacy’ of the state, which he claims stems from the hyper-politicized nature of political debate. The Colombian state is one which has often failed to meet Max Weber’s basic definition of the state – holding a “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory” – both because it lacks a monopoly on the (legitimate) use of violence (and has, at times, even willingly conceded or subcontracted this monopoly) and because it has failed to control significant parts of its national territory. Colombia is a geographically fragmented country, with a difficult terrain and topography which has made transportation and communication difficult, even today (look at a road map of Colombia). Large swathes of the country – like the Llanos Orientales (Orinoquía) or the Amazon – remained unsettled after independence in the nineteenth century, and colonization processes in these and other ‘frontier’ regions were often conflictual, with the state unable to impose its authority and seldom appearing as a neutral arbitrer in land rights conflicts. An additional cause behind of the state’s historic weakness is that, after independence, a small and poor central government in Bogotá subcontracted the task of nation-building and regional development to intermediaries – the Catholic Church, hacendadosgamonalescaciques and (after the 1840s) political parties, thereby laying the foundations of a clientelistic political system which has endured to the present-day. Clientelism, mediated by the two traditional parties, became the primary means of integrating and mobilizing local populations into a weak national political community, but it also entrenched a corrupt, exclusivist and oligarchic political system.

An additional oft-cited factor in the weakness and fragmentation of the Colombian nation-state is the absence of a unifying national myth – like the Mexican Revolution in contemporary Mexico. Two historical figures who could have played the role of uncontested unifying national icons, Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander, have long been identified with particular political/ideological factions – Bolívar with conservatism (and, in the later twentieth century, radical leftist ‘revolutionaries’) and Santander with liberalism. Bolívar and Santander, among other historical figures of independence, are honoured and memorialized as ‘founding fathers’, but not nearly to the same extent as Bolívar’s cult worship by the chavista regime in Venezuela or even Mexico’s patriotic heroes.

Partisanship, violence and elusive legitimacy in Colombia

Colombia’s two traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives – rojos y azules (reds and blues), were founded at roughly the same time in the mid-1840s or early 1850s, one in reaction to the other. The parties were founded before the state was consolidated and became key actors in the imagination and inculcation of a precarious national identity. With the Catholic Church, they were among the few institutions which provided a semblance of ‘national unity’ over a large, fragmented geography. These parties became authentic inimical political subcultures, with large bases of followers cutting across class and regional boundaries, perceiving the adversary as an enemy. This sectarianism, or ‘inherited hatreds’, led to a succession of civil wars in the nineteenth century and was the initial trigger for the Violencia in the 1950s. Partisan competition for power, which took place both at the ballot box and on battlefields, was violent and losers often found themselves excluded from power. The state, rather than a neutral or autonomous arbitrer, became a commodity with little autonomy from partisan politics.

Throughout Colombian history, regardless of ideology or partisanship, violence has often appeared as an appropriate – if not the only – way to resolve political, social, economic and cultural disputes. Carl von Clausewitz said “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, but in Colombia it often seems as if “politics is the continuation of war by other means”. Violence has been a defining factor of Colombian politics, and unfortunately often the main stereotype foreigners associate with the country.

For ‘left-wing’ guerrillas in the 1960s, ‘defeating the system’, revolution and profound social changes were only possible through armed struggle, and cycles of repression and frustrated peace openings reinforced that view among guerrillas in subsequent decades – for far longer than any other revolutionary guerrillas in Latin America. ‘Right-wing’ paramilitaries felt that violence was the only means to defeat ‘communist subversives’, protect private property or defend (or re-create) a very authoritarian far-right fatherland (patria). Hacendados (particularly cattle ranchers – ganaderos), later joined by the new narco-landowners of the early 1980s, felt that violence – ‘self-defence’ – was the only way to protect their property and business model from guerrilla extortion, harassment and kidnapping. Some politicians, to win elections and retain power, have conspired to physically eliminate their rivals and critics – for example, Liberal senator and regional baron Alberto Santofimio, connected to Pablo Escobar, was finally convicted in 2011 for his role in the August 1989 assassination of rival Liberal presidential pre-candidate Luis Carlos Galán. Certain particularly vulnerable groups – human rights activists, social and community leaders, land restitution activists, trade unionists and journalists – continue to be targeted because of their work, with over 200 social leaders and human rights activists assassinated since 2016 according to the Ombudsman (as of March 2018), increasing to an alarming level in 2017 and 2018. Land conflicts, territorial disputes and illegal economic interests (mining, coca cultivation, drug trafficking, contraband etc.) are often the main reasons behind the murder of social leaders in Colombia. But beyond politically-motivated violence and the armed conflict, interpersonal and domestic violence is a widespread – in 2017, at least 1,800 homicides were the result of ‘interpersonal violence’ (fights or settling of scores) or domestic violence.

Following the bloodshed of the Violencia, triggered by partisan sectarianism, Colombia’s bipartisan elites agreed to a formal power-sharing system, the National Front, which was intended to end traditional partisan violence by removing the main object of dispute (single-party control of state power) and giving both parties access to the state and all its entails (bureaucracy, patronage). Unlike the Puntofijo Pact of 1958 in Venezuela, which led to the consolidation of the two-party system around AD and COPEI which survived until the early 1990s and Hugo Chávez, the National Front in Colombia was a formal, constitutionally and legally entrenched power-sharing mechanism between two parties (and no-one else) which formally lasted until 1974 and informally until 1986. Between 1958 and 1974, the Liberals and Conservatives alternated in the presidency, seats in elected bodies (Congress, departmental assemblies and municipal councils) were divided equally between both parties, cabinet positions and other bureaucratic appointments were also split equally between the two parties and the bulk of laws initially required two-thirds super-majorities for adoption. All other parties were excluded from political or electoral participation, although in practice they could participate as disguised ‘factions’ of either party. While the strict 50/50 division of legislative seats ended in 1974 and the requirements for ‘parity’ between both parties in ministries, public administration and local government expired in 1978, article 120 of the 1886 Constitution required that appointments in the executive branch and public administration continue to be done in such a way that “adequate and equitable participation” was given to the opposition party. Only in 1986 did the opposition party – the Conservatives – refuse to participate in government.

Academic and popular opinions on the National Front are largely negative, and its restrictive character is often blamed as a cause of the armed conflict. The National Front’s primary achievement was ending traditional partisan violence, although in hindsight it perhaps merely replaced that with new forms of violence. The National Front’s effect on the political system was, however, particularly negative. The absence of inter-party political competition drained both traditional parties of their ideological contents and political identities, reducing the political system to its clientelistic forms. During this time period, professional or brokerage clientelism, dependent on access to public administration and resources, replaced traditional agrarian clientelism, based on hierarchical patron-client relations between hacendados and peasants. A new emergent class of ‘professional politicians’ gained power based on their control clientelist relationships based on vote buying, personal favours and brokering access to public resources or jobs. The National Front further fragmented the two parties and the elites. The loss of strongly-defined political identities reinforced the Liberals and Conservatives’ characters as federations of local and regional clientelist networks. National leaders lost their pre-eminence over regional leaders and both parties – but especially the Liberal Party – became highly factionalized and without much national cohesion. The predominance of regional caciques became particularly clear under Liberal President Julio César Turbay (1978-1982).

Given the ‘illegitimacy’ of the state and the restrictive nature of the political system, it is no surprise that democratization and political reform have been major issues on every successive government’s agenda since the 1980s – culminating in the progressive 1991 Constitution, but continuing beyond as the imperfections and shortcomings of the 1991 Constitution quickly became obvious. However, the strength of traditional regional and local clientelistic politicians in Congress, who have an obvious stake in ensuring that political practices are not changed in ways that could threaten their interests, but also the zealously guarded self-interests of other branches and public institutions like the judiciary, has blocked or weakened many, if not most, attempts at meaningful political reform since the late 1990s. Recent Colombian political history is cemetery of failed or watered-down attempts at political reform which all began, in theory, with the best of intentions – increasing popular participation, building a more inclusive political system, opening the political system to new actors, reforming broken or corrupted institutions, moralizing public life and so forth. The most recent example being the 2017 political reform (which never was).

Hybrid institutions

Mauricio García Villegas argued that in Colombia, “institutional stability and formal routines of law coexist with authoritarian and degraded institutional practices. This gives rise to a hybrid – or informal – institutionality which favours the reproduction of violence and legitimacy deficit.” This idea of ‘regime juxtaposition’ is fairly common in accounts of Colombia’s political and institutional history – Fernán González claimed that Colombian history has been characterized by the “coexistence of a modern state, with formally democratic institutions and a more or less consolidated central bureaucracy; and an informal structure of power represented by the traditional party system, which operate as two opposing but complementary federations of local and regional clientelist networks”. The coexistence of formal democratic institutions in the ‘centre’ with informal or authoritarian structures, especially at a subnational level, is not unique to Colombia: Edward Gibson showed how ‘subnational authoritarianisms’ subsisted in democratic states like Mexico (Oaxaca), Argentina (Santiago del Estero) or even in the American South before the Civil Rights movement. The gap between the theory (or written word) and actual practice, between de jure and de facto, has always been wide in Colombian politics and law – and it likely widened with the 1991 Constitution, which theoretically provides a progressive, democratic estado social de derecho which has not always been translated into actual practice by the institutions it created. Therefore, a hybrid or informal space – existing between formal legality and illegality – has been a feature of Colombian public life. This hybrid space is, among others, ‘populated’ by corrupt clientelism with its bureaucratic patronage ‘quotas’ (cuotas), pork-barrel spending/’marmalade’ (mermelada) and backstage alliances with unsavoury characters.

Prior to 1991, the classic example of this hybrid space were the quasi-permanent ‘state of siege’ under article 121 of the 1886 Constitution. In cases of ‘internal disturbance’, the president could indefinitely declare a ‘state of siege’ giving him extraordinary powers to ‘restore public order’ and legislate by decree, with very weak checks and balances from the legislative or judiciary. After 1949, this exception became the norm – between 1970 and 1991, Colombia lived 206 months (17 years out of 21) under states of exception; between 1949 and 1991, Colombia lived for more than 30 years under states of exception. These ‘states of siege’ were used by successive ‘democratic governments’ not only to fight the guerrillas and other threats to public order, but also against social protests and to impose several restrictions on civil liberties – like Turbay’s security statute (1978), which expanded military tribunals’ jurisdiction over civilians and imposed incommutable detention for (among others) occupying public spaces, disobeying authorities or ‘subversive propaganda’. The 1991 Constitution has imposed strict limits and controls on the use of such powers, although politicians still have the temptation to use these powers for reasons other than what they were intended for.

More recent political scandals – parapolíticayidispolítica, the ‘capture’ of the DAS (former intelligence agency), chuzadas (illegal wiretaps), DMG pyramid schemes or the two major scandals of 2017, Odebrecht and the ‘cartel of the toga’ (corruption in the high courts) – are further examples of this hybrid space, as well as how the hybrid informality dangerously overlaps with illegality (parapolítica).

Ironically given the history of political violence and ‘hybrid institutionality’, Colombia is a highly legalistic country. Many political disputes end up being fought out between lawyers in courts. Colombian historiography pays great attention to specific laws and decrees over history and to issues of justice in the context of armed conflict. The Colombian judiciary, despite being widely distrusted by Colombians as inefficient or corrupt, has been more politically independent and robust than in other countries in the region (Venezuela, Honduras, Ecuador etc.). Francisco de Paula Santander’s famous phrase “Colombianos, las armas os han dado la independencia, las leyes os darán la libertad (Colombians, weapons have given you independence, the laws will give you freedom) is inscribed on the Palace of Justice in Bogotá.

The Constitutional Court, created by the 1991 Constitution, has gained major political importance with its decisions and powers of judicial review, and is often considered as one of the most significant constitutional tribunals of the ‘global south’ along with South Africa’s Constitutional Court. The Colombian Constitutional Court has taken it upon itself to ensure that the constitution’s words and principles are upheld by politicians. It has been, less so today but particularly in the 1990s, an ‘activist’ tribunal which has attempted to contribute to the structural transformation of public and private life. The Court has delivered very significant decisions regarding social and economic rights, personal autonomy, religious freedom, equality, victims’ rights, separation of powers and constitutional amendments. Beyond the overarching debate on the desirability of ‘judicial activism’, the Court has faced fair criticism for its decisions – particularly its tendency to zealously protect the ‘corporate interests’ of the judiciary from reform, but on the whole it has contributed to strengthening the word of the 1991 Constitution in practice and protected the fundamental rights of disadvantaged or marginalized groups (IDPs, victims, sexual minorities, religious minorities, indigenous peoples, the poor etc.). From a political standpoint, the Court has become an all-important arena for legal/political debate.

The acción de tutela (legal recourse for the protection of fundamental constitutional rights, similar to an amparo), created by the 1991 Constitution, has become the most popular and widespread legal mechanism to demand speedy protection or remedy of one’s fundamental constitutional rights from a public institution. Between 1991 and 2011, 4 million tutelas were submitted in the country. While the tutela has made the constitution an accessible living document for people, successive governments have tried to limit or regulate the use of the tutela, claiming that it has been abused and led to ever-longer delays, backlogs and clashes between different courts (choque de trenes) – but also because tutelas are increasingly used against the government’s actions (or inaction) on matters beyond basic fundamental rights. So far, attempts to limit the use of the tutela have been unsuccessful.

While the three highest courts – the Constitutional Council, Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State – have not been spared of corruption scandals, controversies and cuestionamientos (‘questions’), especially in recent years, all three have played positive protagonist roles in exposing and sanctioning political corruption, criminal alliances and official misconduct (notably with the parapolítica scandal). Nevertheless, local courts and prosecutors tend to be weaker and less politically independent, more liable to being ‘captured’ by political, economic or criminal interests. While it is difficult to distinguish rhetoric from reality amidst so much crying over ‘political persecution’, it is clear that the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía) may be politically biased or selective in its investigations and the timing of such investigations. Many Colombians distrust or dislike the judiciary as inefficient, corrupt, slow, biased or ‘too soft’ (a popular political idea for years now has been imposing mandatory life sentences for child rapists). Many common offences and crimes – like robberies or homicides – go unreported, unsolved or bogged down, while authorities have been unable or unwilling to prosecute serious crimes like forced displacement or criminal money laundering.

Civilian-military relations in Colombian history

As aforementioned, one of the peculiarities of Colombian political history is the relative absence of military rule and consistent civilian rule. In the 1960s and 1970s,  when most South American countries were ruled by authoritarian military dictatorships – Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru (an ‘odd’ military regime) – Colombia often stood alone, with Venezuela, as a civilian democracy with regular competitive elections, notwithstanding the restrictive nature of this ‘democratic’ system. The Colombian armed forces never became a prestigious institution standing above party politics guaranteeing ‘national unity’ as they did in other countries in the continent. The modus vivendi of the National Front, established by its first president, Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962), was that the military would not interfere with civilian politics while the civilians would not interfere with the military on matters of public order. Military officers who strayed from this path, like General Alberto Ruiz Novoa, who argued that military operations against guerrillas should be accompanied by socioeconomic development programs in those regions, were dismissed.

On matters of public order and national security, the military has typically enjoyed broad autonomy (and, until recently, impunity for human rights abuses) and it has continuously sought guarantees of legal security and other political concessions from civilian politicians. For example, in December 2012, Congress adopted a constitutional amendment reforming the military criminal justice system, granting it purview over all crimes committed by military personnel in active service and in relation to such service – with the exception of an exhaustive list of seven particularly egregious war crimes – and guaranteeing that they would be tried under the law of war (international humanitarian law) rather than ordinary criminal law/human rights law. In addition, the military’s judicial police gained preferential power to collect evidence on the scene and decide whether the investigation should be handled by military criminal justice or the ordinary courts – since 2006, the Attorney General’s (Fiscalía) judicial police had the right to collect evidence and decide who would handle the case. The 2012 reform effectively made trial by military courts the rule rather than the exception, reversing the Constitutional Court’s jurisprudence (from 1997). This controversial reform was struck down on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court in October 2013, and in 2015, with much less scrutiny, Congress adopted a less thorough second reform of the military criminal justice system, which guarantees that punishable conduct of military personnel during an armed conflict will be tried under international humanitarian law, with no exhaustive list of excluded crimes.

Nevertheless, civilian-military relations have not always been cordial. Large sectors of the military leadership opposed presidents Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) and Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002)’s peace processes with the guerrillas, while the military leadership – led by General Harold Bedoya (commander, 1996-1997) – repeatedly clashed with President Ernesto Samper’s embattled administration (1994-1998) over security strategy as the armed conflict escalated to unprecedented levels in the mid-1990s. It is also clear that many sectors of the military – active officers, retired personnel, battalions, local units – participated and collaborated in the creation of paramilitary groups or autodefensas beginning in the 1960s and were complicit in paramilitary violence. A 1965 decree, passed into permanent legislation in 1968, was interpreted by the military as legal authorization for the formation and training of ‘civilian’ autodefensa (paramilitary) groups and their armament with military-grade weaponry. In 1969, the armed forces’ counterinsurgency manual authorized the creation of juntas de autodefensa, groups of civilians armed and trained by the military to participate in counterinsurgency tasks. According to the prosecutor general’s infamous 1983 report on the Muerte a Secuestradores (Death to Kidnappers, MAS) – sometimes erroneously considered as the first paramilitary group, run and financed by the Medellín Cartel – out of 163 people on which there was sufficient proof for indictment, 59 were military personnel in active service.

Populism and inclusive democracy in Colombia

A distinctive peculiarity of Colombian political history is the absence or weakness of populism, at least until 2002. Populist leaders like Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1946) or Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1970) were defeated or – some would argue – prevented from obtaining power. Colombia has therefore lacked the emblematic populist leaders like those found in nearly every other Latin American country. Instead, Colombian presidents have often tended to be rather gray or even dull figures drawn from the ‘national political elite’, particularly the bogotano oligarchy/’aristocracy’, or political dynasties. In a 1999 article, Marco Palacios argued that “the absence of populism in Colombia led to political and social violence, while in neighbouring Venezuela populism facilitated the democracy agreed to in 1958 and the realization of a set of social reforms”. A more positive appraisal on the absence of populism in Colombia would point out that it was sparred the economic mismanagement, rash and irresponsible policy-making or chronic political instability which plagued so many other countries in the region, starting with neighbouring Ecuador. It is rather telling that, even in the current elections, some candidates who would likely be seen as ‘populists’ in other countries are presenting themselves as ‘responsible’ alternatives to a ‘populist danger’.

Undoubtedly connected to the above, Colombia’s fragmented political elites were unable or, more accurately, unwilling to integrate new social groups – the ‘popular’ and middle ‘sectors’ – into the political system, unlike in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru or even Ecuador. Whatever integration of new social groups took place in Colombia tended to be more instrumental or manipulative, often through cooptation by the traditional parties. Granted, contemporary Colombian democracy, for all its faults, is far more inclusive than it was and ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ social and political groups have achieved some degree of electoral success, particularly in urban middle-class areas.  Yet, Colombian politics remain – perhaps more so than in other Latin American democracies – dominated by the dynamics of local clientelism, exchange of favours, unsavoury alliances of convenience, nepotism, political corruption, short-term political opportunism and the blurred boundaries of illegality.

In addition, certain social groups – settler frontier peasants (campesinos), landless peasants, the urban poor, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples – have historically tended to be excluded or marginalized from the political system altogether. In his work on paramilitarism and regional elites in Córdoba, Mauricio Romero argued that certain regional elites developed a ‘political identity’ opposed to social mobilization and the autonomy of subaltern groups, therefore perceiving any sort of alternative socio-political mobilization by these groups (landless peasants, squatters, enclave economy workers etc.) as an outgroup threat.

Taken together, the inefficiency and illegitimacy of the state have created conditions conducive to the development of violence. But this is a very simplistic view which fails to account for the complexities of violence in Colombia, particularly in the context of the current armed conflict, and of the economic interests and rationale behind much of the contemporary forms of violence in Colombia.

A politically apathetic society

Colombia is a politically apathetic country – a critical element which often gets left out of commentary on Colombian politics. In the last World Values Survey, only 25% of Colombians were ‘very interested’ or ‘somewhat interested’ by politics against 75% who were ‘not very interested’ or ‘not at all interested’ (49.5%) by politics. This very low level of political interests compares to 59% interest in the United States and 62% in Germany but is also low compared to other Latin American countries like Brazil (37%), Argentina (32%), Ecuador (32%) or Mexico (30%).

Voter turnout in national-level elections (presidential, congressional) in Colombia is consistently among the lowest in the Americas. Unlike many other countries in the region, Colombia doesn’t have compulsory voting, which makes turnout comparisons with neighbouring countries difficult. However, comparing the most recent presidential elections in Latin America and the Caribbean, only Chile in 2017 (46.7% turnout in first round, 49% in runoff) and Haiti in 2016 (18% turnout) had turnout as low or lower than Colombia’s 2014 presidential election (40.1% in first round, 48% in runoff). Turnout has been below 50% in every national-level election since the 1998 presidential elections. The 2016 plebiscite on the peace agreement had a turnout of just 37.4%, the lowest turnout in any election since the 2003 referendum (24% turnout). However, unlike in most countries, turnout is higher in local elections – for mayors, governors and local assemblies – reaching 59% in 2015, the highest local turnout since the first direct mayoral elections in 1988.

Turnout in Colombian congressional elections (House) 1935-2014

Turnout varies between elections and across regions, depending on the stakes but also on the differential mobilization of traditional clientelist political machines – which operate at ‘full speed’ in local elections and congressional elections, but may be less active in presidential elections. Conventional wisdom has it that turnout in congressional elections is 70-80% clientelist machines (maquinarias) and 20-30% voto de opinión (‘opinion vote’, predominantly urban voters who are not ‘controlled’ by any machine and vote based on personal evaluations of candidates, parties or policies). In presidential elections, however, the voto de opinión may be much stronger – but, until now, every Colombian president had needed the active support and electoral mobilization of the powerful clientelist machines in order to win.

In general terms, turnout declined and has remained low since the end of the National Front in the 1970s – although the trendlines are far from smooth. Turnout began falling during the National Front, falling from 68.9% in the 1958 congressional elections to 36.8% in the 1964 ‘mid-term’ congressional elections and 44.5% in the 1966 congressional elections. The very closely contested and acrimonious 1970 elections had higher turnout (52.5%), as did the 1974 presidential election, the first ‘open’ election after the formal end of the National Front amidst popular enthusiasm for Liberal candidate Alfonso López Michelsen (before the disillusion set in). Since then, however, turnout in national-level elections has only twice been over 50% (1990 congressional elections, 1998 presidential election). The decline of the two traditional parties as political subcultures or identities, the loss of any remaining significant ideological differences between the two traditional parties, successive administrations’ poor records and the transformation of parties into federations of regional ‘barons’ led to an increase in political apathy, dissatisfaction and a consequent fall in turnout levels in most elections.

Voting station accessibility difficulties (source: MOE)

There are some important structural explanations to low turnout in remote, peripheral regions, where the state’s presence has historically been weak or very limited. Ariel Ávila discussed some of these issues in a recent analysis on political participation in rural areas, including some enlightening data on the accessibility of voting stations. According to the data presented, there is, on average, one voting station every 63.2 km². In 360 municipalities with ‘medium’, ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ accessibility difficulties, there is one voting station every 786.8 km². In 114 municipalities with ‘extreme’ accessibility problems, there is one voting station every 2,148.1 km². All municipalities in the departments of Amazonas, Vaupés, Guaviare, Guainía and Vichada have ‘extreme’ voting accessibility problems – as do most municipalities in Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, Casanare and Arauca. Voting hours are also a bit shorter in Colombia than in other countries: polls close at 4pm, and unlike in many countries, any voters who are still in line at 4pm are not allowed to vote. On election days, Colombian TV often show last-minute voters running to the polls with just minutes to spare before 4pm so that they can vote.

All Colombian voters, whether in the country or abroad, must present their valid national ID card (cédula de ciudadania) in order to vote. Voter registration is automatic upon issuance of the first cédula (at 18), but all voters who changed their place of residence must individually (re)register their cédula in person with the Registraduría during a fixed time period in advance of the election. This year, the cédula registration period began in mid-October 2017 and closed on January 11 for congressional elections and March 27 for presidential elections – two months before the election. Registering a cédula elsewhere than one’s address is illegal and these cédulas are ‘cancelled’ by the CNE. These procedures may seem rather normal to many, but they may impose significant barriers on some voters in a country with over 7 million victims of forced displacement over the past decades. It is unclear how efficient the electoral organization is at updating the voter rolls, so the number of registered voters may also be somewhat inflated. It is also unclear how many people were automatically registered to vote upon turning 18 but either never voter and/or never re-registered their cédula at a new address if they moved. International IDEA’s voter turnout database suggests that VAP turnout in Colombia in 2014 may have been a bit higher than the official turnout, although the lack of updated census data on population and age makes it difficult to determine this (until the 2018 census data is released).

Since the 1980s, the armed conflict in many regions of the country imposed further barriers on democratic participation and voter turnout. In many municipalities with presence of illegal armed groups, the state was – at best – only able to set up a single polling location in the municipal seat (cabecera). Historically, the guerrillas sought to sabotage elections, forcibly preventing candidates and voters from participating in elections and often keeping elections from being organized in areas under ‘guerrilla control’. If elections could even be organized in these municipalities, turnout was often absurdly low (1-5%). In some cases, the guerrillas did support certain candidates or form informal alliances with politicians – later giving rise to cases of Farcpolítica (and some fewer, concentrated cases of elenopolítica). On the other hand, paramilitaries – in most cases – actively interfered the electoral process, using violence and intimidation but also genuine popular support, to prevent certain candidates from running or campaigning while favouring other candidates and rigging the vote in their favour (most blatantly in Magdalena department under ‘Jorge 40’). The result of paramilitary interference in government and elections was the parapolítica (para-politics) scandal, one of the biggest political scandals in recent Colombian history.

The left (and right) in Colombia

During the Latin American ‘pink tide‘ in the early to mid-2000s, Colombia was the odd man out – one of the few countries left ‘untouched’ by the success of left-wing parties and leaders in other countries in Latin America, most notably in neighbouring Venezuela (with Hugo Chávez), Ecuador (with Rafael Correa) and Brazil (with Lula). While term ‘pink tide’ is a deceptive overgeneralization which has included a wide variety of parties and governments, the left has been far weaker in Colombia than in most other Latin American countries. Only in a few other (smaller) countries like Paraguay – where Fernando Lugo’s election in 2008 owed more to a short-lived alliance with the traditional Liberal Party than the actual strength of the left – is the left equally as weak. Prior to this year’s election, the Colombian left’s record was the 2006 presidential election, in which the left-wing Polo Democrático Alternativo‘s candidate Carlos Gaviria won 22% (2.6 million votes). The left did hold Bogotá’s mayoralty – often described as the second most important office after the presidency – for three terms between 2003 and 2015, but its success elsewhere in the country has been extremely limited and its congressional representation small (but more visible and effective than its weight would suggest).

There are several historical and structural causes for the left’s weakness in Colombia – like the political economy of coffee and certain colonization processes – but, undoubtedly, the armed conflict and the stigmatization and violent persecution (extermination) of the left are major reasons for the left’s contemporary weakness and the continued stigmatization of certain forms of left-wing politics. The Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union, UP), a left-wing party created in 1985 during President Belisario Betancur’s peace talks, in part as the political-electoral wing of the FARC (and the Communist Party), was not very strong (its candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal, won 4.5% in the 1986 presidential election) but it showed clear potential for future growth – winning several seats in Congress and, more importantly, winning several municipalities in strategic regions (like Urabá) in the first direct mayoral elections in 1988. By the late 1990s, over a thousand UP candidates, congressmen, mayors, councillors and members had been killed as part of a systematic extermination campaign carried out by drug traffickers, landowners, paramilitary groups and sectors of the military and intelligence services with the implicit or explicit support of many politicians (see the 2003 documentary Baile rojo on the genocide of the UP). Even when they denounced and later dissociated themselves from the FARC’s predatory violence, the UP – abandoned to their fate by the FARC by the late 1980s – were stigmatized as guerrilleros de civil (civilian-clad guerrilleros), their murders ‘justified’ by the FARC’s combinación de todas las formas de lucha (combination of all forms of struggle) strategy. The ‘ghost’ of the UP continues to haunt much of the Colombian left.

Perhaps ironically given Colombia’s global reputation amidst the ‘pink tide’ on the continent, the Colombian ‘right’ – defined as an ideologically coherent conservative/right-wing movement which explicitly identifies as such – was also quite weak, until 2002. Since the National Front, Colombian politics – or at least the portion of politics played out in formal institutions and regular elections – tended to be consensual and centrist, characterized by traditional clientelistic transactions rather than ideological politics like in North America or Western Europe. A Conservative candidate like Álvaro Gómez Hurtado – hurt by the toxic legacy of his father, former President Laureano Gómez (1950-1951) and perceived as ‘extreme’, lost badly in both in the 1974 and 1986 presidential elections. After the National Front, the Conservative Party only won the presidency when the Liberal Party was divided and with ‘centrist consensual’ candidates (Betancur in 1982, Andrés Pastrana in 1998) who downplayed the party name. Prior to 2002, hard-right hawkish candidates did very poorly – General Harold Bedoya, who was polling high at first, won only 1.8% in the 1998 election. Nor did the Liberal and Conservative parties really reflect liberal and conservative politics – Conservative President Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) was to the left of his Liberal predecessor, Julio César Turbay (1978-1982). Clearly, the general ideological orientation of public policy in Colombia has tended to be ‘right-wing’ with, as explained above, a traditional aversion to the sort of ‘populist politics’ played out in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Peru or Ecuador in the 20th century. But, in formal electoral and partisan politics, public discourse was, until 2002, more centrist/consensual than right-wing. Álvaro Uribe’s election in 2002 was historic, as it marked the emergence of a strong right-wing, conservative (if not reactionary), populist (in style if not in substance) and caudillista movement – uribismo. There is little doubt that uribismo is right-wing, both on societal/moral and economic/fiscal policy matters. Yet, uribismo does not explicitly identify as right-wing, often claiming instead that the ideological labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are outdated and that their movement is centrist, combining traditional ‘right-wing ideas’ like security and investor confidence with more ‘left-wing ideas’ like social protection.

Guest Post: Election Preview: Italy (Regional and Local) 2015

I have been very fortunate to receive a guest post from Giovanni Rettore previewing the Italian regional elections which will be held on May 31, 2015.

This weekend seven of the twenty Italian regions, including Campania, Veneto, Apulia and Tuscany, will vote to renew their regional council and their governors. Additionally thousands of cities, most notably Venice, will renew their city councils and their mayors.

The outcome of the elections will likely affect the internal debate on a number of hot button issues including the economic and immigration crisis, the education reform and the electoral reform. A good performance by eurosceptic movements like the Northern League and the Five Star Movement, who openly supports Italy withdrawing from the European Monetary Union, might also have repercussion on international politics, especially in light of recent parliamentary elections in the UK, presidential elections in Poland and local elections in Spain that saw victories for eurosceptic parties and candidates.

Regionalisation and the devolution process in Italy has been a hot topic since the end of World War II and the establishment of the new constitution. The constitution of 1948 provided for the creation of twenty regions, however the constitution remained ineffective for more than twenty years. Only five of the twenty regions were provided power and an elected regional council: Sicily; Sardinia; Friuli Venezia Giulia; Trentino Alto Adige and Aosta Valley. Those five regions, still today, enjoys higher fiscal and political autonomy, that often led to polemics by other regions who disagree with the special status that these five regions enjoy.  The other fifteen regions, called “ordinary regions” in Italian law, were finally given an autonomous parliament only in 1970, twenty two years after the approval of the constitution, when the first regional elections were held.

During the so-called “First Republic” the regional elections were held under a proportional representation system with no threshold, thus leading to frequent crisis of fragile coalition governments. In 1995, for the first time, Italians started to directly elect their governors. A new reform, approved in 2001 by citizens, gave ordinary regions more autonomy and power, especially in the sector of health care. However, due to increasing scandals in the health care and the high numbers of trials in front of the Constitutional Courts on the shared competences between state and regions have led to increasing criticism of the new autonomy given to regional executives.

Electoral Law

As written above, the first five regional elections were held under a proportional representation system without a threshold. The governor was not directly elected by citizens, instead his elections came as a result of pact between parties. Due to the electoral law, rarely a party was able to enjoy a majority of seats and often had to rely on fragile coalition governments. Often governors were sacked by their own allies during their terms and replaced by others.

In 1995 the electorate was eventually allowed to directly elect their governors, however during the 1995-2000 regional legislatures many regional governments still suffered from instability and several elected governors were forced to resign due to clash in the coalitions and replaced by parliamentary elected governors. Since 2000 however the law foresees that if a governor resigns or loses a motion of no confidence, this will automatically trigger an early election. Due to this mechanism the last years saw a huge number of regions forced to held early elections. Several governors have been forced to resign as results of scandals or no confidence motions thus leading regional elections to become more and more sparse.

Currently in almost all regions the governor is elected under an electoral system that gives the party, or the coalition of parties, that supports the winning governor a majority of seats in the regional parliament. While the other parties split the remaining seats. Something that can be described as a “winner-takes all” system. Almost all regions, with the notable exception of Tuscany, don’t have a runoff. So, a plurality of valid votes is enough for the elected governor to rely on a majority in the regional parliament. Threshold for parties to enter in the regional council varies between regions, as do laws on term limits with some regions allowing a governor running for only two terms, and other not having term limits laws.

A citizen, to vote for a governor have different options

1. Vote only for governor only, putting a cross only on the name of the governor, thus the vote will be valid only for the gubernatorial elections and have no effect on council composition

2. Vote for one of the parties that supports a gubernatorial nominee, in this case the vote will be valid for both the party and the gubernatorial candidate supported by the party

3. Vote for one party for regional council, but also opted for voting for a gubernatorial candidate not supported by the party voted. In this case, called disjointed vote, the vote is valid for both the party and for the gubernatorial candidate even if the party supports a different gubernatorial candidate

National background

Regional elections have often been seen as a very political test for national government, so usually regional debates have been obscured and influenced by national climate. Though in recent years regional results have become increasingly influenced by local issues and by the personality of the regional candidates, there’s no doubt that the outcome of the election will likely affect, and be affected, by the national climate as often happened in the past.

Last year’s European elections have been sometimes described as landmark and key to opening a realignment in national politics. The Democratic Party, under the leadership of prime minister Matteo Renzi challenged the European climate of protests against establishment parties, and won an historic 40.8% of votes doubling his nearest competitor, the catch-all populist Five Star Movement who won a somewhat disappointing 21.2%. This, according to experts and commentators signed something of a realignment in national politics, with the Democratic Party seen as something like a dominant party like the Christian Democracy used to be during the Postwar years, ‘til the 90’s. Also European elections probably marked the definite beginning of the end for Silvio Berlusconi, with his party Forza Italia finishing distant third with only 16.6% of votes. After 20 years characterized by his rises and falls, the Italian electorate seems to be completely tired of Berlusconi and decided to put him in the past, with Matteo Renzi overtaking him as the leading figure of Italian politics.

The months following the EP election have been characterized by the unexpected rise in polls of Matteo Salvini. The new leader of the right-wing populist Northern League has been able to resuscitate his party. After a fairly good showing in European Elections, Salvini is now seen as the de facto leader of Italian centre-right. Currently the League is polling around 16% in national polls, well above Berlusconi’s Forza Italia which polls now show with just around 10% of voting intentions.

National polls also consistently put Salvini in second place as the most popular political leader in the country, just behind Renzi and well above both Grillo and Berlusconi. Salvini, during his tenure as leader of the League have shifted party platform towards an even more open euroscepticism, putting thewithdrawal from the Euro in the party platform, and increasingly criticism towards refugees policy and the government handling on the illegal immigration crisis. Salvini has personally tied himself with economy teacher Claudio Borghi Aquilini, who is seen as the economy minister of the League, and has been one of the main responsible for the League eurosceptic shift.

The certification of Salvini rise came last fall in Emilia Romagna. Emilia Romagna, an historical left-wing stronghold, had to held early election due to the conviction of incumbent governor centre-left governor Vasco Errani, that triggered an early election. Due to the weakness of Forza Italy, Salvini was able to impose Alan Fabbri as the centre-right candidate. Although the left won Emilia Romagna as usual, the result created some discussion in national public. The League won almost 20% of votes, an historical peak for the regional conservative party in a usual left wing stronghold. The left overall conquered less than 50% of popular votes. Though that meant a comfortable victory, this result was seen as a disappointment given that left wing parties overall lost something like 9 points compared to June European Elections, while the League jumped from 5% in June to almost 20% and the right coalition rose from 19 to 28%. Also a worrying signal was the extremely low turnout, only 39% showed to the polls in the region that historically led turnout statistics.

The Northern League, in its almost thirty years in parliament, has always been a vocal critic of multiculturalism, Islam’s role in the society, immigration from non western countries and Roma’s refusal to integrate, but Salvini made a shift to the right that probably not even his predecessor Bossi had ever imagined. Salvini made interior minister Angelino Alfano, ironically a former allied of the League, his main target accusing him of ineptitude and incompetence in the handling of the illegal immigration crisis that Italy is facing.

Salvini rethoric in opposing “Mare Nostrum” operation that led illegal immigrants from the Mediterranean Sea was helped by a scandal that erupted in Rome. Telephone calls tapped by police leaked to the press and showed some responsible of NGOs laughing and wishing for disasters, catastrophes and more refugees, describing the illegal immigration as a big business for NGOs.

Another statistics that helped Salvini is that only 30% demanded for refugee protection and just 4% of them obtained the status of refugees and only 25% obtained protection. The government’s policy to pay hotels to host refugees only increases popular distrust of government’s ability to handle the illegal immigration crisis. Europe’s answers to Italy’s demands for help in the crisis have been judged as meaningless. Italian rage for the immigration crisis has France as the big target. France is accused to be responsible for the crisis due to their leading role in the downfall of Libyan dictator Qaddafi which threw Libya into a state of permanent civil war. Italy now asks France to take responsibility for it, and take a substantial numbers of immigrants, but the French government has repeatedly refused to help Italy take care of refugees

But Salvini also used the economic crisis as a means to increase his personal consensus. Salvini heavily criticized the EU handling of the crisis, the austerity measures of spending cuts and tax increase that EU organs recommended to the last Italian governments. Austerity measures, that in Italy were enacted with high tax increases, have thrown Italy in its worse economic crisis since the end of World War II. The current economic crisis has been even more severe than the ’29 crisis, that actually didn’t touch Italy as harshly as other Western countries. During the ’29 crisis Italy lost “only” 5% of its GDP, exited from recession in the second half of 1931, and returned to the pre-crisis level in 1935, while in 2014, six years after the beginning of the 2008 recession, Italy still saw a negative GDP growth for the third year in a row and has lost almost 10% of its GDP. Unemployment rate have passed from 6% to 13%. Especially after the Monti government’s austerity package the unemployment crisis was exacerbated with unemployment rate rising from around 8% to around 12% by the time Monti left Palazzo Chigi. Unemployment continued to rise during the Letta and Renzi governments. Current previsions from the IMF signalled that Italy is exiting from recession, although Italy GDP growth will still be anemic in 2015 and much lower than both EU and Eurozone average.

Salvini, as written above, openly supports Italy leaving the Euro and returning to Lira. Salvini has been highly influenced by a group of economists that, in last five years heavily campaigned for Italy to leave the common currency. The most well-known of this group of economists is Claudio Borghi Aquilini, now seen as the Economy Minister of the League, who is currently running for Tuscany governor. This move however met some criticism within the party. Most notably the withdrawal from the Euro was one of the main reasons that led to the expulsion from the League of Verona’s mayor Flavio Tosi, who unlike Salvini supports Italy staying within the European Monetary Union.

Salvini, probably sensing that Berlusconi days are likely over, has led the transformation of the League into a national party. Salvini started to campaign heavily in Southern and Central Italy. Though sometimes met by popular uprising, Salvini descent to south was saluted with good polling results. Polls consistently show the League running ahead of Forza Italia not only in its historical northern strongholds, but also in Central Italian regions, usually refractarian to the League, like Tuscany; Marche and Umbria. Salvini also led the creation of a southern spinoff of the League called “Noi con Salvini” (We with Salvini) that will present a list of candidates in Apulia and will likely be used as a mean to carry the League towards the conquest of the southern conservative electorate, left free by Forza Italia’s national meltdown. Doing so Salvini made something like an “Iron Pact” with the tiny “Brothers of Italy” party. Led by former youth minister Giorgia Meloni, “Brothers of Italy” is a party that coalesced around former National Alliance supporters. After failing by 0.3% the passing of the electoral threshold in June, the Brothers of Italy also profited of Berlusconi’s meltdown and currently polls around 4-5% in national polls. Meloni has, in the last months, closely allied with Salvini in local elections and on national issues, also criticizing government immigration policies and calling for Italy’s withdrawal from Euro.


Due to recent election results in UK, Poland and Spain an affirmation of Salvini’s party in Italian regional elections might be another episode in the ongoing EU meltdown saga.


Regional races


I will now try to do a quick resume of the regional races, giving a synthetic background of the single races. I will start from the most populated of the seven regions to the least populated.



Campania ranks as the third most populated region of Italy, and the most populated among the seven that will renew its governor and regional council this weekend. Campania, home to Naples, the third most populated town of Italy, will likely be one of the closest contests this Sunday. Campania is one of the poorest regions in Italy. Though being the third most populated region it ranks last as GDP per capita, and ranks third among the twenty regions for unemployment rate. Campania’s unemployment rate is currently 22.8%, more than nine points above than the national average. Campania also is frequently cited for its security problems and the high influence of organized crime in local politics.


During the so called “First Republic”, Campania was a conservative region. Like in the other southern regions, left-wing parties were usually weaker than national average, while centrist Christian Democracy and the hard right Italian Social Movement usually performed strongly. In the 90’s, during the so called “Second Republic” Campania became a swing region, like most of the other southern regions. Since the direct election of governor have been introduced in 1995 the centre-right have won two times, while centre-left also won twice.


Like in most southern regions the collapse of the historical parties have led local elections to become highly unpredictable and dominated by powerful local bosses, mostly former Christian Democrats, who depending on the current mood side with either left or right. Clemente Mastella, former Justice Minister and leader of the tiny centrist UDEUR, used to be the most famous of this southern local bosses that, depending on the national trend, sided with one coalition or the other, usually in exchange for pork and barrel spending for their personal constituencies.


In 1995 the centre-right won the election with Antonio Rastrelli, but in 1999 Rastrelli lost a motion of no confidence, mainly due to Mastella changing sides, and the left conquered the region. Elections in 2000 saw the election of then Naples mayor, Antonio Bassolino, who led the centre-left towards victory. The lone bright spot to what was otherwise a nightmarish night for the Italian centre-left. Bassolino easily won re-election in 2005, but his second term was infamously plagued by the well known trash scandal. Naples and its suburbs found themselves covered by trash Bassolino and then Naples mayor, fellow PD member Rosa Russo Iervolino, have largely been considered responsible for the scandal and quickly became pariah even in their own party. In consequence of the trash scandal the centre-right coalition easily won 2010 elections. In 2010 elections the Democratic Party tried to walk away from Bassolino’s toxic legacy and nominated Salerno mayor Vincenzo De Luca, a long time vocal critic of Bassolino within the Democratic Party. De Luca as usually been cold the “Red Sheriff” due to its commitment for law and order. In the most heated days of the trash scandal De Luca was quoted saying that his town, Salerno, was “as clean as Switzerland”. However it was not enough and centre right candidate Stefano Caldoro, a little known former junior minister of Berlusconi cabinet, won with a double digit margin, taking 54% of popular vote to De Luca’s 43%.


Ever since his defeat De Luca has eyed a re-match with Caldoro, hoping that the waning memory of Bassolino might give him a better shot at victory, however a first degree conviction for a spending scandal severely hurt his reputation as a law and order politician.


In spite of this, De Luca once again ran and won the centre-left primaries. However a second conviction came in January, and as a result of the second conviction, due to the new anti-corruption law, De Luca has been punished with one year ban from public offices. If De Luca is elected governor he will probably be forced to resign as soon as he enters in office. To resolve the issue there have been talks of the Democratic Party studying a reform of the Severino law. Such talks have been met with high criticism both from the right, that accuses the Democratic Party of double standards due to the Democrats use of the same law to expel Berlusconi from the Senate, and the hard left that supports the Severino law


This has led the left-wing “Left Ecology and Freedom” to broke with the Democratic Party and run its own candidate MEP Salvatore Vozza. Another candidate that protested De Luca candidacy.


De Luca however has been able to win the endorsed by the Union of the Center and the old political boss of the late Christian Democracy, Ciriaco De Mita. De Mita’s son was the deputy of incumbent governor Caldoro, but his father quickly broke with the governor and now sides with his main opponent.


Caldoro runs for re-election leading a centre-right coalition with Forza Italia, the New Centre Right, a national splinter of Forza Italia’s minister within the Letta government, and the Brothers of Italy.


The 5 Star Movement is represented by political activist Valeria Ciarambino


Initially pre-election polls showed a lead for De Luca, but after polemics surrounding his conviction, the presence of felons in the lists that endorses him and the endorsement of an old crook like De Mita have eroded his initial lead. Current polls points toward a very uncertain race with Caldoro and De Luca running neck and neck both polling around 37% of votes. The 5 Star Movement polls distant third with roughly 20% of voting intentions while the left wing candidates together amount for around 6% of voting intentions. There’s a chance that left-wing dissident and 5 Star Movement candidates perform strong enough to lead De Luca towards a defeat.


As written above, even if De Luca wins, he might be forced out of office as soon as he is sworn in, due to the Severino law.  This fact might lead undecided people to vote for Caldoro knowing that a De Luca administration might end in a blink of an eye. However De Luca is still considered a very strong candidate and might able to overcome is possible ineligibility, at least on election day.


Prediction: Toss-Up




Veneto is the fifth most populated regions of Italy, the second most populated among the seven voting regions and is usually considered one of the richest regions in the country. Veneto ranks third in GDP, fifth in GDP per capita, and is often considered one of the best regions in terms of public services usually ranking high in most public service statistics. Veneto’s unemployment rate is 7.7%, ranking second to last among the twenty regions for unemployment rate. However the enduring recession has put Veneto’s economic system, based mainly on little and medium enterprises, at odds. Several shops and enterprises have been forced to close due to enduring credit crunch and low domestic demand. Though its unemployment rate is much lower than national average, it has almost doubled since the start of recession in 2008. Veneto being one of the richest region in the country, it is usually the main “victim” of fiscal consolidation, meaning that Veneto usually has to pay for much of the tax increase imposed by the austerity measures.


Politically Veneto has always been allergic to the left. In the so called “First Republic”, Veneto was probably the biggest stronghold of the Christian Democracy. Often Christian Democracy won a majority of votes and seats all alone in regional elections. Both the Communist Party and other minor centrist and right parties usually performed very weak in Veneto.


In the mid 80’s however a nationalistic sentiment started to grow in Veneto that led to the quick rise of the Northern League. The League soon started to challenge the Christian Democrat hegemony in the region, becoming the most serious rival that Christian Democracy had to face in 50 years of political dominance. When the Christian Democracy collapsed in early 90’s it looked like the Northern League will take its place as the region natural governing party, but the birth of Forza Italia, and the rise of Berlusconi, ruined the League hegemonic plan, leading to a twenty years rivalry within the centre-right pole between the League and Forza Italia. However, as we’ll see, it finally seems that the League might get rid of its never loved ally and started to act as the region’s natural governing party.


The four elections since 1995 always saw the centre-right pole win with comfortable margins, although, as written above, the internal rivalry between the League and Forza Italia often led to turmoil and heated debates within the centre-right pole. In 1995 elections, where the League ran alone due to their withdraw from the first Berlusconi government, saw the victory of Giancarlo Galan, one of Berlusconi’s closest friend and ally. In 2000, with the League fully re-entered in the centre-right alliance, Galan won re-election with a 17 points margin . Even in 2005, a tremendous election night for the Italian centre-left, Galan won his third term with an 8 points margin.


Galan announced he was running for a fourth term, but was stopped by Berlusconi. The League was willing to elect one of his own member as head of the region, and so Galan withdrew from the race and reluctantly endorsed agriculture minister Luca Zaia of the League. Zaia, a very popular minister within the cabinet, won the election with a spectacular 60-29 margin. Zaia also led the League to finally winning a plurality of votes and seats in regional parliament, surpassing the People of Freedom with a 35-24 margin.


During his tenure Zaia has often led the charts of the most popular governors, with approval ratings averaging around 60%. Though Zaia has usually been seen as extremely popular, his position on Venetian independence is considered controversial. Zaia has often clashed with national government over the issue of allowing a Scottish-style separatist referendum. Zaia attempted to allow it with a regional law, but quickly the law was challenged by the national government to the Constitutional Court. Though Zaia’s high approval ratings seemed to lead towards an easy victory for him, in June 2014 the surprising victory of the Democratic Party in European elections, who won a plurality of votes in Veneto in a huge upset, led people to think that, maybe for the first time, the left might have a shot in winning one of the center-right’s usually inexpugnable strongholds.


The Democratic Party selected young MEP Alessandra Moretti as its flag-bearer in the hard fight to win a region that the left have never came close to conquer even in its best moments. However Moretti soon revealed herself to be an extremely weak candidate, certainly not the kind of candidate that might try to win such a conservative stronghold. Soon after announcing her run for governor, Moretti gave an interview to “Corriere della Sera” that made her the targets of jokes around the Internet. The interview was a Sarah Palin-style disaster in which Mrs Moretti spoke about her beautician, her love for beauty treatments, her ability as a singer and as a chef and her affair with famous TV host Massimo Giletti. Certainly not the kind of topics you wish a gubernatorial candidate talks about. As I said above, the interview quickly became viral and made of Moretti a Sarah Palin-style national joke.


Early polls showed Zaia leading the race with a double digit margins, with Moretti unable to recover from the disastrous interview. Moretti tried to exploit a scandal that erupted in June. The “Mose” scandal, a scandal related to a projected dam that might end the phenomenon of “Acqua alta” in Venice. The scandal led to the arrest of several politicians, most notably former governor Galan and Venice mayor Giorgio Orsoni. But Moretti tactic somewhat backfired due to the fact that Orsoni is a former member of the PD and that many local members of the party in the municipality of Venice, a city where the left won the last five municipal elections in a row, where charged with bribery and corruption.


However, when everybody thought Zaia was cruising towards his second term, then came what could have possibly been the game changer of the race. As I wrote above, not everyone in the League liked Salvini shift to the right. The most notable critic within the party became Verona’s mayor Flavio Tosi. Tosi, often mentioned as one of Italy’s most popular mayors in polls, openly criticized Salvini stances on immigration as too extreme (a funny criticism from someone like Tosi who has been convicted for using racial slur) and openly said he opposes Italy leaving the Euro. Before Salvini meteoric rise to the leadership of the party in the fall of 2013, Tosi was seen as the most likely new leader of the League, and people even started to mention him as a potential national leader of the centre-right in the wake of Berlusconi expulsion from the Senate. Though, as we know, Salvini stole from him both the role of new party leader and the national spotlight frustrating his ambitions to become the centre-right’s Renzi. In December came the final showdown, with Tosi and Salvini clashing on the composition of the list for regional elections that led to Tosi’s expulsion from the League few weeks later. Tosi then announced his run for governor and was quickly endorsed by the New Centre Right and the Union of the Centre.


After Tosi’s schism polls started to show a very tight race, with Moretti looking now as a much more serious threat due to Tosi siphoning votes from Zaia’s block. However both Tosi and Moretti campaign were awful. Moretti continued her palinesque gaffes, while Tosi campaign soon looked as improvised with Zaia quickly widening again his lead on Moretti taking back votes from Tosi. The televised debate between the four main candidates: Zaia; Moretti; Tosi and the 5 star Movement flag-bearer Jacopo Berti, was probably the last nail in the coffin for both Moretti and Tosi. In post-debate polls 36% of viewers proclaimed Zaia as the winner of the debate while 29% stated Moretti as the winner, 23% stated Berti won and only 12% retained Tosi as the winner.


Latest polls see Zaia with a solid double digit lead, over Moretti while Tosi might finish distant fourth, also behind Berti who ran a quite good campaign and performed well in the debate.


Though Zaia would have been a tough candidate to beat for everyone, probably a different candidate, like per example Vicenza mayor Achille Variati or MP Laura Puppato, might had more shots at making the election competitive due to the split of the center-right between Tosi and Zaia. Moretti revealed herself as a disastrous and ill-advised choice and will likely loose badly. Another month and maybe even Berti could have surpassed her. That’s what happens when you choose a candidate only for his/her pretty face and not for his/her real political skills.


An issue that will probably sparks discussion in the coming weeks will be the result of single parties, with Forza Italia predicted to be in lower single digits. Another signal of the ongoing agony of the former leading party of Italian centre-right


Prediction: Likely Center-Right





Apulia is the eighth most populated region of Italy. Like most southern regions Apulia is poorer than the national average. Apulia ranks 17th among the twenty regions on per capita-GDP statistics. Unemployment rate is also higher than the national average. Currently 23.1% of Apulia’s labour force is jobless, ranking the region second only to Calabria in unemployment statistics.


Politically speaking, like most southern regions, Apulia local politics used to be dominated by the Christian Democracy and the hard right Italian Social Movement during the so called First Republic, while left-wing parties were never able to really challenge the Christian Democratic hegemony.  Like most southern regions, after the collapse of the so called First Republic, Apulia local politics became largely unpredictable and extremely volatile.

Initially Apulia was considered a reliable region for the centre-right pole, with conservatives easy winning the region in both 1995 and 2000. But in 2005 a shocking result was the beginning of a dramatic change in Apulia local politics.


Hard left MP Nichi Vendola, in one of the biggest upset in the history of Italian regional elections, unseated incumbent conservative governor Raffaele Fitto, who was considered a big favourite to win re-election, by a razor-thin margin. The election of an openly homosexual hard left politician in a usually Catholic and conservative region, that was one of the few regions which supported the repeal of the divorce law in the 1973 and that heavily voted for the monarchy in 1946, came as a shock to many both on the right and the left.


The centre-right coalition easily won Apulia in both 2006 and 2008 legislative elections. This results led many to think that Vendola election was just a fluke and that in 2010 Apulia would quickly return to its usual conservative loyalty. But things turned out to be extremely different. During his first term Vendola proved to be a quite popular governor, while its right wing opposition was fractious and divided. When Vendola ran for re-election the centrist wing of the centre-left coalition challenged him in primary elections in hope that a more moderate candidate, like Francesco Boccia, might be able to obtain the endorsement of the centrist UDC, something that Vendola couldn’t achieve. Vendola survived the primary challenge and then went on to win the general election. The main reason that gave Vendola his second term was the internal clash on the right between former governor Raffaele Fitto and Lecce’s mayor Adriana Poli Bortone, the two main local bosses of the centre-right. Poli Bortone, who polls showed being the second most popular politician of the region behind Vendola, looked as the natural candidate, but Fitto vetoed her endorsement and instead forced the then People of Freedom to endorse his protégé Rocco Palese. Thanks to the right’s suicide, Vendola easily won re-election with a wider than expected margin. After his re-election Vendola started to raise its national profile, in hope to become the new leader of the left coalition. Vendola endorsed several candidates of its own hard left party, Left Ecology and Freedom, in several centre-left local primaries, most notably the current Milan mayor Giuliano Pisapia. However Vendola quickly lost momentum as his second term in Apulia was not as successful as his first term. Local troubles for Vendola led to his quick downfall in national relevance. He ran for the centre-left primaries in 2012, but came distant third with just 16% of votes. On 2013 general election, Vendola’s personal list “Left, Ecology and Freedom”, who endorsed Bersani, only obtained 3% of votes.


While on his first term Vendola used to be very popular, things changed abruptly in his second term as his administration became increasingly involved in financial and political scandals. Actually scandals started yet in the first term, when his deputy governor Stefano Tedesco was arrested. But Vendola was able to distance himself by his former deputy, given the fact that the two belong to different parties. But in second terms Vendola was repeatedly charged with accusation that ruined his political image and made him increasingly irrelevant on national politics and increasingly unpopular in his region. First he was charged for abuse of authority. Vendola was acquitted of all charges, but few weeks after his acquittal a journalistic inquiry revealed that the prosecutor who absolved him was a personal friend of Vendola’s sister. An inquiry started on the judge, but the inquiry established that the judge was only an acquaintance of his sister and thus this didn’t affected her judgment in the trial. This is Italian justice ladies and gentlemen.


Then again Vendola was charged for an health care scandal, and once again acquitted. But even if acquitted, his image was severely damaged. Then came the last nail in the coffin, Vendola was charged being one of the main responsible for the ILVA pollution scandal in Taranto. It is yet to be established if Vendola is guilty or not, but regardless of the outcome the ILVA scandal has definitely destroyed any chance for Vendola to have a political future in his own region or nationwide. A phone call of Vendola laughing with the public relations manager of the Riva family, owner of ILVA, at the scandal and the death of cancer that resulted from the pollution scandal. Wheteher he is found guilty or innocent now doesn’t matter, Vendola is politically dead. Just another history of a demagogue, like Bossi and Di Pietro, that started his career calling for transparence and end of corruption and ended it being just another member of the club of Italian crooks.


You’d think that, after all this mess conservatives will easily regained the region. After all, the right easily won the 2013 legislative elections in the region with a seven points margin. And even in June Apulia was one of the weakest performance for the Democratic Party who took “only” 34%, a result seven points lower than the national average. But in spite all the scandals of Vendola’s era, and its continuing conservative loyalty in legislative elections, it looks like Apulia will once again elect a left-wing governor. Two main reason for this seemingly unexplainable result


1. Apulia’s centre-left found another very strong candidate in Bari’s mayor Michele Emiliano. Emiliano, a former prosecutor turned politician, became an extremely popular left wing mayor in a usually reliable conservative city, being often cited as one of Italy’s most popular mayors. Emiliano has to date not been touched by Vendola’s toxic legacy, and ranks as the most popular politician in the region.


2, The conservative pole once again opted for a suicide, giving the public opinion a replay of the clash between Adriana Poli Bortone and Raffaele Fitto. Adriana Poli Bortone announced her second run for governor and was quickly endorsed by the Northern League southern spin-off, “Noi con Salvini” and what remains of Forza Italia. But once again Fitto vetoed Poli Bortone candidacy and endorsed former Bari province president Frnacesco Schittulli. Schittulli obtained the endorsement of the New Centre Right, the Brothers of Italy  and Fitto’s personal civic list. This also led Fitto on the way out from Forza Italia and the EPP. Fitto, who in the last year tried to impose himself as the new leader of the party, announced his withdrawal from the party, the EPP group were he seated and the foundation of a new party. In Brussels now Fitto aderes to the ECR, the soft eurosceptic group founded by British Tories, has called for Italy to exit from Brussels’s cage and praised Cameron’s leadership. Another signal of Italy’s growing distrust for EU? Regardless, thanks to Fitto and Poli Bortone ongoing clash, Michele Emiliano will cruise to victory.


Maybe, being Emiliano an extremely strong candidate, even a united centre-right would have find hard to defeat him, but at least they would have given him a run for his money. With the current situation the only thing left undecided his who will be the runner-up, if Schittulli, Poli-Bortone or 5 Star Movement flag bearer Antonella Laricchia. Polls show Emiliano widely ahead with roughly 42% of votes, with Schittulli, Poli Bortone and Laricchia all polling around 17-20% each.


Prediction: Solid Centre-Left




Tuscany is the ninth most populated region of Italy. Tuscany is usually considered a moderate wealthy region, with a GDP per capita higher than the national average and an unemployement rate lower than the national average. Usually Tuscany ranks in the upper half in public services statistics. However the economic crisis has put somewhat in jeopardy Tuscany status as a wealthy region. Unemployment rate, though still lower than national average, is currently at 11.0%, more than doubled in the last four years.


Politically, Tuscany is usually seen, alongside with Emilia Romagna, as the historical heartland of the Italian left. In the so called First Republic the late Communist Party often led the region with a majority of seats. Tuscany and Emilia Romagna have usually been sold by the Italian left as the example of their good governing skills. In the so called Second Republic, Tuscany became an inexpugnable stronghold of the centre-left coalition, and the centre-right never really challenged the left dominance in the region, with left-wing governors usually elected with comfortable margins.


Though incumbent governor Enrico Rossi looks unbeatable, there’s a small chance  he might be forced to a runoff. Tuscany is the only region whose electoral law impose a runoff if no candidate reaches the 40% threshold. Rossi, in current polls is running with roughly 45% of votes. Though even in the unlikely scenario of Rossi being forced to a runoff, he will still be the overwhelming favorite to secure a second term. Even the great scandal of the Monte Paschi di Siena, one of the greatest bank in Italy, (whose board was largely nominated by left-wing run local administrations) which need a billionaire government bailout, seemed to have no effect on the race.


Rossi being an overwhelming favourite to win re-election the real interest is focused on who will be the runner-up. The race for second place is, unlike the overall race, wide open and polls show a tight race between the 5 Star Movement flag bearer Giacomo Giannarelli and the economist Claudio Borghi Aquilini, endorsed by the Northern League and the Brothers of Italy. Stefano Mugnai is Forza Italia candidate, who polls distant fourth, battling with far left candidate Tommaso Fattori for the fourth spot. Though Rossi is almost assured of being re-elected it will be really interesting to see who will come second, and how much will the League obtain in terms of votes


Prediction: Solid Centre-Left





Liguria is the 12th most populated region of Italy. Though GDP per capita in Liguria is higher than the national average and its unemployment rate is lower, Liguria is often considered the poorest region in Northern Italy. Like in most other regions, the crisis hit hard Liguria, leading its unemployment rate to almost double in the last years of recession.


Politically speaking Liguria in the so called First Republic used to lean towards the Communist Party, who won a plurality of votes and seats in four of the five elections held under the proportional representation law. In the so called Second Republic Liguria has become a left-wing leaning region. Though Liguria usually leans to the left, this lean is not overwhelming like the lead that the left has in central Italy region. So, though the left has won three of the four elections held under the current electoral law, most of these elections have been quite competitive. To date however the center-right has been able to win the region only in 2000.


In the last years Liguria’s politics have been overshadowed by polemics over the bad  handling of natural disasters by local governments. Incumbent center-left governor, Claudio Burlando, incumbent Genoa mayor Marco Doria and former Genoa mayor Marta Vincenzi, all centre-left politicians, had to face harsh criticism and even legal troubles over their alleged neglectfulness in facing a series of environmental crisis. In the fall of 2011 a flood in Genoa caused the death of six people, and then mayor Vincenzi suddenly became  object of criticism over her decision of not closing the schools, having indirectly caused the death of a mother, who went out to take back her daughter from school and her two daughters. Few months later Vincenzi was charged for multiple culpable homicide; culpable disaster and false witness, having tried to cover up her role in the decisions that resulted in the death of six people. Vincenzi, in spite this heavy accusation, tried to run for a second term as Genoa mayor, but was defeated in primaries by Enrico Doria, who also easily won the mayoral elections.


In 2014, however a new flood caused again several damages in the city of Genoa, including the death of a man. Genoa mayor, Doria and governor Burlando were both heavily criticized over their ineptitude in preventing those disasters and their environmental policies. Doria was booed by citizens while visiting the neighborhoods hit by the flood.


The center-left primaries saw a heated and harsh internal debate, that led to a regional schism. Longtime heavy weight of the Democratic Party, Sergio Cofferati, was seen as the favourite to win the contest, but was upset by regional minister Raffaella Paita. However Cofferati didn’t recognize the result, denouncing fraud and buying and selling of votes by Paita camp. Cofferati and his loyals in the Democratic Party decided to run against Paita in the general election. In particular Cofferati accused Paita camp of having bought votes from Roma, Chinese and Moroccan immigrants. Cofferati camp then endorsed a loyal MP, Luca Pastorino, who also obtained the endorsement of minor left parties.


Due to the schism in the left and the rage sparked by the scandals in Genoa the right was supposed to have a shot. Early polls showed the Northern League regional leader, Edoardo Rixi, running neck and neck with Paita. But, in a surprise move, Salvini signed a deal with Berlusconi that forced the League to endorse a Forza Italia candidate in Liguria, in exchange for Forza Italia support of Zaia in Veneto. The deal was met with criticism from the League base. The candidate of Forza Italia, former journalist and current MEP Giovanni Toti, was largely seen as a very weak candidate, prompting the left to think the race was over and Paita was on course to win.


But few days after the announcement of the agreement between the main parties on the right, a bomb exploded. Paita was charged in court for the disastrous flood of 2014. Paita, among others, was charged in court for culprit homicide, culprit disaster and cover-up by the prosecutors investigating on the 2014 flood. Voices within the Democratic Party asked Paita to retire, but Renzi reiterated his personal support for Paita and campaigned for her. After the news of Paita trial polls showed her running neck and neck with Toti and also showed a rise in polling intentions for Alice Salvatori, the 5 Star Movement candidate. Final polls show Toti and Paita running neck and neck and pollin around 28% each, while Salvatori was rising with around 24% of voting intentions, Pastorino polling around 13% and the centrist Enrico Musso coming last with around 6%.


Given the rage, the weakness of the right candidate, and the fact that Liguria is Grillo home region I think that Salvatori may have a small (very small) shot to pull the upset, although most likely the election will be a tight race between Toti and Paita. This will probably be the closest region on Sunday night, with a small chance of becoming a three-way toss-up


Prediction: Toss-Up




Marche is the 13th most populated region of Italy. Its GDP per capita is in line with national average, and its unemployment rate is currently 10.6%, lower than national average (13.3). Some statistics pointed Marche as one of the regions that most suffered the current economic crisis. In spite of the crisis, Marche usually ranks moderately well on service statistics.


Politically speaking Marche used to be a swing region in the so called First Republic, with Christian Democracy and the Communist Party often coming extremely close and alternating in the role of first party of the region, with the Christian Democracy winning a plurality three times and the Communist Party winning a plurality two times, often with razor-thin margin.


In the so called Second Republic, Marche shifted towards the left becoming a reliable region for progressive coalition, though never being as left wing as its neighbouring Umbria; Tuscany and Emilia Romagna. 2000 elections have so far been the closest election since governors became directly elected with the centre-left winning with a 5 points margin. All other regional elections ended with double digit victories for the centre-left pole. Though often the center-right put his eyes on the region in recent years but lately have never been able to truly make the region competitive. A signal of potential change came in 2013 legislative elections, when the 5 Star Movement won a plurality of votes in the region, but the Movement have had lot of trouble confirming his national results in local elections.


The race became awkward when incumbent centre-left governor, Gian Mario Spacca, announced his run for a third term. Rules within the Democratic Party prohibits party members to run for a third term as governor, even if the regional law allows them to do so. Spacca, in order to run for a third term split with his party and announce his candidacy as independent. Thinking that maybe this might be a chance to finally conquer the regional government, Forza Italia and the New Center Right endorsed Spacca. But the right failed to unite behind the incumbent governor, as the Northern League and the Brothers of Italy refused to endorse Spacca, endorsing Francesco Acquaroli. The centre-left selected Luca Ceriscioli, a former mayor of Pesaro, that was endorsed by the Democratic Party, while the hard left ran its own candidate Edoardo Mentrasti. The 5 Star Movement nominated Giovanni Massi


This awkward and strange race might led to some surprise, though polls show a lead for Ceriscioli over Spacca close to double digit. Polls give Ceriscioli around 35% to Spacca 25% and 5 Star Movement Massi coming third with around 20%. Acquaroli, endorsed by the League and the Brothers of Italy, runs distant fourth with roughly 12% of voting intentiuons, while the hard left candidate polls around 8%. This is probably a missed chance for the center-right. If the hard right parties decided endorsed Spacca, the conservative pole might have had an historical chance, but the divisions on the right only helped the left in securing a now very likely victory. It will be interesting however to see who, between Spacca and Massi, will come second, and if the League is able to surpass Forza Italia even in a region that never gave that party good results.


Prediciton: Likely Centre-Left






Umbria is the least populated among the regions that will vote on Sunday. Umbria is usually described as the poorer region from north and central Italy. Its GDP per capita is lower than the national average, and ranks 9th among twenty for unemployment rate. Though its unemployment is slightly lower than national average, is higher than all regions from northern and central Italy.


Politically Umbria has always been a stronghold of the Italian left. During the First Republic the Communist Party dominated local politics winning a majority or a plurality of seats in all elections under the proportional representation system. Since 1995 Umbria continued its left-wing loyalty, with centre-left candidate always winning gubernatorial elections with comfortable margins. The centre-right pole has never been able to mount a credible challenge to the left dominance in the region. Five years ago, Catiuscia Marini of the Democratic Party easily won her first term with a 20 points margin. However the severe economic crisis, that hit the region hardly, and a series of scandals might led the region to its closest contest ever. Marini has not been personally touched by scandals, but her predecessor, Maria Rita Lorenzetti, her lieutenant governor, Orfeo Goracci, and former Perugia mayor Renato Locchi have all been involved in high profile scandals of bribery and corruption. Probabily this series of scandals have been the main reason behind the shocking result in last year Perugia’s mayoral elections, that saw a conservative candidate upsetting incumbent centre-left mayor, ending seventy years of uninterrupted left-wing dominance in the region’s capital. Opinion polls show the incumbent governor lead’s over conservative Assisi mayor, Claudio Ricci, who has been able to coalesce all right of centre parties behind him, has decreased to lower single digits in most recent polls. The scandals and the challenge of the hard left, which has its own candidate, and the 5 Star Movement, might help Ricci in creating the closest race Umbria has ever witnessed. Though it’s the smallest of the seven region voting on Sunday, it might be extremely important for the left to hold this historical stronghold. If the right pulls the upset, ending fourty-five years of leftist hegemony, it might sign the end for Renzi’s government.


Prediction: Leaning Centre-Left


Venice mayoral election

Alongside the seven regions, lots of municipalities will vote to renew their mayor and their city council. The most important among the municipalities is Venice, the capital of Veneto.


While Veneto has always been a conservative stronghold, allergic to the left in both the First and Second republic, its capital has an extremely different electoral behavior, due to its particular social and demographic composition. In the so called First Republic, Venice used to swing between the Christian Democracy and the Communist Party. The Communist Party strength in the region capital, in relation to its weakness in the region overall was probably due to support from blue collar workers in Mestre and Marghera,  seats of large petrochemical industry. While blue-collar workers are now no more the main constituent of Italian centre-left, their number decreased in the 90’s while state employees and retirees, who have replaced blue-collars as the main constituents of Italian centre-left, now compose around 60% of the voting age population in the city


In the 90’s with the beginning of the so called Second Republic, Venice became a stronghold of the centre-left. In the last twenty years Venice has been a red stain in an overwhelming conservative region. Massimo Cacciari, a centre-left philosopher, won the first direct mayoral election in 1993 and again in 1997. In 2000, when Cacciari resigned to run for governor, his protégé Paolo Costa easily won the election in a runoff over conservative candidate Brunetta. 2005 was the closest election the city of Venice faced since the beginning of direct mayoral elections. Although the runoff was not between right and left, but between to left-wing candidates. Cacciari came back and defeat fellow centre-left member Felice Casson by a razor-thin margin, mainly thanks to conservative voters who, in the runoff opted for him against Casson, perceived as too extreme. Cacciari however declined to run in 2010, and endorsed Piergiorgio Orsoni, former president of the Venice University. Orsoni, who was also endorsed by the centrist UDC, won the municipal election with an eight points margin over conservative Brunetta.


One year ago Orsoni was arrested due to his involvement in a bribery scandal, algonside former conservative governor Galan. Several other members of the Democratic Party, like former president of Venice province, Zoggia, were largely involved in the scandal. The “Venice system” quickly became a national embarrassment for the Democratic Party. One of the businessmen charged with bribery stated to prosecutors he corrupted all Venice major political figures in the last twenty years, almost all belong to the Democratic Party.


Additionally to the corruption scandal several journalistic inquiries denounced the urban decay of Venice. Photos of foreign tourists, urinating, pooping and even having sex in public in the city, were published by local newspapers in the summer of 2014, and quickly rose to national prominence.


Another inquiry that exposed the city corruption started over the horrible Calatrava bridge that links the train station to the town. The bridge became the subject of jokes and protests, due to its high costs, slipperies and awfulness. The bridge costed almost 13 million euros, the double of what was prevented at the beginning. The personal salary of Calatrava, around 4 million Euros, was also object of an inquiry with Calatrava himself being put on trial. The bridge was also severly criticized for the fact of being slippery. Several people slipped on the bridge, sometimes even get injured.


Trying to walk away from the now toxic legacy of Orsoni and Cacciari, the Democratic Party recalled Felice Casson, the runner up of 2005 elections. Casson, a former prosecutor turned politicians has always been a vocal critic of the Cacciari system, and has tried to pose as a new clean face for the now slandered venetian centre-left. The centre-right was unable to coalesce around a single candidate. Forza Italia and the New Centre Right endorsed the president of the local basketball team, Luigi Brugnaro. The politically independent Brugnaro is, according to pollsters the most likely rival of Casson in a potential runoff. The League split between two candidates, Francesca Zacariotto, a former Venice province president and former League member, who was endorsed the Brothers of Italy, while the League endorsed economist Gian Angelo Bellati, known for his separatist opinions. The 5 Star Movement endorsed Davide Scano.

Felice Casson is considered the front-runner according to polls, but he might face a runoff. Due to what happened last year in Perugia, Livorno and Padua, where left-wing front-runners where upset by challengers from the right or the 5 Star Movement, Renzi came to Venice to campaign for Casson, repeatedly stating that Casson must win in the first round and avoid a potentially dangerous runoff with Brugnaro. In case of a runoff, things might turn dangerous for the front-runner

Prediction: Leaning Centre-Left

Election Preview: France Municipal Elections 2014 – Part II

In the first part of this election preview, I explained how local government works in France and the context to these municipal elections. Focus now shifts to the major contests which are worth following. Please note that this is a hurried and basic guide, with only basic details for each race. It is also far from a thorough guide: I have likely forgotten many interesting races, and omitted races which I feel are less interested (but results may prove me wrong!).

Follow @welections on Twitter on March 23 and 30 for major results.

Overview: lists and party strategies

One of the major issues attracting interest in this election was the ability of the FN to run a large number of lists in a major cities, and their ability to win municipalities. The FN has usually struggled in municipal elections, more so than in other elections. The focus on local issues and local dynamics (the popularity of sitting mayors, local political machines) has usually hurt the FN, a protest party par excellence which has a weak local organization in many places. Secondly, electoral rules has also hurt the FN. In order to run, all parties must submit a complete list (and, since 2001, those lists must include an equal number of men and women) of candidates. For the FN, which has very few municipal councillors across France and relatively few elected officials compared to all other parties, it struggles to put up complete lists. Putting up complete lists requires recruiting and finding a large number of willing candidates, of both genders (the FN is a largely male-dominated party, in terms of cadres and candidates); lacking a local organization in many places, it also has difficulties in recruiting candidates for those lists, given that there’s generally been some reluctance by individuals in cities (especially in less populated towns where people are more likely to know one another) to take a spot on a FN list, fearing consequences it might have for them for employment and in their social circles. The result has been that when the FN does put up lists, a lot of its candidates, who can’t be properly vetted, turn out to be cranks and fruitcakes. Embarrassment ensues when the media digs up a picture of them posing in front of a Nazi flag, posting some racist nonsense on social media, praising some fascist lunatics on the internet or saying something beyond the pale. For example, the FN was forced to drop one of its candidate in the Ardennes after it was revealed that she compared justice minister Christiane Taubira (who is black, from French Guiana) to a monkey. In Nevers, however, it came too late for the FN: one of their candidates on the list has pictures of herself with Nazi flags or with Nazi/SS memorabilia on Facebook. According to media reports this year, the FN may also turn to unorthodox tactics to fill up its lists: by tricking random citizens into signing up for their lists (under guises of ‘signing a petition’) or putting up dead people; Le Monde reports the cases of senior residents protesting their appearance on FN lists against their will.

The FN’s best performance in municipal elections came in 1995, when the FN ran 444 lists in communes with over 9,000 people and won 505 seats. That year, the FN also won several major towns: Toulon, Orange, Marignane – with a later by-election victory in Vitrolles. In other towns throughout France, the FN won significant results: Perpignan (32.7%), Marseille (22%), Saint-Priest (34.5%), Vénissieux (27.5%), Vaulx-en-Velin (31%), Villefranche sur Saône (35.2%), Mulhouse (30.5%), Dreux (35.2%), Mantes-la-Jolie (25.6%), Noyon (44%), Roubaix (24.4%) and Tourcoing (32.5%). In 2001, the FN was badly hurt by the 1999 split by Bruno Mégret (whose wife was mayor of Vitrolles) to create the National Republican Movement (MNR). On the ground, a lot of FN elected officials – like Toulon mayor Jean-Marie Le Chevallier – left the FN for Mégret’s MNR (Le Chevallier remained neutral) and many FN sections in departments defected. Therefore, only 184 lists ran in communes with over 9,000 inhabitants. If Jacques Bompard, the well-entrenched mayor of Orange was reelected handsomely, he had already taken his distances with the FN and would later leave the party entirely (he briefly joined Philippe de Villiers’ MPF before creating, in 2010, his own party, the Ligue du Sud). In Marseille, where Mégret ran for the MNR, the MNR placed ahead of the FN. In Toulon, the ex-FN mayor, running against an official FN candidate, failed to even qualify for the runoff. In 2008, one year after Sarkozy crippled the FN electorally, the FN was in an even more difficult position and only managed to put up 106 lists; the silver lining was a decent showing for Marine Le Pen in Hénin-Beaumont, her adopted electoral home base, and the election of one municipal councillor in Marseille. Elsewhere, the FN was crushed.

After the FN’s 2012 successes and the feeling of the wind being in its sails, Le Pen was determined to put up as many lists as possibles. Invariably, the FN ran in the aforementioned problems, but it has put up 422 lists in communes with over 9,000 people. A handy Ifop study shows the presence of FN lists on the territory compared to 1995. It has managed to significantly expand its territorial footing, putting up FN lists in western and southwestern cities generally unfavourable to the FN. In the Pas-de-Calais, Marine Le Pen’s stomping ground, the FN ran 7 lists in 1995; today, it’s putting up 16 lists. Compared to 1995, however, there is a clear decline of the FN’s presence in the Parisian region: it ran 30 lists in the Seine-Saint-Denis, 23 in the Hauts-de-Seine and 25 in the Val-de-Marne in 1995 – this year, the FN has only 2, 8 and 10 lists in those departments. Similarly, the FN’s presence in Lyon’s suburbs is weaker than it was in 1995.

On the left, a major issue was the strategy of the Left Front (FG) and specifically the PCF, which is the only FG party with a significant municipal base. As mentioned in the last post, since 1977, there’s a powerful strategy of first round left-wing unity (union de la gauche) behind a single candidate. Through that strategy, the PCF has managed to save for itself a few seats in municipal councillors and the administration of left-wing controlled communes. It has not staved off the PCF’s inexorable decline, although the PCF still controls a sizable number of towns and the tradition of municipal communism remains a reality in some places. The PCF’s presence in municipal councils is especially important for the PCF because municipal councillors form the bulk of the electoral college which elects senators; hence, having many municipal councillors allows the PCF to defend its senatorial caucus. Therefore, the imperatives for the PCF to ally, by the first round, with the PS was and remains strong. That, however, displeases the PCF’s allies in the FG, especially Mélenchon’s PG. Mélenchon, whose party is so tiny it has nothing to lose by going it alone, has been on a firm anti-PS stance when it comes to first round alliances with the PS (since the 2010 regional elections, which already split the FG in some regions).

Mélenchon insisted on autonomous first round FG lists in as many towns as possible. The PCF’s incumbent councillors and leadership saw it otherwise. In a number of major cities, the PCF decided to ally with the PS by the first round. Paris caused a massive firestorm in the FG, endangering the future of the alliance and poisoning PG-PCF relations with the European elections coming up in June. In Paris, the local PCF voted 57-43 to participate in the PS lists by the first round, as the national leadership, backed by Paris senator Pierre Laurent (whose seat in the Senate depends on the PCF having seats in Paris), had wanted it. In other cities, such as Lyon, Brest, Caen, Grenoble, Nancy, Nantes, Reims, Rennes, Rouen, Saint-Étienne, Toulouse and Tours, the PCF is also backing the PS by the first round. In all those cases, the PG and smaller components of the FG (Ensemble etc) with a similar anti-PS stance, opted to form autonomous lists anyways. In some towns, such as Rennes and Grenoble, they allied with the Greens (EELV). In a handful of towns, the PG’s lists allied with the far-left New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), which is otherwise marginalized and isolated.

EELV chose autonomous lists in many cases, although in place such as Amiens, Angers, Besançon, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, Le Mans, Limoges, Marseille, Metz, Montpellier, Nice and Reims it allied with the PS by the first round. In Paris and Lyon, EELV has autonomous lists; although EELV is part of the governing majority in Paris, it has run independently of the PS there in the past municipal elections, while in Lyon the Greens had allied with the PS by the first round since 1995.

On the right, the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) – a centre-right coalition of small parties led by Jean-Louis Borloo – has generally chosen alliances with the UMP, but it has also been wanting to show that it can exist autonomously of the UMP. In the European elections, the UDI will run a common list with François Bayrou’s MoDem. In Strasbourg, Rouen, Caen and Aix the UDI is running independently of the UMP in the first round, sometimes with the MoDem’s support. Otherwise, the UDI is generally on UMP-led lists, while the UMP supports UDI-led lists in Amiens, Nancy and Rennes. The MoDem has more or less firmly aligned with the right, even if Bayrou endorsed Hollande over Sarkozy in 2012. The MoDem’s claims of being ‘beyond left and right’ and aiming to fill the centre ran into the reality of left-right politics in municipal elections as early as 2008. That year, the MoDem followed a confusing strategy: autonomy here and there, allied with the UMP there, allied with the PS here and so forth. Its incumbent mayors, elected for the centre-right UDF in 2001, won reelection with the right’s support. In a strategy which has left many confused, the MoDem supports many UMP-UDI lists by the first round, most notably in Paris. The cause of the MoDem’s alliance with the UMP-UDI seems to be in return for the UMP and UDI endorsing Bayrou’s mayoral candidacy in Pau. In Tours and Dijon, two towns where the MoDem has been in the PS-led governing majority since 2008, the MoDem is allied with the PS incumbents by the first round. In Marseille, the MoDem’s candidate, Jean-Luc Bennahmias, a MEP who joined the MoDem from the Greens (and is on the MoDem’s left) endorsed the PS-EELV list, but Bayrou’s national leadership disavowed him to officially back the UMP incumbent.

Major contests: France’s largest cities


Paris is always one of the most closely followed races in all municipal elections; sometimes frustratingly because many other races are actually far more interesting. Nevertheless, the capital, political centre and largest city in France is always the ultimate crown. Paris, however, has had an elected mayor with actual powers for only a short while: after the 1871 commune de Paris, municipal government (and the office of mayor) was abolished in favour of direct rule by the prefect (although a city council with a president of the council retained very symbolic powers), and it was only restored in 1977. That year, Paris was the major prize and all parties wanted it: the RPR’s leader Jacques Chirac, who had just broken with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, threw his hat into the race; he went up against a patchy PS-PCF alliance marred by PS-PCF infighting and a centre-right led by Michel d’Ornano backed by the Prime Minister and (unofficially) by Giscard. Chirac’s lists defeated d’Ornano in the first round, with about 26% to 22% city-wide, and the RPR went on to a narrow victory over the left in the second round. Chirac proceeded to establish Paris’ city hall as his political base (alongside his seat as deputy in rural Corrèze in central France). He became very popular with consensual policies, and when he won reelected in 1983 and 1989, Chirac’s lists swept all 20 arrondissements in Paris – a huge feat given the political polarization of the city.

With Chirac elected to the presidency a month prior, he was succeeded in 1995 by his local ally, Jean Tiberi (RPR). Although Tiberi’s lists held a large majority on the Conseil de Paris, with 98 out of 163 seats, the left made major gains – winning 62 seats on council, and gaining no less than six arrondissements from the right, all in the historically left-leaning eastern half of the city. It was under Tiberi’s administration that the whole RPR machine built by Chirac since 1977 began to unravel, with the first revelations of corruption – kickbacks and corruption in the construction of social housing, the ‘faux emplois‘ (fake jobs) with salaries paid by the city to RPR cadres who didn’t work for the city and so forth. Tiberi was targeted by a judicial investigation opened in 1999 about his role in the corruption in the social housing (HLM) office. By the time of the 2001 elections, the right refused to endorse Tiberi, instead backing Philippe Séguin (RPR), who became the official candidate of the right (RPR-UDF-DL). Tiberi and his supporters ran dissidents lists in every arrondissement. On the evening of the first round, Séguin’s lists won 25.7% and placed on top of the right in 14 out of 20 arrondissements, while the tibéristes won 13.9% and topped the right in 4 arrondissements, including the Tiberi stronghold of the 5th arrondissement. The PS-PCF, led by PS senator Bertrand Delanoë, won 31.3% and negotiated a second round alliance with the Greens, who won a solid 12.4%. Although the right united for the runoff in all but three safely right-wing arrondissements, the divisions haunted and crippled the right in the runoff: vote transfers were imperfect, allowing the PS-Green alliance to win 12 out of 20 arrondissements and a solid majority (92 seats) on the city council. City-wide, Delanoë won on a minority of the vote (49.6%), with the combined total of the right over 50%.

Delanoë’s victory in 2001 owed a lot to the divisions of the right, but it also signaled a political shift in Parisian politics. Gentrification and the political shift of well-educated, middle-class urban professionals towards the PS (and Greens) is the other explanation for Delanoë’s initial victory – and why Paris is increasingly safe for the left. Delanoë became very popular during his first term, with landmark projects including Paris Plages (summer recreational activities and beaches on the banks of the Seine), the Vélib’ (a bicycle sharing system), an expansion in social housing and promotion of cultural activities. With high popularity and weak opposition, Delanoë was easily reelected in 2008, with about 41% of the city-wide vote in the first round. The Greens suffered major loses, winning only 6.8% in the first round, weakening their position against the PS. The right, united behind UMP deputy Françoise de Panafieu, won only 27.9%. In the second round, the left won a slightly expanded majority, but in a confirmation of the city’s political polarization, the left did not gain any arrondissements from the left. One of the closest contests was in the 5th arrondissement, where Jean Tiberi (UMP) ran for a fifth term as mayor of the arrondissement. Although polls had placed the left ahead, Tiberi won 45% against 44.1% for the PS in the runoff.

Strengthened by his victory, Delanoë took an increasingly prominent role in national politics and he was considered the early favourite to win the PS leadership at the 2008 Reims Congress. But after a poor campaign, Delanoë’s motion performed poorly and he ultimately withdrew from the leadership ballot, endorsing Martine Aubry. Refocusing his attention to municipal politics, Delanoë declined to run for reelection this year.

The PS candidate is Anne Hidalgo, who has served as Delanoë’s première adjointe (top deputy) since 2001 and could be seen as Delanoë’s heir-apparent. Behind her, Hidalgo has united the PCF and Left Radicals (PRG). EELV, a critical member of the governing left-wing majority since 2001, once again opted to run independently in the first round (the Greens have run alone in the first round ever since 1977) before allying with the PS lists in the second round. As in 2001 and 2008, EELV’s hope is for the strongest possible showing in the first round to gain a stronger bargaining position against the PS in the runoff and obtain a number of seats in the executive. EELV nominated Christophe Najdovski, an adjoint au maire. The PCF’s decision to ally with the PS, as noted above, created a national firestorm in the FG, prompting the PG and other small FG components to run their own autonomous list, led by incumbent city councillor Danielle Simonnet (PG).

The right was far more confident of its chances at victory in Paris this year, and the UMP sought to attract a top-rate star candidate (after de Panafieu, a mediocre candidate with a bourgeois image). Originally, speculation centered on Sarkozy’s Prime Minister François Fillon (who abandoned his seat in the Sarthe to run for a seat in Paris in the 2012 legislative elections) and Rachida Dati, the copéiste UMP mayor of the 7th arrondissement since 2008 (she’s also a MEP and was justice minister under Sarkozy’s first years). Fillon, who saw that victory would nevertheless be an uphill battle, did not run and Dati’s polling numbers were very poor. In a February 2013 open primary, the UMP nominated Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (widely known as NKM). NKM, who is députée-maire of the suburban town of Longjumeau in the Essonne, served as environment minister under Sarkozy between 2010 and 2012. Her moderate (unlike the vast majority of the UMP, she abstained rather than vote against same-sex marriage/adoption) and ‘green’ profile is a fairly good fit for a left-leaning and socially liberal city like Paris. NKM defeated second-tier opposition handily, with 58% by the first round. If she successfully managed to forge a first round alliance with the UDI and the MoDem (which ran autonomously in 2008), she has been less successful at holding her campaign together. For the past few months, NKM’s campaign has been dogged by awkward moments by the candidate (struggling to shake off a bit of a bourgeois image) and, more importantly, dissident after dissident.

There are right-wing dissidents running against the official UMP-UDI-MoDem lists in all but two arrondissements. The Parisian right has been in poor shape since the 2001 defeat, and the severe divisions in UMP ranks during the 2011 senatorial elections and the 2012 congress worsened matters even further. A number of dissidents have pooled together around Charles Beigbeder, a copéiste businessman and brother of the crazy writer-philosopher Frédéric Beigbeder, who announced a dissident candidacy in the solidly right-wing bourgeois 8th arrondissement in December 2013, after a disagreement with NKM on his place on the official list. Beigbeder has federated some right-wing dissidents around his Paris libéré makeshift label, although besides him none of his candidates have much notoriety.

But, to complicate things further, there are stronger local UMP (and some UDI and MoDem) dissidents in other arrondissements. In the 5th arrondissement, the UMP incumbent Jean Tiberi was sentenced to 3 years electoral ineligibility (in addition to a fine and suspended jail sentence) for the ‘faux électeurs‘ (fake voters; Tiberi and his wife Xavière were accused of voter fraud by registering fictional names in the arrondissement; the common joke is that Tiberi’s strongest demographic was the cemetery) affair in 2013 and the UMP refused to support his son Dominique, who is running as a dissident. Polling has shown that Dominique Tiberi, whose family still controls a powerful machine in the arrondissement, may pull up to 20%, qualifying for the runoff. A triangulaire with the official UMP-UDI-MoDem candidate, Florence Berthout, and the PS candidate would be deadly for the right, especially given that the arrondissement has been moving left rapidly: Hollande won 56% in the 5th in 2012. In the solidly right-wing bourgeois 7th arrondissement (71% Sarkozy), the incumbent mayor Rachida Dati (UMP) is facing stiff competition on the right, with two prominent dissidents: Michel Dumont, the former mayor of the arrondissement (2002-2008) and Christian Le Roux, a former premier adjoint. Dati, as her opponents point out, seems to have little interest in either of her gigs (MEP and mayor).

NKM has chosen to run in the 14th arrondissement, which has been held by the PS since 2001 and gave Hollande over 60% in May 2012. Similar to the 12th arrondissement, it is one which is a must-win for the right if it is to win city-wide, but it is a huge uphill battle for her. Polls show that Carine Petit, the PS top candidate in the 14th, has a wide lead over NKM and the left would easily retain the arrondissement in the second round.

Paris was one of the far-right’s earliest strongholds: in 1983, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s list in the 20th arrondissement (eastern Paris) won 11.3% in the first round and 8.5% in the runoff – it was one of the FN’s first electoral successes, a year before its national breakthrough. In 1989, the FN won over 10% in four arrondissements, including 15.6% in the 20th for Le Pen. In 1995, the FN broke 10% in 9 arrondissements and obtained its only city councillor to date. However, the FN-MNR split crippled the Parisian far-right, which has also been one of the big losers of the demographic shifts in the city: less blue-collar, with the arrival of ‘new middle-classes’ with high cultural capital and also high repulsion towards the FN. The FN won 3.2% in 2008 and Marine Le Pen won only 6.2% of the vote in Paris in April 2012. The FN candidate is Wallerand de Saint-Just, a far-right lawyer from the FN’s traditionalist Catholic wing. With about 8-9% in citywide polls, there is an outside chance that the FN may win over 10% of the vote in some arrondissements, qualifying for the runoff.

Anne Hidalgo is the favourite in Paris. She has several advantages going for her: structurally, the electoral system in Paris tends to favour the left, whose strongholds are worth more seats on council than the right’s western strongholds. This means that the left would likely win even if it won a minority of the vote across the city. Secondly, Paris has shifted towards the left in recent years, culminating in no less than 55.6% for Hollande in May 2012.  The electorate in the key swing arrondissements is increasingly allergic to the UMP in its current shape: the Sarkozy and post-Sarkozy rhetoric of the right is a very poor fit for Paris, especially the swing arrondissements. The UMP’s constant vilification of the Parisian ‘bobo’ (bourgeois bohemian; a term which most on the right use without actually knowing what it means or who it refers to) does it no favours. Nevertheless, given the national climate far more favourable to the UMP than 2008, NKM should manage a more respectable performance for the right – but a personal defeat in the 14th and a potential gain by the PS in the 5th would be major blows to the right. Citywide polling is rather useless, but Hidalgo is stable at 52-53% in all runoff scenarios while both her and NKM poll roughly 35-39% in the first round. EELV, desperate for a good result given the party’s troubles, is between 5 and 7% in the polls, which would be mediocre.


The most interesting major city to watch on both March 23 and 30 is Marseille: the largest city in the south of France is well worth following in every municipal elections because Marseille politics is so… fascinating, but this year the contest in Marseille could go both ways. All will be decided by the results in one, maybe two, key sectors. The mayor of Marseille since 1995 is Jean-Claude Gaudin (UMP).

Between 1953 and 1986, Marseille was the fiefdom of Gaston Defferre. In a city with a very strong PCF base – the PCF dominated politics in the working-class northern neighborhoods of the city (the present-day 8th sector), Defferre, a Socialist, governed with a coalition uniting Socialists, centrists, Radicals and non-Gaullist right – a coalition reminiscent of the anti-communist and anti-Gaullist Third Force coalitions so popular under the Fourth Republic. Defferre’s main opposition was the PCF, while the Gaullists, outside his majority, were a rather weak force in the city. The 1960s was the heyday of Defferre’s socialocentriste coalition; in 1977, Defferre was reelected without the PCF but his right-wing supporters had left and, finally, in 1983, Defferre’s final victory was with the PCF. That same year, Defferre was reelected despite losing the popular vote to Jean-Claude Gaudin (UDF), who had been an adjoint in Defferre’s previous administrations. The reason? As interior minister, Defferre had gerrymandered the sectoral map to benefit the left; a gerrymandering undone by Chirac’s government in 1986. Under Defferre’s administration, Marseille saw several major social and economic transformations: the fall of the French colonial empire, which had fueled Marseille’s industrial economy, led to an influx of white pied-noirs settlers from North Africa in the 1960s, followed by waves of mass immigration from North Africa. Defferre, as mayor, built a clientelist system which governed through corrupt agreement with the unions and the mafia – Marseille, as a major harbour, was and is a major transit point in drug trafficking from Asia to North America.

Defferre failed to groom an heir-apparent, and his succession opened a crisis in the Marseille PS which lasted for at least ten years. In 1986, after his death, Defferre was replaced by Robert Vigouroux, a PS senator backed by municipal councillors and due to be a ‘transition’ mayor until the 1989 elections. In 1989, the lingering crisis exploded: the PS-PCF officially nominated Michel Pezet, a PS deputy who had the support of the PS membership. Vigouroux ran for reelection as a dissident, rallying PS and PCF dissidents to his lists. The conflict on the left took a national dimension, because Michel Pezet was a close ally of Prime Minister Michel Rocard, while Rocard’s sworn enemy, President François Mitterrand the Élysée Palace gave covert support to Vigouroux, in a move to deny Rocard and Lionel Jospin the control of the Bouches-du-Rhône PS federation (the most important PS federation) ahead of the 1990 Rennes Congress. Vigouroux, who attracted significant crossover support from the right to his side, was elected in a landslide – sweeping all 8 sectors, taking about 42% to Pezet’s 15% and the UDF-RPR’s 24%. The Vigouroux episode proved to be a flash in the pan: the local PS dumped him, favouring instead local businessman and aspiring politician Bernard Tapie, leading Vigouroux to ally with the right (and endorsed Balladur in 1995), but the right lost interest in him after Tapie was eliminated from politics due to his corruption scandals. Vigouroux retired, leaving a few hardened supporters to back centre-right senator Jacques Rocca-Serra. The PS-PCF nominated Lucien Weygand, president of the general council, but this time Pezet, with Rocard’s blessing, ran as a PS dissident. Gaudin, leading a united right, won 36% in the first round against 28.7% for Weygand, 22% for the FN, 6% for Pezet and 4.8% for Rocca Serra. In the second round, Gaudin took five out of eight sectors, winning a solid majority on the council – 55 seats against 37 for the right and 9 for the FN.

Gaudin had little trouble winning reelection in 2001, against weak opposition from the left and a far-right weakened by its division between the FN and Mégret’s MNR. 2008, however, was won by a hair. Jean-Noël Guérini, the local big boss of the PS and president of the general council, gave Gaudin a run for his money. The left was able to pick up the first sector, in downtown Marseille, from the UMP, but the result hinged on the race in the third sector, where Guérini ultimately lost to the UMP by 2.8%. Gaudin was reelected, but he held only 51 out of 101 seats on the municipal council, against 49 for the left and 1 for the FN, which had taken a seat in the 8th sector in the first round.

At 74 years old, many felt that Gaudin would not run for reelection. The prospect of an open seat whet the appetite of many UMP parliamentarians: Renaud Muselier, the mayor of the third sector, was once perceived as Gaudin’s successors, but relations between the old patriarch and the younger initial heir-apparent broke down after 2008 and Gaudin likely clapped his hands at Muselier’s defeat in the 2012 legislative elections against Marie-Arlette Carlotti, the PS junior minister for the disabled. Other potential successors included Dominique Tian, Guy Teissier and Valérie Boyer, all three sitting deputies. Gaudin announced he would seek reelection in November 2013.

The PS is eager to regain Marseille. The PS in the Bouches-du-Rhône has been wracked by internal divisions and corruption scandals, all revolving around Guérini. Guérini, who hails from the same Corsican village as two of France’s most famous gangsters (but denies any family connection), has been embroiled in a major scandal since 2009. Guérini’s brother runs waste management companies suspected of ties to organized crime, and Guérini is said to have intervened to favour his brother’s businesses. In September 2011, Guérini was indicted on several charges, including conspiracy and influence peddling. The scandal proved a headache for the national PS, which dragged its feet in disciplining Guérini and rooting out corruption; only suspending him once he was indicted. Guérini was indicted in two new scandals in 2013. Nevertheless, Guérini remains senator and president of the general council. While many of those who were originally under his wings have transformed themselves into upstanding moral opponents of his corruption, Guérini retains significant influence over the PS in Marseille and the department and the local PRG is, for all intents and purposes, a guériniste front.

The PS held an open primary in October 2013, which attracted six candidates, including five heavy-weights: Marie-Arlette Carlotti, the junior minister and perceived as the establishment/government candidate; Patrick Mennucci, mayor of the 1st sector and deputy since 2012; Samia Ghali, senator and mayor of the 8th sector; Eugène Caselli, president of the urban community and Christophe Masse, vice-president of the general council. All candidates had, at one time or another, supported Guérini. But Mennucci and Carlotti have since clearly broken with Guérini, and Guérini seems to dislike both pretty strongly, having encouraged one of his stooges (Lisette Narducci, the PRG mayor of the 2nd sector) to run against Mennucci in the 2012 legislative elections. Mennucci focused his attacks on Force ouvrière (FO), a union accused of ‘co-governing’ the city with Gaudin and the CU with Caselli. FO is extraordinarily powerful in the local and metropolitan administration, it has its word to say in promotions, demotions and hiring while the mayor of the president of the CU both favour FO over other unions. Samia Ghali, who became senator thanks to Guérini’s backing, was considered by her opponents as Guérini’s candidate.

In the first round, Ghali won 25.3% against 20.7% for Mennucci, while Carlotti won 19.5%. Caselli took 16.6%, Masse won 14.3% while Henri Jibrayel, a deputy and Ghali’s rival in the 8th sector, won 3.7%. Ghali received very strong support in her strongholds of the quartiers nord, where she has a strong machine and GOTV operation. Overall, it was very much a friends-and-neighbors primary, each candidate (except Jibrayel) dominating their home turf. In the second round, Menucci was endorsed by Carlotti, Jibrayel (who hates Ghali) and Caselli while Masse (on bad terms with Mennucci) remained neutral. Somewhat disingenuously, Ghali presented herself as the ‘anti-system’ candidate and decried that her opponent was the candidate of the Parisian establishment, the Élysée and Matignon. Mennucci won the runoff with 57.2%. Ghali’s ‘concession’ was extremely ungrateful, whining that she had been up against 5 candidates and the government and, upon mentioning Ayrault and Hollande, the crowd booed. The ambiance was so terrible that talk of dissident lists ran wild, while her supporters swore not to back Mennucci. Ultimately, knowing what’s best for her, she made her peace with Mennucci. Mennucci’s lists have united all his primary opponents (except Jibrayel, who was never interested in municipal politics anyways): Mennucci in the 1st sector, Caselli in the 2nd sector, Carlotti in the 3rd sector, Masse in the 6th sector and Ghali in the 8th sector.

EELV, led by Karim Zéribi, a MEP (ex-PS), originally envisioned to run its own autonomous lists, but given the party’s weak base in the city, it rallied Mennucci’s PS lists in January. Zéribi is the top candidate in the 5th sector, which is safely UMP. Mennucci was also joined by the MoDem’s local leader and 2008 candidate, MEP Jean-Luc Bennahmias, a former Green. Bennahmias and some of his friends joined Mennucci’s lists in February 2014, but the national MoDem leadership (= Bayrou) disavowed him and are backing Gaudin.

For the first time since 1977, the PCF won’t be running with the PS in the first round. Jean-Marc Coppola (PCF), a regional vice-president, is the top candidate for the FG. Mélenchon won 13.8% in Marseille, and the PCF retains some level of support, especially in their old strongholds in the north of the city. But the PCF lost the mayoralty of the 8th sector in 2008; the PCF had controlled Marseille’s northern neighborhoods since World War II.

Guérini is behind a PRG list in five sectors. The only one which has a presence and nuisance power on the PS is that of Lisette Narducci, the loyal guériniste incumbent in the 2nd sector. In the 2012 legislative elections, Narducci won about 22% of the vote in the 2nd sector. However, the 2nd sector is firmly on the left; there is no chance of the right winning it.

Marseille has long been a strong spot for the FN: Marine Le Pen won 21.2% in April 2012 in Marseille, even placing first of all candidates in two arrondissements. In 2008, the election of one FN municipal councillor was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise horrible season for the FN. The FN’s lists are led by Stéphane Ravier, a regional councillor and the FN’s 2008 candidate. Ravier is leading the FN list in the 7th sector, located in northeastern Marseille – a low-income white working-class area with large immigrant pockets, it is one of the strongest regions in the city for the FN (Le Pen won 25% in 2012). Across the city, with the FN polling between 16% and 21%, the FN will likely qualify for the second round in every sector (unless some are won by the first round) and have a clear nuisance power for the UMP. Indeed, Mennucci’s hope of defeating Gaudin are hugely dependent on the FN’s numbers: a strong FN will create difficult triangulaires across Marseille, drawing votes from the UMP and allowing the PS to win with a plurality.

The race will be decided in one key sector: the 3rd sector, the same where Guérini’s mayoral ambitions hit a wall in 2008. Marie-Arlette Carlotti, one of two cabinet ministers who is a top candidate this year, is the PS top candidate in the 3rd sector, against Bruno Gilles, the UMP incumbent. The sector is a mix of right and left-leaning areas; poorer areas, middle-class neighborhoods and left-voting gentrified and educated downtown neighborhoods. Overall, Hollande won it with 52.9% in May 2012. The control of Marseille will be decided there: a UMP hold more likely than not reelects Gaudin, a PS win would probably be enough for them to win Marseille. It will be a contest to watch: polling shows that the runoff is well within the margin of error, with a 1-2% lead for Carlotti.


There is much less media interest in Lyon, the third largest city in France. The city, a fairly bourgeois place, has a long tradition of centrist or moderate mayors: Édouard Herriot, the Radical grandee, served as mayor of Lyon between 1908 and 1957 (with the exception of the war years). He was replaced by Louis Pradel, a centre-right independent who preached local interests, uniting a broad array of politicians from the centre to Jacques Soustelle’s French Algeria friends. He was the target of major Gaullist assaults in both 1959 and 1965, but both times Pradel was reelected and in 1971, the Gaullists now backed Pradel. He was replaced after his death by Francisque Collomb (UDF), who was badly defeated in 1989 by Michel Noir, a young ambitious RPR leader whose rising star was shot down by a corruption scandal involving Noir and his father-in-law (a corrupt businessman). In 1995, Noir, indicted for corruption, retired but supported dissident lists around Henry Chabert, his adjoint. The UDF-RPR nominated former Prime Minister Raymond Barre (UDF), who narrowly outpolled the noiristes in the first round (29% to 26%) and defeated the PS-Greens and FN in the runoff. Barre’s retirement after one term reopened the civil war on the right, now divided between an official RPR-UDF list led by Michel Mercier (UDF) and Jean-Michel Dubernard (RPR) and lists led by Charles Millon (DLC), a former regional president. The division of the right, as in Paris, allowed Gérard Collomb, a PS senator backed by the Greens, to win the second round. In the city council, the left took 42 seats against 21 for the millonistes and 10 for the official right.

In tune with Lyon’s political moderation and benefiting from a shift to the left of the city’s well-educated and urban middle-class milieus, Collomb has been very popular. Governing very much as a centrist, Collomb was reelected in a landslide in 2008: his lists won 6 out of 9 arrondissements in the first round, while the UMP only won (in the runoff) the very affluent 2nd and 6th arrondissements, rock-ribbed strongholds of the right. Collomb has not been afraid of going against his party: in the 2012 legislative elections, Collomb backed Thierry Braillard (PRG), a dissident, against a EELV candidate endorsed by the PS; Collomb has also signaled that he is less than enamoured with Hollande’s record thus far. Collomb’s relations with the president of the general council, Michel Mercier (UDI), are also solid: it is thanks to an understanding between both men that the transformation of the CU of Lyon into a de facto department is going ahead.

Running for a third term, there is nothing which can stop him. He is weakened by a more fragmented left: EELV is running autonomously, with Étienne Tête as top candidate; the FG lists include Nathalie Perrin-Gilbert, the ex-PS dissident mayor of the 1st arrondissement. The UMP has likely chosen the best possible candidate. In a primary, local members chose Michel Havard, a former deputy and a moderate. He defeated Georges Fenech, a deputy for a suburban constituency known for his more right-wing positions.

Other cities

Toulouse: In 2008, the PS, led by Pierre Cohen, finally regained Toulouse, a left-leaning city which it had lost back in 1971. Since 1971, the city, which voted for the left in national elections, was governed by the right: Pierre Baudis (1971-1983), succeeded by his son Dominique Baudis (1983-2001), followed by Philippe Douste-Blazy (2001-2004) and ultimately Jean-Luc Moudenc (2004-2008). Despite the national climate, Moudenc, a rather well-liked consensual moderate, put up a solid fight. In the first round, Moudenc came out ahead (42.6%) of the PS (39%) and he lost the runoff by a tiny margin (49.6% to 50.4%). This year’s election is a rematch of the 2008 election: Jean-Luc Moudenc, who was elected to the National Assembly in the 3rd constituency in 2012, is backed the UMP, UDI and MoDem (Christine de Veyrac, a UDI MEP, has maintained her dissident candidacy but she’s not a factor) while incumbent mayor Pierre Cohen is backed by the PS, PCF and PRG. Unlike in 2008, the Greens (EELV) are running autonomously behind Antoine Maurice, a sitting municipal councillor. There is a PG list led by sitting municipal councillor Jean-Christophe Sellin. Polls indicate a very close battle, especially in the first round. However, it appears that with good transfers from EELV and the PG, Cohen is the favourite in the second round. The last poll showed Cohen leading the second round 52-48, but trailing the first round by 1.5.

Nice: Christian Estrosi (UMP) won the 2008 election, comfortably defeating Patrick Allemand (PS) and incumbent mayor Jacques Peyrat. Peyrat is a Algérie française type, ex-FN (FN deputy in 1986) who was close to Jean-Marie Le Pen but, having been defeated by a hair in several close races, quit the FN in 1994 to move closer to the right while still publicly supporting much of the FN’s policies. He was elected mayor in 1995, defeating incumbent RPR mayor Jean-Paul Baréty (1993-1995) by over 10 points in a quadrangulaire with the left and the FN.

Peyrat was also close, however, to the Médecin clan – he was first elected to the municipal council in 1965 when mayor Jean Médecin (1928-1944, 1947-1965) took him under his wing. Médecin the elder, a right-wing nationalist (but, formally, close to the Radicals), was an enthusiastic Pétainiste in 1940 and until the Italian occupation in 1942, and viscerally anti-Gaullist. Médecin successfully set up a ‘système Médecin‘ – a clientelistic network, a distributor of patronage, a local lobby, the expression of a local ‘notable’ who refused all ties with national parties – a right-winger who could be called a fascist without exaggeration who was on good terms with the local PCF deputy, Virgile Barel; nationalistic but more pro-European and pro-American/NATO than most Gaullists. He was deputy from 1932 to 1962, of some relevance nationally but ultimately not very interested by national politics and, because of his independence and localism, kept away from most Parisian cabinets. Jacques Médecin succeeded his father in 1965. He was less anti-Gaullist than his father, being instead very much anticommunist; he was still very right-wing (if not far-right; he said he shared 99.9% of the FN’s idea) and racist. Very crooked, he resigned and fled to Uruguay in 1990, before being extradited to France in 1994 and sentenced in four separate trials but somehow fled back to Uruguay and escaped jail in 1996. While Peyrat wasn’t an ally of Jacques Médecin, there was a rather friendly entente between the two men, whose political differences didn’t go much beyond the fact that one was open about being in the FN and the other was too closely tied to the dynastic family history to do so. Indeed, in 1995, Peyrat visited Médecin in jail and presented himself as his natural successor. Peyrat, however, didn’t set up a ‘système’ of his own, and joined the RPR in 1996, serving as deputy (1997-1998) and senator (1998-2008).

His time was up in 2008, when the now Sarkozyst UMP had little interest in the old man and was, locally, led by Christian Estrosi – who in those years was known as one of Sarkozy’s most loyal footsoldiers. Estrosi is very much on the right: his main image is that of a law-and-order guy who recently prided himself on his administration’s ‘dealing’ with the Roma (and proposed to help other mayors with tips on how to do so). Estrosi is the leading baron of the UMP in the Alpes-Maritimes, his support for Fillon was enough for Fillon to carry the department in the 2012 congress. Estrosi’s reelection, perhaps by the first round, makes no doubt. The city is firmly on the right. The FN’s campaign, led by party vice-president Marie-Christine Arnautu (supported by Jean-Marie Le Pen, over the opposition of his daughter; the FN patriarch is given free rein by her daughter over FN affairs in PACA), has foundered. It is likely that many FN voters have flocked to Estrosi, whose campaign has focused on highlighting his record on criminality.

Estrosi’s non-FN right-wing dissidents are no threat. Jacques Peyrat wants his old job back, but he lacks partisan support (he floated back to the FN, running for them in 2011 and 2012). Olivier Bettati, a UMP general councillor and former ‘adjoint au maire‘ who has always distrusted Estrosi. Bettati, a copéiste, defeated Estrosi in a cantonal election back in 1994. The PS-EELV list is led by local opposition leader (and perennial candidate) Patrick Allemand.

Strasbourg: Governed by centrists (notably Pierre Pfimlin, from the MRP, between 1959 and 1983), Strasbourg was gained by the left, namely Catherine Trautmann (PS) in 1989. She was reelected by the first round in 1995, but she resigned her job in 1997 to become culture minister in Jospin’s government. Her return to municipal politics upon her departure from the government in 2000 created a crisis within the PS majority: she wanted her jobs as mayor and president of the CU, whereas Roland Ries, who had held both offices since 1997, had been previously set to retain the presidency of the CU. Although an agreement was found to allow Trautmann to retake both jobs, the episode profoundly divided the left in Strasbourg. In 2001, Trautmann’s PS-Green list faced a dissident list led by Jean-Claude Petitdemange, a member of the municipal majority and leader of the PS federation in the Bas-Rhin. In the first round, Trautmann won 29.1%, a few decimals behind Fabienne Keller (UDF), while Petitdemange won 12.1%. The latter’s decision to maintain his list in the runoff, sparking a triangulaire, proved fatal for the PS: Keller won with 50.9%, against 40.4% for Trautmann and 8.7% for Petitdemange. In 2008, buoyed by a helpful national climate, Roland Ries (PS) regained control of Strasbourg for the left. Fabienne Keller’s administration had been marred by complaints of authoritarianism by some of councillors in the right-wing majority, as well as a conflict with Robert Grossmann, the president of the CU. In the first round, Ries led Keller by over 10 points – 43.9% to 33.9% – and, with the backing of the Greens (6.4%), Ries won the runoff in a landslide with no less than 58.3%.

This year is another rematch between Keller and Ries, and the UMP is far more confident of its chances of victory. Going for the UMP is the national climate and the right’s greater mobilization in times of lower turnout; going for the PS is the popularity of the incumbent and the city’s lean to the left (Hollande won 54.7%, the culmination of a strengthening of the left since the 1990s in gentrified neighborhoods and the downtown core). Both sides face significant, but not damaging, challenges from their own sides: EELV is running autonomously, like in 2008, with Alain Jund; the UDI is trying its luck with an independent candidacy by François Loos, a former deputy and industry minister under Chirac. The race, originally looking good for the left, has tightened significantly. The last two polls showed that, in the case of a straight PS-UMP runoff, both candidates are tied at 50% apiece. A lot hinges on whether or not the FN, weak in Strasbourg, will qualify for the runoff. If it does, a triangulaire would favour the left, which holds a lead of a few points over the UMP in those scenarios. The UMP is heavily targeting the city, which may be the biggest city which it may gain: the enemies of the party, Copé and Fillon, were brought to a ‘unity’ rally with Keller a week or so ago.

Montpellier: Montpellier has been governed by the PS since 1977, and now leans solidly towards the left – Hollande won 62.4% in the city back in May 2012. Governed by Georges Frêche between 1977 and 2004, he was replaced by Hélène Mandroux. Mandroux originally governed in the shadow of her controversial but masterful predecessor, who remained president of the CA while he served as president of the regional council after 2004. She was easily reelected in 2008, with 47.1% in the first round against 26.1% for UMP deputy Jacques Domergue and 11.1% for the Greens. In the second round, she won 51.9% against 29.5% for the UMP and 18.6% for the Greens. Mandroux, however, saw her relationship with Frêche deteriorate. She was called upon to lead an official PS list against Frêche in the 2010 regional elections (Frêche had been excluded from the PS for anti-Semitic comments), and her result in the first round – 7.7% – was an unmitigated disaster which weakened her leadership. She was left further weakened by conflicts in her majority, still divided between frêchistes and anti-frêchistes. Mandroux was unable to take control of the CA after Frêche’s death in 2010; it went to Jean-Pierre Moure, who allied himself with the frêchistes. In the PS, she gradually lost her influence. Despite these challenges, Mandroux insisted on running for reelection, but in a convoluted process, she was convinced by Ayrault to withdraw her candidacy in favour of Jean-Pierre Moure. However, Moure’s nomination, confirmed in a primary, has divided the PS. Philippe Saurel, a member of the governing majority considered close to interior minister Manuel Valls, is running as a dissident after having refused to participate in primaries (claiming they were manipulated). Saurel’s support in polls has increased exponentially over the campaign, and the last poll placed him at 21%, only 3 points behind UMP-UDI-MoDem candidate Jacques Domergue and 7 points behind Moure, who has won the support of EELV (slightly surprising, given EELV’s longstanding opposition to the Frêche system and the party’s ability to poll well if it ran independently, as in 2008). Saurel has seemingly little intention of withdrawing from the runoff. To jumble things up further, the FN, led by regional councillor France Jamet, has been consistently polling over 10%. A four-way runoff, even maybe a five-way runoff with the FG, is a real possibility. However, despite UMP wet dreams of winning thanks to PS divisions, polls show that Moure retains a strong advantage in all runoff scenarios.

Bordeaux: Hollande won 57% in Bordeaux in 2012 and the city is firmly on the left politically, but there’s no chance that the PS will win it this year. Since 1947, the city has been governed by Gaullists: Jacques Chaban-Delmas was elected for the first time in the Gaullist RPF wave of 1947 and governed the city until his retirement in 1995. Chaban-Delmas, a leading ‘baron of Gaullism’, was reelected year after year with huge majorities by the first round, even in unfavourable climate like 1977. In 1995, he supported Alain Juppé, an ally of Chirac and the new Prime Minister, who won 50.3% in the first round. Juppé, forced out of politics by his sentencing in a corruption scandal (where he is seen as having taken the fall for Chirac), returned as mayor in 2006 following a by-election. His defeat in the 2007 legislative elections to a little-known PS candidate caused undue optimism on the left, which nominated a heavyweight candidate to challenge Juppé in 2008: regional president Alain Rousset. But it wasn’t to be: Juppé won 56.6% by the first round, against 34.1% for the left. The PS, however, won control of the CU of Bordeaux. This year, Juppé is nearly ensured another term by the first round. His PS opponent is Vincent Feltesse, the president of the urban community of Bordeaux.

Lille: Incumbent PS mayor Martine Aubry (since 2001) is a lock to win a third term in a city governed by Socialists with uninterrupted since 1955. The UMP candidate is senator Jean-René Lecerf and the FN, led by Éric Dillies, will likely qualify for the runoff as it had in 2001 and 1995.

Reims: In 2008, the PS (Adeline Hazan) gained Reims, governed by the right since 1983, thanks to the divisions of the right between Renaud Dutreil (UMP, 23% in the first round) and Catherine Vautrin (UMP dissident-MoDem, backed by the retiring DVD mayor, 25.2%). With bad transfers between the two right-wing lists, Hazan defeated Vautrin with 56.1%. This year, the city is a key target for the UMP, which is led by young deputy Arnaud Robinet and supported by Catherine Vautrin, who is also a deputy. Polls indicate a very tight race, with the FN likely to qualify for the runoff.

Le Havre: A major industrial centre and Communist stronghold (it had a PCF mayor between 1965 and 1995, most famously André Duroméa), Le Havre was gained by the RPR in 1995, and the right has twice frustrated Communist attempts to regain its former stronghold. In 2008, incumbent mayor Antoine Rufenacht (UMP) defeated PCF deputy Daniel Paul with 54.7% in the runoff. In the first round, the PCF list, with 29.2%, had outpolled a PS-Green list (13.9%). Rufenacht retired in favour of Édouard Philippe, who was elected deputy in June 2012. With no polling in the race, there’s an element of added suspense: can the left finally regain a city which gave Hollande 58.6% of the vote? Which of the PS and FG will come out ahead on the left? Can the FN, which won 20.8% in 1995 but has performed poorly since then, qualify for the second round?

Saint-Étienne: With the exception of a PCF mayor between 1977 and 1983, Saint-Étienne, despite being a rather blue-collar and industrial city, had been governed by the centre-right for most of its history. In 2008, incumbent mayor Michel Thiollière (Radical-UMP) was seen as the favourite, but he was badly hurt by Gilles Artigues (MoDem), a former UDF deputy who won 20.2% in the first round against 37.9% for Thiollière and 33.7% for Maurice Vincent (PS-PCF-PRG-MRC). In a fatal triangulaire with the centre, Thiollière was narrowly defeated, 41.6% against 46.1% for Vincent. Vincent, now a senator, is credited for cleaning up the city’s finance, after his predecessors had signed up for ‘toxic debts’. Nevertheless, and despite Hollande’s strong result in the city in 2012 (58.3%), Vincent is very vulnerable. Gaël Perdriau (UMP, leader of the opposition) has managed the feat of uniting a very fractious and divided right, including supporters of the former mayor and Gilles Artigues (UDI, third on the list). The first round promises to be closely fought, while the second round will almost certainly be a triangulaire with the FN (Marine won 17.6% in the city, and the FN qualified for the runoff in 1989, 1995 and 2001) in which the incumbent has a small, but weak, lead.

Grenoble: Governed by the PS since Michel Destot (PS) won the city in 1995, the incumbent is now retiring. The city is firmly on the left, with 64.3% for Hollande, and the FN is weak (10.9% in 2012); nevertheless, the left is traditionally divided between the PS and the Greens. There is a strong New Left/environmentalist tradition in Grenoble, most famously channeled by former mayor Hubert Dubedout (1965-1983) and the local Groupe d’action municipale (GAM). More recently, the Greens won 12% in 1995, 19.8% in 2001 and 22.5% in the 2008 (runoff, after 15.6% in the first round). The PS candidate, backed by the PCF, is Jérôme Safar, an ally of the outgoing mayor. He faces a strong challenge from Eric Piolle, a EELV regional councillor who is supported by the PG. The right in Grenoble continues to traumatized and divided by the tenure of Alain Carignon (RPR, 1983-1995), once a rising star of the right before his career was compromised by two corruption scandals (for which he actually served jail time). Carignon, who is unpopular with the wider electorate and divides within his own party, wanted to run this year. The UMP, however, endorsed opposition leader Matthieu Chamussy, who placed Carignon further down on his list (eligible for a seat only if the list won); Carignon refused and convinced Copé to withdraw the UMP endorsement from Chamussy in October. Facing pushback from Chamussy and the Fillon camp, the UMP backtracked and Chamussy was re-endorsed, while Carignon took the 9th spot on the UMP list. Polls show that Grenoble will stay on the left, but there is an interesting battle between Safar (PS-PCF) and Piolle (EELV-PG): polls have shown Piolle to be in second, about 10 points behind Safar, but ahead of the UMP. Even in the case of a triangulaire with EELV, the PS should likely win (a normal two-way battle would result in a left-wing landslide).

Angers: Angers has been governed by the left since 1977, but fittingly for a Christian democratic department, the PS has been centrist: Jean Monnier, the mayor between 1977 and 1998, was excluded from the PS in 1983 for refusing to ally with the PCF and forming a coalition with the centrist CDS. Reelected handily with centrist crossover support, Monnier’s successor, Jean-Claude Antonini has somewhat followed in his footsteps (but no formal alliances with the centre-right) and his relations with the PCF and far-left were tense. Antonini, reelected by a wide margin in 2001, survived a very hot race in 2008, which pitted him against Christophe Béchu, the young UMP president of the general council and the ‘rising star’ of the local right (he’s been a UMP candidate in municipal, cantonal, regional, European and senatorial elections!). Antonini resigned in 2012, and was replaced by Frédéric Béatse (PS), who defeated Jean-Luc Rotureau (PS) in an internal vote. The succession has been badly handled: Rotureau, whose demand for open primaries was rejected, is running as a dissident against the incumbent mayor. With polls indicating that the dissident is taking up to 17%, the situation looks perfect for a UMP gain: Christophe Béchu, now a senator and president of the general council after having been a regional councillor and MEP, is the favourite and polls show that he would win the runoff by a comfortable margin (and will likely dominate the first round).

Aix-en-Provence: Incumbent UMP mayor Maryse Joissains-Masini, in office since 2001, is facing a tough reelection – but she’s used to winning very narrowly. But this year, two years after losing her seat in the National Assembly, she is weakened by a divided right and a judicial investigation against her for a case of emplois fictifs. Her municipal majority is divided, with Bruno Genzana (UDI), a former member of her majority, leading a UDI list backed by Jean Chorro (UMP), a former premier adjoint to the mayor. Attempts at mediation and compromise have failed; the mayor is dead-set on running for reelection and grooming her daughter, UDI Sophie Joissains, to succeed her. However, the left is also divided in its own right: the PS candidate is Edouard Baldo, but there is an independent centre-left list (backed by Guérini) led by François-Xavier de Peretti (ex-MoDem, son of a former UDF mayor) and Alexandre Medvedowsky (PS, candidate in 2008 and 2009). Maryse won her first term in 2001 with 50.7%, and won reelection in 2008 with 44.3% against 42.9% for Medvedowsky (PS) and 12.8% for de Peretti (MoDem). Invalidated, she won a 2009 by-election with 50.2% against 49.8% for Medvedowsky (PS-MoDem-Greens). One poll shows Maryse as the favourite, but if de Peretti’s list joins that of the PS and the FN qualifies for the runoff, she could be in mortal danger.

Amiens: The PS scored a surprise victory in Amiens over incumbent mayor Gilles de Robien (NC) in 2008, with Gilles Demailly (PS) winning 56.2% in the runoff. Demailly is not seeking reelection, and the PS-PCF-EELV list is led by Thierry Bonté, vice-president of the CA. The right is led by Brigitte Fouré (UDI), a general councillor and former mayor (2002-2007, while Robien was in cabinet); she’s running in tandem with Alain Gest (UMP), deputy and a former president of the general council who would be president of the CA in the case of victory. The FN has a strong enough base – over 16% for Le Pen in 2012 – to qualify for the runoff. The last poll showed the right leading by 10 in the first round, but a perfect tie in the runoff.

Metz: For the first time since 1848, as the media reported, the PS gained Metz in 2008. Dominique Gros profited from the division of the right, whose legendarily ugly divisions in Metz and Moselle finally hurt them. Metz had been governed since 1971 by Jean-Marie Rausch, a centrist (CDS) who had joined the PS government in 1988. Rausch was reelected with PS support in 1989, and his last two victories – in 1995 and 2001 – came despite RPR and PS opposition. In 2008, the right and centre was a huge mess: Rausch, running out of steam, piled on for another term; the UMP endorsed Marie-Jo Zimmermann, a UMP deputy; Nathalie Griesbeck, a MoDem MEP and general councillor ran and there was one smaller DVD list. In the first round, Gros (PS) won 34% against 24.2% for Rausch, 16.9% for Zimmermann, 14.7% for Griesbeck and 5.6% for the other right-winger. The UMP HQs instructed Zimmermann to withdraw in Rausch’s favour, but she refused and merged her list with that of the MoDem and the DVD. In retaliation, the UMP withdrew their support from her list to support Rausch. In the runoff, Gros won 48.3% against 27.4% for the incumbent and 24.3% for Zimmermann. The contest this year is cleaner and competitive: Gros (backed by the PRG and EELV) faces Zimmermann, who leads a united right and centre (UMP-UDI-MoDem). The outcome hinges on the FN: if the list led by regional councillor Françoise Grolet qualifies, a triangulaire would likely favour Gros; a two-way runoff, according to polls, would be open-ended but the one poll showed the UMP ahead by 2 in a PS-UMP runoff scenario.

Perpignan: Located in southwestern France, Perpignan, where Le Pen won 22.5% in 2012, is a major FN target. The city has been governed by the right since the 1970s, when Socialist mayor Paul Alduy (1959-1993) was excluded from the PS in 1976 for opposing the alliance with the PCF. He was succeeded by his son, Jean-Paul Alduy (UDF, UMP), reelected in contentious conditions in 2008 and reelected in a 2009 by-election. He has since retired, and Jean-Marc Pujol (UMP) replaced him and is now running for a first full term. The FN candidate is Louis Aliot, a regional councillor and party vice-president who is also Marine Le Pen’s boyfriend. Aliot has built a strong base for himself in Perpignan, a city with high security and immigration concerns favourable to a strong FN vote; even in 2008, a terrible year for the FN, Aliot’s list won 12.3% in the first round (but only 9.4% in 2009). The left is divided, between Jacques Cresta, a newly-elected PS deputy and Jean Codognès, a former PS deputy and candidate in both 2008 and 2009 who’s new atop a EELV list. While Aliot is polling nearly 30%, he is nowhere near striking distance of first. The UMP incumbent should hold his seat without much of a sweat.

Boulogne-Billancourt: Suburban, affluent (but it hasn’t always been so: it used to be a fairly leftist industrial place) and in the Hauts-de-Seine, Boulogne-Billancourt is a right-wing stronghold (63% Sarkozy in 2012) and the right has been in charge since 1971. However, the right is very divided, split by complex personal animosities and complicated by shifting alliances. As in 2008, the right is very divided: incumbent mayor Pierre-Christophe Baguet (UMP, UDF until 2006) won the seat in 2008, defeating senator Jean-Pierre Fourcade (UMP dissident), who had been mayor between 1995 and 2007, when he had resigned in favour of Pierre-Mathieu Duhamel (UMP), in order to block Baguet from being mayor. Duhamel betrayed Fourcade by not running in 2008 and allowing Baguet, endorsed by the UMP, to run unencumbered; that forced Fourcade to run. In the 2008 runoff, Baguet won 44.3% against 34.9% for Fourcade and 20.8% for the left. This year, Pierre-Mathieu Duhamel is running against incumbent mayor Pierre-Christophe Baguet. Baguet is the official UMP candidate, but Duhamel is backed by Alain Juppé, Fourcade and sitting deputy Thierre Solère (app. UMP), who was elected in 2012 as a dissident candidate (backed by Duhamel) against the official UMP candidate, Claude Guéant.

Caen: In 2008, the PS finally gained Caen: for years, the PS, led by Louis Mexandeau (a PS deputy between 1973 and 2002), had tried for thirty years – each time in vain – to wrestle control of city hall from the hands of Jean-Marie Girault (UDF, mayor 1971-2001) and his successor, Brigitte Le Brethon (UDF, UMP). Finally making good on the city’s shift to the left – Hollande won about 61% in 2012 – the PS, led by Philippe Duron, the president of the regional council, defeated incumbent UMP mayor Brigitte Le Brethon, who had already lost her seat in the National Assembly to Duron in 2007. In the runoff, Duron won 56.3%. This year, the PS may fall victim to the national mood. But first, the right will need to figure out who will lead it in the runoff: in one of the most competitive ‘primaries’ between UMP and UDI, the UMP’s regional councillor Joël Bruneau faces UDI general councillor Sonia de la Provôté (a strong candidate, having gained, despite very unfavourable tail winds, a Caen canton from the PS in 2011). A poll in late February showed the UMP with 26% against 20% for the UDI (and 28% for the PS mayor, who faces a EELV and PG-NPA list, both standing at 9% in that poll). That same poll showed that, regardless of the candidate, the right leads the mayor in the runoff: 51-49 if it’s the UMP, 53-47 if it’s the UDI.

Saint-Denis (93): Saint-Denis, a proletarian suburb in Paris’ famous Red Belt, has been held by the PCF since 1945, and before that since 1922 (save for the Doriot episode in the mid-1930s). Up until recently, the PS had not challenged the PCF’s hegemony over the city; however, the decline of the PCF in national elections has whet the PS’ appetite and the PS ran a candidate against PCF mayor Didier Paillard in 2008; the PCF held on rather easily, with 51.1% in the runoff but the PS took 30.6% in the runoff. In 2012, in a major shock, FG incumbent Patrick Braouezec was defeated by PS candidate Mathieu Hanotin, a young ally of the department’s powerful PS president of the general council, Claude Bartolone (whose ambition is to further cripple the PCF). This year, competition is even more ferocious: Paillard, backed by EELV, faces Hanotin, the new PS deputy. A poll gave the FG a 10 point lead over the PS in the first round, with the UMP on 10%. A runoff with the UMP would help the FG; a two-way battle between the FG and PS in the runoff may play more to the PS’ advantage, given that UMP voters would likely back Hanotin to defeat the PCF.

Nancy: The PS has never held Nancy, which has been ruled by centre-right or Gaullist mayors (albeit sometimes in socialocentriste coalitions with the Socialists) since at least 1945. The incumbent mayor, André Rossinot (UDI), in office since 1983, is retiring (but still running for reelection to the municipal council) in favour of Laurent Hénart (UDI), a young deputy defeated in 2012. The city is one of the left’s best hopes for a pickup: the PS-PCF-EELV candidate, Mathieu Klein, a young vice-president of the general council, is a strong candidate and the city has shifted left (55% for Hollande). Two polls have both shown Klein as the narrow favourite, but nothing is decided yet.

Argenteuil: The RPR, led by Georges Mothron and by focusing heavily on security issues, picked up Argenteuil, a working-class suburb in the Val-d’Oise which had been ruled by the PCF since 1945. In 2008, he was defeated by Philippe Doucet (PS-PCF), although very narrowly (50.6% for the left in the second round). This year, Mothron, who lost his seat in the National Assembly to Doucet in 2012, is running against Doucet, who has lost the support of the PCF, running autonomously on a FG list. One poll back in 2013 showed Doucet in the lead, but that was a while ago and it’s very unclear how things will shape up.

Montreuil: In the Seine-Saint-Denis, Montreuil is another solidly left-wing and historically very proletarian suburban commune, governed by the PCF since 1945. In 2008, incumbent mayor Jean-Pierre Brard, in office since 1984 (originally PCF, he left the party in 1996 for the CAP), faced a strong challenge from the Greens, who had already placed a distant second in 2001. The Greens have been increasingly strong in Montreuil, a result of gentrification in parts of the city which has seen educated and professional ‘bobos’ replace older working-class residents. In 2008, the Green candidate was Dominique Voynet, a two-time Green presidential candidate and senator; although Brard was still endorsed by the PS, Voynet was supported by many local PS dissidents. In the first round, Brard won 39.4% against 32.5% for Voynet; in the runoff, benefiting from the absence of the right, she won with 54.2%. Her administration, however, has been a mess, wracked by numerous divisions in her majority. Knowing that she would lose reelection badly, she will not be running again. The result is a very divided left. Brard, who lost his seat in the National Assembly in 2012, is running again and is the man to beat; but he doesn’t have the FG’s support (unlike in 2012) and his age and autocratic tendency make him a polarizing figure on the left. The FG candidate is PCF regional councillor Patrice Bessac. The PS is behind Razzy Hammadi, a former PS youth leader who had difficulty getting elected before emerging victorious in the constituency covering Montreuil in June 2012. Hammadi, however, is rather unpopular on the left and even within his own party, and faces a PS dissident, incumbent (pro-Voynet) municipal councillor Mouna Viprey. While EELV is in poor shape here, their candidate, Ibrahim Dufriche-Soilihi, backed by Voynet, is still worth noting. The UMP’s candidate is Manon Laporte, the wife of former rugby coach and junior minister for sports (2007-2009) Bernard Laporte. Polls show a real mess: Brard is ahead, with a substantial lead in the first round, but all other leftist candidates are in contention: the FG’s Patrice Bessac appears to be in second, while Hammadi (PS), Dufriche (EELV) and Laporte (UMP) fight for third. Viprey, with 9-10%, may qualify for the runoff. The first round is so messy that the runoff has not been polled: because nobody knows what it’ll look like!

Nouméa: Politics in New Caledonia are complicated and worlds apart from metro France, but the contest in the capital of the territory – Nouméa – is very interesting. A white city, Nouméa is strongly on the right (with the anti-independence parties) while the pro-independence left is a non-factor. As in 2008, therefore, the battle is fought on the right. The city has been controlled since 1977 by the RPCR/Rassemblement-UMP, the leading right-wing party whose leadership of the right has been challenged in the past decade and which is very divided. Incumbent R-UMP mayor Jean Lèques is retiring in favour of Jean-Claude Briault. Briault is backed by senator Pierre Frogier’s R-UMP and president of the government Harold Martin’s centre-right Avenir ensemble. But in 2013, the R-UMP split, with right-wingers opposed to Frogier’s conciliatory policy towards the nationalists walking out of the party to create a new party, led by Gaël Yanno, a municipal councillor and deputy for Nouméa until his defeat by Calédonie ensemble‘s Sonia Lagarde in 2012. Gaël Yanno’s supporters have split the governing majority down the middle, with 20 councillors against 22 for Lèques -Briault-Frogier. Yanno is running, with the endorsement of the national UMP; Sonia Lagarde, Calédonie ensemble (UDI) deputy since 2012 and runner-up in 2008, is also running. With little coverage in the French metropolitan media, I can’t say I have any idea how this right-wing civil war, which sets the ground for a major showdown in the May 2014 provincial election, will shape up.

Avignon: The RPR, with Marie-Josée Roig, gained Avignon in 1995 and successfully defended it against a high-profile PS assault in 2001 (led by then-cabinet minister Elisabeth Guigou) and narrowly held it again in 2008. Roig, embroiled in corruption allegations and accused of employing her son as her parliamentary assistant, is retiring and supporting Bernard Chaussegros, a low-profile UMP businessman, to succeed her. With a weak UMP candidate, Avignon is the most likely PS pickup. Cécile Helle, a PS regional councillor, has a wide lead in polls. In the first round, the last poll showed her with 29% against 27% for the FN, 23% for the UMP and 16% for the FG (led by PCF general councillor André Castelli, who won over 14% in 2008); in the runoff, she leads the UMP by 15.

Pau: The race in Pau drew nationwide attention in 2008: François Bayrou, the leader of the MoDem, tried to conquer a city governed by the PS since 1971 (with local icon André Labarrère until his death in 2006). The incumbent PS mayor, Yves Urieta, had switched sides to support Sarkozy’s government (like the PS mayor of Mulhouse, Jean-Marie Bockel) and was seeking reelection with the UMP’s endorsement. Bayrou faced Martine Lignières-Cassou, a somewhat anonymous PS deputy. The first round saw the PS pull ahead with 33.9% against 32.6% for Bayrou and 27.8% for Urieta. In the runoff, the PS won 39.8% against 38.8% for Bayrou and 21.4% for Urieta. It was a major defeat for Bayrou. He’s trying again this year, after losing his seat in the National Assembly to the PS in June 2012. This year, Bayrou, despite having endorsed Hollande in the 2012 runoff, has ensured for himself the backing of the UMP. It’s a marriage of convenience, which annoys the right of the UMP and the local party, but which allows the UMP to count on Bayrou’s support in places such as Paris. The PS mayor retiring, the PS candidate is David Habib, a PS deputy since 2002. Urieta, who now lacks UMP backing, is running as an independent. Polling have shown a growing lead for Bayrou, who is uniting the right without hassles; in the latest poll, Bayrou leads Habib by 14 in the first round and would win a triangulaire (with Urieta, polling in the low 10s), by 8.

Aubervilliers: Aubervilliers, an historic PCF stronghold (held since 1945), was the only Seine-Saint-Denis city with a ‘PS-PCF primary’ in 2008 to fall to the PS. This year, incumbent PS mayor Jacques Salvator faces a rematch against former PCF mayor Pascal Beaudet (FG). Beaudet was defeated by 3 points in a four-way runoff in 2008, but he successfully picked up an Aubervilliers canton from the PS (held by Salvator’s wife) in 2011, which may indicate that this rematch will be rather close. There has been no polling that I know of.

La Rochelle: In 2012, La Rochelle made national headlines because of the left-wing civil war in the legislative election between Ségolène Royal (2007 presidential candidate and Hollande’s ex girlfriend) backed by the PS mayor Maxime Bono, and local PS dissident Oliver Falorni, who emerged victorious by a wide margin. The painful civil war in La Rochelle, a left-wing stronghold governed by the left since 1971, isn’t over yet. Bono, who took office at the death of his predecessor Michel Crépeau (PRG, mayor 1971-1999), is retiring but is supporting Anne-Laure Jaumouillié, a 34-year old teacher who has been a municipal councillor since 2008. She won a primary (by 34 votes, out of 3.6k votes) over Jean-François Fountaine, a veteran 62-year old politician who is vice-president of the CA La Rochelle. Fountaine, a former member of the PRG, was regional councillor between 1992 and 2010, and had a very public spat with Ségolène in 2008 and strongly supported Falorni in 2012 (which led to his falling out with Bono). Fountaine, alleging irregularities, refused to withdraw and is standing as a dissident with PRG support against the PS candidate. A poll in late February found the PS candidate leading Fountaine by 2 in the first round, with the UMP, as in 2012, suffering from a left-wing civil war which draws some right-wingers to vote strategically (for Fountaine, who is drawing UMP-UDI votes). However, unlike in 2012, the UMP will qualify for the runoff, which changes matters because Falorni’s victory owed a lot (but not entirely, unlike Bono/Royal pretended) to right-wing support in both rounds.

Cannes: On the sunny Côte-d’Azur, Cannes is a right-wing stronghold and sees a civil war on the right, as in 2008. Incumbent UMP mayor Bernard Brochand, in office since 2001, is retiring in favour of his young dauphin, general councillor David Lisnard, who is a filloniste like his mentor. Lisnard faces a challenge from Philippe Tabarot, a general councillor and leader of the municipal opposition since 2008 – he is also the brother of Michèle Tabarot, the mayor of Le Cannet and the copéiste general-secretary of the UMP. Tabarot lost to Brochand by a bit over 1,000 votes in 2008. The national UMP, divided between supporters of both candidates, has chosen not to choose any candidate: no official endorsement, so both are UMP members and candidates. Polls show that Lisnard, endorsed by Sarkozy, is the favourite, with a 7 point lead in the first round over Tabarot and consistent and significant leads over Tabarot in the second round. The left and FN may both qualify for the runoff, but are non-factors.

Béziers: This is the largest city in which the FN has a fighting chance of winning. The UMP incumbent, Raymond Couderc, is retiring this year in favour of UMP deputy Élie Aboud. The FN, along with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Arise the Republic (DLR) and small right-wing parties (RPF, MPF), is backing Robert Ménard, a pied-noir journalist and former president of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Ménard was more on the left in the past, but has moved towards the far-right, without joining or voting for (he claims) the FN although he has openly said that he shares most of the FN’s positions. The race, which has attracted national attention, has seen a clear tightening in Ménard’s favour: he now leads the field in the first round, while he trails Aboud in the runoff by only 1 or 2 points.

Ajaccio: A very close and interesting battle in Napoleon Bonaparte’s hometown. The incumbent mayor, Simon Renucci (CSD/DVG), has held office since 2001, when he ended 54 years of Bonapartist (yes, for real) rule – in all, the local Bonapartist party, the CCB, ruled Ajaccio for 109 of the 117 years between 1884 and 2001. Handily reelected in 2008, Renucci was defeated in the 2012 legislative elections by Laurent Marcangeli (UMP), who is now his top rival. Polls have shown that Renucci remains the favourite, with a substantial lead over Marcangeli (who is endorsed by the CCB). The nationalists are united (between autonomists and separatists) here, but while they may be kingmakers in a runoff, they are not in contention (15% in polls).

Corbeil-Essonnes: The town is a low-income suburb which leans solidly left in national elections (63% for Hollande) and was ruled by the PCF between 1959 and 1995, when Serge Dassault (RPR), a businessman who remains owner of Le Figaro and leading player in the family enterprise, the aeronautics and weaponry giant Dassault. Reelected in 2008, with 50.7% against 49.4% for the PCF, his PCF rival accused him of vote buying and the election was invalidated, and Dassault declared ineligible to hold municipal office for one year. In a 2009 by-election, Dassault’s protege Jean-Pierre Bechter (UMP) was reelected by a 27 vote margin against the PCF. Bechter was reelected with a wider majority against a common PCF-PS candidate in a 2010 by-election. Dassault, who remains in the Senate, is now facing another scandal: he’s alleged of paying millions of euros to ensure Bechter’s victory. His senatorial immunity was lifted in February 2014. This year, Bechter is running for reelection, facing a divided left: the PS is supporting Carlos da Silva, a deputy and close ally of Manuel Valls (who was mayor of neighboring Évry until 2012); the FG candidate is Bruno Piriou (PCF), a general councillor. The outcome of the PS-PCF battle is very unclear; regardless of who wins that, the runoff is a pure tossup.

Bastia: Incumbent mayor Émile Zuccarelli (PRG), in office since he replaced his father in 1989, is retiring and wants his son, Jean Zuccarelli, to succeed him. Traditionally hegemonic in the city, the family took a hit with Émile Zuccarelli’s defeat at the hands of the UMP in the 2007 legislative elections (nationalists, who loathe the stridently anti-nationalist and Jacobin Zuccarelli, vowed to have him defeated) although the divisions of the opposition allowed him to win reelection without too much trouble in 2008. But in 2012, Jean too fell victim to nationalist backlash and failed to reconquer his father’s seat in the National Assembly. The succession has been handled poorly: a frustrated former ally of the mayor who saw himself as his heir-apparent, François Tatti, is running as a dissident. The moderate nationalist candidate is Gilles Simeoni, the son of nationalist icon Edmond Simeoni. The race promises to be a nail-biter: polls show Simeoni and Zuccarelli nearly tied in the first round, with the runoff hinging on the alliances forged: if Tatti joins forces with Simeoni, then the nationalists would be the favourites; if Tatti does not withdraw, the runoff remains very close with no clear favourite.

Hénin-Beaumont: Hénin-Beaumont, an impoverished former mining town in the Pas-de-Calais’ mining basin, is Marine Le Pen’s political homebase since 2007. In addition to the social reality of the depressed post-industrial town, the division, troubles and discredit of the local PS (former mayor Gérard Dalongeville was arrested in 2009 for embezzlement) has been a godsend for the FN. In addition, locally led by Le Pen’s lieutenant Steeve Briois, the FN has done a great job at setting up a powerful machine on the ground – to the point where the FN speaks openly of its aims to recreate a tradition akin to ‘municipal communism’, providing services to its constituents. Although Briois/Le Pen’s list did poorly in the 2008 election, the 2009 by-election which followed Dalongeville’s removal from office, the FN won 47.6% in the second round. In the 2012 legislative elections, Marine Le Pen won a majority of the vote in Hénin-Beaumont in the runoff (she lost the constituency because her PS rival, Philippe Kemel, did well in his town of Carvin). This year, incumbent PS mayor Eugène Binaisse is seeking reelection, going up against Steeve Briois. Dalongeville, despite having been sentenced to prison last year, is running as a left-wing independent. Polls have shown that Briois may win the runoff.

Forbach: Forbach is one of the FN’s main targets. It is the largest city in Moselle’s coal mining basin, and as such it is working-class and economically depressed (14% unemployment, declining population since 1982) town. Despite being very working-class, like most of the coal basin in Moselle, it is historically right-wing (51.5% for Sarko in 2012). The right governed the city between 1953 and 2008, and generally held the corresponding canton for most of that time as well. The incumbent PS mayor, Laurent Kalinowski gained the city in 2008 because of a very divided right. Kalinowski had been general councillor since 2004 and was elected deputy for the 6th constituency in 2012, defeating Le Pen’s campaign director and FN vice-president Florian Philippot in a PS-FN runoff (with only 53.7%: transfers from the UMP incumbent, defeated by the first round, to the FN were very high). Philippot, an ENA/HEC technocrat has set up shop in the depressed post-industrial Moselle coal basin, which is one of the FN’s strongest regions. The right is divided, between the official UMP candidate Alexandre Cassaro, the leader of the Jeunes Pop and very close ideologically to the far-right; and the local dissident, Eric Diligent, who is more centrist. One poll has shown a very close race between the PS and the FN, with both candidates tied in the second round.

Other races to follow:

  • Right hoping for a gain from the left: Auxerre, Laval, Belfort, La Seyne-sur-Mer, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Brive-la-Gaillarde, Quimper, Valence, Chambéry, Albertville, Briançon, Bourgoin-Jallieu, Clamart
  • Left hoping for a gain from the right: Nîmes, Bourges, Mulhouse, Calais, Biarritz, Bayonne, Montauban, Vienne
  • Left-wing solid or likely: Nantes, Rennes, Brest, Dijon, Besançon, Clermont-Ferrand, Limoges, Roubaix, Tourcoing, Dunkerque, Tours, Créteil, Villeurbanne Istres, Poitiers, Dieppe, Le Mans
  • Right-wing solid or likely: Toulon, Orléans, Saint-Quentin, Chartres
  • PS-PCF primaries in many towns in the Seine-Saint-Denis: Bagnolet, Saint-Ouen, Sevran, Villepinte, Villetaneuse
  • Right-wing divisions: Saint-Maur-des-Fossés
  • FN targets: Sorgues (Marion-Maréchal Le Pen in second on the list), Carpentras, Brignoles (after a FN gain in a cantonal by-election in 2013, the new FN general councillor takes on the incumbent left and a UMP deputy), Saint-Gilles (FN deputy Gilbert Collard running for mayor in the first town won by the FN), Fréjus (a divided right with the ex-UMP mayor running as a dissident may help the FN win)
  • Crazy: Noyon (two brothers, one UMP and one PS, fighting it out with the FN on a strong footing), Propriano

Follow @welections on Twitter on March 23 and 30 for major results.

Election Preview: France Municipal Elections 2014 – Part I

Municipal elections will be held in France on March 23 and 30, 2014. The municipal councils of all 36,681 communes in France will be up for reelection.

How it works: French municipal government

La commune in France

Communes of France

The commune is the lowest echelon of government in France, below the State, the regions and the departments. France has 36,681 communes – 36,552 in metropolitan France and Corsica and 129 in overseas departments and regions. Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, French Polynesia and New Caledonia (overseas collectivities) are also divided into communes, like the rest of France, and they vote at the same time in municipal elections. Only Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthélemy, Wallis-et-Futuna and uninhabited territories (French Southern and Antarctic Lands, Clipperton Island).

France has, by far, the most communes of any EU country: Germany has about 12,000 municipalities, the UK has about 10,5000 civil parishes, Spain and Italy have about 8,100 municipalities. Most French communes are very sparsely populated: 54.3% have less than 500 inhabitants, 73.4% have less than 1,000 inhabitants. Yet, only 14.6% of the French population lives in communes with less than 100,000 people; about half of the population lives in 946 communes (2.6% of all communes). The smallest populated commune, Rochefourchat, has a legal population of one; there are six communes in the Meuse which have no inhabitants: they were destroyed during the Battle of Verdun (1916) and never rebuilt. They have retained a status as communes (officially, communes mortes pour la France), but they are totally uninhabited and administered by a mayor and two deputies nominated by the prefect.

Communes are a Revolutionary creation, dating back to 1789 when the new Revolutionary authorities established about 40,000 communes, largely corresponding to religious parishes. Indeed, almost every single commune in France has a Church (in addition, nowadays, to the obligatory local monument aux morts for the war dead). Until 1870, the State’s policy was to abolish communes with excessively low populations which were no longer viable and creating communes in areas where the original map was problematic (large territory, hamlets blocked by physical features). By the waning days of the Second Empire, municipal mergers (fusions) were unpopular with the local populations, and the Republican opposition promised emancipation for communes. An 1884 law established the main structures of local government, the broad principles of which have remained unchanged to this day. Each commune has a municipal council directly elected by the population and a mayor elected by the municipal council. The 1884 law also established the clause de compétence générale (a legal clause which has allowed communes/departments/regions to intervene in all matters which they can argue to be in the local public interest).

In part because of their long history and Revolutionary heritage, communes are still largely perceived as the base of local democracy and decision-making – a core “republican value”. Citizens, especially in small villages, are very attached to their commune and they have tended to care a great deal about local politics and local democracy (again, particularly in rural areas), much more so than in other countries. Turnout in French municipal elections has been above 60% in every election since World War II; in fact, it was over 70% in every election before 1995 and while 2008 marked an all-time low, turnout was still 65%. Turnout increases linearly as the population of the commune decreases.

The extremely large number of communes in France, combined to successive rural exoduses since the Industrial Revolution which have reduced the populations of thousands of small rural communes, has made local governance problematic. Successive governments since the 1890s, and particularly since 1945, have struggled to come up with solutions to this fundamental challenge to local democracy. Given that communes, by and large, are hostile to mergers with larger (more viable) communes; most governments since the 1890s have usually shied away from promoting ambitious municipal merger schemes. The main exception to that tradition came in 1971, with the Marcellin law (after interior minister Raymond Marcellin), which sought to promote municipal mergers. Individual prefects were instructed to come up with merger plans, which were to be approved by municipal councils. These could either be full mergers, in which one commune would disappear entirely within another, or retain some individual autonomy (for example, a delegated mayor and a decentralized town hall providing vital records) as a commune associée (associated commune). The Marcellin law was a failure: individual prefects acted differently (either proposing vast mergers, or limited and partial mergers depending on the region) and created a mess, and the associated commune status was unattractive. Between 1971 and 2009, only 1,100 communes effectively disappeared (most in the 1970s). There are currently 712 associated communes. A good number of the original mergers and associations were later dissolved, with old communes regaining their independence.

The 2010 Sarkozy reform tried to encourage municipal mergers and effectively replaced the moribund Marcellin law’s associated communes with the status of commune nouvelle (new communes) which is pretty much the same thing as associated communes (although slightly closer to a full merger) with the guidelines for their creations not all that different from the ones in the Marcellin law. Its application has been very limited: there are only 17 fewer communes in 2014 than in 2008.

The intercommunalité (EPCI)

Map of EPCI in France as of Jan. 1, 2014 (source:

Given the failure of the amalgamation schemes and the general impracticality of merging communes, governments have been forced to consider other structures to make local governance viable. The solution has been intercommunal cooperation, which began taking its current form rapid post-war urban/suburban expansion and rural depopulation in the 1960s. Intercommunal cooperation takes two distinct, but overlapping and co-existing, forms: loose “associative” cooperation to provide certain public services or utilities (water, electricity, waste management, school transportation) or more cohesive “federative” cooperation which has more powers, responsibilities and more ambitious aims including economic development.

The structure of intercommunal cooperation is thus complex, but at the same time increasingly important. Intercommunal structures have gained more and more powers and financial resources, at the expense of communes but also from departments, regions and the State. Intercommunal cooperation structures are known as établissements publics de coopération intercommunale (EPCI) or intercommunalité.

Communes or EPCI are responsible for: elementary schools (buildings, equipment), culture (shared power with the State and departments/regions), youth (nurseries, recreation centres), sports (equipment and subsidies), tourism, local urban policy/planning, advice and approval for territorial planning, environment (shared power over water, protected zones; waste management, water sanitation and distribution), local marinas, communal roads, urban transportation/public transit, school transportation, management of local public/social housing, municipal police forces (except Paris), traffic and parking.

The oldest form of intercommunal cooperation is the very loose “associative” form whereby communes – but also other territorial collectivities (departments, regions) – join together to provide one or more public services or utilities. The first such form of intercommunal cooperation was created in 1890, expanded in 1935 and 1959. These EPCI lacking fiscal autonomy (they rely on financial contributions from members) include 8,979 Syndicat intercommunal à vocation unique (Sivu, providing only one service), 3,187 Syndicats mixtes (associating different territorial collectivities, intended as a forum for different territorial collectivities and actors to cooperate amongst themselves), 1,233 Syndicat intercommunal à vocations multiples (Sivom, providing more than one service) and 9 Pôles métropolitains (a 2010 creation to encourage cooperation between different agglomerations). These types of EPCI are losing their attractiveness; the number of syndicates has declined from about 15,300 in 2010 to 13,400 in 2014.

Of far greater importance are the EPCI with fiscal autonomy, the most common, widespread and important form of intercommunal cooperation in France. In 2014, there are 2,145 such EPCI grouping 36,614 communes in metro France and the four DOMs (excluding Mayotte). 49 communes outside Paris and Mayotte remain ‘isolated’ – that is, not a member of any EPCI, but of those, 41 are in the petite couronne outside Paris (where a major reform of intercommunal government is in the works) and four are islands with no legal obligation to join an EPCI. Straightforward so far? It isn’t supposed to be – there are many different types of EPCI with fiscal autonomy in France.

The first intercommunalité structure was the district, created in 1959 (abolished in 1999 and phased out by 2002), followed by the more ambitious communautés urbaines (urban communities, CU) in 1966. In 1992, a law created the communautés de communes (community of communes, CC). The 1999 Chevènement law beefed up the responsibilities of urban communities and the CC, abolished the failed structures, and created a new kind of structure: communautés d’agglomeration (agglomeration communities, CA). The 2010 Sarkozy reform set out to clean up and rationalize the intercommunal structure – forcing all communes in metro France (with Parisian and insular exceptions) to join an EPCI, created a fifth structure: the metropolis (métropole), for very large urban areas.

The métropole (metropolis) – only one exists thus far (Métropole Nice Côte d’Azur) – is limited to large urban areas; legally, it is reserved for territories with a population of over 500,000 and/or the four original urban communities created in 1966. This meant that seven current urban communities are eligible to gain the metropolis status. The component communes transfer some of their powers to the metropolis. These responsibilities include social, cultural and economic development; urban planning and policy; management of local social housing plans; management of public services (sanitation, water, cemeteries, slaughterhouses); environmental policies including recycling and air pollution reduction. The department transfers responsibilities such as departmental roads and school transportation, with the possibility of the metropolis gaining full powers over social action, middle schools and other services from the department. The region and the State may also devolve powers to the metropolis.

A January 2014 law (the loi du 27 janvier 2014 de modernisation de l’action publique territoriale et d’affirmation des métropoles) will significantly expand and transform the metropolis status. On January 1, 2015; all EPCI with a population over 400,000 inhabitants in an urban area of over 650,000 people will be transformed by decree into metropolises (Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lille, Nantes, Nice, Rennes, Rouen, Strasbourg, Toulouse). That same day, the CU of Lyon will be transformed into the Métropole de Lyon, which will replace the department of the Rhône (and assume all departmental powers) in its territory. In 2016, the Métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence will be created (in the face of local opposition), uniting 92 communes representing 93% of the Bouches-du-Rhône’s population. In 2016, the Métropole du Grand Paris, uniting Paris and the three departments of the petite couronne, will be created; its legal responsibilities will be similar to that of a CU (spatial planning, housing, urban policy, economic/social/cultural development, environment, quality of life).

There are 15 Urban Communities (Communauté urbaine, CU). The urban communities were created in 1966, meant to cover the largest urban areas. Four CU were created by the law in 1966 (Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux, Strasbourg), today there are 15 CUs in France (Lyon, Lille, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes, Strasbourg, Nancy, Brest, Dunkerque, Le Mans, Arras, Creusot-Montceau, Cherbourg, Alençon). Although the 1999 Chevènement law reserved the CU status to territories with a population over 500,000; urban communities created before that date have been allowed to retain their status, so 9 of the 15 CUs have a population under 500,000 – the smallest CU, Alençon, has only 48.7k people. The 2010 reform, creating the metropolis, lowered the threshold for the creation of new CUs to 450,000.

Every CU has mandatory powers, transferred from the component communes. These powers are: social, cultural and economic development; urban planning and policies; public transit; management of social housing; management of public services (sanitation, water, cemeteries, slaughterhouses); and environmental policies including recycling and air pollution reduction. Communes may devolve further powers to the CUs, while they may gain some power over social action from the department.

The Agglomeration Communities (Communauté d’agglomération, CA) – of which there are 222 in 2014 – were created by the Chevènement law in 1999 for urban areas including medium or large cities. According to the law, CAs must have a population of over 50,000 with at least one commune of at least 15,000 inhabitants (unless the CA includes the capital and/or largest city of a department). However, the law allowed for the transformation of districts, communauté de villes (a failed scheme introduced in 1992, abolished in 1999) or CCs into CAs even if they did not meet the population requirements. Since 2010, the threshold for the creation of a CA, if it includes the department’s capital (chef-lieu) was reduced to 30,000. The CA scheme has proven to be extremely popular, from 50 CAs in 2000 there are now 222.

Every CA has powers, transferred from the communes, over social, cultural and economic development; urban planning and policies; social housing; and public transit. Each CA must also choose 3 of 6 additional powers from the following powers: road maintenance, sanitation, water, environmental protection, social action in the community’s interest, and cultural/sports equipment. Communes may decide to devolve other powers to the CA. Furthermore, the CA may decide to define additional powers which it judges to be in the community’s interest.

The Community of Communes (Communautés de communes, CC), created in 1992 for rural areas, are the loosest type of EPCI with fiscal autonomy. The CC has been extremely popular and they have, slowly and incompletely, replaced Sivu or Sivom structures; although since 2010, the number of CC has declined significantly (from 2,409 to 1,903) as a result of the mergers of some smaller CCs by prefectural decree or their transformation into CAs. CCs have two main advantages for small rural communes, which remain very closely attached to the “republican traditions” of communal independence and local democracy. Firstly, they allow them to provide local services in cooperation with neighboring communes. Secondly, the CCs are a form of territorial organization which allows them to maintain their independence vis-à-vis larger urban areas (CAs) which would like to gobble them up. There are 1,903 CCs currently.

The CCs have two mandatory powers transferred from the communes: economic development and spatial planning. They must also choose one power from the following six ‘options’: environmental protection, housing policy, road maintenance, construction and management of preschools, elementary school, cultural and sport equipment, social action in the community’s interest, and sanitation.

There are four Syndicates of New Agglomerations (Syndicat d’agglomération nouvelle, SAN), created in 1983 but being phased out. The SAN were meant to cover specifically new towns (villes nouvelles) such as Cergy-Pontoise, Marne-la-Vallée, Sénart or Ouest Provence (Rives de l’Étang de Berre). The 1999 law gradually phased them out, from a maximum of 9 SAN in 2000 there are now only four left, 3 of them in the Paris region. Many former SAN have become CAs, the remaining 4 SAN are expected to do likewise.

Although the State and prefects in each department have often played a large role in spearheading the EPCI, they cannot usually unilaterally force any commune to join an EPCI. With some exceptions, the final decision for joining an EPCI rests with individual communes. Mayors, especially those from thinly populated rural communes, remain closely attached to the notion of communal independence and many respond unfavourably to decisions and instructions from above. In urban areas, political and parochial disputes have traditionally tended to hamper the development of cohesive and rational EPCI – suburban communes suspicious of domination of the larger urban commune, urban communes not wanting to subsidize suburban communes and political disputes (left-wing mayors not wanting to be in an EPCI with right-wing mayors, and vice-versa).

EPCI financing

Communes and intercommunalities have three main sources of funding: taxes (about the three-fifths of their revenues), unconditional transfers and grants from the State and loans.

The main local direct taxes are the housing tax (taxe d’habitation), the land value taxes (taxe sur le foncier bâtitaxe sur le foncier non bâti) and the cotisation foncière des entreprises (CFE). Communes and the five types of EPCI outlined above are said to be fiscally autonomous. While they are not allowed to create or levy taxes on their own (the taxes are created and collected by the State) they have the power to set the rates for local taxes. Fiscal autonomy, however, is conditioned by the State which has set various guidelines, limits or rules for local taxation.

The 2010 reform introduced a major, and rather controversial, change to local finances. The professional or business tax (taxe professionnelle, TP) was abolished and replaced, partially, by the Territorial Economic Contribution (contribution économique territoriale, CET). The TP was a tax paid by every business/corporation and was the largest single source of revenue for all territorial collectivities, which set the local rate. Arguing that the TP was hindering the country’s economic competitiveness, Sarkozy abolished the TP. It was replaced, but only partially, by the new CET.

The CET is the sum of two taxes paid by businesses/corporations: the cotisation foncière des entreprises (CFE) which is a land value tax (taxe foncière) and the cotisation sur la valeur ajoutée des entreprises (CVAE) which is a value added tax based on a businesses’ annual turnover. The entirety of the CFE is directed by the communes and EPCIs, who have retained the right to set the local rate. The CVAE, whose rate is set by the State, and is distributed between the region (25%), department (48.5%) and communes/EPCI (26.5%). The replacement of the TP by the CET meant that territorial collectivities not only lost a major source of revenue but also a good deal of their fiscal autonomy. Nevertheless, the State promised to fully compensate territorial collectivities for any loses incurred by the transition. Since the CET rakes in less revenue than the TP, new taxes or fiscal transfers (from the State or between territorial collectivities) have been created to make up the difference. One of those new taxes is the imposition forfaitaire sur les entreprises de réseaux (IFER), a tax on energy equipments (wind turbines, electricity generating plants, electrical transformers etc). The IFER is split between all territorial collectivities.

There are two (and a half) kinds of financing/funding for EPCIs with fiscal autonomy. The ‘Additional taxation’ (régime de la fiscalité additionnelle) is the initial and basic system, which applies for 855 CCs and 2 CUs created before 1999 which haven’t switched to the other system. The EPCI here has the power to set intercommunal tax rates (for the four local taxes: housing tax, land value taxes, CFE) but these tax rates are ‘additional’ to the local tax rates set by the component communes. The intercommunal tax rate in effect sets a ‘ceiling’ on the tax rate for each commune, but this system allows for variations in the tax rates (especially the CFE) between communes in the same EPCI. The communal fraction of the CVAE is divided between the intercommunality and the communes. Some CCs may choose a  Fiscalité professionnelle de zone (FPZ) scheme, which creates economic activity zones (ZAE) within the territory of the EPCI which will have a single, uniform intercommunal CFE rate (all transferred to the EPCI). Businesses located within the ZAE will pay the intercommunal CFE, but business located outside a ZAE will pay different tax rates depending on the commune.

The other system is the ‘Unique professional taxation’ (régime de la fiscalité professionnelle unique, FPU), which is mandatory since 1999 for all CAs, SAN and since 2010 for the new metropolises. The FPU is also mandatory for all CUs created after 1999 and is automatically granted to those created before 1999 unless they decide otherwise. 13 of the 15 CUs have chose the FPU system, as have 1,048 CCs. Under the FPU system, only the intercommunality decides on the CFE rate and it receives the entirety of the CFE’s revenues (and all of the communal fraction of the CVAE). Therefore, communes member of an EPCI which has opted for the FPU do not receive any part of the CFE or CVAE. The EPCI still sets ‘additional’ tax rates on the three other taxes.

EPCI governance

Each EPCI with fiscal autonomy (metropolis, CU, CA, CC, SAN) has a deliberative assembly, the Conseil communautaire or community council, which has a similar role to a municipal council. Each member-commune is represented in the community council proportionally to its population, with each commune holding at least one seat. In addition, no single commune may hold over half of the seats in the community council. All community councillors are municipal councillors or mayors.

Each community council elects a president (in addition to vice-presidents) which has a role similar to a mayor, except for the whole EPCI. EPCI executives form a “loophole” in the current regulations concerning the cumul des mandats, which means that most presidents of EPCIs tend to be the mayor of the largest commune in the EPCI (or another large town in the same EPCI), provided that the largest commune and the EPCI are of the same political ‘colour’.

In the past, all community councillors were elected by the respective municipal councils – which meant that the opposition group(s) in any commune were almost always excluded from the community council and whole delegations from a commune represented the governing majority. Given the significant and ever-increasing powers of EPCIs, their management by unelected bodies was often criticized and weakened their democratic legitimacy.

In 2014, community councillors will be elected semi-directly in communes with over 1,000 inhabitants. The full workings will be addressed in the next section.

Municipal elections: Electoral systems

Municipal councils are elected for a six-year term.

All French and EU citizens, aged over 18 with full civic and political rights, may register to vote. Since 2001, EU citizens are allowed to vote granted that they have resided in the commune for the past six months and/or pay local taxes. Although EU citizens are allowed to run for office and serve as municipal councillors, they are constitutionally banned from becoming mayors or assistants to the mayor/deputy mayors (adjoints au maire).

Unlike in some other EU countries (Scandinavia, Ireland, Benelux etc), resident non-EU foreigners are not allowed to vote in local elections in France. The extension of voting rights in local elections to non-EU foreign citizens has been a matter of hot political debate for years, and it returned to the spotlight during and after the 2012 presidential campaign. François Hollande promised to extend voting rights to foreigners in his presidential campaign, but since the left lacks the required majority in both houses of Parliament to affect such constitutional change, it has been dropped from the government’s agenda for constitutional reform.

Each commune is governed by a directly-elected municipal council, whose size varies in proportion to the population of the commune.

Population Seats
1-99 7
100-499 11
500-1,499 15
1,500-2,499 19
2,500-3,499 23
3,500-4,999 27
5,000-9,999 29
10,000-19,999 33
20,000-29,999 35
30,000-39,999 39
40,000-49,999 43
50,000-59,999 45
60,000-79,999 49
80,000-99,999 53
100,000-149,999 55
150,000-199,999 59
200,000-249,999 61
250,000-299,999 65
300,000+ 69
Lyon 73
Marseille 101
Paris 163

The mayor is elected by the municipal council. In the first and second rounds, a mayoral candidate must win an absolute majority of valid votes. In the third round, a plurality is sufficient. In all communes, a mayor also has one or more adjoints (deputies).

Electoral system in communes with over 1,000 inhabitants except Paris, Lyon and Marseille

Municipal councillors are elected by a two-round semi-proportional system with closed lists. The commune forms a single ‘constituency’, it is not further subdivided into any sections. Since 2000, lists must respect gender parity – this means that lists must alternate between men and women. This system, between 1983 and 2013, applied to communes with a population over 3,500; it was extended by the 2013 Valls law to all communes with over 1,000 inhabitants.

A list must obtain an absolute majority of valid votes (50%+1) and 25% of registered voters to win by the first round. If no list meets this requirement, a second round is organized one week later. All lists which have won over 10% of valid votes are qualified for the runoff. Lists which have obtained between 5% and 10% of the valid votes are allowed to merge (fusionner) with a qualified list for the runoff, which will change the ordering of candidates on that qualified list. A list which is qualified for the runoff may nevertheless choose to drop out or merge with another list. In the second round, a plurality of the votes is enough to win.

The list winning the most vote automatically wins half of all seats in the municipal council, rounded up to the nearest whole number if necessary. The remaining half of the seats are attributed proportionally to all lists which have won over 5% of valid votes using the highest averages method. Therefore, the winning list not only receives a huge majority bonus, it also receives a good share of the other half of the seats (proportional to its vote share).

Obviously, the result is that whichever list wins the election – even if it is by a single vote and/or with something like 35% of the vote – will have a huge super-majority in the municipal council. For example, in Pau in 2008, the winning list won 39% of the vote and 71% of the seats.

The mayor often tends to be the top candidate of the winning list.

Electoral system in communes with less than 1,000 inhabitants

Municipal councillors are elected by majority at-large voting (also called bloc voting or multiple non-transferable vote, MNTV). Gender parity laws do not apply.

These elections still feature lists of candidates, although lists are not mandatory. However, unlike in larger communes where the lists are closed, in these communes voters will vote for individuals (they have as many votes as there are seats) and panachage is allowed – voters may strike off the name of a candidate on a list, or they may reorder candidates on a list. Until 2013, write-ins for other citizens who were not candidates were valid, and the vote remains valid even if there are more or less names on the ballot than there are seats in the municipal council. Votes are then counted by each individual candidate rather than by lists.

Since 2013, candidates must declare their candidacy to the préfecture two weeks and a half before the election. If the number of candidates declared for the first round is less than the number of seats to be filled, new candidacies may be declared on the Tuesday before the second round.

Candidates are elected in the first round if they have won an absolute majority of valid votes (50%+1) and 25% of registered voters. If not all seats are filled by the first round, the remaining seats are filled in a second round a week later. In the second round, a plurality suffices. Studies have shown that the actual use of ‘panachage’ by voters is extremely limited.

Paris, Lyon and Marseille

Arrondissements of Paris (source: Wikipedia)

The three largest cities in France have a special electoral system, adopted in 1982 with the so-called ‘PLM law’. Unlike other communes with over 1,000 inhabitants, the commune as a whole does not form a single ‘constituency’. Rather, these cities are subdivided into de facto constituencies. Paris has 20 arrondissements, Lyon has 9 arrondissements while Marseille has 8 sectors each made up of two arrondissements.

The election is played in each individual arrondissement/sector, with the same system as in other communes with over 1,000 inhabitants.

Each arrondissement or sector has a local council with a variable number of seats. In turn, the municipal council is composed of representatives from each arrondissement/sector, whose number of seats on the municipal council is roughly half the seats in their arrondissement/sector council. The first name(s) elected on each list in each arrondissement/sector will sit in the municipal council.

Each arrondissement or sector also has a mayor (maire d’arrondissement/secteur), and the arrondissements/sectors have limited autonomy and manage a small budget given by the city-wide municipal government.

In Paris, there are a total of 354 conseillers d’arrondissement, with a minimum of 10 seats in each arrondissement’s council. The 2013 Valls law redistributed the number of conseillers de Paris between each arrondissement, with the overrepresented arrondissements with a small population losing seats while the underrepresented arrondissements gained seats. The overall relation between the population and the number of councillors for each arrondissement is now far more equal.

Arrondissements of Lyon (source: Wikipedia)

In Lyon, there are a total of 148 conseillers d’arrondissement, again with a minimum of 10 seats for the least populated arrondissements (arrdt. 1, 2, 4). The municipal council has 73 seats, with the least populated arrondissement (arrdt. 1) holding four seats and the two most populated (arrdt. 3 and 8) with 12 seats.

Marseille has 16 municipal arrondissements, but unlike in Lyon or Paris they serve no administrative role. Elections, instead, are held in eight sectors which are made up of two arrondissements each. Each sector has a local council, for a total of 202 sectoral councillors in the entire city. The city council has 101 seats.

Therefore, to summarize, there are no city-wide municipal elections with a single list in Paris, Lyon or Marseille. There are, instead, elections in each arrondissements/sector which decide the city council. You could compare this system to the electoral college in the United States, with some differences.

Unlike the electoral college, the individual elections in each administrative division does not give a WTA result, although each arrondissement/sector’s delegation to the city council will be heavily dominated by whichever list won the election in that arrondissement/sector. If a list was to win every single arrondissement or sector, it would have a governing majority comparable to governing majorities in other French cities. However, because of the PLM law, there is a small chance that no single list could win an absolute majority. Furthermore, if the election is close and the main rivals each win roughly the same number of arrondissements/sectors, it is quite likely that whoever wins will have only a thin absolute majority on the council (this is currently the case in Marseille, with 51 seats for the mayor’s majority against 49 for the left and one for the FN).

Sectors of Marseille (source: Wikipedia)

Like in the United States, the PLM system means that one party’s lists may win the most votes in the city as a whole but still win less seats than some other list on the city council. This has happened in the past, most famously in Marseille in 1983 when Gaston Defferre lost the popular vote but held a majority on city council because he had, as interior minister, gerrymandered the sectors in such a way to win reelection. The right-wing government under Jacques Chirac changed the sector map in Marseille to what it currently is in 1987.

Electoral system for intercommunal councillors

For the first time this year, some intercommunal councillors who sit in the Conseil communautaire will be elected semi-directly by voters. In communes with more than 1,000 inhabitants, those who will serve on community councils will be elected from party lists based on the result of the party lists in the decisive round (where one list wins) in the commune. Ballots (for each individual list) will include, on the right hand side, a list of candidates for the community council which are drawn from the list of candidates for the municipal council. There are as many candidates are there are seats – with one additional candidate if there are less than five seats, and two additional candidates if there are more than five seats. All candidates in the first quarter of the list for the municipal council must be on the list for the community council, in the same order; all candidates for community council must be included in the first three-fifths of the list for the municipal council. Seats are distributed based on the results of the election, using the electoral system for communes with over 1,000 inhabitants.

In communes with less than 1,000 inhabitants, intercommunal councillors will still be elected indirectly with seats being attributed to the mayor, and, if more seats are to be filled to his/her adjoints.

This year, due to legal changes complicating matters in small towns, 64 communes – all but one with less than 1,000 inhabitants – have no declared candidates for the first round.

Local and national dynamics in municipal elections

Municipal elections in France obey both local and national dynamics.

In small towns – certainly all those who will still vote under the majority at-large system this year but many of the towns with over 1,000 inhabitants which used to vote under that system – local politics is local, with little to no national influence. One author, using an American term, used the idea of ‘ambiguous consensus’ to describe the form which local politics take in those communities – indeed, governance there is consensual, pragmatic and non-partisan. Most mayors in those communes do not have a political etiquette, and if they do, it hardly means anything: their governing team may include people with opposite political sympathies. Because governing those small towns does not require full-time politicians, a lot of small town mayors and councillors are ‘regular’ citizens working another job, in addition to their local political responsibilities. In many cases, there is no opposition to the incumbent mayor and his/her list; certainly the electoral system in small towns makes the vote very personal and not remotely political. But even in a lot of the small towns with over 1,000 inhabitants which will vote for party lists this year, there is little to no partisan competition: lists – assuming there is more than one (which is not always the case) – are non-partisan and focus solely on local issues and it’s foolish to assign partisan labels to them. But that hasn’t stopped the Ministry of the Interior, in its infinite wisdom.

Therefore, for the sake of political analysis, when reading municipal elections, attention generally focuses on the 260 or so communes with a population with over 30,000 – with attention given to smaller communes if they have major candidates, symbolic importance to national politics or are of human interest. In those major towns and cities, municipal elections follow local and national dynamics, as research has shown.

Local factors

Firstly, local issues – and local factors, such as the personality and popularity of individual candidates or the local partisan/political climate (if distinct from the national climate) – play a major role in municipal elections, even in these larger communes.

In general, mayors tend to be fairly well regarded by the majority of the population and optimism in the direction of the town/city is generally far higher than optimism (or lack thereof) for the direction of the country. According to an Ipsos poll in late February 2014 in communes with a population over 25,000; 71% of respondents, on average, declared that they were satisfied with their mayor. Another Ipsos poll just out on March 20 shows that 64% of voters say that their municipal government has done a good or excellent job. Unless they’re caught with the hands in the marmalade or are particularly incompetent, it’s harder for a mayor to be widely disliked (like many national politicians are) because they have less powers, their actions generally receive less media attention (outside their town) and mayors often strive to be consensual rather than polarizing. Furthermore, given the tradition of the cumul des mandats in France, a lot of mayors are also parliamentarians, so they have the chance to favour their hometown and shower it with national funding and favours.

It is also quite telling that in polls, this year like in 2008, voters tell pollsters that they will vote firstly based on local issues. According to an Ifop poll recently released, 69% will vote mainly based on local considerations. 20% will vote primarily to punish the government, and only 7% will vote primarily to support the government. A CSA poll reported quasi-identical numbers: 65%, 19% and 5% respectively.

This year, according to polls, the most important issues for voters are local taxes (cited by about 50%), environment/quality of life, criminality/safety, economic development/jobs and transportation. According to CSA’s poll, issues such as criminality, parking, immigration, housing and pollution are far more important in large towns (pop 30,000+) than in small towns; in the smallest towns (pop <1000), those issues hardly figure at all while connectivity/broadband access is rather significant. At the same time, issues such as taxes, transparency and economic development are relevant across the board. There are also clear partisan dimensions in those issues, obviously; criminality, immigration are priorities for right-wing and far-right voters, but are of lesser importance for left-wing voters, who tend to be more concerned with issues such as housing and transportation.

In Les élections municipales en France (2001, published by La documentation française), Pierre Martin showed that, with national and partisan trends controlled, there existed a clear advantage for an incumbent mayor at the end of his/her first term in office. This is similar to the ‘sophomore surge’ for one-term US congressmen seeking reelection for the first time. The advantage after two or more terms in office is progressively eliminated, and after several terms in office, many mayors are threatened by weariness of voters and their own teams. However, while almost all ‘freshmen’ mayors receive a boost at their first reelection, the phenomenon of weariness does not effect them all in the same way: different mayors and administrations may tire far more quickly than others, some mayors – even in large cities – can manage to build very solid bases which resist well to weariness. 

Local factors also explain individual results when the election is analyzed through national lenses. They explain, for example, why a certain town – based on presidential results – which is quantitatively more likely to switch sides didn’t do so, while another town, quantitatively less likely to switch sides, did so. They also explain why some towns went against the national trend in a given year. Finally, they explain why towns generally unfavourable to one political side in national elections may be governed – for quite some time – by that same political side. For example, the city of Bordeaux has leaned to the left in the most recent nationwide elections, but it has been a municipal right-wing stronghold since 1947. Toulouse, governed by the right between 1971 and 2008 despite voting for the left in nationwide elections for most of the time, is also often cited as an example of such a phenomenon.

National factors

Municipal elections in France since 1959: party control of communes of over 30,000 inhabitants (at time of election, in %)

Municipal elections in France since 1959: party control of communes of over 30,000 inhabitants (at time of election, in %)

It’s also clear that local factors can’t explain everything. Municipal elections in France, unlike in many other countries, are organized on the same day across the entire territory of the republic, which make them a particularly good occasion for voters less interested by local issues to show their opposition (more often than not, because dissatisfaction is a better mobilizer than satisfaction) to the national government. In a way, municipal elections may be interpreted like midterm elections – generally more difficult for the governing party, even if it is not overly unpopular, and with a potential to be particularly bloody for the governing party if it is clearly unpopular. That being said, regional, European and cantonal elections in France are also similar to midterm elections, and in the case of regional and European elections perhaps even more so than les municipales since a lot of voters in those elections aren’t aware of regional/European issues and vote primarily based on national issues.

The idea of municipal elections being midterms holds true since 1947 when the results are taken only through national lenses (in the detail, looking at individual towns, it is less useful). In 1977, the incumbent right-wing government of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Prime Minister Raymond Barre was unpopular and the economy in bad shape. The left swept municipal elections that year, gaining 57 communes with over 30,000 inhabitants. In 1983, the economy was still in the dump, cards were reversed: the left was now in power, with President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy. The right swept municipal elections in 1983, gaining 35 communes with over 30,000 inhabitants. The most recent municipal elections, in 2008, also saw a significant swing to the left, one year after Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory. After 2008, the left controlled 57.7% of communes with over 30,000 inhabitants, up from 44.5% in 2001.

These were the most extreme cases of major nationwide waves against the governing party in municipal elections. In 1959, 1965, 1971, 1989 and 1995, the incumbent government was less unpopular and therefore the results were more mixed; although on the whole, the governing party didn’t do as well as in the last national elections – 1959, for example, saw a strong performance by the Communists (PCF) just one year after the PCF was badly trounced in the first elections of the Fifth Republic.

Historically, turnout also shifted depending on the national mood. Until turnout began declining, seemingly irreversibly, after 1989, turnout in municipal elections varied based on the unpopularity of the government. In 1977 and 1983, the two classic anti-government waves, turnout was very high: 78.9% and 78.4% – compared to 75.2% in 1971 and 72.8% in 1989. In those cases, the unpopularity of the government strongly mobilized the opposition electorate to vote against the government. In 1971 and 1989, when the government parties did fairly well, the opposition’s voters were less motivated to turn out. Since 1989, however, municipal turnout has declined one election after another. Even 2001 and 2008, which saw significant anti-government movements, saw turnout decline from the previous municipal election.

Dynamics of municipal elections

National factors cannot explain everything in French municipal politics. There are particular political and partisan dynamics or phenomenons in municipal elections which are fairly unique to municipal elections themselves. These include: the tradition of municipal communism, the survival of anti-communist socialist-centrist alliances until 1977, the dynamics of first round left-wing unity since 1977 and the weakness of Gaullism in local politics until 1971/1983.

Municipal government in several communes in France, especially Paris’ working-class suburbs in the petite couronne but also many other towns throughout the country, has been marked since 1935 (or 1945) by the tradition of ‘municipal communism’ (le communisme municipal). Indeed, in those solidly left-wing and historically proletarian communes, the PCF established itself as the dominant party in local government in 1935 or 1945 (in isolated cases, such as Bobigny or Saint-Denis, in 1925). From the standpoint of urban politics and social policy, municipal communism is a rather important historical phenomenon. In power, communist municipalities implemented social policies aimed at the general welfare (especially that of the working-class) and the promotion of social, cultural and recreational infrastructure. Communist municipal governments in suburban Paris built social housing, theaters, summer camps, pools, recreation centres or local health dispensaries. Communist mayors were also local administrators faced with numerous contradictions stemming from the PCF’s theoretical positions, notably opposition to a ‘bourgeois state’. On the ground, with their powers constrained at the outset by hostility from the State, they were forced to be pragmatic. For example, in his study of rural communism in the interwar Limousin, Laird Boswell found that nascent PCF administrations in those cash-strapped villages were often quite conservative fiscally, much to the dismay of revolutionaries in their ranks. With limited resources and government hostility, they were forced to govern very pragmatically.

After 1945, 1977 was the high point of municipal communism, as this interactive feature in Le Monde shows. In the petite couronne, the PCF was dominant. In la province, the PCF held the town halls of Reims, Le Havre, Saint-Étienne, Le Mans, Nîmes and Amiens. Today, it retains control of a significant number of communes in the petite couronne, but faces an increasingly hungry Socialist Party (PS), which in 2008 and again in 2014 ran candidates against PCF incumbents. The PCF controls no major city (100,000+ inhabitants) outside the Parisian suburbs; Le Havre was lost in 1995 and Nîmes lost in 2001 (after gaining it back in 1995).

Against the Communist threat, local Socialists in the past responded by forming anti-communist coalitions with centrist and non-Gaullist right-wing parties. The most famous of these socialo-centriste coalition was Gaston Defferre, the Socialist mayor of Marseille (1953-1986) who governed against the PCF until his last term (1983-1986). But while Defferre is the most emblematic of such Socialist-centrist coalitions, it was not unique to Marseille: such coalitions existed at one time or another in Lille, Toulouse, Roubaix, Limoges, Arras and Besançon. These municipal alliances managed to survive after the 1960s, running in contradiction to the national Socialist Party’s strategy of national alliances with the left. In fact, socialist-centrist coalitions, while increasingly less commonplace, remained fairly widespread up until 1977 – even if the PS and PCF had signed a programme commun in 1972. Now, such alliances are a thing of the past; but the tradition may still rear its head: in 1989, the PS mayor of Angers was excluded from the PS for sealing a formal alliance with the opposition centrist CDS while in 2008, a number of PS mayors (notably François Rebsamen in Dijon) were supported by François Bayrou’s MoDem by the first round.

Since 1977, on the left, the tradition has been first round unity – l’union de la gauche (union of the left). Although the electoral system in place since 1983 makes it possible for smaller parties to safely run a list in the first round in the expectation of merging with a larger list for the runoff to obtain seats on council, there is a strong tradition of first round unity – the PS, PCF and small left-wing parties including the Greens and Left Radicals (MRG/PRG). Since 1977, in most towns, the PS and PCF (and smaller parties, oftentimes) have run a common list by the first round. The PRG, which learned a few times (most recently in 1995) that it is worthless without stronger allies, almost always invariably allies with the PS by the first round. Outside of a few cities where relations between the PS and PCF may be poor, the PCF has traditionally allied with the PS by the first round. For example, the PCF ran allied with the PS by the first round in Marseille in every election since 1983. In Paris, the PS and PCF have been united in the first round since 1977. The Greens may sometimes want to show independence from the PS, knowing that they can scare the PS a bit in some towns, but in a lot of cases, again, the Greens join l’union de la gauche in the first round.

On the right, there has been a similar tradition of first round unity, although it is sometimes not as strict and generally more prone to dissidence. Prior to the creation of the single party of the right, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in 2002, the two main parties of the right – the Rally for the Republic (RPR) and Union for French Democracy (UDF) – usually ran common lists by the first round, with a few cases of so-called ‘primaries’ (first round competition between RPR and UDF) – for example, Lyon in 1995.

Another historical factor worth noting is the weakness of Gaullism in local politics after 1958. Although Charles de Gaulle’s parties, the UNR/UDR, became dominant in national politics (and hegemonic on the right) after 1962, the UNR/UDR was quite weak in local government until 1971, if not 1983. For example, in 1959, one year after de Gaulle’s triumphant return, the UNR’s assault on ‘traditional’ parties of the right (moderates, CNI) and centre (MRP) failed badly, with the UNR holding only 15% of communes with a population of over 30,000 inhabitants in 1959. Similarly, a UNR assault in 1965 had little success. Only with Georges Pompidou’s election in 1969 did the UDR begin making its peace with ‘traditional’ parties of the right, running with them instead of against them. In 1971, the UDR’s share of communes with over 30,000 people increased to 18.1%, if only to fall to 7% in the left-wing wave election of 1977. In 1983, the RPR for the first time became more powerful than the UDF in municipal government.

A French political tradition of great importance to local government is the cumul des mandats. A large majority of senators and deputies hold at least one other elected office – often, serving as mayor. For example, the mayors of Lyon and Marseille are both senators. Some of the more extreme examples of this French quirkiness: two Prime Ministers, Pierre Mauroy (1981-1984) and Jacques Chirac (1986-1988) concurrently served as mayors of Lille and Paris respectively; more recently, Alain Juppé served as foreign minister and mayor of Bordeaux at the same time. There has been increased public attention on the issue in recent years. Upon taking office, the current government barred all cabinet ministers from being mayor at the same time. After originally delaying it indefinitely, the government made good on one of its campaign promises in January 2014. According to a new law, deputies and senators will no longer be able to be parliamentarians and mayors (or head of a local executive: EPCI, general council, regional council etc) at the same time. This law will only be applied following the 2017 election. Banning (excessive) cumul des mandats is popular with voters, but it is, as could be expected, a tough issue for legislators themselves. In the Senate, members of both the opposition and government parties sought, unsuccessfully, to oppose the law or create a loophole for themselves. Their main argument was that the cumul des mandats gives them a strong local footing.

In the aftermath of the law’s approval, some interest in this year’s municipal election was paid to the issue of candidates who already held another elective office. Le Monde drew up an interactive map compiling the names of all candidates in municipal elections who are already deputy/senator etc.

2014: Context

These municipal elections are widely watched as the first nationwide test for President François Hollande, the PS president elected in 2012 against UMP incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. After nearly two years in office, Hollande is deeply unpopular. TNS-Sofres’ monthly tracker poll in March had Hollande’s approval rating standing at a puny 17%, nearly an all-time low for a French President. Every pollster has his disapproval rating over 70%, in many cases over 75%. That being said, two recent trackers – from Ifop and Ipsos – have shown a tiny uptick (+1 to 22% for Ipsos, +3 to 23% for Ifop), although at this level it’s almost a dead cat bounce. In summary, the incumbent President is more unpopular than nearly every single one of his predecessors – including Giscard in 1977 and Mitterrand in 1983.

As I noted in my analysis of the runoff in 2012, “the fact that the election was more Sarkozy’s defeat than Hollande’s victory and that Hollande owes his victory to anti-Sarkozysm will certainly come back to haunt the PS and Hollande in the near future, once voters forget Sarkozy and shift their judgement to the new incumbent.”

The causes of Hollande’s unpopularity are plentiful and beyond the scope of this post. At the roots of it all, however, is France’s bad economic situation. While not at ‘Greece’ or ‘Spain’ levels, France is clearly hit very badly by the ongoing European economic crisis. Unemployment stood at 10.2% in the last trimester of 2012, and it has increased from about 9.5% since Hollande took office in May 2012. Economic growth was flat in 2012 and barely positive in 2013. The country’s public debt is over 93% of GDP, and it missed its 2013 budget deficit target (3.9% of GDP, was 4.1%). It is clear that, if we’re honest, Hollande isn’t to blame for the roots of the crisis. Voters will invariably blame their government for their economic woes. However, at the same time, Hollande’s economic policies – rightly – got him a lot of flack, left and right.

At times, the government has been a bit like a deer in the headlights when it comes to dealing with the economic crisis. It has been seen as powerless, lost and incompetent in its handling of the economy. The right has criticized the ‘amateurism’ and jumbled response of the government and denounced high taxes. The outcry against the heavy burden of taxes, part of a government effort to reduce the deficit, has been particularly pronounced. The government increased the top bracket on the income tax (incomes over 150,000 euros) from 41% to 45%, the wealth tax (ISF) was toughened up, family tax benefits were cut, a pension reform increased employees and employers’ contributions (the same reform also increased the contributory period to 43 years, after the right’s 2010 reform, opposed by the PS, had raised it to 41 and increased the legal retirement age to 62). The government also increased the VAT’s standard rate from 19.6% to 20%, the intermediate rate from 7% to 10% and maintained the reduced rate at 5.5% (despite previously promising to bring it down to 5%.

The VAT increase, voted in 2012 and taking effect in 2014, was to finance a 20 billion euro tax credit to employers to reduce unit labour costs.

Many on the left, however, also dislike the government’s economic policies. Hollande and the PS won the 2012 election on a fairly anti-austerity platform complete with flowery rhetoric about ‘growth’ and such niceties, but once in power it has largely continued Sarkozy’s austerity policies (disguised as ‘efforts’ because austerity is unpronounceable by governments since the 1980s). Hollande approved the European Fiscal Compact without any substantial changes, despite having pledged to renegotiate it. His government has implemented harsh austerity measures, including tax increases and spending/job cuts in the public sector. The Constitutional Council has also forced him to scrap his much-publicized 75% tax on incomes over a million euros. The government reframed the 75% tax a temporary tax to be paid by employers on salaries over 1 million euros. With good reason, many on the left feel that Hollande’s policies are no different than his predecessor’s policies.

In 2014, Hollande announced a pacte de responsabilité with employers, proposing to reduce payroll taxes paid out by employers if they took on new, especially young, workers. The announcement, which led to significant talk of Hollande shifting to the right, was met with skepticism in France. Regular citizens, who have seen Hollande’s record of failure since 2012, have little optimism in his proposal. The left and unions were skeptic or hostile towards the idea of dropping costs on employers (up to 10 billion euros in cuts in payroll taxes) in exchange for very vaguely defined (and probably minor) job creations. On the left, the rumour that Germany’s Peter Hartz would come to advise Hollande led to fears of a ‘neoliberal’ economic agenda. The government’s latest idea will need to be financed by more painful cuts in the public sector.

There has been a groundswell of popular opposition to the government, fueled by widespread pessimism in the country’s future and disillusion/dissatisfaction with the government’s policy. In Brittany, beginning in October 2013, an heterogeneous popular protest movement (led mostly by farmers or agrifood workers) attacked the government’s so-called écotaxe, a proposed tax on heavy goods vehicles (actually decided on by the right in 2009). The movement, styled the bonnets rouges after an 1675 anti-tax revolt in Brittany, brought together an heterogeneous bunch: employers in agri-food, rural communities and leaders, Breton autonomists/nationalists, the far-left and some of the far-right. The heterogeneity of the movement and the self-serving motivations of some (particularly employers, held responsible by some for an outdated and polluting agrifood industry) led some on the left, notably José Bové and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to criticize the movement. Nevertheless, the ‘wind of revolt’ in Brittany, traditionally a politically moderate region, forced the government to back down on the écotaxe and announce several measures to help the Breton economy and please the demands of some autonomists (notably promises to finally ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages).

Electoral promises of ‘reindustralization’ and government talk of ‘made in France’, a project spearheaded by Arnaud Montebourg, industry minister and former leader of the PS’ left-wing, have run into the reality of globalization, economic crisis and the workings of the global economy. There has been little to no reindustralization worth speaking off. Montebourg’s grandstanding in late 2012 on the issue of an ArcelorMittal steel plant at Florange (Moselle), when he threatened to nationalize the site, won him a rebuke from the government (which refused to hear of nationalization), personal embarrassment and criticism from unions.

The government and Hollande have continued to run into embarrassing issues, gaffes or crises since taking office. The law legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption, promulgated in May 2013, mobilized a large segment of right-wing socially conservative opinion against the government and the law, with thousands taking to the streets in November-December 2012. There were more protests after the adoption of the law in 2013 and 2014. Members of the UMP and the far-right National Front (FN) joined the ranks of the protests, which brought together an heterogeneous coalition of opponents: social conservatives, traditionalist Catholics, integrist Catholics, neo-fascists and far-right politicians from France and other European countries (controversially, the BNP’s Nick Griffin, alongside FN parliamentarians). The UMP claimed that the “socialist power” (they often tend to present the PS government as some kind of East German authoritarian regime) was intervening in the private lives of citizens. The movement brought out fairly repugnant groups: homophobes, neo-fascists, skinheads, anti-Semites and assorted cranks. In April 2013, an homosexual couple was attacked and beaten up. In June 2013, far-left activist Clément Méric was killed by far-right skinheads. In January 2014, a jour de colère protest was organized by far-right groups, including monarchists, traditionalists, neo-fascists and anti-Semites; more moderate supporters of the anti-gay marriage movement (La manif pour tous) condemned the jour de colère protests.

While the government moved forward despite opposition on same-sex marriage, in January 2014, the government backtracked on a proposed bill on the family. The anti-gay marriage movement had raised concerns, many of them invented wholesale or badly twisted, that the government sought to legalize assisted reproductive technologies (the bill would not have legalized it, even if Hollande said he was personally in favour, and many PS deputies supported it) and surrogacy (which the government never supported, let alone intend to legalize it). Backtracking in the face of popular opposition is a specialty of French governments left and right, hoping that it will kill the issue and diffuse tensions. But it is never a good PR strategy for the government: in backtracking, it alienates those who backed the government on the specific issue while those who opposed the issue are no more likely to start liking the government.

The government’s image has been hurt further by public divisions, contradictions or gaffes by individual cabinet ministers. The government, which is rather inexperienced and lacks internal cohesion, has seen several cabinet ministers contradict one another or announce policy which isn’t actually government policy. The Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, is frustrated by the lack of cabinet solidarity and has been forced to put ministers back in their place, but at the same time he’s quickly turning into a non-entity which is nearly forgotten by the media and seemingly plays little role in public government policy and communication. His approval ratings are in the trash, like Hollande.

In March 2013, the government was rocked by a huge scandal: Jérôme Cahuzac, the junior Minister of the Budget, had been revealed to have had a secret offshore account in Switzerland. After vehemently denying the accusations, he was forced to resign from cabinet in March after a court opened a preliminary inquiry and after a court indicted him for tax fraud in April, he admitted that he had a Swiss bank account. There were questions over what Hollande, Ayrault and the government knew of the affair before its media revelation in December 2012.

The Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, whose presidential ambitions are no secret (he ran in the PS primaries in 2011) and who is often seen as a maverick (on the right of the PS, and challenging sacrosanct policies of the left such as the 35 hour workweek), has gained significant popularity (ironically, perhaps more so on the right than on the left) for his tough-on-crime and immigration policies. Valls’ ministry has continued to deport undocumented migrants, dismantle Roma encampments, preached a hardline policy against crime and violence (extremist, criminal or otherwise); at times, it’s hard to spot obvious differences between Valls and his right-wing predecessors, whom the PS had criticized. In September 2013, Valls said that, with few exceptions, it was ‘impossible’ to integrate the Roma population into French society (because of ‘different lifestyles’) and that the only solution was to dismantle the camps and return occupants to their country of origin. A few months prior, Valls had said that the Roma were intended to stay in Romania or return there. Valls’ comments sparked outrage on the left, including within the government, from Montebourg (it’s no secret that Montebourg dislikes Valls and Ayrault) and the Greens. His comments did not outrage public opinion, because it is favourable to tough anti-immigration policies (a poll showed that most French approved of his comments); several mayors, especially on the right, have been outspoken on difficulties posed by Roma encampments (one mayor, Gilles Bourdouleix, the mayor of Cholet, suggested that Hitler perhaps hadn’t killed enough gypsies…). But they further hurt the government with a small but vocal minority of pro-immigration/multiculturalism activists on the left, who have already been very much at odds with Valls’ policy.

In October 2013, immigration caused another major uproar: Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year old undocumented immigrant attending a French school, was arrested during a school field trip and deported to Kosovo. Valls’ behaviour as responsible minister once again raised debate and criticism on the left. Hollande was forced to intervene, and he haplessly proposed a compromise: while supporting the decision, he proposed that Leonarda be allowed to return, alone, to complete her studies (she refused). On the left, the decision was criticized (even the leader of the PS, Harlem Désir, signaled his disapproval) on humanitarian grounds. The right attacked Hollande’s “indecision”, denounced a terrible blow to the authority of the State and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen called on him to resign for humiliating France. The UMP proposed abolishing jus soli, Valls talked of reforming asylum policy.

Valls remains one of the most popular ministers, but his widespread support has dropped in recent months. He is the third most popular politician in France according to Ipsos’ March 2014 barometer, but with a polarized 46 positive, 42 negative split. In Ifop’s poll of cabinet ministers in March 2014, he ranked fifth, with a 53% approval.

In July 2013, the environment minister, Delphine Batho, was fired after having publicly deplored the budget cuts which her ministry suffered in the latest round of austerity cuts. Batho later criticized the government’s environmental policies (specifically, its lack of interest in environmental and energy transformations) and the influence of energy and resource companies. Batho’s firing was probably an attempt by Hollande and co. to appear ‘tough’ on cabinet dissonance after the Cahuzac scandal; it happened that a minor figure in a lesser ministry was the scapegoat for that.

Batho’s resignation placed some attention on the government’s environmental policy, and raised new questions on the presence of Green (Europe Écologie-Les Verts, EELV) ministers in government. EELV owes much of its 17-member caucus in the National Assembly to an electoral agreement with the PS in the 2012 legislative elections, and the personal/financial benefits of holding a cabinet portfolio (a ‘strapontin ministériel‘ – a cabinet jump seat) have turned EELV’s ministers (led by Cécile Duflot, former EELV leader and the poorly-regarded housing minister) into leaders of a pro-government branch, which criticizes the government on some issues but when push comes to shove always sides with the government. A significant left-wing minority inside the party, which won nearly 40% support at EELV’s federal congress in October 2013, is very critical of Hollande and would like for EELV to leave cabinet. Several EELV parliamentarians have signaled their opposition; Noël Mamère, one of the Greens’ most visible and well-known deputies, left EELV in September 2013, decrying EELV’s complacency, support for the government and its transformation into a party of stale self-interested, self-serving elected officials.

On the left of the PS, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front (FG)’s presidential candidate in 2012, has been extremely critical of the government’s austerity policies. However, despite incessant and violent attacks by Mélenchon and the FG on the government’s policies, they have largely been unable (thus far) to profit from the government’s unpopularity with left-wing voters. Mélenchon is a polarizing figure; his abrasive, in-your-face and often unpleasant public person is off-putting to many voters and the FG generally appears to lack credibility as a credible leftist alternative to the PS. Furthermore, as will be touched upon later, the municipal elections opened up very public and damaging divisions between Mélenchon’s small Left Party (PG), which is firmly anti-PS and the PCF, the largest party in the FG, which still retains some attachment (mostly for strategic and self-serving electoral reasons) to the old alliances with the PS.

Sarkozy’s defeat in May 2012 traumatized the UMP, which, for the first time since its creation in 2002 was now an opposition party. In November 2012, a UMP congress to elect a permanent president for the party turned into a nearly fatal civil war between the two candidates, the incumbent secretary-general Jean-François Copé and Sarkozy’s Prime Minister François Fillon. In an election marred by fraud and vote rigging by both sides, Copé was initially proclaimed the winner by 98 votes by an internal party commission. Two days later, Fillon’s supporters challenged the results, claiming that Fillon won by 26 votes because the party commission ‘forgot’ to include 1,304 votes cast in three overseas federations. This opened a civil war between both men; mediation by party elder and the popular moderate mayor of Bordeaux (and former Prime Minister) Alain Juppé failed, an appeals commission (led by a man who had backed Copé) ruled on a challenge lodged by Copé against filloniste fraud in the Alpes-Maritimes – it proclaimed Copé as the winner nationally, now with 952 votes (they cancelled the results, very selectively, in pro-Fillon Alpes-Maritimes and New Caledonia), and Fillon created a dissident parliamentary group in the National Assembly (R-UMP). Facing the very real threat of a split in the UMP, which would cripple the financially strapped party, the two enemies agreed to a temporary compromise in January 2013: Fillon’s R-UMP would dissolve, Copé would remain president while all other leadership positions in the party would be ‘doubled’ – one filloniste, one copéiste. Originally, a new congress should have been held in the fall of 2013, but fearing another crisis before the 2014 elections, the UMP decided to postpone the congress until 2015.

Copé suffers from a very acute image problem: he’s extremely unpopular with voters; for example, Ipsos’ monthly barometer in March 2014 showed him with a 70% disapproval rating (18% approval). Fillon, in contrast, has a 39% approval (49% disapproval); both men’s ratings took a hit from the 2012 congress and civil war. Copé is perceived as too right-wing, too economically liberal, too rash and the story of the 2012 congress (and how, if he won, it owes a lot to organized fraud and vote rigging by Copé’s men) further hurt his image. His leadership, by all accounts, has hardly been inspiring. The UMP has been desperate to oppose the government at every turn, in the process latching on to the most ridiculous of ‘controversies’ and non-issues – for example, Copé recently complained about how a children’s book on nudity was destroying the youth (or something); the UMP, at the same time, was going insane with faux outrage over ‘gender theory’ education in public schools (the government has a program to promote and teach gender equality in primary school). In the meantime, the UMP is not considered to be a credible alternative to the government – it lacks coherent policy (except being anti-government), its fire is often stolen by the far more popular far-right FN and the division between Copé and Fillon remains very clear (quite tellingly, at a recent electoral rally in Strasbourg attended by both, Fillon and Copé were never side by side!).

Copé has also been mixed up in several scandals. Most recently, in late February 2014, Le Point revealed that an events organization firm (Bygmalion) owned by two friends of Copé received 8 million euros in UMP funds for organizing events in the 2012 campaign. After the revelation of the scandal, Copé’s ratings in the aforecited Ipsos tracker fell 4%.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the defeated President, has never been far behind in all this. It is known that he took his defeat in 2012 pretty badly, and holds a deep grudge against Hollande. The UMP’s rank-and-file remains, by and large, solidly sarkozyste and would love to see him return in 2017. For UMP sympathizers and many on the right in general, Hollande’s disastrous presidency only vindicates Sarkozy and reinforces their burning desire to see Sarkozy return to the presidency in 2017. That Sarkozy himself is very much planning for a return in 2017 is probably the worst keep secret in French politics right now. If he were to do so, polls show that Sarkozy would win the UMP’s 2016 primaries in a landslide. But Sarkozy, since 2012, has been dogged by several scandals.

In December 2012, the campaign finance and public financing commission rejected Sarkozy’s 2012 campaign finance report. The issue plunged the financially troubled party further in debt, but an appeal by Sarkozy to UMP members to contribute to the party allowed the UMP to raise over 11 million euros in just two months, which is equivalent to the sum lost by the party in public financing after Sarkozy’s campaign finances were invalidated. Sarkozy has faced other scandals. In March 2013, Sarkozy was indicted in the Bettencourt affair (illegal payments from L’Oréal shareholder Liliane Bettencourt to UMP members, part of a wider tax fraud case involving Bettencourt and her family) but charges against him were dropped in June 2013. Sarkozy, as explained in this article, is also involved in other scandals.

One of the most important ones is the Sarkozy-Gaddafi scandal: in April 2012, Mediapart published documents which indicated that the former Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi may have given 50 million euros to Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign. During the Libyan Civil War, officials in Gaddafi’s regime, including his son Saif al-Islam had said that Libya had funded Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. In April 2013, a Parisian court opened a judicial investigation (citing no names) in the Gaddafi case. On March 7, 2014, Le Monde revealed that Sarkozy (and two former interior ministers Claude Guéant and Brice Hortefeux, close allies of Sarkozy cited in the Gaddafi case) had their phones bugged as part of the judicial investigation, beginning in September 2013. The transcripts of the wiretaps had found that Sarkozy and his lawyers were benefiting from insider information on the judicial process from judges and law enforcement sources – Sarkozy was appealing to the Court of Cassation the decision a judge in the Bernard Tapie scandal to send Sarkozy’s personal agenda to the judge in charge of the Bettencourt case.

The wiretap case shifted against the government, when the UMP successful changed the angle of media focus in the case to whether or not Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, had been aware of the wiretaps. Taubira claimed that she had not been aware until the media revealed it; the following evening, Ayrault said that the government had indeed been aware. Taubira later showed two documents which she claimed proved that she was not aware, but those documents in fact did state that the minister was kept aware. The UMP claimed that Taubira lied and called on her resignation, but it may now appear that Taubira was not lying – her chief of staff was aware, but had not shared the information with Taubira. Since then, new revelations by Mediapart, on how Sarkozy was suspicious of the wiretaps and bought a phone under a ‘fake name’ to talk with his lawyer

Yesterday, on March 20, Sarkozy published an op-ed in the right-wing Le Figaro. He claims, disingenuously, that he has remained silent and ‘in retreat’ since 2012 and that he has no desire for revenge or ill-feelings against anyone. He continues by saying that ‘sacred principles of our Republic are being trampled unprecedented violence and unscrupulousness’ and even denounced Stasi-like techniques.

One person who has clearly benefited from the political climate is Marine Le Pen, the charismatic and increasingly popular leader of the far-right National Front (FN). Le Pen won a record high 17.9% of the vote in the first round of the April 2012 presidential election, and after Sarkozy nearly killed the FN in 2007, the FN under Marine Le Pen’s leadership has roared back. Marine Le Pen benefits from a better image than that of her father and FN patriarch, Jean-Marie Le Pen. If most academics agree that under the veil of dédiabolisation, not much has changed in reality and policy; she does a much better job at appearances and communication than her father, who has a knack for provocative, racist and outrageous statements, lacked. She appears, in the eyes of part of the public, as cleaner, more acceptable, more credible and more moderate. Marine Le Pen has been quite careful at ensuring that the cranks and neo-fascist loons in the FN are kept quiet and has moved quickly, as much as she could without alienating her father and the more radical factions of the FN (who have been suspicious of her), to remove from public spotlight anybody who was inconvenient for the FN’s rebranding efforts. Marine Le Pen has surrounded herself with a new generation of FN leaders who are more polished and presentable to the media than some of the old guard (men like Bruno Gollnisch, who have said crazy things in the past); they include men like Florian Philippot, a technocrat who is now a FN vice-president.

An Ipsos poll in November 2013 showed that a majority of respondents still think the FN is a far-right party, dangerous for democracy and would never vote the FN and most don’t think that the FN is a credible alternative. The FN’s positions, the poll showed, are not endorsed by a plurality (with one exception, on maintaining local services) although very substantial minorities (up to 46%) agree with the FN on immigration and immigration. However, the results did show favourable trends for the FN: a 9% drop since 2003 in those believing the FN is dangerous for democracy, a 13% drop since 2003 in those who say the FN is a far-right party (most notably with FN voters themselves, 57% in 2003 said the party was far-right but only 34% think so nowadays, a confirmation of the shifts in the FN’s electorate) and an overall ‘potential’ support of 35% (combining those who have already voted FN and those who say they may potentially do so). These results should temper some of the mass panic and concern trolling of some who seem to think that Le Pen will win in 2017…

It is useful to close this explanation of the political climate in France with a look at Ipsos’ very informative poll on French society. In 2014, the main issues are unemployment (56%), taxes (43%, up 16 from 2013!), buying power (36%) followed by pensions (24%), safety (23%), social inequalities (21%) and immigration (21%). Most political institutions and office holders, except mayors, are poorly perceived: a majority lack confidence in the justice system (54%), the EU (69%), the National Assembly (72%), deputies (77%) and political parties (92%). Even less people have confidence in the PS (18%) than in the FN (22%) or UMP (24%). Pessimism is widespread: 90% say France’s economic power has declined in the past ten years although 65% still think that decline is not irreversible. There remains a strong demand for the notion of ‘authority’, with 87% feeling that authority is too often criticized and 84% saying that France needs a ‘real leader’ to ‘restore order’. A majority (about 60%) expressed protectionist views. A large majority expressed dissatisfaction with politics: 65% feeling that most politicians are corrupt, 78% saying that the democratic system is not working well, 84% who think politicians act primarily for their own interests and 88% decrying that politicians don’t preoccupy themselves with what people like them think. Voters are split on issues of government intervention in the economy. A large majority of voters are skeptical of further European integration, with 70% saying that national powers should be reinforced – but at the same time, returning to the franc is still a minority view (33%, but growing) and there’s no clear consensus in the electorate on whether the EU has been a good or a bad thing. 66% think there are too many foreigners in France.

Before the results start coming out on Sunday (20:00 Paris time), expect another post detailing the main contests to follow.

Election Preview: Colombia 2014

Map of Colombia (source: ezilon)

Legislative elections will be held in Colombia on March 9, 2014. All 167 seats in the Chamber of Representative (Cámara de Representantes) and all 102 seats in the Senate of the Republic (Senado de la República), the two houses which make up the National Congress (Congreso Nacional) were up for reelection. The five Colombian members of the Andean Parliament (Parlamento Andino) were also up for reelection. Member of Congress and of the Andean Parliament are elected for four-year terms.

These congressional elections will be followed by presidential elections on May 25, 2014. The President, who is the head of state and government, is elected to a four-year term, renewable once, using a two round system.

Electoral and political system

The Chamber of Representatives, the lower house, is made up of 162 seats elected in 33 multi-member circunscripciones territoriales – that is, Colombia’s 32 departments and the capital district of Bogotá. Each department has at least two seats, with an additional seat for every 365,000 inhabitants or fraction greater than 182,500 inhabitants in excess of the first 365,000 inhabitants. The capital district of Bogotá has the most seats, 18, followed by the departments of Antioquia (17) and Valle del Cauca (13). The distribution of seats between the departments is detailed in this presidential decree from 2013 setting the number of seats. The remaining five seats in the Chamber are split between two seats elected by Afro-Colombians, one seat elected by native indigenous Colombians and two seats elected by Colombian citizens living outside the country.

The Senate, the upper house, is made up of 102 seats. 100 of these seats are elected at-large, in a nationwide constituency (circunscripción nacional), while the remaining two seats are elected in a nationwide constituency for indigenous native Colombians.

Congress is elected by party-list proportional representation, with seats distributed according to the largest remainders method. The two houses of Congress and the Andean Parliament are elected on separate ballots. When voting for the Senate and Chamber, voters must choose whether they will vote in the national/territorial constituencies or if they will vote in one of the special constituencies (for the Senate, the indigenous seats; for the Chamber, the Afro-Colombian seats or the indigenous seats) – they may only vote in one constituency. The vote may be preferential or non-preferential – the choice is up to the political parties, who either decide to present a closed list of ranked candidates or an open list. If the party run a closed list, voters only mark the logo of the party. If the party runs an open list, voters must vote for a single candidate (marking the box with their chosen candidate’s number, or marking both the party logo box and the candidate number box). On all ballots for all constituencies, there is also an option to officially cast a blank/white vote (voto en blanco).

Colombia is an electoral democracy, although the presence of guerrilla and neo-paramilitary criminal groups in more isolated areas have an incidence on the electoral process and there are publicized cases of vote buying and intimidation. Freedom House considers Colombia a ‘partly free’ country, notably because of threats to journalists by criminal groups (guerrilla, neo-paramilitary, drug cartels etc), restrictions of constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and association (because of violence), judicial corruption, limited civilian oversight of the military, human rights abuses by the military and impunity for crime. Land rights associations, social movements, labour unions and NGOs are often killed by criminal groups.

Political history

Colombia’s history is sometimes described as ‘paradoxical’ because it mixes a long tradition of democratic rule with free and fair elections and respect for political and civil rights with a long history as a fractured and polarized society where democratic competition exists alongside political violence. Colombia is also peculiar on several counts, most notably as being the only South American country in which the Liberal and Conservative parties have survived into the twentieth country and by the continued existence of guerrilla groups which challenge the Colombian state’s authority within its own territory. Colombia, finally, is the third most populous country in Latin America with a population of over 47 million, but it often seems as if its history isn’t as well known or popularized as that of Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and even Venezuela.

The roots of modern Colombia’s political history were sown during Gran Colombia (1819-1832), the state which included modern-day Colombia (then known as New Granada, present-day Colombia’s name under Spanish colonial rule), Venezuela and Ecuador. Early conflicts in the fractious and weak country related to the territorial organization of the state, with the familiar debates between federalists and centralists. Gran Colombia’s 1821 Cúcuta constitution adopted a highly centralized form of government, with powerless provincial assemblies and local governors appointed by Bogotá. The 1821 constitution otherwise revealed the US influence, with a traditional presidential system of government and separation of powers. The legendary libertador, Simón Bolívar was Gran Colombia’s first President, with his fellow liberator general Francisco de Paula Santander as Vice President (and de facto ruler during Bolívar’s campaigns against the Spanish crown in Peru). When Bolívar returned from Peru in 1826, he came to favour a more autocratic form of rule, with a president serving for life and appointing his successor. In August 1828, Bolívar took power as dictator, with the backing of military officers and the Catholic Church. While clearly elitist, Bolívar, a free-mason and opponent of slavery, was probably not a true conservative. Yet, he felt that some of the early anticlerical reforms were going too fast, and favoured a more gradual pace in the adoption of various reforms. Bolívar’s autocratic rule was backed by the military and aristocratic families. He ran into the opposition of his Vice President, Santander, who was forced into exile in the US. Santander’s liberals were mostly from the emerging upper-classes of hitherto peripheral provinces in New Granada. Venezuela and Ecuador seceded from Gran Colombia in 1829-1830, and a sickly Bolívar resigned in May 1830, a few months before he died.

Gran Colombia’s short-lived conflict between Bolívar and Santander’s supporters informed the formation of the Liberal and Conservative parties in nineteenth century Colombia. Santanderismo supported federalism, separation of Church and State, equal rights and responsibilities, public education, civilian government and free trade; bolivarianismo – in Colombia – came to be associated with centralized government, support for the Catholic Church’s privileges and a more elitist and autocratic conception of government. However, Bolívar, because of his stature as the libertador and the contradictions in his political career, has been used across Latin America by both the left and right to legitimize their own political agenda. It is fairly telling that, in Colombia, bolivarianismo has tended to be associated with Conservatives, while in neighboring Venezuela, bolivarianismo has been widely used by Chávez’s socialist government as some kind of ‘ideological foundation’.

Gran Colombia, a rump state by 1830, adopted a new constitution in 1830 similar to the 1821 Cúcuta constitution. In 1832, the country reconstituted itself as the Republic of New Granada, with a new constitution which expanded provincial autonomy somewhat and abolished military (but not ecclesiastical) legal privileges. The military had suffered from its association to Bolívar’s dictatorship and most of its officers were lost to Venezuela following the collapse of Gran Colombia. The new state was weakened by the country’s broken topography and primitive infrastructure, which made asserting control over the entire territory rather difficult. The economy was equally as weak: most of the population were farmers or raised livestock for domestic consumption, foreign trade was very low, gold mining employed few people and was disconnected from the rest of the economy. Santander became the country’s president in 1832, ruling as a moderate liberal (promoting education, holding down military spending) until 1837. Uncharacteristically for the era, Santander accepted the defeat of his favourite candidate, general José María Obando, by a more conservative man, José Ignacio de Márquez.

The very Catholic region of Pasto rose in rebellion in 1839, after Congress closed small convents. They were backed, in an unholy alliance, by federalist liberals and the Ecuadorian president. José María Obando became the leader of the opposition after Santander’s death in 1840 and began a civil war. While Obando’s liberal federalist rebels had early successes, by the end of the year 1840, they were soundly defeated by the government forces. Márquez completed his term and he was succeeded by the two distinguished government commanders during the War of the Supremes: Pedro Alcántara Herrán (1841-1845) and Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera (1845-1849). The dominant conservatives adopted a new constitution in 1843, which centralized powers in the central government and allowed the Jesuits, expelled by the Spanish, to return to play a key role in education. However, President Mosquera’s policies alienated some conservatives and the conservatives’ divisions allowed a liberal, José Hilario López, to win the presidency in 1849. The 1849 election marked the formation of Colombia’s two major political parties, which exist to this day, the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Colombiano) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Colombiano). The Liberals came from the santanderista tradition, while the Conservatives took their ideological influences from Bolivarianism. Both parties differed on some important issues (notably the Church), but both were elitist and opportunist. For example, the Liberal victory in 1849 owed partly to the backing of protectionist artisans, who opposed Mosquera’s low tariff policies – even if the Liberals, like many Conservatives, were no protectionists.

The new Liberal administration began to challenge the Church’s predominant position and favour federalism. The Jesuits, who returned in 1843, were again expelled in 1850. The Liberals abolished the last vestiges of slavery, Amerindian communal land, reduced the size of the army and proclaimed the freedom of the press. Conservative landowners and slaveholders were defeated by the Liberals in a brief civil war in 1851. In 1853, the Liberals adopted a new constitution, which introduced unqualified freedom of religion, universal male suffrage, devolved powers to the provinces and made provincial governors directly elected. The new constitution did not settle matter, and the fairly rapid pace of reforms worried some moderate Liberals. In 1854, one of them, General José María Melo, overthrew President Obando’s government in a coup in April 1854. The Liberal and Conservative elites united against Melo, backed by artisans, both to restore constitutional legality and thwart social change from below. Melo was run out of town in December 1854; the 1854 civil war allowed the Conservatives to reenter government, increasingly gaining the upper hand. Mariano Ospina Rodríguez, a Conservative, was elected President in the first direct election in 1857, defeating a radical Liberal candidate and former President Mosquera. The election demonstrated to what extent the population had become aligned with the two parties: local priests (for the Conservatives) or potentates (for both parties) recruited their people to vote for one party, local and individual partisan affiliation was handed down over generations and inherited party affiliations became important.

The 1853 constitution was not a federalist document per se, but it led various parts of the country to demand autonomy. In 1855, Panamá, which never had much affinity with the rest of New Granada, obtained self-government. Other states (Antioquia, Santander) followed suit in 1856 and 1857, before Congress granted self-government to five states in June 1857. Ironically, it was a Conservative administration which adopted the first federalist constitution, in 1858. The country was renamed as the Granadine Confederation.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives, as far as the Liberals were concerned, still leaned towards centralism and Ospina’s government was accused of not faithfully observing the intent of the federal constitution. Another civil war between Liberals – federalists – and Conservatives – centralists – broke out in 1860. In 1861, Liberal leader Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera declared the independence of the state of Cauca, the largest federated state, and his Liberal forces attacked the government (Conservative) forces. In July 1861, Bogotá fell and Mosquera proclaimed himself as President of the United States of New Granada, renamed later that year as the United States of Colombia.

Map of Colombia in 1863 (source: wikipedia)

With the federalist Liberals back in power, a new constitution – even more federalist in orientation – was adopted for the new country in 1863. Under the new constitution, the federal states could exercise power over all matters not explicitly reserved to the central government; they could raise their own militias and determine voting rights (some states used this to retreat from universal male suffrage). The constitution could only be amended by unanimous consent from all states. Finally, the President was no longer directly elected – to weaken the office, the President would be elected by the states (one state, one vote) for a single two-year term. The constitution granted wide individual rights, with the right to bear arms, no limits on the spoken word and freedom of religion. Nevertheless, the Liberals remained very much anticlerical. Mosquera expelled the Jesuits (again), who had been allowed to return under Opsina’s Conservative government. He also seized most Church property and legally abolished the religious orders of monks and nuns. The Liberals’ harsh anti-clericalism drove a further wedge of bitterness between the two parties.

Mosquera lost reelection in 1864, when the Liberals preferred the less megalomaniac Manuel Murillo Toro, a radical Liberal. In 1864, Murillo signed a law banning ecclesiastical orders who had not sworn loyalty to the constitution, further increasing tensions with the clerical Conservatives. The central government’s authority was weakened by power struggles between caciques in the various federal states. When Mosquera, reelected in 1866, moved to bar states from raising their own militias, he faced armed opposition from Panamá, Antioquia and Santander. Congress allowed states to raise their own militias again in 1867. However, that same year, facing a civil war in Magdalena, Mosquera sought to amend the constitution to grant the President discretionary powers in times of crisis. He arrested Murillo, tried to strongarm Congress into approving his measures and finally resorted to a coup d’état in April 1867 and dissolved Congress. States coalesced against him and Mosquera was overthrown a month after his coup by the president of the state of Boyacá.

Stability returned and prevailed until 1876. Railroads, mostly short and foreign-built, were developed in present-day Colombia. The Liberals paid significant attention to the neglected field of education, promoting public secular education through foreign assistance. However, unlike in Argentina, the push for public education was less successful because cooperation from state governments was not always forthcoming and ecclesiastical backlash. Conflict over religion and Church-State relations (especially in education) led to the outbreak of another civil war between Liberals and Conservatives in 1876. In a short but bloody conflict, the Liberals defeated the Conservatives and the leading Liberal general, Julián Trujillo, was elected President in 1878. The 1876-1877 civil war was a rare nationwide conflict, but there were several civil wars within the states between competing Liberal and Conservative (or even only Liberal) factions.

The pitiful state of public order in Colombia led some Liberal dissidents, led by distinguished intellectual and diplomat Rafael Núñez, to argue that anarchic federalism was hindering Colombian development. Instead, they sought a more centralized form of government, which would be able to lead Colombia’s regeneración (as Rafael Núñez’s movement came to be known). This position brought them closer to the Conservatives, who allied with Núñez to elect him to the presidency in 1880. During his first term in office, Núñez, constrained by the 1863 constitution, moved to increase central powers by creating a central bank and overseeing the opening of works on the Panamá Canal by France’s Ferdinand de Lesseps. A proxy candidate for Núñez was elected in 1882 (but died in office). In 1884, Rafael Núñez returned to the presidency, defeating the radical Liberals. In his second term, Núñez put his program of regeneración into action, but he first had to defeat opposition from the radical, federalist Liberals – especially in the radical Liberal stronghold of Santander. In yet another civil war, the central government defeated various radical Liberal caudillos in November 1885.

Federalism had not changed social relations in Colombia, which remained a very class-stratified society – a legacy of Spanish colonial rule. Penetrating the upper strata was made even harder by the weakness of the military as an institution – the generals of civil wars were part-time fighters, full-time politicians, landowners or lawyers. Living conditions were harsh for most Colombians, who were illiterate, poorly housed and victims of early mortality. Even rural upper and middle-classes did not live lavish or impressive lifestyles, even if they were of lighter skin tone and better educated. The poor state of infrastructure and the country’s terrain made trade, transportation and internal commerce very difficult.

Opposition having been defeated, a new constitution was adopted in 1886. The country became the Republic of Colombia, a centralized state with a strong central government. The President was indirectly elected by an electoral college, serving a six-year term with possibility for immediate reelection. The President named the governors of each department (as the states became known), and the governors named all mayors in their departments. The directly-elected departmental and local councils were powerless. The broad array of individual rights and the secular, humanist orientation of the 1863 constitution was dropped: the death penalty, abolished in 1863, returned; Catholicism became the official religion; and literacy was required to vote in national elections. A more autocratic, conservative, clerical and ultra-centralist state replaced Colombia’s last experiment with federalism.

Rafael Núñez was a religious freethinker, but was convinced that the Catholic Church – as a powerful institution controlling much of the population – needed to play a key role to support law and order in Colombia. In 1887, Bogotá signed a Concordat with the Vatican, under which the Church was compensated for seized property, religious orders allowed to return and the Church’s legal privileges were restored. Public education was entrusted to the Church, divorce (legalized by the Liberals) was forbidden and remarriages of divorced persons were retroactively annulled.

Núñez’s positivist regeneración saw the state take a more active role in the economy with the adoption of protectionist measures. In an effort to break the bitter partisan rivalries, Rafael Núñez created his own party, the National Party (Partido Nacional), made up of like-minded Conservatives and moderate Liberals. But the National Party quickly became more of a Conservative faction, as Liberals became displeased with the government’s clericalism, conservatism and authoritarianism. Some Conservatives, the so-called ‘históricos‘, opposed Núñez’s government and decried its economic policies (issuing paper money, new export tax on coffee).

Rafael Núñez, President of Colombia and leader of the regeneración (source: Wikipedia)

Rafael Núñez was reelected in 1892, but he was in poor health and he died in September 1894. In 1895, the Liberals, excluded from political representation and persecuted by an autocratic government, took up arms in a brief civil war, which was crushed by the government within a few months. Although the National Party, with Manuel Antonio Sanclemente, held the presidency in 1898, the government was weakened by rebellious Liberals and disgruntled Conservatives.

In October 1899, the Liberals launched another, stronger and more coordinated, uprising against the government. The Liberals were most successful in Santander and Panamá – and Cauca to a lesser extent – but their forces remained in a consistent position of inferiority to government/Conservative troops. Nevertheless, the Liberals could count on the assistance of foreign Liberal governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The Thousand Days’ War, as the bloody conflict came to be known, lasted longer and was far bloodier than any of the previous civil wars in Colombia. In July 1900, politicians and military officers overthrew Sanclemente’s government in favour of his Conservative Vice President, José Manuel Marroquín. The war ended with a Liberal defeat in 1902, with the signature of a treaty (the Treaty of Wisconsin) mediated by the US, which was taking an active interest in Colombian politics to defend American interests in the Panama Canal zone. The war is estimated to have killed 100,000 people (3.5% of the population), devastated the economy and bankrupted the country.

As a result, Bogotá was powerless to face the Panama situation. The Americans, who already controlled the railway line crossing the isthmus, had acquired the rest of the bankrupted French canal company and in 1903 signed a treat with Marroquín’s government in which Colombia ceded a Canal Zone in exchange for monetary indemnity. However, the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty. The Americans gave their support to the existing Panamanian revolutionary movement, and in November 1903 the Americans orchestrated Panama’s secession from Colombia (and made clear to Bogotá that it would oppose Colombian moves to regain the territory).

Rafael Reyes, a Conservative, won the presidency in 1904. His goals were reconstruction and reconciliation; in the spirit of the latter, Reyes welcomed Liberals in his cabinets and allowed them to gain some degree of political representation, to the dismay of intransigent Conservatives. But he was also rather autocratic: he dissolved Congress and convened a new constituent assembly in its stead, extended his term of office from 6 to 10 years and took heavy-handed measures against opponents. At the same time, Reyes successfully professionalized the military, reached an agreement with foreign creditors, promoted public works and offered tariff protection to industries. But Colombia still lagged behind in terms of railroad infrastructure and corruption was rampant. In 1909, Reyes’ one-man rule displeased the elites and a treaty he signed with Washington recognizing Panamanian independence (in return for monetary compensation) incensed public opinion. Reyes was forced out of office in July 1909.

A constituent assembly was convened in 1910, with the goal of reforming the 1886 constitution. Carlos Eugenio Restrepo, a Conservative backed by Liberals and Conservatives who had overthrown Reyes in 1909, was elected President by the assembly. Under the 1910 reforms, immediate presidential reelection was banned, the term of office reduced to 4 years and the President would henceforth be elected directly (but literacy and income requirements still conditioned the franchise, obviously limited to males).

Until 1930, an era of stability and growth prevailed under Conservative presidents. Coffee took off as the country’s main export crop, especially in the 1920s when Colombia accounted for 11% of the world market, making it the second largest producer after Brazil. Fruits (bananas, grown by the United Fruit), petroleum (in the Magdalena valley, with Standard Oil’s Barrancabermeja refinery) and textiles for domestic markets (in Medellín). Unlike other Latin American countries, foreign investment remained low – although governments were favourably disposed towards foreign investors – and coffee, Colombia’s main crop, remained in Colombian hands.

Relations with the US were normalized in 1921, largely thanks to president Marco Fidel Suárez, although the issue did not come without problems – the president was compelled to resign the presidency in order to facilitate passage of the treaty, under which Colombia recognized Panamanian independence in return for a $25 million indemnity from the US. The US indemnity was huge for Colombian standards, and led to a huge of influx of foreign loans for Colombia and government splurges on public works projects. The economy and infrastructures grew rapidly, but at the cost of rising indebtedness and suspicions of government corruption.

The Conservative hegemony, as the era is commonly called, was generally peaceful – in the sense that there were no civil wars and violence was limited to election time or isolated regional uprisings. Elections were not wholly free and fair, but they had some legitimacy. Furthermore, unlike in the early years of the centralized republic, the Liberals were represented in legislative bodies and sometimes ran candidates in presidential elections (notably in 1922, officially taking 38.3%). However, social unrest mounted during the later years of Conservative rule and ultimately undid the Conservative hegemony. The first strikes erupted in 1918-1919, famously with a tailor’s demonstration in Bogotá which led to the death of several workers. In rural areas, some tenants and sharecroppers rebelled against landowners. Tropical Oil, a local subsidiary of Standard Oil, faced major strikes at Barrancabermeja in 1924 and 1927. The worst conflict was the ‘banana massacre’ in December 1928, when the military opened fire on striking workers at a United Fruit banana plantation in the northern Magdalena department. A young Liberal politician, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, investigated the massacre and claimed that over 100 people were killed.

The banana massacre and the Liberals’ handling the issue, combined with the Great Depression which hit in 1929, led to the collapse of Conservative rule. The Conservatives were unable to resolve their divisions and the party had two candidates in the 1930 election, one moderate and one radical. The Conservative division allowed the Liberal candidate, Enrique Olaya Herrera to win the presidency with 44.6%. It was the first peaceful transfer of power between the old rivals.

The new Liberal government needed to deal with the Great Depression, which took a heavy toll on Colombia as the price of vital exports – coffee, oil and bananas – collapsed. The government, a coalition cabinet led by a moderate, took little bold measures but industrial production and internal demand nevertheless increased. By 1932, Colombia’s economy was out of recession. Colombia briefly went to war with Peru over the disputed Amazonian town of Leticia, in the Colombian Amazonian ‘trapezoid’. In May 1934, the League of Nations confirmed the border between the two countries, which was set in 1922 (and remains unchanged today, following the Putumayo river except for the Amazonian trapezoid, which allows Colombia an opening on the Amazon river).

Olaya’s successor, Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-1938), a Liberal, was more progressive and took bold moves. Unlike previous administrations, he proved friendlier to labour and even received sympathy from the Communist Party, founded in 1930. Under the name revolución en marcha (revolution on the march), the Liberal government amended the constitution to restore universal male suffrage (women were still not allowed to vote, but under Olaya they had gained equal rights to men to dispose of property), condition property rights to social rights and obligations, guarantee the freedom of religion and eliminate the previous requirement that public education be in accord with Catholic doctrine. The educational reform reopened the old clerical issue, which had generally been put to the sleep by the Conservatives. The government also passed an agrarian reform law, largely symbolic in the end, for sharecroppers. A fiscal reform made the income tax, adopted in 1918, more progressive.

In 1935, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a left-wing populist, abandoned the Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria (UNIR) which he had founded in 1933 to rejoin the Liberal Party. As a Liberal, Gaitán became mayor of Bogotá in 1936. As mayor, Gaitán beautified the city, improved public amenities, sent homeless children to shelters, promoted public health and sought to help poorer residents. But Gaitán’s policies, and the reformist policies in general, unnerved Conservatives and many Liberals. In 1937, the president compelled Gaitán to resign and the administration became less friendly with workers. His Liberal successor, Eduardo Santos (1938-1942), was a moderate and ‘paused’ the revolución en marcha. 

López regained the presidency in 1942, winning with some 58.7% against Carlos Arango Vélez, a moderate Liberal dissident backed by the outgoing president and the Conservatives. López took office in a time of crisis: after Pearl Harbor, Colombia became a close ally of the US and declared war on the Axis in November 1943; at home, the war badly hurt the economy, with foreign trade dropping, the United Fruit ending banana production after a disease ravaged crop and stagnating oil production. López tried to make further reforms, for example with a labour law to protect workers, but he faced the unrelenting opposition of the Conservatives, led by the vitriolic Laureano Gómez, a fascist sympathizer who admired Hitler and Franco. López was shaken by a failed coup attempt in the summer of 1944 and the combination of wartime economic woes, family issues and the strength of opposition demotivated him. He resigned the presidency in August 1945.

The Liberals were divided in the 1946 presidential election. The Liberal Party nominated Gabriel Turbay, a moderate. But Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, leader of the Liberal Party’s left-wing faction, had been focusing on a 1946 candidacy since 1944. Gaitán, who had since served as education minister (1940-1941, falling due to Liberal and Conservative opposition to centralize public education) and labour minister (1943-1944), led a populist campaign which appealed to the disgruntled urban middle-classes, the working-class, rural radicals and a progressive bourgeoisie. Gaitán attacked both parties, but some Conservatives, including Gómez, openly sympathized with Gaitán’s criticism of capitalism and the ‘political and economic oligarchy’. The Conservatives, who briefly tried to woo Gaitán to their side, ultimately nominated Mariano Ospina Pérez, a more moderate leader from Antioquia. With the Liberal vote divided, Ospina won the presidency with 40.5%, against 32.3% for Turbay and 27.2% for Gaitán, who won most urban areas.

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, assassinated Liberal politician (source: Wikipedia)

Like Olaya in 1930, Ospina tried to bridge opposites in a politically polarized country, forming a coalition government (albeit one dominated by his own Conservatives). However, re-empowered Conservatives took matters into their own hands and violently attacked Liberals to seek revenge. In the 1947 congressional elections, the Liberals held a majority in both houses; within the Liberal Party, the gaitanistas now held the upper hand over the moderate leadership (22 senators and 44 representatives, against 13 and 30). The Liberals were now reunited, if only in appearance, behind Gaitán, who was proclaimed at the party’s new leader and already openly campaigning for the 1950 presidential election. On April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated by a young man who was lynched to death by an angry mob within hours. It is therefore unclear what the assassin’s motivations were, and whether Gaitán was the victim of a Conservative conspiracy (or perhaps even the CIA) as his devoted followers claimed.

Gaitán’s assassination unleashed bloody and destructive riots in Bogotá and around Colombia, riots which are known as the Bogotazo. Gaitán’s followers did not heed their fallen leader’s opposition to armed struggle, and crowds attacked major government buildings and looted stores in Bogotá. Ospina’s government did not fall, and quickly regained control of Bogotá. Liberal leaders s reluctantly rejoined the government. However, violence continued – opening a chaotic and very violent period known as La Violencia (the violence). The Liberals did not contest the 1950 election, citing the climate of extreme violence which existed, so the more extremist Conservative leader, Laureano Gómez won the presidency unopposed. Under Gómez’s presidency, La Violencia became a disorderly civil war opposing the conservative and Catholic right to a more progressive and populist left. He suspended Congress and cracked down on Liberals and Communists. Gómez wanted to replace democracy with a corporatist system inspired by Franco’s Spain. After suffering a health attack, Gómez resigned the presidency in November 1951, but ensured that his successor was a sycophant.

La Violencia was predominantly rural: in the countryside, both Conservative government troops and police and Liberal/Communist guerrillas were violent and thuggish. Some of the elements of that conflict in the 1950s influenced later forms of violence in Colombia: in lawless rural areas, vicious pro-government conservative paramilitaries – Los Chulavitas and the pájaros – attacked bandoleros, groups of poor peasants (unaffiliated with either party) who attacked landowners.

In June 1953, the government was overthrown in a military coup led by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a distinguished military officer backed by former Conservative president Ospina. Rojas’ coup was welcomed by most politicians in Colombia, and some Liberals joined the government and accepted Rojas’ offers of amnesty. Violence declined somewhat in 1953, but picked up again because Rojas, who quickly became a repressive dictator, showed little interest in actually ending the conflict. However, La Violencia degenerated into economic competition and banditry (rather than partisan wars). By 1958, about 200,000-300,000 people had died in the violence and La Violencia directly affected about 20% of the country’s population in one way or another.

Despite chaos, however, the economy grew steadily in the early 1950s, buoyed by high coffee prices on the world market. Economically, the Conservatives were pro-business but also intervened in the economy and industry: in 1951, they created a Colombian-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, to take over production at Tropical Oil’s wells when Tropical Oil’s lease expired. Tariffs increased, benefiting the Medellín textile industry and industry in general. Under the Conservatives and Rojas, there was some innovation in social policies to help the working-classes. It was also under Rojas that women finally gained the right to vote.

Rojas, originally elected with Conservative and Liberal backing, quickly broke with the two parties and created his own movement, a corporatist-type movement which initially could count on the support of the Church and industrialists. Rojas’ movement threatened both Liberal and Conservative elites, who feared that Rojas would become akin to Argentina’s Juan Perón or Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas. Therefore, the threat to their power prompted to the old enemies to put aside old conflicts to protect their political hegemony: Liberal leader Alberto Lleras Camargo and Conservative leaders Laureano Gómez and Mariano Ospina Pérez signed two agreements in 1956 and 1957, creating the National Front (Frente Nacional), an agreement to share power for 16 years and alternate the presidency between the two parties every four years. In May 1957, Rojas was overthrown in a coup backed by the two parties and an interim junta prepared the transition to civilian National Front rule.

The National Front agreement was ratified by 95% of voters in a 1957 referendum, followed by a presidential election in which Alberto Lleras Camargo, backed by the Liberals and Conservatives, handily defeated a Conservative dissident. In an odd congressional election held in 1958, both parties were guaranteed equal representation in both houses of Congress. The more radical laureanista Conservatives won more seats than the ospinista Conservatives. Under the National Front agreement, both parties were guaranteed equal representation in law-making bodies (Congress, departmental assemblies etc), cabinet and appointed offices. Although the National Front could be seen as restricting political participation by other parties, those parties – weak to begin with – got around the deal by running as Liberals or Conservatives. The National Front’s biggest success was ending the violence between the two old enemies – political violence therefore diminished sharply, with the elimination of old antagonisms but also military action and social assistance in rural areas.

Under the National Front agreement, the presidents were the Liberal Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962), the Conservative Guillermo León Valencia (1962-1966), the Liberal Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) and the Conservative Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970-1974). Political opposition existed within the two parties. The Liberal Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal, MRL), led by Alfonso López Michelsen (the son of former President Alfredo López Pumarejo), united left-wing Liberals and socialists/Communists opposed to the National Front. More importantly, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla returned to Colombia to create the Popular National Alliance (Alianza Nacional Popular, ANAPO), which ran both Liberal and Conservative candidates. Alfonso López Michelsen won 23.8% as an (illegal) candidate in the 1962 elections, while ANAPO’s popular support increased over the 1960s. In 1970, ANAPO won 38 senators and 71 deputies, becoming the second largest bloc in Congress behind the Liberal Party leadership (oficialistas). That same year, Rojas ran for president against the official Conservative-Liberal candidate (Misael Pastrana) and two other Conservative dissidents. Rojas narrowly lost, according to official results, winning 39.6% against 41.2% for the official candidate. Rojas denounced fraud and vote rigging, and there is indeed pretty serious evidence to indicate that Rojas probably won but the government tampered with the results to give the victory to the National Front candidate.

The National Front governments intervened in the economy, making important investments in healthcare, education and infrastructure. President Lleras Camargo’s government passed an agrarian reform law in 1961, which aimed to resettle landless workers and very small landowners (subsistence farmers) on public land. On the whole, while the government followed the ISI economic model, it was a fairly ‘responsible’ government (controlling inflation) and did not neglect exports. The result of substantial government investments in education was a spectacular fall in illiteracy from 40% to 15% in the space of two decades. Socially, the National Front era was marked by rapid urbanization, very high annual population growth in the 1960s (later checked by government family planning policies) and the declining influence of the Catholic Church. The declining power of the Church allowed for the legalization of divorce (but only for those married in a civil ceremony) and an end to rabid anti-Protestantism from the Catholic clergy (during La Violencia, the clergy urged Catholics to attack Protestants). Yet, change did not meet expectations and there remained several problems: poor education, inadequate infrastructure, high income inequality and far too many Colombians still living in poverty.

The National Front ended La Violencia, but it did not end armed conflict in Colombia. Fed by social inequalities and the radicalization of old guerrilla leaders who had refused to surrender their arms after the end of La Violencia, guerrilla activity – influenced by agrarian struggles, the Cuban Revolution, Marxism and Maoism – continued in rural, isolated areas of the country where the Colombian state had long struggled to impose its authority. The Communists organized ‘self-defense communities’ in which mobilized peasants united to resist the military and landowners, the most famous of which was the ‘Republic of Marquetalia’ in a remote mountainous region in the departments of Huila and Tolima. Bogotá could not tolerate the existence of ‘autonomous republics’ within its territory where the state had no authority; even if the Communist leaders of the ‘republics’ sought pacific coexistence. In 1964, with American logistical and material assistance, the Colombian military launched a vast counterinsurgency operation against the guerrilla hotspots and Marquetalia fell in June 1964.

Several men escaped from Marquetalia, including the community’s leader, Manuel Marulanda. In 1966, these men formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), the armed wing of the Communist Party. Two years earlier, leftist radicals influenced by the Cuban Revolution and Liberation Theology founded the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN). The ELN was influenced early on by Camilo Torres Restrepo, a radical ‘revolutionary-priest’ who was killed in 1966. In 1967, a Maoist splinter from the Communist Party founded the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL). Finally, the allegedly rigged 1970 election led several left-wing ANAPO members to take up arms and create the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril, M-19).

Initially, the FARC, which was crushed by a military offensive on their bases in Quindío and Caldas in 1967, retreated to their traditional bases (Huila and Tolima) to regroup. The ELN, influenced by Castro’s ‘foco’ strategy of revolution through guerrilla warfare, won attention for several spectacular attacks and bombings. The FARC, controlled by the Communists, grew silently but the Communists felt that the conditions for an armed revolution were not there and privileged urban struggles. The ELN was nearly crushed by a Colombian military operation, Operación Anorí, in 1973, but again a small group of fighters managed to escape, allowing the ELN to regroup. By the end of the National Front, therefore, all had been contained in large but remote areas where the state had never had much footing and where the guerrillas were out of sight and out of mind.

The 1974 elections were the first elections free from the legal constraints of the National Front, allowing a clear contest between Liberals and Conservatives. In the event, the Liberal candidate, Alfonso López Michelsen, the former leader of the anti-National Front MRL, was elected with 56.3% against 31.4% for Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, the son of former President Laureano Gómez (who died in 1965). María Eugenia Rojas, the daughter of former President Gustavo Rojas, won 9.5% as ANAPO’s candidate. The Liberals won a majority in both houses of Congress, with ANAPO suffering major loses. However, the National Front’s agreement on the equal distribution of government positions lasted one more term, until 1978. López Michelsen’s presidency was generally calm, but it was during his presidency that the infamous Medellín and Cali drug cartels grew, something which the government turned a blind eye to. Despite good returns on coffee (and cocaine) exports, the rest of the economy was sluggish and dragged down by high inflation. The government brutally suppressed a general strike in 1977, killing 22, and thereby strengthening the appeal of guerrilla groups, especially M-19. The guerrilla groups could continue to claim that the Liberals and Conservatives were two sides of the same coin, a claim reinforced by the little ideological differences between both now that clericalism was off the table and that both parties supported relatively orthodox economic policies.

Areas of coca cultivation, 2000-2004 (source: UNODC, UNEP)

The Liberals, with Julio César Turbay, held the presidency in 1978, winning 49.3% against 46.6% for Belisario Betancur, the Conservative candidate backed by the majority of ANAPO and some Liberal dissidents. But in a sign of growing public dissatisfaction with politics, turnout was only 45%. Turbay’s government, despite being under no legal obligation to do so, continued power sharing with the opposition – under a slightly modified form which represented the opposition Conservatives in public sector jobs in proportion to their share of the vote in the election. Under Turbay’s presidency, a controversial state security statute was adopted, which is often cited as laying the groundwork for the later proliferation of right-wing paramilitary groups and covering up gross human rights abuses by the military. While the government tolerated and supported paramilitary groups, it continued to tolerate the rapid growth of drug trafficking and the drug cartels.

As a geographical crossroads, diverse geography and landscape, strong entrepreneurial culture and networks allowed Colombia to become the key location in drug trafficking in the Americas. The Medellín and Cali cartels grew in the mid-1970s and, by the early 1980s, cocaine had surpassed coffee as Colombia’s top export, creating a new class of wealthy and powerful drug lords – owning large tracts of land, laundering money, eliminating rivals and those peeking their noses into their business, and gaining social status to join the ranks of the elite. Pablo Escobar, the famous boss of the Medellín cartel, was not only an international drug smuggler and drug lord, he was also a businessman, local philanthropist, employer of death squads to kill rivals and even a second-string Liberal politician (elected to Congress in 1982). Drug lords, led by the Medellín cartel, teamed up with the military, Texaco, politicians, local industrialists and cattle ranchers to form a paramilitary organization in the 1980s, Muerte a Secuestradores (MAS), supported by an active legal front. MAS killed opponents, protected local elites from extortion and kidnappings by the guerrillas and employed counterinsurgency tactics against the guerrillas. MAS also terrorized community organizers and brutally murdered innocent civilians. In the mid-1980s, the MAS had amassed a weapons arsenal equal to that of a military.

At the same time, the leftist guerrillas increased their activities. In 1980, the M-19, the most moderate and middle-class of the groups, seized the embassy of the Dominican Republic in Bogotá and took a number of foreign ambassadors hostage. The standoff ended when the M-19 guerrillas were paid a ransom and offered safe-passage to Cuba. The FARC picked up steam, with an attack on an army column in 1980. In 1982, at the FARC conference, the movement decided to expand its armed ‘fronts’ and adopted the name FARC-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). The ELN regrouped under a Spanish-born priest and focused on kidnappings and extortion. In 1980-1981, the M-19 launched a number of offensives against the government, but all failed in the face of the military’s superiority. However, there was growing demand for peace and negotiations, so that in the 1982 elections, both the Liberal and Conservative candidates supported peace.

The Liberal Party entered the 1982 elections divided between former President Alfonso López Michelsen and Santander department senator (and former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo’s protégé) Luis Carlos Galán, who founded the New Liberalism movement. Galán attacked corruption, drug trafficking and politicking. The divisions of the Liberals allowed Belisario Betancur, the Conservative, to win with 46.6% against 41% for López Michelsen and 10.9% for Galán. In power, Betancur continued to honour the unofficial power sharing agreement, splitting jobs equally between both parties.

Betancur opened negotiations with guerrilla movements, beginning with a cease-fire by the FARC and two other groups in February 1984. In March 1984, the Colombian governments and the FARC signed the La Uribe agreements, which included a bilateral cease-fire and the creation of the Unión Patriótica (UP), a leftist party backed by the FARC. In August 1984, a similar deal was signed with M-19 and the EPL. But the M-19 broke the deal in November 1985, when a M-19 guerrilla commando seized the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, holding over 300 people – including Supreme Court judges – hostage. The army stormed the building, killing over 100 people, including almost all the M-19 guerrillas. At the same time, the government was unable to check the power of the paramilitaries, dedicated to exterminating the guerrillas. Paramilitaries, drug lords and law enforcement were responsible for the assassinations of thousands of UP members between 1985 and 1994. The FARC also used the peace deal as a cover to regroup. By 1987, the truce with the FARC had collapsed, with the army and FARC rebels engaged in isolated battles. There was little willpower and interest in peace from either politicians and the guerrillas, while powerful radical forces on both sides continued fighting.

On the other side of the crisis, the drug cartels began turning against the government, after the signature of an extradition treaty with the US in 1979 – the drug lords feared being extradited to the US. In April 1984, the pro-extradition justice minister (a member of Galán’s New Liberalism) was assassinated by drug cartels; the assassination marked the end of the pacific relations between drug lords and politicians. Escobar briefly allied with the M-19, leading to some questions over the drug cartel’s role in the 1985 attack on the Palace of Justice. Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and other cities became the terrain of urban warfare between cartels and authorities, with the cartels effectively controlling major neighborhoods in each city – especially Escobar’s base of Medellín.

Liberal candidate Virgilio Barco, a unity candidate backed by the Liberal establishment and Galán’s New Liberalism, easily defeated Álvaro Gómez Hurtado in the 1986 presidential election. The Liberals won 58.3% of the vote, against 35.8% for the Conservatives and 4.5% for the FARC-backed UP. Barco inaugurated a Liberal government, finally breaking the National Front tradition of power sharing with the opposition. But that was his only ‘achievement’ – violence continued, with little hope for the President’s peace initiatives or constitutional reforms (decentralization, direct election of mayors, human rights watchdogs). The situation worsened beginning in 1987, as the M-19, ELN, EPL and FARC increased their armed struggle with offensives, counter-offensives, assassinations and kidnappings. The military responded in kind, and the size and resources of the Colombian military expanded under Barco’s administration, with US assistance. At the same time, Barco’s government was able to negotiate a lasting settlement with M-19, crushed militarily, in which the M-19 agreed to lay down arms and compete electorally, with the Democratic Alliance M-19 (AD-M19). The FARC and ELN continued their obstinate armed struggle.

The paramilitary and drug wars expanded simultaneously. The Castaño family, wealthy ranchers in Antioquia, organized deadly paramilitary groups which savagely murdered civilians and attacked leftist politicians and guerrillas. The government tried to limit the paramilitaries’ power by a number of anti-paramilitary decrees, finally outlawing them in 1989 (a 1968 law had actually made the existence of ‘autodefensas‘ legal); but its efforts were constantly undercut by close links between politicians/law enforcement and the paramilitaries and widespread corruption in the police and military.

Closely tied to the paramilitaries, the drug lords, led by the Medellín cartel, organized powerful and well-armed private armies, which targeted UP politicians and the government in general. Prominent cabinet ministers, left-wing politicians, presidential candidates and journalists were all assassinated by the paramilitaries or the cartels. The cartels also begun fighting amongst themselves, as Escobar tried to dominate the whole drug trafficking operation in Colombia.

In August 1989, Liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, the favourite to win the 1990 election, was assassinated – most likely by Escobar and his military lieutenant José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, with the involvement of a rival Liberal politician. President Barco declared an all-out war against the cartels – to which the Medellín cartel responded by a savage terrorist bombing campaign in the fall of 1989, killing about 300 people in nearly 300 attacks. In November 1989, a Avianca domestic flight from Bogotá to Cali exploded in mid-air, killing 110 people. Escobar was behind the bombing, hoping to kill César Gaviria, the new Liberal presidential candidate. In December 1989, a truck bomb destroyed the HQs of the Administrative Department of Security. José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha was killed in mid-December 1989, but the war continued unabated.

It was in this dramatic context that the 1990 presidential elections took place. César Gaviria, a young former cabinet minister, took the Liberal nod with the backing of Galán’s supporters after Galán’s death in August 1989. The Conservatives split between a right-wing faction led by Álvaro Gómez Hurtado (the leader of the Movimiento de Salvación Nacional) and a moderate faction supported by former President Misael Pastrana which put forward a little known contender, Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo. The M-19’s presidential candidate was assassinated in April 1990 and replaced by Antonio Navarro Wolff, while the pro-FARC UP’s two candidates were both assassinated, pushing the UP out of the race entirely. Gaviria easily won, with 47.8% against 23.7% for Gómez, 12.5% for the M-19 candidate and 12.2% for Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo.

On the political and constitutional front, an increase in demands for social change (expressed peacefully, by demobilized guerrillas from M-19 or by students). A grassroots movement during the 1990 elections, asking voters to drop an additional blank ballot paper to express support for a constituent assembly, was ultimately successful and led to the election of a constituent assembly in 1991. The Liberals remained the largest party, in good part due to the Conservatives’ divisions, but the AD-M19 became the second largest party with 26.7% of the vote and 19 seats, against 31.2% and 25 seats for the Liberals. The new 1991 constitution, promulgated in June 1991, included strong guarantees for fundamental human rights, declared Colombia to be a ‘social state of law’, recognized ethnic and religious diversity (full legalization of divorce, removing references to Catholicism as the official religion), replaced the state of siege with a more restrictive state of emergency and decentralized powers to departments (and governors, along with mayors, were now directly elected).

The reality was significantly harsher: if the new constitution, social reforms and reinsertion programs pushed more guerrillas from the EPL and other groups to demobilize, the FARC and ELN remained locked in their obstinate views and continued their bloody terrorist campaigns. The ELN successfully regained a presence by extorting a German firm building a pipeline, and other oil industry suppliers, contractors or private citizens.

In 1990, Jacobo Arenas, the ideological and theoretical brain of the FARC, died, leaving Manuel Marulanda, a hardened guerrilla fighter since Marquetalia in the 1960s, as the only man in charge. That same year, Gaviria ordered a military offensive on a FARC base (Casa Verde), completely breaking off the intermittent negotiations between the two parties which had continued since 1987. In 1991, the FARC under Marulanda broke with the Communists and UP, and decided on a total war strategy. The FARC remained the largest guerrilla organization and gained a foothold in the drug underworld, selling protection to coca farmers or entering drug trafficking on its own account. Drug trafficking has allowed the FARC to maintain a hefty war chest and large arsenal. According to the UNDP in the early 2000s, $204 million of the FARC’s $342 million average annual income derived from drug business. In 1991 and 1992, negotiations between the government and the guerrillas (FARC, ELN) in Caracas and Tlaxcala both failed.

In an attempt to reduce tensions with the cartels, the government promised domestic trials and lesser sentences for narcos who turned themselves in and confessed to crimes, and the 1991 constitution banned extradition. Escobar ultimately turned himself in, but he continued operating his drug empire and extortion business from behind bars, and escaped from prison in July 1992 before the government could transfer him to another location. The US JSOC joined a Colombian military manhunt for Escobar; at the same time, rivals of the drug lord – the Cali cartel, Medellín cartel dissidents and the Castaño family’s paramilitaries – formed a vigilante group, Los Pepes, to hunt him down. The official US-Colombian manhunt often colluded or directly associated with the Los Pepes death squads to track him down. Escobar was killed in Medellín in December 1993. Escobar’s death signaled the demise of the Medellín cartel, to be supplanted by the Cali and Norte del Valle cartels. The Cali cartel, no less violent, gained the upper hand in Colombian drug trafficking. Gaviria’s presidency also saw the US take an active role in the drug war, collaborating with Colombian authorities and eradicating coca crops. The narcotics problem did not go away, and the situation was complicated by an increase of coca cultivation in Colombia itself, and by the growing involvement of the paramilitaries and guerrillas in the drug trafficking business.

Economically, the Gaviria administration followed neoliberal policies – loosening restrictions on foreign trade and investment, increasing the flow of foreign goods and capital, reducing tariffs although privatization was rather limited. While these reforms had some beneficial effects, like elsewhere it increased inequalities and favoured capital at the expense of labour, especially unskilled workers. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians were particularly hurt and protested the economic reforms. The social changes and protests also provided a favourable terrain for the FARC, although during the 1990s, the FARC’s violence meant that popular support for the guerrillas became extremely low.

Liberal candidate Ernesto Samper, a candidate from the party’s left who had defeated a candidate backed by President Gaviria in Liberal primaries, won the 1994 presidential elections against Conservative candidate Andrés Pastrana, a former mayor of Bogotá. Samper and Pastrana took the vast majority of the vote in a first round in which only 34% of voters participated; Samper defeated Pastrana with 50.6% in the runoff. The M-19, which had done so well in 1990 and 1991, lost most of its seats in Congress and won only 3.8% of the presidential vote.

Samper’s presidency saw little change in the conflict. Once again, the government initially sought dialogue with the FARC and ELN, and the guerrillas invariably refused and continued their ever-grower offensives. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, the FARC was able to mobilize between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters across Colombia and the rebels demonstrated their military might with a series of major offensives between 1996 and 1998. In August 1996, the FARC overran a Colombian army base at Las Delicias (Caquetá). Much of southeastern Colombia had turned into a lawless zone (outside departmental capitals) controlled by the FARC or constantly threatened by FARC/ELN violence (kidnappings, assassinations etc). The state had little choice but to abandon large swathes of its own territory to the guerrillas, leading to strong criticism from the US and hawks.

The Castaño brothers expanding their paramilitary operations, forming the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU). The government fed the paramilitary phenomenon by authorizing the creation of legal paramilitary groups, or CONVIVIR groups, as private militias in recently pacified areas. Far-right paramilitaries took advantage of the CONVIVIR laws to gain legality; in the field, FARC/ELN attacks were met with retaliations from the paramilitaries, violence feeding off violence. Álvaro Uribe, the governor of Antioquia, gained notoriety as a strong supporter of the CONVIVIR scheme in his department.

In April 1997, the ACCU and other paramilitaries united to form the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a nationwide counterinsurgency/paramilitary organization. In November, the Constitutional Court ruled the CONVIVIR plans unconstitutional, but it changed little to nothing: the AUC now united the paramilitaries, and the AUC counted on the covert support of members of the military and politicians. The AUC was largely financed through drug trafficking, in which the paramilitaries were directly involved in themselves. According to the UNDP, some $190 million of the AUC’s average annual income of $286 million came from drugs. In many cases, the AUC and FARC, both active in zones of coca cultivation, fought for control of drug-growing regions. The AUC was responsible for a large number of massacres (oftentimes civilians not tied to the FARC), horrible acts of savagery (dismembering living persons with chainsaws and machetes) and the displacement thousands of Colombians from their homes by the mid-2000s. The paramilitaries, rather than the FARC/ELN, are generally agreed to be responsible for the majority of political assassinations and human rights violations in Colombia – with figures ranging from 60% to 85% of crimes being committed by the paramilitaries.

Ernesto Samper’s presidency rapidly ran into a huge scandal: shortly after taking office, Samper was accused of having accepted over $6 million in campaign donations from the Cali cartel. Samper denied any involvement or knowledge of dirty money in his campaign. An investigation was opened after incriminating tapes were leaked, and the investigation revealed the existence of a network of narcotics-linked corruption involving high-level politicians, judges, law enforcement and so forth. However, only scapegoats were convicted and Congress rejected the indictment of Samper, with the Liberal bench siding with their President. The case led to diplomatic crisis with the US, which limited its cooperation with Colombia in drug war operations and revoked Samper’s visa.

Samper tried to regain Washington’s favours by legalizing extradition (in 1996) and focusing his security policy on the drug war (ignoring paramilitarism and the guerrillas). Bogotá moved to eradicate coca crops, provoking a peasant protest movement – organized by the FARC, which forced peasants to join in – against the coca spraying policy. In 1995, the government managed to capture major leaders from the Cali cartel, gradually signaling the demise of the Cali cartel and its replacement by smaller, less hierarchic regional cartels which have been harder to counter. By the time Samper left office, the US had normalized relations with Colombia and its involvement in the drug war increased significantly.

The Liberals continued to be haunted by internal divisions bred by the Samper corruption case (the Proceso 8000) in the 1998 election. The Liberals chose Horacio Serpa, Samper’s loyal interior minister who had defended the President during the corruption case. However, Liberals hostile to the President, led by former Attorney General Alfonso Valdivieso, who had led the investigation in the Proceso 8000, joined forces with Andrés Pastrana, the Conservative candidate. Noemí Sanín, a former communications minister under Betancur, ran as an independent. In the first round, Serpa won 34.6% against 34.3% for Pastrana and 26.9% for Sanín. In the second round, Pastrana was elected with 50.4%.

Pastrana’s strategy against the conflict had two parts: a peace process with the FARC/ELN through negotiations and détente, and enlisting American support in the drug wars (although not necessarily using a militarist strategy). Prior to taking office, Pastrana met with Marulanda, the FARC leader. Just as he took office, however, the ELN and FARC launched offensives against Colombian military targets; in November 1998, in one of their most memorable actions, the FARC successfully seized the departmental capital of Mitú (Vaupés). At the same time, however, as part of the first step in the peace process, Bogotá ordered the military to withdraw from a 42,000km² zone (La Caguán), creating a DMZ to facilitate talks with the FARC (and, separately, the ELN). In January 1999, talks between the government the FARC began at La Caguán, although with the noted absence of Marulanda. But there was no truce: while the talks dragged on with no perceptible results, the FARC/ELN, who lacked commitment to actual peace, continued attacks, kidnappings, killings and extortion.

On the drug front, the Colombian government sought American assistance in the drug war, originally by focusing on aid and substitution of coca crops. However, under US influence, the Plan Colombia which was released focused heavily on a military solution to the drug crisis (but also the guerrilla war), with military aid to Colombia and the aerial spraying of coca crops. The Plan Colombia has been controversial in the US and in South America, criticized on a number of fronts: the excessive drug-focused analysis, ignoring serious human rights issues, ignoring the real causes of the conflict, the limited attention paid to humanitarian assistance and social development, supporting Colombia’s military and law enforcement forces despite records of human rights abuses and ties to illegal paramilitaries and the social/environmental impacts of aerial spraying.

Under Pastrana’s presidency, military spending increased significantly, expanding the size of the military. Applying the Plan Colombia policy, Colombia and the US extensively sprayed coca crops in southeastern Colombia, especially the department of Putumayo, destroying hundreds of thouands of hectares of coca crops.

Negotiations with the FARC dragged on with little result. The two parties failed to reach agreement on major issues; the FARC and ELN strongly opposed the government’s anti-narcotics policy, and they also accused Bogotá of not doing enough to fight the AUC, which strongly opposed the talks with the FARC and committed themselves to disturbing the negotiations with attacks and assassinations. Some progress was made on prisoner exchange, with the FARC releasing over 300 hostages in exchange for a handful of guerrillas.

The smaller ELN eventually withdrew from negotiations in 2001. In their DMZ, the FARC were setting up training camps, expelling government officials (judges, public servants) from the territory, abducting people (including foreigners), assassinating hostages and using it as a safe haven from which to launch attacks and continue drug trafficking operations. Hawkish public opinion felt that the government was conceding too much to terrorists, and the government itself grew impatient with the FARC. In 2000, military pressures forced the FARC to limit large-scale attacks to focus on kidnappings (mostly politicians) and urban bombings. An exasperated Pastrana suspended talks with the FARC in January 2002, and in February 2002, the President ordered the military to retake control of the DMZ. While the military was deploying to retake the DMZ, the FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen running for president as the candidate of the small Oxygen Green Party. Betancourt, a former senator who had gained some popularity for her tireless fight against political corruption in the Senate, was kidnapped as she was going to San Vincente del Caguán, the main town in the former DMZ which Bogotá now affirmed was firmly in government hands. Betancourt’s kidnapping and her captivity until 2008 garnered international attention and sympathy, especially in France. She was not the only high-profile politician to be kidnapped and, in fact, by managing to survive captivity, she was a ‘lucky’ one – the FARC kidnapped and killed many other politicians, including Guillermo Gaviria, the governor of Antioquia.

In 2002, Colombia was in a sad state. Under Pastrana’s presidency, the homicide rate, which had dropped from 72 in 1996 to 60 in 1998, increased to 70.2 in 2002. After the talks with the FARC were broken off in early 2002, the FARC unleashed a bloody campaign against the government which cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Since 1998, AUC paramilitary activity, designed to sabotage the negotiations, grew in scope while the AUC, thanks to drug trafficking, also saw their resources increase nicely. This came despite much disunity in AUC ranks: the fronts of the AUC operated independently from one another, with little coordination. However, the government’s policies, the AUC’s image as a popular response to FARC terrorism and the AUC’s close ties to the army and politicians gave the AUC significant popular support and a large base of (non-narcotics) resources to tap into.

Álvaro Uribe, a Liberal politician who had served in the Senate (1986-1994) and as governor of Antioquia (1995-1997), broke with the Liberals (who nominated Horacio Serpa again) to run as an independent on the hastily assembled Primera Colombia (Colombia First) label. Uribe, who had supported the CONVIVIR policy as governor of Antioquia, took a hawkish anti-FARC stance – under the slogan mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart), conditioning peace negotiations to military victory over the FARC. Uribe won a huge victory, taking 54.5% of the vote in the first round. Horacio Serpa won only 32.7%; leftist trade unionist Luis Eduardo Garzón, running for the new leftist Polo Democrático Independiente, won 6.3% and Noemí Sanín won 6%.

Álvaro Uribe’s Presidency (2002-2010)

Álvaro Uribe, President of Colombia

Álvaro Uribe has become modern Colombia’s most famous President, attracting strong popular support and admiration in Colombia and abroad but also significant criticism. He took a hard line against guerrillas, which had clear success as far as weakening the FARC’s power and reducing Colombia’s dramatically high homicide rate. However, his presidency was marred by numerous allegations of ties between politicians and paramilitaries, concerns over human rights abuses by the military and significant domestic and regional opposition to Uribe’s close security cooperation with the US government.

Upon taking office, Uribe took the offensive against the guerrillas, under the guises of the seguridad democrática (democratic security) doctrine. The aim of the the Uribe doctrine was to rout, militarily, the guerrillas (designated as terrorist organizations by the EU, US and Canada), combat the illegal use of arms, drug trafficking and reestablishing state control over the entire country. The Uribe government clearly conditioned negotiations with the guerrillas to demobilization and laying down their arms; a condition strongly rejected by the FARC, tentatively accepted by the ELN and (officially) accepted by the AUC.

Under Uribe’s presidency, the US, under George W. Bush, significantly expanded its contribution to Plan Colombia and explicitly linked the war on drugs to the post-9/11 war on terror (FARC, ELN, AUC). The lines between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency became blurred, as the US provided military training and assistance to Colombian troops in operations against the FARC, ELN and paramilitaries. Uribe became one of the Bush’s administrations strongest Latin American allies and an eager supporter of the ‘war on terror’ (which provided Bogotá with millions in additional military aid and expanded direct US military training and assistance). In Washington, the White House’s proximity to Uribe drew congressional criticism, because of concerns over the impact of aerial spraying, Uribe’s leniency with paramilitaries and corruption. Colombia also extradited a growing number of its citizens to the US; over 850 Colombians were extradited to the US between 1997 and 2010, including 789 under Uribe and 208 in 2008. There was some domestic backlash against the extraditions; in 2009, the Supreme Court blocked the extradition of FARC kidnappers of three American hostages.

The effectiveness of US-Colombian aerial spraying of coca plants has been called into questions by numerous statistics which show no reduction in coca cultivation and even perhaps an increase in coca-leaf cultivation; coca growing has simply been redistributed into smaller, harder-to-reach crops in border regions and along the Pacific. Colombia remains the world’s leading coca cultivator and supplier of refined cocaine; cocaine trafficking accounts for more $5 billion a year, or 2-2.5% of the GDP.

The Uribe government engaged in demobilization and reinsertion negotiations with the AUC, who had been pushed towards negotiations because of concerns over their 2001 classification as a terrorist organization by the US and growing disunity in the AUC. Negotiations with the AUC began in 2003 and progressed fairly well, with a preliminary agreement on demobilization in July 2003 and agreement in 2004 to set up a zone to relocate demobilized paramilitaries and conduct talks. However, the talks were fraught with controversy. The government’s apparent lenient stance towards the paramilitaries in the talks was quite controversial; there was no talk of reparation for victims or justice for crimes, but instead talks of reduced jail terms and even amnesties for paramilitaries who surrendered their weapons. At the same time, many questioned the AUC’s commitment to demobilization, because violence continued during the talks, result of increasing tensions in the AUC which culminated in the 2004 assassination of Carlos Castaño, one of the AUC’s founders.

In June 2005, Congress, after much legislative battling and negotiations with the US (demanding extradition of several AUC leaders to the US for drug trafficking charges), passed a ‘justice and peace’ law which set 5-8 year jail sentences for those charged with serious crimes (if those demobilized freely confessed to them). The law was not without controversy: the New York Times called it a ‘law of impunity for assassins, terrorist and drug traffickers’; the UN and human rights organizations said the law was too lenient on demobilized paramilitaries. Again, the law failed to provide justice and compensation to the victims; however, a 2006 decision by the Constitutional Court ordered full confessions, asset seizures and reparations to victims.

The government insisted it had reached a fair balance between justice and peace. Between 2003 and 2006, the government reported that 30,994 paramilitaries were demobilized and 17,564 weapons handed over. The Uribe administration’s counterinsurgency policies were also criticized, notably by the EU and UN, fearing that some of Bogotá’s policies may be incompatible with humanitarian law and fundamental rights guaranteed in the 1991 constitution.

According to critics of the demobilization of the AUC, many former paramilitaries have recycled themselves in criminal gangs or in new paramilitary organizations; which have been said to include as much as 6,000 members in 2010. Other sources have said that the AUC’s old drug trafficking networks have remained intact, and again law enforcement has been accused of tolerating or even being linked to these neo-paramilitary groups.

Militarily, however, the government’s tough strategy against the FARC and increased military successes after the disastrous 1990s did much to improve public perceptions of the military as an institution and also boosted Uribe’s popularity. In the war against the FARC, the military sought to improve their professionalism, compliance with human rights standards and their mobility, intelligence and readiness capabilities. Between 2002 and 2005, military operations against the FARC successfully destroyed a number of FARC fronts, killed thousands of fighters and forced the FARC to change their military centre of gravity to the Nariño, Putumayo and Cauca departments. During the same period, intermittent dialogue between the government the FARC on prisoner exchange and the release of hostages had limited success; the government refused to acquiesce to the FARC’s demand of creating a DMZ for prisoner exchange, but the government also released some prisoners in a sign of goodwill. In 2006 and 2007, some hostages held by the FARC were released or managed to escape.

In May 2005, Congress approved a constitutional amendment allowing for one consecutive presidential reelection. In May 2006, Uribe was reelected by a landslide in the first round, winning 62.4% of the vote against 22% for Carlos Gaviria Díaz, the candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo (Democratic Alternative Pole, PDA) and only 11.8% for Horacio Serpa, the Liberal candidate. A few months prior, in March 2006, the uribistas won a majority in Congress; albeit the uribista forces were dispersed between several parties: the Conservatives backed Uribe but were intent on maintaining their independence and identity in a context marked by the decrepitude of the old parties, Liberal dissidents led by Juan Manuel Santos and Óscar Iván Zuluaga founded the Social Party of National Unity (Partido Social de la Unidad Nacional, PSUN) or ‘Partido de la U‘ in 2005 (no cookies for guessing what the U might refer to) while other Liberal dissidents grouped in the centre-right Radical Change (Cambio Radical, CR) party around Germán Vargas Lleras also backed Uribe. In the Senate, the Party of the U won 20 seats against 18 apiece for the Conservatives and Liberals, 15 for CR and 10 for the PDA; in the Chamber, the Liberals, in opposition, won 31 seats against 28 for the U, 26 for the Conservatives, 18 for CR and 8 for the Polo.

Around the time of Uribe’s reelection, one of the largest political scandals in recent Colombian political history took shape: the parapolítica (parapolitics) scandal, when several PDA politicians began denouncing links between politicians and the paramilitaries, confirmed by former AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso’s admission that 35% of legislators elected in 2002 were ‘friends’ of the AUC. In 2006, after the Constitutional Court conditioned the benefits of the ‘justice and peace’ law to a full confession of crimes committed, several paramilitary leaders began spilling the beans. The debate was taken up in Congress by PDA Senator Gustavo Petro, who revealed more information and directly named several congressmen and high-ranking politicians for their ties to paramilitaries and involvements in plotting the assassination of rivals. In early 2007, a bombshell came with the Pacto de Ralito, a 2001 document signed by representatives of the AUC high command and several politicians (sitting governors, mayors, congressmen, former office holders); the document detailed a strategy for the AUC to consolidate power and command over drug trafficking and later to seize power (perhaps establishing a military dictatorship). In May 2007, courts ordered the arrest of most political signatories of the document for conspiracy. Thus far, a number of those signatories have been sentenced to prison terms, including 40 years for the then-governor of Sucre (who later served as ambassador to Chile).

The scandal also involved the DAS, Colombia’s FBI, whose former leader (Jorge Noguera Cotes, who was then serving as consul in Milan) was accused of placing the DAS at the service of the AUC in northern Colombia and had assisted in the assassination of leftist trade union leaders. Although Uribe vigorously defended Noguera, he was nevertheless forced to give up his diplomatic job to face judicial accusations back home and arrested in February 2007. In 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

By 2008, nearly 70 congressmen/women were involved in the parapolitics scandal (most of them from Uribe’s coalition), including several presiding officers. Some 30 of them were arrested and some later sentenced. The trials were highly controversial, marked by Uribe’s attempts to intervene in the judicial process; firstly by mulling the idea of amnesties or reduced sentences for those who confessed, and later a confrontation with the Supreme Court over an alleged judicial conspiracy against Uribe (probably fabricated by the President). Adding to the tense situation between Uribe and the courts, in June 2008 a former legislator was convicted of accepting bribes in 2004 in exchange for supporting the amendment on reelection; Uribe angrily responded by accusing the judges of political bias.

In May 2008, the government surprisingly ordered the extradition of AUC paramilitaries, including Salvatore Mancuso and “Jorge 40” (whose laptop’s files had started the whole scandal) to the US, where they were wanted for drug trafficking; some critics of the government thought that extradition would hamper investigation into the parapolitics case.

The parapolitics scandal had a deleterious effect on Colombia’s relations with Washington. Coinciding with the Democrats’ victory in the 2006 US midterm elections, the US Congress was increasingly opposed to military cooperation and the signature of a free trade agreement with Colombia. The US Congress voted to cut funding for Plan Colombia and delayed consideration of a free trade agreement strongly supported by Uribe until after Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

In 2008, the military’s credibility took a major hit with the ‘false positives’ scandal, in which the army was accused of assassinating innocent civilians and presenting them as guerrillas who were killed in action (to embellish the army’s results). The practice had existed in the past, and declassified CIA documents showed that the US had been aware of government ties to paramilitaries and of ‘false positives’ since 1994. In October 2008, Uribe dismissed 25 military officers, including army commander General Mario Montoya. The case was a black eye for Uribe’s democratic security policy, raising more concerns about human rights violations by the Colombian military.

The democratic security’s tough militarist strategy against the FARC began to take its toll on the FARC. In June 2007, the FARC killed 11 out of 12 departmental deputies whom the FARC had kidnapped in 2002, increasing domestic and international condemnation of the FARC’s terrorist methods. Around the same time, Uribe allowed his rival, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who Bogotá often accused of harbouring or assisting the FARC, to mediate a humanitarian exchange of prisoners with the FARC, but Uribe then blocked Chávez’s mediation efforts in November 2007, claiming that Chávez reneged on his agreement. However, in January 2008, Venezuela spearheaded an operation to release two hostages held by the FARC – a former senator and Clara Rojas, Ingrid Betancourt’s campaign manager (who had a son, born in captivity, whom the FARC had sent to Bogotá). In February 2008, three other hostages were released to Chávez as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ by the FARC.

Militarily, 2008 marked a sea change in the FARC’s fortunes. On March 1, the Colombian army raided a camp, located in Ecuador, killing Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s second-in-command and spokesperson. Naturally, the cross-border raid by the Colombians incensed Ecuador’s leftist President, Rafael Correa, and led to a brief diplomatic crisis with Ecuador and Venezuela. In March, the FARC’s septuagenarian leader, Manuel Marulanda, also died, of ‘natural causes’ according to the FARC. The files on laptops seized from Raúl Reyes’ headquarters added to Colombian concerns of Venezuelan meddling in the conflict, with documents detailing meetings between FARC leaders and Venezuelan military officers or the existence of ‘safe areas’ in Venezuela.

In July 2008, defense minister Juan Manuel Santos announced the success of Operation Jaque, a remarkably well orchestrated infiltration of FARC ranks leading to a quick raid to release 11 Colombian policemen and soldiers, three American military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt. It was a major blow to the FARC and a major success for the Colombian military.

Military operations against the FARC, 2007-2013 (source: WaPo)

The government continued making military progress in the conflict against the FARC in 2008 – a 40% drop in FARC-held territory, a considerable human toll on the FARC (thousands of guerrillas killed in 2007 and 2008), a drop in morale, an increase in desertions and a sharp drop in FARC membership – from about 18,000 to 9-10,000. After Operation Jaque, more hostages were released or escaped from captivity. In an increasingly perilous position, the FARC, now led by the dogmatic Alfonso Cano, resorted to indiscriminate acts of terrorism and enrollment of child soldiers.

Despite military and political scandals involving Uribe and his government, security cooperation with the US was not compromised. In 2010, Colombia still received $434 million in US military/security aid. In August 2009, Colombia and the US signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) which allows the US to lease access to seven Colombian military bases for logistical support in counter-narcotics operations. The DCA required ratification by the Colombian Senate and consultative advice of the judiciary’s Council of State.  The DCA met with strong criticism from the Colombian left and left-wing leaders in the region, notably Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who considered the DCA an ‘imperialist’ threat to his country. The DCA further strained already tense relations between Colombia and Venezuela; Chávez announced a freeze in bilateral trade between the two countries.

Uribe’s high levels of popularity rested not only on his democratic security policies, but also on the country’s robust economic growth during his two terms – the economy grew by as much as 7% in 2007 and, unlike Brazil and Venezuela, did not go in recession in 2009. In office, Uribe generally favoured neoliberal and free-market policies, with a focus on improving public finances, reforming government and reducing inflation. The government claimed to have made progress in reducing poverty and income inequality in one of the region’s most unequal and class stratified countries. In 2010, 37% of Colombians still lived under the national poverty line and 39.5% lived on less than $4 a day.

Uribe and his allies, notably in the Party of the U, sought to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive term in office in 2010. In October 2008, the Chamber of Representatives rejected a constitutional amendment allowing Uribe to run for reelection, but in May 2009, the Senate approved a measure allowing for a referendum to be held on the issue. Before anything could go ahead, both houses of Congress needed to reconcile their bills and the Constitutional Court would need to give a green light on the issue. The contentious topic raised significant opposition in Colombia, with resistance coming from the Church, the media and the business community. Around the world, Uribe was portrayed as an autocrat. In August 2009, both houses of Congress agreed on the referendum bill. In late February 2010, only days before the March 2010 legislative elections, the Constitutional Court voted 7-2 to reject Congress’ referendum bill, declaring both the bill and the legislative process deeply flawed and unconstitutional.

In the March 2010 congressional elections, the Party of the U became the largest party in both houses of Congress, with 28 senators and 48 representatives. The Liberals and Conservatives followed, with 17 and 38 seats and 22 and 36 seats respectively. Overall, the uribista coalition, made up of the PSUN, the Conservatives, the Cambio Radical and small parties linked to the parapolitics scandal (notably the National Integration Party, which won 9 senators and 11 representatives) retained a majority in Congress.

Uribe left office highly popular. The main reason for his popularity was the apparent success of his democratic security policy. As far as numbers are concerned, under Uribe’s eight years in power, Colombia’s homicide rate dropped from 70.2 in 2002 to 33.4 in 2010 (in raw numbers, 28,837 were killed when Uribe took office in 2002 and 15,459 were killed in the year he left office). Under Uribe’s presidency, the FARC lost significant ground and they were significantly weakened; however, by 2010, it appeared as if the situation had reached a stalemate, with the FARC still reigning supreme in many remote areas of the country and could resort to violent terrorist attacks in urban areas. Uribe’s democratic security strategy was associated with significant concerns for human rights, and the parapolitics, a DAS wiretapping case or the false positives scandals highlighted that corruption and human rights remained serious challenges to Colombia’s democracy. Nevertheless, there were some improvements in human rights and press freedom during Uribe’s presidency.

The May-June 2010 presidential election was more contested than either the 2002 or 2006 elections. The PSUN nominated Juan Manuel Santos, a former Liberal politician and heir of a powerful Colombian family (his uncle, Eduardo Santos Montejo, was a Liberal president from 1938 to 1942, and his family owned El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper). Santos, unlike Uribe, entered politics as an American-educated technocrat and held the portfolios of foreign trade under César Gaviria (1991-1994) and finances under Andrés Pastrana (2000-2002). He left the Liberal Party after Uribe’s election to become a leading uribista in Congress, helping to create the PSUN. He served as Minister of Defense between 2006 and 2009, a high-profile portfolio in which Santos was directly responsible for approving the operations which killed Raúl Reyes and freed Ingrid Betancourt. Santos was widely seen as Uribe’s preferred candidate, and his campaign repeatedly emphasized both Uribe’s record and his own record as his defense minister.

Santos was not the only uribista candidate in the race. The Conservatives nominated Noemí Sanín, who had run for president as an independent in 1998 and 2002 and had served as ambassador to the UK under Uribe’s presidency. Sanín, who was backed by former President Andrés Pastrana, was seen as close to Uribe; although perhaps Uribe’s favourite candidate of them all was Andrés Felipe Arias, his loyal Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. Germán Vargas Lleras, grandson of former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1964-1970), a Senator (1998-2008) and leader of the Cambio Radical (CR) party, was also a fairly close supporter of Uribe’s policies earlier on (but opposed Uribe’s reelection in 2010).

The Liberal Party, in opposition to Uribe, nominated the party’s leader and former Senator Rafael Pardo, who briefly supported Uribe during his first term before joining the ranks of the Liberal opposition to Uribe in 2003-2005. Pardo had previously served as Minister of Defense under César Gaviria between 1991 and 1994. The left-wing PDA nominated Gustavo Petro, a former supporter of the M-19 guerrilla movement, for which he was imprisoned and allegedly tortured in 1985. Petro was elected to the Senate for the PDA after two terms as a representative, and gained notoriety for blowing the whistle in the parapolitics scandal (but also a FARC-politics scandal, detailing links between some politicians the FARC). Although Petro was more hawkish and centrist than his party, his strong opposition to Uribe had lead to nasty shouting matches between Uribe and Petro, the former calling the latter a ‘terrorist in civilian dress’.

The campaign was marked by the rapid rise of Antanas Mockus, a senior politician who had served as mayor of Bogotá from 1995 to 1997 and 2oo1 to 2003. Mockus, a philosopher and academic of Lithuanian origin, gained popularity and notoriety as a successful but outlandish mayor – he dressed up as a superhero to clean up graffiti; already as Rector of the Universidad Nacional, he had been noted for his eccentricity, lowering his pants and showing his butt to a crowd of students blocking him from giving a speech. Mockus, a political independent, joined the new Green Party and selected Sergio Fajardo, a charismatic, innovative, and independent former mayor of Medellín (2004-2007). Mockus surpassed Santos in most first and second round polls, presenting himself as a centrist and neither pro or anti-Uribe.

The campaign was disturbed by Hugo Chávez’s meddling. The Venezuelan president called Santos a ‘real military threat’, a ‘mafioso’ and a pawn of the ‘Yankee imperialists’. He warned that he would not meet with Santos if elected and threatened that ‘there would be war’ if Santos won. Uribe, Santos and most candidates strongly criticized Chávez’s intervention in the campaign.

Despite polls indicating a close contest, Santos dominated the first round on May 30 with 46.7% against only 21.5% for Antanas Mockus, whose grassroots and internet-based campaign collapsed. Vargas Lleras placed a distant third with 10.1%, followed by Petro on 9.1%, Sanín at 6.1% and Rafael Pardo with 4.4%. A month later, Santos was handily elected President with 69.1% against 27.5% for Mockus.

Juan Manuel Santos’ Presidency (2010-2014)

In the immediate, Santos took office (in August) facing a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela. In early July 2010, the Minister of Defense had revealed proof of the presence of FARC and ELN guerrillas in Venezuela (among them was Iván Marquez, a leading FARC member), and Uribe announced that he would take the matter to the OAS. Venezuela denied Colombia’s allegations and responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with Colombia and moving troops to border regions; Chávez claimed, as he had following the 2009 DCA, that Colombia – with US assistance and backing – was planning to invade Venezuela. Upon taking office, Santos organized to meet Chávez in Santa Marta (Magdalena), and the two Presidents resolved the crisis and diplomatic relations were restored.

Juan Manuel Santos has turned out to be his own man, much to Uribe’s dismay.

Upon taking office, Santos continued the military strategy against the FARC, but he also said that the door to peace talks with the FARC was not closed. However, in 2010, the FARC’s answer to Santos’ more conciliatory attitude was a wave of attacks and ambushes. In September 2010, the military scored a major success in a large-scale and well-orchestrated operation which killed ‘Mono Jojoy’, one of the FARC’s top military leaders. His death was hailed by both the government and the media as a significant blow to the FARC, given that Mono Jojoy was considered as one of the FARC’s leading military commanders and a key person in the organization. In November 2011, in another major blow to the FARC, the military killed Alfonso Cano, Marulanda’s successor as the political leader of the FARC.

Nevertheless, the FARC remained a potent – if reduced (and radicalized) force. The FARC retained a strong offensive capability and the government found that the FARC had turned to illegal gold mining (in addition to drug trafficking) to finance their terrorism. 2011 was one of the most violent years on record, with the FARC (and ELN) desperate to show their muscle with new kidnappings, attacks and car bombings.

Soon after taking office, Santos’ government proposed legislation to address the issue of land ownership – restoring land stolen or purchased under duress by paramilitaries and guerrillas. Unequal land distribution has been both a cause and consequence of the conflict, with some 16,000 people in 2005 owning over 62% of the land and about 6 million hectares illegally or violently seized. The government’s law proposed to return the land to their original owners, placing the burden of proof on owners. The law was passed in 2011, but application has been slow and claimants have lived in fear of neo-paramilitary groups, which have killed or threatened those claiming land.

The law was part of a wider landmark ‘Victims and Land Restitution Law’. The law was welcomed because, for the first time, the government recognized the existence of an ‘armed conflict’ and its legal, humanitarian implications. Secondly, the law also allowed for compensation to those who had been victims of abuses by state forces – not only the FARC and paramilitaries. An Amnesty International report, however, cited major concerns with the law including: definition of victims (excluding those who continue to suffer abuses from neo-paramilitaries, unrecognized as such by the government), the exclusion of many displaced persons from the process and playing down state responsibility. The analysis also looked into barriers to the restitution of land, clauses which may legitimize land theft and inadequate support for victims.

Santos has taken a more diplomatic demeanor in his relations with his neighbors; under Uribe, relations with Chávez’s Venezuela and Correa’s Ecuador were often strained while relations with left-wing governments in Brazil and Argentina were barely any better. In office, Santos restored diplomatic ties with Ecuador and Venezuela, effecting an unofficial truce with Venezuela. In exchange for Venezuela extraditing Colombian guerrillas, Bogotá extradited a Venezuelan accused of drug trafficking to Venezuela instead of the US. In August 2010, after the Constitutional Court struck down the 2009 DCA as unconstitutional, Santos did nothing to revive the contentious agreement which had soured Bogotá’s regional ties.

Santos’ foreign policy has been only one issue which has soured relations with Uribe. Santos has never been Uribe’s puppet, even when he was his ostensibly loyal defense minister, but relations between the two men started going south in 2011. Uribe faulted Santos for his cordial ties with Chávez, claiming that Colombia could not have diplomatic relations with a country which harboured terrorists. On domestic policies, Uribe also began criticizing his successor’s policies – he found Santos’ security policy ineffective and soft, he opposed the land restitution law, he opposed amending a bill to remove responsibility for judging abuses by security forces from military courts and strongly opposed any talks of negotiations with the FARC. The government’s tax reform in 2012 was seen as an attack on Uribe, given that it sought to remove tax breaks and incentives for companies created by Uribe. Finally, Santos welcomed two 2010 presidential candidates known as critics of Uribe into his cabinet: Germán Vargas Lleras became Minister of the Interior (until May 2012, he is now Minister of Housing) and Rafael Pardo, the Liberal candidate, is Minister of Labour.

Several high-ranking allies of Uribe have also been prosecuted in corruption cases. Andrés Felipe Arias, Uribe’s agriculture minister, was arrested in 2011 for his role in the Agro Ingreso Seguro, an agricultural subsidy which ended up in the hands of powerful landowners and even a beauty queen. An arrest warrant, since dropped, was issued against Luis Carlos Restrepo, accused of staging a fake demobilization of a FARC unit. Uribe’s former chief of staff was also arrested for his role in a DAS wiretapping scandal. Uribe has stood by his allies, claiming they were victims of political persecution.

In June 2012, Santos ran into controversy over a proposed judicial reform which started out with fairly good intentions but turned, thanks to Congress, into a disaster for the government. The judiciary opposed the government’s early projects, but the situation became chaotic when Congress approved the bill including various advantages for corrupt congressmen/ex-congressmen: notably stripping the Supreme Court of its power to investigate corruption cases involving legislators. The Minister of Justice announced his resignation in disgust, there were several opposition protests against the bill and the PDA clamored for a referendum on the bill. Bowing to the enormous pressure, Santos convened Congress to repeal the law only a few days after it was passed.

Santos’ government has felt that, to secure peace, it needed to offer the guerrillas incentives to negotiate. In May 2012, Congress passed a law giving itself the power to decide the criteria determining which crimes would be investigated by prosecutors and which would be investigated by others. The bill was opposed by both Uribe and human rights groups, the latter claiming that it guaranteed impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity. Now that Colombia is a full member of the ICC, crimes against humanity and war crimes are the full jurisdiction of the ICC and amnesty could be challenged there.

In September 2012, Santos publicly confirmed that Colombian officials had been engaged in secret negotiations with the FARC in Cuba and Norway. The talks, in secret, likely began in January and by October, the two parties reached agreement on a framework for those talks. Santos claimed that they had learned the mistakes of the past and they would not be repeated; notably, the talks are being held abroad, and there is no concession of a DMZ to the FARC within Colombian territory. The talks were accompanied with a two-month ceasefire from the FARC, which they generally respected; but in 2013, the FARC returned to kidnappings (albeit many hostages were quickly released) and killing police officers. Some saw the attacks as a way for the FARC to prove that they remain a potent threat, without undermining the peace talks

In May 2013, agreement was reached on the first topic under discussion: rural development. The agreement talked of loans and technical help for small farmers, but nothing will be implemented until there is a final agreement on all matters. Other issues on the list are political participation (allowing the FARC to participate in the political process, while guaranteeing their safety, after drug lords and paramilitaries mowed down UP leaders and members in the 1980s), ending the conflict (the FARC surrendering their weapons and demobilizing), the issue of drugs and drug trafficking (Santos has come out in favour of considering the legalization of soft drugs) and finally victims (both of FARC and government atrocities).

In August, talks were hiccuped when the FARC felt that the government was rushing the talks forward in a (failed) attempt to reach a final deal before the March 2014 elections. But after a three-day walkout, the FARC returned to the table. In November, after reaching tentative agreement on political participation, the talks were rocked by revelations of a FARC plot to assassinate Uribe and other politicians (although it wasn’t clear if they were current plans). The issue of justice and the future of FARC leaders, who may face charges of crimes against humanity, will be very difficult.

Uribe has strongly opposed negotiations with the FARC, viewing it as akin to surrendering to terrorists. He used his Twitter account to publicize, on one occasion with a graphic picture, the FARC’s guerrilla attacks and their victims.

In February 2014, Semana, a popular magazine, reported that a military intelligence unit had been spying on the government’s negotiating team in the FARC peace talks for over a year. Uribe denied being on the receiving end of confidential information; his disclosure of confidential information (in August 2012, announcing the secret negotiations; in 2013, tweeting the coordinates of where an helicopter was picking up negotiators in a jungle clearing) in the past had raised questions. Two weeks after the revelations, Santos fired General Leonardo Barrero, the commander of the military; this time in links to Semana publicizing a transcript of a conversation the general had with a colonel facing charges for the extrajudicial killing of civilians.

Santos has been considerably less popular than his predecessor. There were student protests against a controversial education reform in 2011. In August 2013, large protests including miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers, public healthcare workers, students and others erupted in several departments. Both Uribe and the FARC, opportunistically, threw their support behind the protests. The protesters had different gripes: coffee growers demanding government assistance to counter dropping prices, truckers demanding investment in infrastructure to fix Colombia’s bad roads, others opposing the terms of the FTA with the US which was finally ratified in 2011. In the wake of the protests, Santos’ approval rating in September 2013 tumbled to the low 20s (from about 50%), with voters citing disapproval of the way Santos had handled the protests.

Political developments

Juan Manuel Santos’ government is backed by the National Unity (Unidad Nacional) coalition, which is made up of the PSUN (Party of the U), the Radical Change party and the Liberal Party. The Conservatives appear very divided between santistas, uribistas and independents; according to La Silla Vacia‘s electoral guide for the legislative elections, most Conservative senatorial candidates are pro-Santos but in February 2014, the Conservatives nominated the pro-Uribe Marta Lucía Ramírez as their presidential candidate.

Former President Álvaro Uribe created his own party in January 2013, the Centro Democrático (Democratic Centre, CD). Uribe is the party’s obvious leader and in many ways it is a personalist party based around him, notably taking up Uribe’s famous mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart) slogan. The ranks of the CD include uribistas from other parties, notably the PSUN, the Conservatives and even the PDA. Prominent members of the CD include Uribe’s Minister of Finance and Public Credit Óscar Iván Zuluaga (the CD’s 2014 presidential candidate), Uribe’s Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón and the former governor of Antioquia Luis Alfredo Ramos. All three men have been linked to the parapolitics scandal: Santos Calderón is under investigation for a meeting with AUC leaders in which he allegedly suggested that the AUC creates a front in Bogotá; in August 2013, Ramos was arrested on orders of the Attorney General for his presumed ties to paramilitaries; Zuluaga was investigated by the Attorney General in 2007 for a 2003 picture of him at an event for a former paramilitary running for mayor.

On the left, the PDA has run into a series of crises. The PDA mayor of Bogotá, Samuel Moreno, elected in 2007 with 43.7%, got mixed up in a large corruption scandal involving corruption contractors, who claimed that the mayor had demanded kickbacks for him and his brother (a PDA senator). In May 2011, the Inspector General (a body overseeing the conduct of those in public office, with the power to dismiss them from office) suspended him from his job as mayor for three months. In September, he was expelled from the PDA and the Attorney General ordered his detention. The PDA’s steadfast defense of the corrupt mayor until the last minute divided and weakened the party; Gustavo Petro, the PDA’s 2010 presidential candidate, left the party in 2010 and became a vocal critic of Moreno’s administration. In October 2011, Petro, running for his new social democratic Movimiento Progresistas, was elected mayor with 32.2% against 25% for former mayor Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2000), a uribista Green who was strongly supported by Uribe.

Petro’s administration was very controversial. Although he was able to reduce the city’s murder rate by 24%, various management problems and controversial decisions hurt his standing in public opinion. Especially contentious was his ill-advised 2012 decision to not renew private contracts for trash collection, placing responsibility for waste management in the municipal government’s hands. For three days, trash piled up on Bogotá’s streets, forcing Petro to allow private contractors to temporarily collect trash. The local government is accused of wasting millions of pesos and doubling the costs for trash collection as a result of its policy. On April 6, 2014, Petro will face a recall referendum.

In early December 2013, the Inspector General’s office removed him from office and banned him from holding public office for a period of 15 years. The decision, which has since been temporarily suspended by a court awaiting judgement from a higher court, reeked of political persecution (as Petro claims): the decision was unexpectedly severe (especially the long ban from holding office; Moreno faced only a year-long ban from office), the Inspector General, Alejandro Ordóñez, is a conservative supporter of Uribe and opponent of the peace talks.

The specific posts on the congressional elections (in March) and the presidential elections (in May) will include details on the parties, candidates, dynamics and – naturally – results themselves.

Election Preview: Thailand 2014

Map of Thailand (source: ezilon)

There might – or might not – be an election in Thailand on February 2, 2014. The House of Representatives (สภาผู้แทนราษฎร) has 500 seats, 375 of which are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies with the remaining 125 elected by parallel party-list proportional representation in eight regional constituencies. Voters have two votes, and the results of the direct vote in constituencies has no impact on the distribution of the remainder of the seats. The House sits for a maximum of four years, but the King has the prerogative to dissolve the House before the end of its term. The House is the lower house in the bicameral National Assembly (รัฐสภา), which consists of the House and the Senate.

The Senate (วุฒิสภา) is entirely non-partisan and serves for a fixed six-year term. 77 members are elected directly to represent Thailand’s 76 provinces and special administrative district (Bangkok), the remaining 73 seats are appointed by a commission made up of the president of the Constitutional Court, the chairs of the Election Commission and State Audit Commission, and one judge from the Supreme Court of Justice and the Supreme Administrative Court. The commission selects senators from the academic sector, the public sector, the private sector, the professional sector and ‘others’.

The House has exclusive powers as the primary legislative chamber (only House members may initiate legislation – legislation initiated by individual members must be backed by 20 MPs) and holds the government to account by electing the Prime Minister (appointed by the King) and removing the Prime Minister and ministers from office. Legislation must be passed by both houses, with the Senate considering the bill after the House as passed it. If the Senate amends or vetoes a bill, a joint committee will submit a new bill to both houses, both of which must approve it or it it withheld. The House may reconsider withheld legislation after a lapse of 180 days (or immediately, if it is a money bill), and if it passes it with an absolute majority of its members, it is deemed to have been passed by the National Assembly. When the National Assembly passes legislation, it is sent to the King for Royal Assent within 20 days. If Royal Assent is not granted, the National Assembly must re-deliberate the bill. If it reaffirms it with a two-thirds majority in both houses, the bill will effectively be granted Royal Assent even if the King still opposes it.

That is the theory of it all. In practice, Thailand is a flawed democracy. While it is a constitutional monarchy, the King is ‘enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated’ (Section 8 of the Constitution) and retains power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the appointment of the Privy Council and assent to legislation. Strict lèse-majesté laws are enforced; in Thai political culture, the monarchy and the person of the King is revered and any accusation of lèse-majesté leveled against a politician is very serious. The worst insult one politician can make to another is to call him a republican!

Democratic institutions and basic democratic rights are subject to change at a moment’s notice. Since 1932, there have been over ten military coups in Thailand, the most recent one in 2006. Since 1932, Thailand has gone through seventeen different constitutions or charters – running the gamut from military authoritarianism, absolute monarchy, constitutional democratic monarchy or limited democracy. Freedom House ranks Thailand as ‘partly free’ and the press as ‘not free’.

Nowadays, when elections do go ahead, they are considered free and fair. Nevertheless, the democratic system is undermined by the lingering threat of military intervention to forcibly remove elected governments and widespread corruption. Thailand ranked 102 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Many political parties are personalist shells, founded and led by one man or a powerful political family, promising populist policies. Smaller parties tend to be corrupt, venal and directionless outfits led by provincial bosses who rake in their provinces’ seats, and seek to use their power in the House as king-makers. They may side with either major party, even if the two major parties hate one another.

Lèse-majesté laws limit the freedom of expression, as they are used to target anybody critical of the monarchy or even the government. Access to some websites is banned in Thailand. The constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on religious belief, but the monarch must be Buddhist and Buddhism may often be treated as a de facto state religion. Muslim minorities in southern Thailand face some discrimination and have been locked in a bloody conflict with the central government for years. Muslim insurgents limit Buddhist monks and teachers’ freedom of movement. A combination of martial law and emergency rule remains in effect in the four southernmost provinces, and the governments have indiscriminately detained suspected insurgents and sympathizers and there are credible reports of torture and human rights violations.

Since 2005, political debate has been poisoned by the polarization of Thai politics and society around the controversial figure of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister between 2001 and 2006 (his sister, Yingluck, has been Prime Minister since 2011). The unending deadlock and polarization is at the roots of the current political crisis.

If February 2’s elections will be uneventful and bring about no resolution to the crisis, this post focuses on the history of Thai military intervention in politics since 1932 and the roots of the polarization of contemporary Thai politics.

Thai military intervention in politics

The June 1932 coup is often cited as the beginning of the Thai (then Siamese) military’s intervention into politics. In 1932, a group of young army officers and Western-educated civil servants grouped in the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) seized power in a bloodless coup which abolished the ages-old absolute monarchy and created a constitutional monarchy. The coup leaders, known as the “promoters”, were representatives of a new, young generation of Western-educated elites who had grown to find the Siamese absolute monarchy and the conservative aristocracy which surrounded the king to be archaic. Indeed, while Siamese monarchs since the 1860s had modernized and ‘Westernized’ the country as a calculated means of escaping Western colonization, they by and large remained opposed to democracy and the aristocrats had blocked moves to adopt a constitution.

The new ruling class soon found itself divided into four factions: a conservative civilian faction led by Phraya Manopakorn Nititada (Phraya Mano), who became Prime Minister; an old-line senior military group led by Phraya Phahon, whose followers joined the coup to oppose cuts in military appropriations during the Depression; a junior military faction led by Luang Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) and a civilian reformist faction led by Pridi Phanomyong, a talented French-educated lawyer who supported economic reforms. It did not take long for the divisions to lead to a crisis. In March 1933, Pridi’s plans for economic reforms – favouring state intervention, progressive taxation, welfare and redistribution of wealth – were rejected by the elites and nobility, and in June 1933, Phraya Mano was overthrown in another bloodless coup led by Phraya Phahon.

A monarchist reaction failed in October 1933, when a counter-coup attempt led by Prince Boworadet was unsuccessful. The coup attempt, however, strained relations between King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and the government, eventually leading to his abdication in 1935. King Prajadhipok claimed the government was undemocratic and failed to respect individual freedoms. He was succeeded by young Prince Ananda Mahidol, who was at school in Switzerland and did not return to Thailand until 1945.

The Khana Ratsadon and Prime Minister Phahon’s government continued to be torn by divisions between Pridi, recalled from exile, and Phibun’s military faction, which increased military expenditures while defense minister after 1934. When Phahon resigned in 1938, Phibun succeeded him – although Pridi became finance minister. Phibun’s regime marked a nationalist and authoritarian period, during which Siam became known as Thailand (land of the free) and the government ran a demagogic campaign against the Chinese commercial class. The regime promoted Western cultural norms and customs, but in foreign policy it revived irredentist claims against France in Cambodia and Laos and cultivated close ties with Japan to counter the French. Phibun was a dictator, who used imported European propaganda tools to promote his regime’s Thai nationalist agenda and create a cult of personality around him, while cracking down on opposition and downplaying monarchist symbols.

During World War II, Phibun sided with the Japanese to avenge the loss of territory to the French in 1893 and 1904. Following the Franco-Thai War (1940-1941), Japan mediated by ceding three Cambodian provinces to Thailand. Phibun basked in glory, but on December 8, 1941, the Japanese invaded Thailand and, within hours, Thailand gave in and allowed Japan to pass through the country to invade Burma and Malaya. In January 1942, Phibun declared war on the US and Britain.

Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, a conservative aristocrat, refused to deliver the notice to the State Department and organized, with Pridi inside Thailand, a Free Thai resistance movement. In 1944, Japanese arrogance and Allied bombing crippled the economy and made the war and Phibun quite unpopular. The new government, led by Khuang Aphaiwong and infiltrated by the Free Thai, played a precarious game of remaining friendly with Japan while evacuating British territories in Malaya which Japan had allowed Thailand to occupy. By the end of the war, Thailand repudiated its alliance with Japan. While Britain held Thailand responsible and wanted to treat it as a defeated enemy, the US – hostile to British and French colonialism – supported the new government.

Khuang led a fractious civilian government which included Seni and Pridi, who was now regent for the absentee monarch. In September 1945, Seni became Prime Minister and restored the name Siam. Seni, who joined the newly founded monarchist and conservative Democrat Party, developed a personal animosity towards Pridi, whose party won the first partisan elections in 1946. Seni was forced out of office by Pridi in January 1946, the victim of rising discontent over inflation, reparation payments to the British and territorial concessions to the French (France’s precondition for Siam to join the UN). In March 1946, Pridi himself took office. Seeking to entrench a civilian parliamentary democracy, Pridi’s cabinet drafted a constitution – promulgated in May 1946 – which created a bicameral legislature composed of a directly-elected lower house and an upper house elected by the lower house.

In June 1946, King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who had returned to Siam in December 1945, was found dead at the palace, in circumstances which remain mysterious and sensitive to this day. Three palace officials were later arrested and eventually executed (in 1955), although even the current king has since said that they were not guilty. A commonly-accepted alternative version is that the monarch accidentally shot himself while cleaning his pistol, but other theories still swirl. Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej, the deceased monarch’s brother, became King as Rama IX. Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in the US, went to Thailand for the first time in 1945 and returned to Switzerland to complete his studies, only returning to Bangkok in 1951.

In the immediate aftermath, Seni and the Democrats began a vicious smear campaign against Pridi, claiming that he had been behind the king’s death. The accusations compelled Pridi to resign on grounds of ill health in August 1946. The civilian government, headed by a rear-admiral close to Pridi, was plagued by divisions in the civilian leadership, corruption and an increasingly bold military.

In November 1947, a coup group led by Lt. General Phin Choonhavan and backed by Phibun seized power. The ‘coup group’ had the support of the palace, Seni, the Democrats and up-and-coming military officers such as police chief Phao Sriyanond, Colonel Sarit Dhanarajata, Lt. Colonel Praphas Charusathien and Phin’s son Captain Chatichai Choonhavan. The military, itself divided, would rule under various rulers until 1973. Khuang became Prime Minister with the coup group’s blessing, while the military and the palace agreed on a constitutional charter which increased royal powers.

In April 1948, the coup group pressed Khuang to resign and Phibun returned as Prime Minister. Phibun had briefly been held and tried as a war criminal, but the trial ended quickly and allowed the former leader to rebuild his popularity. Phibun’s new regime played on nationalist sentiments, renamed (for good) the country as Thailand while Phibun recycled himself from a pro-Japanese fascist admirer into an anti-communist well perceived by Washington. Thailand participated in the Korean War, Phao Sriyanond’s ruthless police was financed by the CIA, Thailand backed the French against communist rebels in Indochina and Bangkok gradually became Washington’s loyal ally in tumultuous Southeast Asia.

In 1949, Phibun called on Seni and the Democrats to help draft a new constitution. The 1949 constitution restored most of the monarch’s powers which he had lost in 1932.

Phibun’s rule ushered in stability, but in his first years in power, he faced several failed coup attempts – by Phibun’s army rivals in October 1948, a plot sponsored by the exiled Pridi in 1949 and one by naval officers in 1951. The 1951 revolt was put down by the army and the air force, increasing the military’s power against the civilian Democrat/palace axis and Phibun himself. Increasingly powerful military men such as Phao, Phin and Sarit disliked the 1949 constitution, which granted important powers to the monarch or a Senate made up of palace appointees. In November 1951, the coup group staged the so-called ‘silent coup’, pressuring Phibun into cancelling the 1949 constitution in favour of the 1932 constitution, under which the palace was far less powerful. A revised constitution was promulgated in February 1952, abolishing the Senate in favour of a unicameral National Assembly (half of which was appointed, and filled with military men).

The 1951 coup strengthened the military’s place in the government, which now rested on a triumvirate made up of Phibun, Phao and Phin. The government continued instrumentalizing anti-Chinese sentiments (now disguised as anticommunism) and it remained a strong US ally. In 1954, Thailand was a founding member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Bangkok – SEATO’s HQ – offered the use of its military bases to SEATO and the US. Economically, the government broke with a long tradition of liberal laissez-faire by intervening in the economy, setting a restrictive export tax on rice in a bid to discourage rice exports, nurture nascent industries and selling rice stocks on the domestic market at low prices to hold down the cost of living.

In 1955, Phibun allowed for a façade of democracy, loosening press censorship, allowing some public debate, allowing parties to register and halting the anti-Chinese campaign. In February 1957, the ruling party, controlled by Phao and Phibun, won the elections (although it suffered important loses), which Sarit and student protesters denounced as rigged. In response, Phibun appointed a new government, which shelved the democratic reforms. Sarit’s influence grew – he was now commander-in-chief of the army, and in September 1957, Sarit – with the King’s support – deposed Phibun and Phao in a bloodless coup. Sarit, on grounds of ill health, did not form a government himself, allowing SEATO secretary-general Pote Sarasin and then Thanom Kittikachorn to rule and supervise a free election in December 1957. In October 1958, Sarit – with his deputy Thanom’s support – staged another coup, this time installing himself as Prime Minister.

Sarit, who ruled until his death in December 1963, was part of a new generation not influenced by Western political ideologies. Instead, Sarit and his ally Thanom were traditionalists whose creed was order, hierarchy and religion. Under Sarit, the monarchy regained a much larger public role, with Sarit arranging for Bhumibol to attend ceremonies, champion development projects and raising the monarchy’s stature to that of high reverence. At the same time, however, heavy American presence in Asia with the Vietnam War made Western culture, hitherto reserved to an elite, accessible to the bulk of society. The 1960s saw the modernization and full westernization of Thailand, shaking traditional rural family units and leading to massive urban growth. However, economic growth did not trickle down to everybody. The impoverished regions of the north and northeastern Thailand (Isan) remained poor, and were subjected to military harassment and bureaucratic corruption.

Sarit’s regime proved exceptionally harsh, outlawing parties, jailing opponents, dissolving Parliament and centralizing powers. However, Sarit’s government also brought stability and economic growth. Although the military remained in charge, a la Pinochet, Sarit brought in liberal technocrats and allowed for foreign direct investment.

Upon Sarit’s death, his ally Thanom succeeded him in office, and continued Sarit’s foreign and domestic policies. The notable departure from Sarit’s policies was Thanom’s relatively more liberal stance on democratic reforms. A 1968 constitution restored a directly-elected House, created a royally-appointed Senate and parties were legalized; however, the constitution shored up Thanom’s powers by confirming repressive legislation and maintaining martial law (imposed in 1958). Thanom’s party won relatively open elections in 1969.

The government remained heavily involved in supporting the US against communist rebels in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, permitting US troops and aircraft to use Thai bases as launching-pads for attacks into Cambodia and Vietnam and sending a division of Thai troops to South Vietnam. Thailand was worried by Washington signaling that it was considering drawing down its presence in the region. Bangkok faced regional unrest: in the south from ethnically Chinese communist guerrillas and Muslim insurgents, in the north and northeast from peasants and communist rebels backed by the Pathet Lao, North Vietnam and China.

In November 1971, Thanom executed a coup against his own government, centralizing power in a triumvirate composed of himself, his son and his brother-in-law/deputy Praphas Charusathien. The new regime dissolved Parliament, cabinet, abrogated the constitution and declared martial law.

As the regime became increasingly corrupt and the economy declined, even harsh repression failed to quell rising popular discontent in universities, the countryside and middle-classes but also with civilian politicians and the palace. In October 1973, a new wave of protests spearheaded by students rallied hundreds of thousands in Bangkok. Initially, the army responded with force, firing on the demonstrators, but the palace – and the king himself – used the protests to move against Thanom. On October 14, the king arranged for Thanom’s removal and the safe passage of the triumvirate to foreign exile. Law professor Sanya Dharmasakti, a conservative sympathetic to the students’ demands, was appointed Prime Minister.

Sanya appointed a committee, which produced a constitution in 1974 and led to general elections in January 1975. In a context of disenchantment with the new civilian democratic government, which was extremely cautious in its decisions so as to not alienate the military, the general elections saw only 47% turnout and a very divided electorate. Seni Pramoj’s Democrat Party won 72 seats out of 269, followed by the right-wing Social Justice Party (a party which was backed by the military brass, including commander-in-chief Kris Sivara, and led by former Thanom-Praphas ally Thawit Klinprathum) with 45, the pro-military Thai Nation Party (led by Chatichai Choonhavan, the son of former army commander Phin Choonhavan) with 28 and Kukrit Pramoj’s centrist Social Action Party with 18 seats. Seni formed a government, which lasted 27 days, and was followed by a more centrist cabinet led by Kukrit Pramoj, which governed until the April 1976 elections.

The new democracy disappointed many of the more radical student leaders of 1973, but the new democratic system allowed voices which had until then been silenced by state repression to speak out and air their grievances. The 1973-1976 era saw an increase in peasant mobilization in northern and northeastern Thailand, demanding government intervention to improve their conditions. The economic growth under military rule had widened the gap between urban and rural areas, with urban areas becoming increasingly richer at a quicker pace while incomes in rural areas increased at a much slower rate. Phibun’s old rice premium, now the main source of government revenue, imposed low incomes and limited access to credit for poor farmers. The 1970s also witnessed an increase in the domestic communist insurgency, and nationalist sentiment hostile towards the US’ large role and military presence in Thailand. However, the victory of communists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975 was of far greater concern for Bangkok’s conservative elites. The government sought to improve ties with the new communist governments and China (Thailand recognized the PR China in 1975), but it also became increasingly anticommunist at home, targeting radicalized students who were labelled as foreign communist plants. In 1975 and 1976, political violence in the form of clashes between leftist students and workers and rightist paramilitaries (openly supported by the police) increased.

The April 1976 elections saw the right strengthened: Seni’s Democrats gained 42 seats, winning 114 seats, while the Thai Nation Party – led by Chatichai Choonhavan’s brother-in-law Pramarn Adireksarn and campaigning on the slogan of ‘right kill left’ – won 56 seats. Seni returned as Prime Minister, with Pramarn as Deputy Prime Minister. Pramarn and the deputy interior minister, Samak Sundaravej, both supported a coup or at least harsh repression of student protesters and Pramarn’s clique had contacts in the military and the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC, the body in charge of ‘national security’ – killing opponents). Pramarn and Samak, over Seni’s head, arranged for Thanom to return, ostensibly as a Buddhist monk without political motives. Seni tried to resign but was blocked, while students protested at Thammasat University against Thanom’s return. Conservative newspapers published a photo of student demonstrators re-enacting the hanging of two student protesters by police the previous month. The photo, which was later found to have been altered, showed one of the students as being made up to resemble the Crown Prince, a grave act of lèse majesté. Pramarn, who had plotted Thanom’s return to provoke and then kill the students, used the photo as a pretext. Police and paramilitaries (backed by the police, ISOC and parts of the palace) attacked Thammasat University and brutally lynched, tortured, murdered or burned students. Independent sources claimed over 100 were killed, the government’s numbers cited 46 while Samak, who became Prime Minister in 2008, said “only one” student had died – and only “by accident”!

Admiral Sangad Chaloryu, the head of the military and defence minister, led a coup which blocked Pramarn’s extremist faction from seizing power. Thanin Kraivichien, an ultraconservative judge, became Prime Minister. Thanin’s government was extremely repressive – censorship of the press, tight control of the unions, purges of the civil service and education, banned all parties, dissolved Parliament and confiscated blacklisted books. The October 1976 massacre strengthened the Communist Party of Thailand’s (CPT) insurgency, expanding their fighting force to 6,000-8,000. Thanin’s policies alienated even the military, which was already unhappy with Thanin’s relative independence from the military. In October 1977, Sangad removed Thanin in a coup and General Kriangsak Chomanand became Prime Minister. 

Kriangsak’s military regime was more liberal, promulgating a constitution in 1978 which allowed for a directly-elected lower house and promised a transition to civilian rule by 1983. The military remained in power, but it allowed for relatively free elections and the resumption of parliamentary politics. In 1979, the centrist Social Action Party emerged as the largest party in legislative elections, albeit with only 82 out of 301 seats.

Kriangsak courted moderate union leaders, raised the minimum wage in Bangkok, allowed limited press freedom and amnestied some dissidents from 1976. The communist insurgency died down during Kriangsak’s rule. The 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (ruled by the Khmer Rouge) divided the CPT, and drew Thailand – which joined the US and China in supporting the KR against Vietnam – closer to China, which stopped supporting the Thai Communists. Kriangsak offered amnesty to those communists who surrendered themselves.

However, rising inflation, corruption and a 1980 increase in oil/gas/electricity prices led to mounting discontent and student protests in 1980. The military moved in, leading Kriangsak to resign in favour of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the army commander and defence minister. Prem formed a largely civilian cabinet, enlisted the support of the Social Action Party, the Thai Nation Party and the Democrats and could count on the palace’s support. In April 1981, rogue military officers attempted to seize power, managing to capture Bangkok, force Prem and the monarchs to flee town but they relented when they realized that the King was behind Prem. The coup attempt did, however, weaken Prem’s power. Beset by economic problems, Prem’s government faced student and workers protests and farmers demanding higher rice prices. From the military, General Arthit Kamlangek, a deputy commander of a military region who had put down the April 1981 coup, enjoyed a rapid rise to top, becoming commander-in-chief of the army in October 1982. Arthit never attempted to seize power himself, but he proved a thorn in the side for the government, controlling the military and being publicly critical of some of Prem’s policy decisions.

In April 1983, Prem faced a major issue with the expiration of the 1978 constitution’s transitory clauses which would expire on April 21, after which point the Senate would lose a good deal of power, military and civil servants would no longer be able to sit in government and the structure of electoral constituencies would change. Prem was unable to have Parliament adopt an amendment to make the transitory clauses permanent, so he called an election for April 18. He patched together a three-party cabinet with the Democrats and Social Action Party.

In 1985, Prem faced another coup attempt, plotted by the same who had been behind the 1981 coup. It lasted ten hours before it was crushed. Prem also reined in the outspoken Arthit, openly lobbying through the parties for an extension of his term to 1987. The government announced Arthit would be retired on schedule, in September 1986, and in May 1986, the government dismissed Arthit from his military post, a first. General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a Prem loyalist, became commander-in-chief of the army.

General elections held in 1988 saw the Thai Nation Party, led by retired military officer Chatichai Choonhavan, win the most seats – 87 to the Social Action Party’s 54 and the Democrats’ 48. Prem retired and Chatichai Choonhavan became Prime Minister. It seemed as if Thailand was moving back towards parliamentary politics, with the military – under Chavalit – being increasingly reticent towards direct intervention in the form of coups. However, in February 1991, Chatichai, accused of corruption, was toppled in a coup led by Generals Sunthorn Kongsompong and Suchinda Kraprayoon (the new commander-in-chief since 1990). They formed a National Peace Keeping Council, which drafted a 1991 constitution increasing the military’s powers.

The new junta appointed Anand Panyarachun, a respected businessman well regarded by the business community and the palace, as Prime Minister. Anand’s largely technocratic cabinet implemented economic reforms, aimed at restructuring the taxation system (introducing a VAT) and liberalizing the economy to allow for private investment, simplifying business creation and removing some barriers. However, Anand chose not to challenge the junta on any contentious, effectively turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.

An election in March 1992 was closely contested. The pro-junta Justice Party, led by Narong Wongwan (suspected by the US of being involved in drug trafficking) won 79 seats, followed by the Thai Nation Party (74) and Chavalit’s new populist party, the New Aspiration Party (72). The Democrats took 44, while the Palang Dharma Party, a Buddhist-influenced party led by retired General Chamlong Srimuang, a devout Buddhist and former governor of Bangkok (elected with Arthit’s support in 1985). The results allowed junta commander Suchinda to become Prime Minister.

Suchinda’s appointment as Prime Minister led to major protests on May 17-20, 1992. The government initially responded with force and violence was escalating. On May 20, the King met with Suchina and Chamlong, the protest leader, and demanded that they end their confrontation. The televised footage of the two politicians bowing to the monarch made a powerful impression, and Suchinda resigned on May 24.

Democracy was restored, and Thailand became a functional constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary regime once more. In general elections in September 1992, the Democrat Party, led by Chuan Leekpai, won 79 seats and narrowly defeated Chamlong’s Palang Dharma Party, which took 47 seats. Former Prime Minister Chatichai’s National Development Party, which rallied various politicians from old outfits including Chatichai’s former Thai Nation Party, the junta’s old Justice Party, won 60 seats. The Thai Nation Party, now led by the pro-junta and pro-May crackdown Banharn Silpa-archa, won 77 seats and the New Aspiration Party won 51. Chuan Leekpai formed a government with the Palang Dharma and one small party, leading a fairly competent administration until 1995, when he fell on a corruption scandal.

This led to new elections in July 1995. Banharn’s Thai Nation Party won 92 seats against 86 for Chuan’s Democrat Party. New Aspiration won 57, the National Development Party won 53 and Palang Dharma, divided over the participation in government and devoid of its founder (he handed the party over to a businessmen and political newcomer, Thaksin Shinawatra), took only 23. Banharn, a notoriously corrupt provincial strongman, became Prime Minister in a seven-party coalition including Thaksin as Deputy Prime Minister. However, Thaksin pulled the party out of the coalition in August 1996, leading to early elections in September 1996. Chavalit’s New Aspiration Party won 125 seats, two more than Chuan’s Democrat Party. Banharn’s party lost 53 seats, winning only 39, while the Palang Dharma Party collapsed entirely, winning only one seat.

Chavalit became Prime Minister in a coalition with the Thai Nation Party and four smaller parties. Chavalit would soon face the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which began in Thailand. Since 1985, the Thai economy had been growing rapidly, at an average rate of 9% per year and inflation was kept low, but Thailand contracted a huge foreign debt and an economic bubble grew. In May 1997, the Thai baht was hit by speculative attacks, but Chavalit and the central bank insisted on protecting the bank by spending billions of the country’s international reserves to do so. In July, Chavalit finally allowed the baht (hitherto pegged to the US dollar) to float. The decision triggered the Asian financial crisis, and Chavalit resigned in November 1997.

Chaun Leekpai returned as Prime Minister, heading a difficult seven-party coalition. Chuan brought in IMF-prescribed austerity measures, which led critics to charge that the Democrats protected financial institutions and foreign investors. A new, democratic constitution was approved in 1997.

The January 2001 was one of Thailand’s most significant elections. Chuan’s Democrat Party faced telecommunications magnate Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, TRT). The TRT had been founded in 1998, built on a populist platform appealing to indebted farmers and rural communities. In the 2001 election, the TRT criticized Chuan’s government for its economic policies, and it campaigned against old politics, corruption, organized crime, and drugs. Thaksin’s TRT won 41% of the votes and 248 seats.

The roots of the current crisis: Thaksin and the 2006 coup

Thaksin has become the polarizing figure at the heart of Thai politics since 2001. He has masses of passionate supporters, but almost equally as large crowds of bitter opponents. Economically, Thakin’s government implemented social policies which have been successful at reducing poverty and income inequalities, particularly in Thaksin’s political base in northeastern Thailand (Isan), the country’s poorest region. His economic policies, branded ‘Thaksinomics’ had nothing especially radical to them and could very well be seen as Keynesian economic stimulus polices. They included, among others, village-financed microcredit development funds, low-interest agricultural loans, direct injections of cash into development funds and the One Tambon One Product local entrepreneurship program. Thaksin also created a proto-universal healthcare system, providing access to public hospitals for the cheap fee of 30 baht (less than US$1) per visit. Considering his policies as left-wing, however, would be quite misleading. At the same time, Thaksin continued Chuan’s privatization agenda, actively supported new free trade agreements and restructured government departments using characteristically ‘conservative’ language about ‘efficiency’, ‘results’ and ‘red tape’. Bangkok also backed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, although it withdrew its troops in 2004 after two soldiers died.

Thaksin’s policies were very popular with poor voters in rural Isan, but the middle-classes and elites in Bangkok and southern Thailand strongly disliked Thaksin, decrying him as a corrupt, demagogic and authoritarian populist. The 2005 election signaled something which has not changed since: in a head-to-head election, Thaksin’s supporters have a clear numerical advantage over the opposition. The TRT was reelected in an historic landslide, with about 56% of the vote and 375 seats to the Democrat Party’s paltry 16% and 96 seats. The TRT won all but 10 seats in Isan, all but 6 seats in the north and even took 32 of the 37 seats in Bangkok. Only southern Thailand, the old Democrat stronghold, resisted: the Democrats won 52 of the 54 seats.

Thaksin faced serious accusations of corruption before, during and after his term in office. In office, some of his infrastructure and economic policies were criticized for benefiting his family’s companies. In January 2006, the sale of his family’s share in Shin Corporation (a leading telecom company) to an investment firm owned by the Singapore government raised controversy, because Thaksin and his wife’s families gained about $1.88 billion in the transaction and did not have to pay capital gains tax following Thai law.

After the January 2005 election, a conflict with Sondi Limthongkul, a media mogul who had formerly backed Thaskin, escalated. The roots the split between the two means appears to be Thaksin’s decision to fire the president of a state-owned bank who had forgiven Sondhi’s debts. Sondhi broke with Thaksin and became a fiery opponent of the government, claiming that Thaksin was limiting freedom of the press. While it is true that Thaksin’s business dealings were suspect to say the least, that he had innumerable conflicts of interest (a la Berlusconi) and that he was showing signs of authoritarianism, a lot of Sondhi’s other claims were silly (see below).

Sondhi organized the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), along with Thaksin’s early political colleague Chamlong Srimuang. The PAD, or yellow shirts, were mostly drawn from Bangkok’s upper and middle class elites, but also attracted civil servants opposed to privatization, civil society activists, hardline monarchists and some factions of the military. The PAD seized on deep-seated reverence for the monarchy and the monarch himself, accusing – often on flimsy or absurd grounds – Thaksin of disrespecting the king, overstepping his powers as Prime Minister and trampling on religion and the monarchy. For example, in 2005, Sondhi accused Thaksin of usurping royal powers by presiding over a religious ceremony at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and in 2006 he accused Thaksin of masterminding the vandalism of the Phra Phrom Erawan Shrine. In March 2006, Sondhi alleged that Thaksin, along with 1970s student leaders and former members of the banned Communist Party, had been plotting (in Finland, of all places) to overthrow the monarchy and establish a communist state. These wild theories – the so-called Finland Plot – were unfounded and probably invented, but they played into the yellows’ claims that Thaksin had insulted the monarchy and was trampling on the monarchy. Some members of the King’s Privy Council expressed their disapproval of Sondhi and the PAD using the monarchy and the King to further their own political aims, but that didn’t stop the yellows from using slogans such as ‘fight for the King’ or ‘return power to the King’.

In early 2006, yellow protests were matched by large pro-Thaksin (red) rallies. Thaksin, in a bid to defuse the situation or divert attention, called a snap election for April 2006, which he was fairly certain to win. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, along with Banharn’s Thai Nation Party and another small party, boycotted the election. Thaksin’s TRT won 61% of the vote and 460 seats, but 38% of voters used the ‘abstain’ option on ballots to reject the TRT. The ‘abstain’ option swept Bangkok and southern Thailand, leaving the TRT short of the 20% support requirement in 40 unopposed constituencies in those regions. The PAD and the Democrat Party petitioned to have the results declared invalid because of a change in the design of polling stations (voters now had their backs to the public, rather than facing the public, in the booths). The election did nothing to calm the situation, which only worsened. Thaksin proposed a reconciliation commission and said he would step down as Prime Minister when the Parliament reconvened, but the opposition would have none of it. In May 2006, the Constitutional Court declared the April election invalid and ordered a new election for October 15.

In the background, the military began plotting a coup in the summer. On September 19, while Thaksin was at the UN in New York, the military overthrew the government and arrested senior cabinet ministers. General Sonthi Boonyaratglin took power, established a junta – the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), suspended the constitution and dissolved the Parliament, cabinet and Constitutional Court. The CDR accused Thaksin of corruption, nepotism, dividing society, interfering in independent agencies and insulting the King. The CDR reiterated several times that it sought to restore democracy within a year. The coup and junta had the support of former Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda, who was now the President of the Privy Council.

In October 2006, the junta promulgated an interim constitution which centralized power in a powerful executive branch headed by a Prime Minister appointed by the junta and the junta itself. The legislature would be made up entirely of junta appointees, and a committee would draft a permanent constitution. Retired General Surayud Chulanont, who led the governmnent crackdown on protesters in May 1992, was named Prime Minister. The new government kept some of Thaksin’s popular policies – the 30 baht universal health care program was made completely free – but some other programs and policies were cancelled, including rice subsidies, the One Laptop Per Child program, the telecom excise tax and an asset capitalization program. The government was unable to stem an economic slowdown and its economic record was poor with deficits and capital controls to reverse an appreciation of the baht. The military-backed government continued to impose strict censorship of the media and internet and arrested dissidents and junta opponents. The Council for National Security, the successor of the initial junta (CDR) retained significant power and influence, although there were rumours of strained ties between Surayud and the CNS in 2007.

Meanwhile, Thaksin was now in exile, first settling in London. In December 2006, his diplomatic passport was revoked and a junta-appointed committee later froze his assets. In January 2007, Thaksin and later his wife were charged in a corruption case. In May 2007, the Constitutional Tribunal banned the TRT party (and two smaller parties) for ‘conspiring to gain administrative power by illegal means’.

A committee directly and indirectly appointed by the CNS drafted a constitution. Under the new constitution, the legislature remained bicameral, with the directly-elected lower house (House of Representatives) being made up (initially) of 480 members, 400 of which were elected in constituencies (originally multi-member) and the remainder by party-list proportional representation (parallel system). The Senate, non-partisan but entirely directly-elected for the first time under the 1997 constitution, retained 76 directly-elected but non-partisan seats while the other 74 were to be appointed by a committee. The Prime Minister may serve no more than two consecutive terms. The new constitution also made it easier for the Prime Minister and ministers to be removed from office by the House.

The constitution was criticized on a number of fronts: the fairly extensive powers granted to the King, an article granting amnesty to the leaders of the 2006 coup, excessive powers granted to bureaucrats and technocrats leading to fears of a ‘bureaucratic state’. The Thaksinites opposed the constitution, but the Democrat Party’s Abhisit Vejjajiva considered it an improvement on the 1997 constitution and supported it. For the first time, the constitution was to be approved by the electorate in a referendum. However, the junta banned parties from campaigning in favour or against the draft and made criticism of the draft a criminal act – but at the same time, the CNS and the military heavily campaigned in favour of the draft. Under those constitutions, the draft was approved with 57.8% on a turnout of 42.2%. The constitution received over 90% support in six provinces in southern Thailand, but it was rejected by 24 provinces in the north and northeast of the country – the Thaksin bastions.

Thaksinism without Thaksin and the unending cycle

New elections were held in December 2007. The dissolved TRT was reincarnated as the People’s Power Party (Phak Palang Prachachon, PPP), led by seasoned politician and political chameleon Samak Sundaravej, who had presided over the October 1976 massacre. The PPP and Abhisit’s Democrats tied in the proportional vote, but the PPP won 199 FPTP seats to the Democrat Party’s 132, for an overall total of 233 and 165 respectively. Banharn’s Thai Nation Party won 37 seats and a new party, Pheua Phaendin, formed by TRT defectors, won 24. Samak’s PPP formed a coalition government with the Thai Nation Party, Pheua Phaendin and three smaller parties (the Neutral Democratic Party, the Pracharaj Party and the Chart Pattana Party) – venal parties which sold themselves to the highest bidder. Samak became Prime Minister, beginning the process of ‘Thaksinism without Thaksin’.

Samak was seen by the anti-Thaksin as a proxy for Thaksin. The deposed Prime Minister returned to Thailand in February 2008, although charges against him were not dropped and Thaksin later returned to Britain in August 2008. The new political dispensation led to the recreation of the PAD (yellow shirts), still led by Sondhi. The PAD said their concerns were prompted by the government’s moves to amend the 2007 constitution (notably to remove an article necessitating the dissolution of a political party if one of their leaders was convicted for vote buying; the PAD and anti-Thaksinites in general claim that Thaksin won through vote buying) and the government dismissing members of the judiciary and law enforcement investigating Thaksin. The PAD organized major rallies and protests in Bangkok, paralyzing the city; they laid siege to Government House and in late November, PAD protesters seized and occupied Suvarnabhumi International Airport for about a week.

Samak’s government faced other challenges besides the PAD. In July, the Constitutional Court ruled that the foreign minister and the cabinet as a whole had violated the constitution by failing to ask for parliamentary approval for an agreement with Cambodia, in which the foreign minister agreed to support Cambodia’s bid to seek World Heritage status for the Preah Vihear temple. The site of the temple has been the subject of a long-running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which has come to further poison political debate in Thailand as the yellows used nationalist and anti-Cambodian rhetoric to drum up opposition to Thaksin. The PAD considered that the government was violating Thai territorial sovereignty, and tensions began to flare between Thailand and Cambodia. As the PAD called on Samak to resign, the situation deteriorated further as the PAD stepped up its protests.

Pro-Thaksin protesters began organizing themselves as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or ‘red shirts’. The UDD was made up of pro-Thaksin activists, often drawn from Thaksin’s strongholds in Isan, which heavily criticized the ‘elites’ and the ‘aristocratic’ political system. One target of UDD ire was Prem Tinsulanonda, the President of the Privy Council, who they claimed was the mastermind of the 2006 coup. The UDD’s attacks on Prem and the political elites led to their opponents, the PAD, branding them as anti-monarchist and republican – an extremely serious accusation in Thailand.

As the UDD began clashing with the PAD, Samak declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on September 2 2008. On September 9, the Constitutional Court found that Samak had hosted two cooking shows on TV while he was Prime Minister (it is illegal to be under employment of another person under the constitution) and therefore terminated his premiership. The PPP vowed to renominate Samak, but ultimately they successfully nominated Somchai Wongsawat – Thaksin’s brother-in-law – as Prime Minister. The PAD continued its protests: the sit-in and siege of Government House continued and in October, the PAD laid siege to Parliament, led to violent clashes with police.

In December 2008, the Constitutional Court order the dissolution of the PPP, the Thai Nation Party and the Neutral Democratic Party on vote buying charges. Under the law, non-executive MPs of the parties could remain in Parliament by switching parties within a limited amount of time, but executive MPs were disqualified and lost their political rights. The PPP decried a judicial coup, and began reorganizing as the Pheu Thai Party (PT). While the PT tried to reorganize a coalition around itself and the PPP’s five ex-partners; within days, the Democrats won the backing the five ex-PPP partners and a PPP splinter around corrupt provincial boss Newin Chidchob (who founded the Bhumjaithai Party, BJT). General Anupong Paochinda, the Commander in Chief of the Army, allegedly coerced Newin’s MPs into backing Abhisit.

Abhisit, a young, polished Oxford-educated politician with an elitist reputation, became Prime Minister. Abhisit had opposed the 2006 coup but cautiously supported the 2007 constitution, and as opposition leader he had personally opposed the PAD’s tactics but many Democrat MPs supported the PAD’s aims and tactics very openly. The PAD, although lacking formal ties to the Democrat Party, cried victory; but just as they did, the UDD organized against Abhisit in March 2009, after Thaksin claimed via video broadcast that Prem was behind the 2006 coup and that Privy Council members, including former junta-appointed Prime Minister Surayud had conspired to make Abhisit PM. The UDD called for a revolution to overthrow the amatayathipatai (government by elites, bureaucrats and nobles), again using language which made them appear very much anti-monarchist in the eyes of the yellows. The UDD protests grew in size and intensity in April 2009. There were violent protests at an ASEAN summit in Pattaya, at the interior ministry in Bangkok and the capital’s main arteries. Abhisit briefly declared a state of emergency; UDD rioters and law enforcement both used violence, resulting in over 100 injuries and a handful of deaths on the UDD side. By the end of April 2009, the UDD wave of protests had died off.

Abhisit’s government also had to tackle the economic crisis, which put Thailand in recession (-2.3%) in 2009, although by the fourth quarter of 2009, Thailand was recording solid growth and the economy expanded by 7.8% in 2010. Abhisit’s economic policies, certainly in a bid to build popular support and cut into Thaksin’s base, consisted of generous public spending and social spending schemes. Bangkok faced trouble with Cambodia, after Abhisit appointed a fiery anti-Cambodian ex-PAD leader as foreign minister. Large-scale fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops in April 2009, with intermittent clashes in 2011, led to about 20 deaths on both sides. In November 2009, Thailand withdrew its ambassador from Cambodia (which retaliated by doing likewise with its ambassador in Bangkok) after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed Thaksin, now living in Dubai, as a special adviser to his government. The crisis was not resolved until August 2010, when Thaksin resigned his Cambodian gig. In the meantime, in February, the Thai Supreme Court ordered the seizure of part of his assets (46 billion bahts) and the other 30 billion baht remained frozen.

The UDD protests began anew in March 2010, shortly after the Supreme Court’s verdict in Thaksin’s asset seizure case. Protests on March 14 were said to be the largest in Thai history, with another large – and peaceful – march on March 20. Imitating their PAD rivals, the reds occupied intersections, commercial districts and political institutions in Bangkok. On April 10, however, the military opened fire on UDD protesters, killing 24 people. As in the past, the situation remained extremely polarized with intransigent actors on both sides, which hated one another – the UDD demanded new elections and Abhisit’s resignations, while Abhisit and his fiery Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban refused to resign and considered the protesters to be ‘terrorists’ or pawns ‘bought’ by Thaksin’s camarilla. Abhisit, however, did relieve Suthep of his ‘security’ responsibilities and replaced him with army commander General Anupong.

UDD demonstrations, radicalized, continued throughout April but were met by pro-government protests (or neutral protests by those tired of the UDD’s disruption of the city). Uncontrollable elements in the UDD set off bombs and grenades, while the military threatened to use force to dislodge the UDD. On May 14, the army moved in to surround the UDD’s main camp in Bangkok, beginning a bloody crackdown which ended with about 85 deaths by May 22. The military’s bloody crackdown effectively killed the UDD protests, although smaller protests emerged in 2010 and 2011 (with PAD counter-protests in 2011).

Abhisit finally called an election for July 2011. Under new electoral laws introduced by the Abhisit government, increasing the number of seats in the House to 500 – with 375 elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies and 125 elected by party-list PR – changes designed to favour the Democrats, who had narrowly won the list vote in 2007 but lost the constituency vote heavily to Thaksin’s party. The Thaksinite party, Pheu Thai (For Thais, PT), was led by a young political novice with a famous last name – Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister and a businesswoman. Although Yingluck was an inexperienced political outsider, she proved a much stronger campaigner than Abhisit. Despite Abhisit’s populist and interventionist economic policies – which dismayed the more radical, elitist and anti-democratic elements in the PAD – he was still associated with the elite and was hurt by his own elitist image. In contrast, Yingluck – backed by her brother and a good team of advisers and consultants, played on her good looks, charisma and smooth talk. She remained positive and consensual, preaching reconciliation and amnesty (ostensibly for both sides) and promising goodies such as free tablet PCs for school students and raising the minimum wage to 300 baht/day. Abhisit’s Democrats tried, without any luck, to use negative scare tactics against the PT, saying that a PT victory would mean ‘mob rule’.

The current crisis

Party winning the most direct seats by province, 2011 (own map)

Yingluck’s PT won a landslide victory, larger than the PPP’s victory in 2007. On the list vote, which was tied up in 2007, the PT won 48.4% against 35.2% for the Democrats, leaving only crumbs for the small parties. In the direct seats, the PT won 204 seats to the Democrat Party’s 115 seats. Overall, the PT won an absolute majority on its own, with 265 out of 500 seats (53% of seats) against 159 for the Democrats (31.8% of seats). Newin’s BJT party won 34 seats – 29 of which were constituency seats, reflecting the party’s personalist nature. The Chartthaipattana (CTP), the successor to the dissolved Thai Nation (Chart Thai) party won 19 seats, 15 of which were constituency seats (mostly from Banharn’s province). Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, another populist outfit led by corrupt political chameleons, won took 7 seats; Chonburi Province’s political boss Sontaya Kunplome (a cabinet minister under Thaksin) won 7 seats (6 constituency seats, all from Chonburi); brothel king Chuwit Kamolvisit’s Rak Thailand outfit won 4 seats; 2006 coup leader General Sonthi’s Muslim-based Matubhum Party won 2 seats and three smaller parties won one seat each. Once again, the political map showed a clear polarization between the Thaksinite strongholds and the Democrats’ fiefdoms. The PT won no direct seats in southern Thailand, where almost every single seat when to the Democrats. In contrast, the PT swept the huge majority of seats in Isan and northern Thailand; the Democrats managed to win a number of provinces in the north (bordering Myanmar/Burma), an ethnically Karen region. The Democrats won the most seats in Bangkok, but the PT was dominant in Bangkok’s poorer suburbs, many of which have a large Isan migrant population.

Polarization continued under Yingluck, although there were no major anti-government protests by the yellows in 2011 or 2012. Yingluck has been praised by her supporters for her handling of the 2011 floods in Thailand and her management of the economy; her yellow rivals have derided her administration – for example, poking fun at Yingluck’s poor command of English (despite holding a Masters from Kentucky State University). They widely consider Yingluck to be her brother’s puppet, and they insist that Thaksin runs Thailand through video conferences from Dubai. Indeed, Yingluck’s government explored every avenue to allow her brother to return: in December 2011, he was allegedly granted a Thai passport (until then, he had been using Nicaraguan and Montenegrin passports). He has been said to exert power on her cabinet appointments and sent much ‘advice’ to ministers and MPs.

The Thai economy was badly hurt by the mass floods in 2011. 815 people died, hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged and the floods were said to have been the fourth costliest natural disaster with damages estimated at $45.7 billion. In 2011, the Thai economy grew by only 0.1%, badly hurting Thailand’s rice crops. Yingluck toured the flood areas and offered moral support, but government’s response has been criticized as tardy and ineffective.

One of Yingluck’s landmark economic policy was a subsidy for rice farmers, under which the government buys rice directly from farmers at twice the market price. As a result, the government began stockpiling unknown amounts of rice The populist measure was designed to help poor rice farmers in Isan and central Thailand – fiercely loyal constituencies for the PT; on the other hand, private rice exporters, who support the opposition, were hurt by the policy. Overall, Yingluck’s rice subsidies have been considered rather unsuccessful: the government’s theories and assumptions (that its policies would force up international rice prices) failed to play out and Thailand’s rivals – India and Vietnam – have overtaken it as top rice exporters. The policy costs Bangkok about $15 billion, and there have been concerns of corruption, mismanagement and rumours that criminals have illegally imported cheap grain from Cambodia and Myanmar in a bid to profit from the government’s largess. Yingluck has refused to back down from her landmark policy.

The economy grew by 6.5% in 2012 but growth slowed to 3.1% in 2013. Government debt levels, which stood at 37% in 2008 and 42% in 2011, have increased to 47% in 2013 and is projected to hit 53.5% in 2018.

Her promises of ‘national reconciliation’ quickly amounted to nothing. She formed a House committee on reconciliation, with a built-in PT majority although it was chaired by 2006 coupist general Sonthi. Sonthi’s committee proposed a blanket amnesty for all involved in violence since 2006 and to drop all charges against Thaksin. The latter proposal incensed the Democrat Party. The government often acted as it was going through all this with the intention of saving Thaksin, a behaviour which hurt the government’s standing and proved fruitless. Thaksin’s legal standing hasn’t changed since 2011: he still lives in exile, the Thai courts still want his head. The amnesty and reconciliation proposals have been at the heart of the current political crisis.

The opposition has fought tooth-and-nail against the government’s amnesty proposals. Abhisit insisted that Yingluck’s only interest was her brother. In May 2012, a first attempt to pass an amnesty bill aroused enormous hostility inside and outside of Parliament, even in PT ranks, and the government was compelled to back down. The army even had to step in to deny that it was considering a coup. In November 2012, around 10,000 protesters organized by the implacably anti-government Pitak Siam of retired General Boonlert Kaewprasit marched in Bangkok. A draft bill pushed forward by a PT MP and former UDD activist passed a first reading in August 2013 and a committee approved a revised bill in October. The new bill was a blanket amnesty for the period 2004-2013, including corruption charges against Thaksin and murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep. The bill was passed by the House on November 1.

The bill incensed both the opposition yellows and the pro-government reds. The opposition, led by the Democrat Party, decried the bill because it dropped charges against Thaksin. The reds said the bill led those behind the killings and military crackdown of 2010 off the hook. The bill also drops over 25,000 graft cases, many of them involving senior politicians. To appease the opposition and reds, Yingluck sent the bill to the Senate, which unanimously rejected it within days. Despite the Senate’s decision, growing protests in Bangkok – led by the yellows – did not die off. On November 20, the Constitutional Court rejected a proposed constitutional amendment which would have made the Senate entirely elected rather than partially appointed. The government was infuriated, claiming that the court had no jurisdiction and that it was acting in a politically motivated fashion. While the government let the issue slide, but protests swelled.

Former Deputy Prime Minister and senior Democrat politician Suthep Thaugsuban resigned to take the leadership of the protest movement, along with other Democrat MPs. By late November, thousands of protesters had taken to the streets. In Bangkok, protesters seized several ministries. The government invoked special security laws (as is usual in Thai protests) but authorities did not use force against protesters. The movement was organized around the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by Suthep. Protests began turning more violent in early December, with a few deaths and many injuries in clashes between PDRC protesters and police or between reds and yellows. Calm returned, briefly, to allow for the celebration of the ailing King’s birthday on December 5. But after that brief pause, protests returned.

On December 9, Yingluck dissolved the House and called for general elections on February 2, 2014. Yingluck’s called the opposition’s bluff, daring them to measure their strength against the PT in an election. The PT was certainly confident that it would win another majority in a new election – just like the Thaksinites have won every election since 2001, despite their opponents’ best efforts. Abhisit, Suthep and the Democrats announced on December 21 that they would boycott the election. Abhisit said that “Thai politics is at a failed stage” and that “people have lost their faith in the democratic system”.

The PDRC and the Democrats know that they would lose an election; instead, Suthep has called on Yingluck to resign for the formation of an unelected (likely technocratic or aristocratic) ‘people’s council’ to reform electoral laws and the constitution before elections can be held. Many of the yellow protesters feel that Thai democracy has failed, citing ‘vote buying’ by Thaksin’s ilk which has corrupted the system. There is little evidence, however, that any of the Thaksinite election victories were rigged or systematically ‘bought’. In many ways, the yellows seem unable to cope with the fact that they represent a perennial minority of public opinion and that the majority of the population continues to support Thaksin’s parties. If democracy has broken down, it is also the fault of the opposition and the Democrats, who have been unable to expand their base or challenge Thaksin’s policies in a way which recognizes the very real support he has in parts of Thailand. Suthep effectively wants the old elites – hostile to Thaksin and his poor supporters – to run the country.

The opposition protesters in Bangkok are, as in the past, drawn from the middle-classes, upper-classes, ultramonarchist circles or bused in from the Democrat strongholds of southern Thailand. They regard the reds as rabble bought off by Thaksin’s wealth. Many pro-yellow commentators or individuals often use disparaging language to refer to Thaksin’s supporters in Isan. Because the dialect they speak (Isan), is a spin-off of Lao written in Thai script, some comment that they should “go back to Laos”.

In boycotting the election, the opposition was widely seen by outsiders as begging for the military to take matters into their own hands, as in 2006. The government, for all its faults, seemed – on paper – willing to negotiate a delay of the election date (which remains scheduled, as of now, for February 2, but nobody knows what will happen between now and then), but Suthep showed no willingness to negotiate. He is hardly concealing the fact that he would prefer that the army does what it knows best and remove Yingluck’s government from office. On December 27, the army commander, General Prayuth Chan-ocha did not rule out the possibility of a coup. Alternatively, the Democrats have pressured the anti-corruption office into charging PT executives and MPs (over 300 of them), including Yingluck, for voting to make the Senate fully elected. If charged, they could be disqualified from political office.

Protests have continued in January 2014. They have largely remained peaceful, but hundreds have been injured in clashes with police. On January 13, the PDRC protesters stepped up their protests, promising to shutdown Bangkok. There have been small-scale, isolated bomb blasts at yellow rallies, without the police being able to catch the perpetrators. A few days ago, Yingluck’s government declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and its surroundings. The decree gives the government wide-ranging powers, going from a curfew (which will be difficult to implement) to censorship of the press.

It is up in the air whether there will be an election on February 2. The election commission wants to delay the election, but feels it lacks the power to do so. The state of emergency adds to the uncertainty and raises questions about the feasibility of organizing a poll under such circumstances. The opposition has prevent candidates from registering in 28 constituencies, meaning that even if there is an election, it will probably lack the quorum (475 members) to convene. For the time being, Thailand remains in legal limbo. Murmurs of a civil war (in the case of a coup, some reds have been talking of retreating to Isan and the north and fight the coup from there) or even the breakup of the country are likely exaggerated. The army has been surprisingly remote. It likely knows that a coup would only have minority support, and the long-term outcome of the 2006 coup (the election of a Thaksinite government in 2007) likely cools them off.

Thai politics remain hopelessly polarized, with little resolution in sight for the short term. The elections on February 2 will resolve nothing. Hopefully this post provided a thorough background to the current crisis and Thailand’s political history.

Election Preview: Italy 2013

Legislative elections will be held in Italy on February 24 and 25, 2013. All 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and 315 members of the Senate (Senato della Repubblica) are up for reelection. In addition, there will be regional elections (direct election of the regional president and the regional legislautre) in Lazio (Latium), Lombardy and Molise.

Italy’s Electoral System

The Italian electoral system is the dictionary definition of convoluted and absurd. The current election law for the Parliament was adopted in 2005, sponsored by then-interior minister Roberto Calderoli, the law’s namesake. It is commonly known as the porcata (a ‘shitload’, which is how Calderoli described his own law) or the legge porcellum (piglet law). The Italian electoral system is based on closed party-list proportional representation, but it is a significantly altered form of PR which automatically guarantees the winning electoral coalition an absolute majority in the lower house, though not in the Senate.

The Chamber of Deputies has 630 seats. 617 of these seats are elected in 26 multi-member constituencies in Italy proper – these constituencies correspond to the administrative regions, although six of Italy’s regions (Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Lazio, Campania, and Sicily) have two or more (Lombardy has three) constituencies. 12 additional seats are elected by Italians living abroad in four international constituencies, and one member represents the autonomous region of the Aosta Valley. For the 617 seats, voters vote for closed party lists. These parties are allowed to form formal electoral coalitions with other parties whereby they still run separately but their votes will be counted together (for certain purposes). To be recognized as such, however, a coalition must win over 10% of the vote together; if a coalition does not win over 10% its constituent parties are treated as unaffiliated separate parties. Individual parties must win over 4% of the vote to qualify for seats; however, parties representing “linguistic minorities” (read: German-speakers in South Tyrol/Südtirol; the clause also applies in Friuli-Venezia Giulia) may win seat(s) if they win over 20% of the vote in one constituency.

The initial allocation of the 617 seats between qualified coalitions and parties is based on largest-remainder PR. However, the Italian electoral system for the Chamber has a big ‘majority bonus’ (similar to the one in Greece): if no coalition has won 340 seats (55%) on its own, the coalition is automatically awarded 340 seats – ensuring that it has a substantial absolute majority even on a weak mandate (say, 35% of the vote). From my understanding of the law, however, the majority bonus only applies to coalitions and not parties. If a party which is running individually were to out poll all coalitions on its own, it would not – as far as I know – receive the 340 seats bonus. The remaining 277 seats are apportioned to the other qualifying coalitions or individual parties with largest-remainder PR.

Within coalitions, the seats are allocated to the various component parties through the same method. Coalition parties must win at least 2% of the vote to qualify for seats – there is, however, an absurd twist: the largest coalition party below the 2% threshold also receives seats. The linguistic minority clause applies to coalition parties as well. The apportionment of seats between the 26 constituencies is weird and confusing, taking place later and sometimes resulting in a change in the number of seats in each constituency. These constituencies are also quite meaningless because candidates may run in more than one constituency. In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini topped their party’s lists in all constituencies.

The single deputy from the Aosta Valley is elected through FPTP. The 12 deputies representing Italian citizens abroad are elected through open-list PR in four multi-member constituencies (Europe with 6 seats, South America with 3 seats, Central and North America with 2 seats and the rest of the world with one seat).

The Senate has 315 directly-elected senators (there are a variable number of nominated senators-for-life), 309 of these seats are elected in Italy and 6 are elected abroad. The electoral system is basically the same as the one used for the lower house, with a few important modifications and some regional peculiarities. The major difference is that the allocation of seats and the majority bonus takes place at the regional, and not national, level. The majority bonus – all but three regions have a bonus accounting for roughly 55% of the seats – is allocated at the regional level, meaning that different coalitions will win the majority bonus in different regions. Therefore, unlike the Chamber where the winning coalition at the national level is ensured a comfortable majority, regardless of its margin of victory or popular vote total; in the Senate, there is no guarantee that a winning coalition will be able to gain an absolute majority – and if it does it will naturally be far more tenuous than its lower house majority.

The thresholds (applied at the regional level) for coalitions, component parties and individual parties are higher in the Senate. Coalitions must win 20% of the vote to qualify for seats, individual parties need 8% and parties within a coalition need 3%.

This system has regional peculiarities. While all regions are guaranteed a minimum of 7 seats, the small region of Molise elects only two senators and there is no majority bonus in the region. The region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol has seven seats, but six of these seats are elected in single-member constituencies with one final seat elected through compensatory PR. Like in the Chamber, the Aosta Valley’s single seat is elected by FPTP and the 6 members for Italians abroad are elected by open-list PR in four constituencies (Europe with 2 seats, South America with 2 seats, Central and North America and the rest of the world with 1 seat each).

This confusing electoral system has been the subject of controversy and political debate since the start. The focal point of much of the criticism is the majority bonus, and how it is applied differently in the two houses. In the Chamber, the huge majority bonus given the winning coalition tends to significantly overrepresent the winning coalition at the expense of the losing coalitions and parties. While in the two general elections fought under the law (2006 and 2008) the winning coalition won a large enough number of votes to prevent egregious distortions, at the local level (local elections are fought using a similar system) there have been many cases of lists winning huge majorities with a small number of votes. While the principle of regional representation in the Senate is a laudable idea in a relatively decentralized country like Italy, in practice the regional majority bonuses make the Senate a source of constant headaches for many government. The Italian parliamentary system is based on perfect bicameralism, where both houses have the same powers and the incumbent government requires the confidence of both houses to continue governing. The regional majority bonuses in a regionally polarized country such as Italy may, as in 2006, result in near-deadlock in the Senate – a major contributing factor to continued governmental instability and the difficulty of governing in Italy.

The electoral system also incites small parties – which would struggle to survive independently – to tie themselves to bigger coalitions in a bid to win seats in Parliament and have a chance to have leverage over the larger coalition. Especially in the Chamber, the law discriminates against small non-coalesced parties in favour of just as small (or even smaller) parties in coalition with larger parties.

There was, again, talk of changing the electoral law before the elections but it appears that it was another false alarm. This election will be fought under the 2005 law again, but as it becomes ever more unpopular – even with its former backers on the right – there is a chance that the law could be changed after the election.

The First Republic and its Demise (1946-1994)

There have been two clear eras in Italian politics since the country became a republic in 1946. The first era, widely known as the First Republic, lasted between 1946 and 1994. The second – and current (for now) – era, dubbed the Second Republic, began in 1994. There is little overlap between these two political eras; there was a major break between the two ‘republics’ in 1994. What makes this election particularly interesting, even more so than past elections, is that Italy might be standing at a turning point in its political history. There are some indications that we might be witnessing the end – or at the very least the beginning of the end – of the Second Republic and the rise of the ‘Third Republic’ in Italian politics.

The DC, Italy’s natural governing party between 1946 and 1994, presented itself as the ‘shield’ against communism

The First Republic is commonly associated with extreme governmental instability, marked by cabinets coming and going and a rapid succession of Prime Minister (Presidents of the Council of Ministers, or Presidente del Consiglio dei ministri). Indeed, most cabinets were short-lived, lasting on average only 11 months. However, this instability was more apparent than real – it was ‘stable instability’ if you will. Italian governments between 1946/1948 and 1994 were dominated by the Christian Democracy party (Democrazia Cristiana), a big-tent anti-communist and centrist party which participated in all governments between 1946 and 1994 and held the office of Prime Minister for most of this period. The DC’s major rival was the Italian Communist Party (PCI), one of the most powerful communist parties in Western Europe at the time though also one of the most moderate communist parties – the PCI broke with Moscow in the 1970s and shifted towards ‘Eurocommunism’. The PCI participated in the first governments after the war, but after being kicked out in 1947, it never participated in any other national governments. It retained a solid electoral base and was the major opposition to the DC-led cabinets, but it never stood a chance at forming a government on its own throughout this period.

The First Republic’s political system was dominated by political parties – the era is often called, derogatorily, a partitocrazia (particracy). The Prime Minister, in contrast to the theory of the Westminster system, was fairly ineffectual and could not act as a true executive himself. Instead, party leaders held considerable power. Political parties – especially the DC – were composed of various semi-official factions with their leaders, members, bases and sources of financing. The power struggles between warring partisan factions was the main reason for the apparent political instability: cabinets needed to be reshuffled regularly in accommodate various factions or other allied parties, on the basis of events which had indicated the power of one faction/party over another.

Italy has always been a multi-party system, and the First Republic’s closed-list PR system with a low threshold allowed for the proliferation of various parties. Besides the DC and the PCI, the other major force of Italian politics throughout this era was the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), which hovered between 9% and 14% during the First Republic. The PSI originally maintained close ties with the PCI; the two parties ran a common slate in the decisive 1948 election. However, the PSI broke with the PCI – the dominant force of the left after 1948 – over the Hungarian invasion in 1956 and by 1963 the PSI responded to the DC’s overtures and started participating in centre-left coalition governments with the DC and other parties. In the 1970s, under Bettino Craxi – who served as Prime Minister between 1983 and 1987 – the party moved further to the right and became an integral part of the political ‘system’ and establishment.

Three other parties were the mainstays of most DC governments during the First Republic: the Italian Liberal Party (PLI), the Italian Republican Party (PRI) and the Italian Democratic Socialist Party (PSDI). The PLI was a carryover from the inter-war era, when the party had represented the old right-wing (what would pass as conservative in the rest of Europe was known as ‘liberal’ in Italy after unification because of the circumstances of how unification came about) tradition. After the war, the PLI was displaced as the main right-wing force by the DC and managed to salvage support only in Southern Italy, where old Liberal oligarchic networks had been left relatively unscathed by the war. The party shifted to the right in the 1950s and 1960s before moving towards the centre in the 1970s, becoming a vaguely centre-right party which was an integral part of most DC-led governments.

The PRI predated the republic as well, having been the political avatar of the old democratic/republican movement under the monarchy (what would have been styled liberal in other European countries at the time). Its raison-d’être having been republicanism, the PRI’s influence declined somewhat until it regained support in the 1980s. It became a vaguely liberal centre-left party, and an integral part of almost all DC-led cabinets after the 1960s.

The Italian Democratic Socialist Party (PSDI) was founded in 1947 by the anti-communist wing of the PSI, led by Giuseppe Saragat, which opposed the PSI’s alliance with the PCI in the 1948 election (the two parties ran a common slate, the Popular Democratic Front, which was heavily dominated by the PCI). After winning 7% in 1948, the PSDI’s support stabilized at 3-4% until the late 1980s. Professing to be a modern social democratic party, the PSDI quickly became a venal party largely devoid of ideology and operating as a consistent junior partner in almost all DC-led cabinets after 1948.

Excluding smaller parties which won seats during this time period, the only two opposition parties throughout the era were the PCI and the Italian Social Movement (MSI). The MSI, a neo-fascist party, was formed in 1946 by fascist veterans and supporters of the former regime. As a political party which participated in elections, the MSI was forced to adapt itself to the constraints of the democratic environment and tended to downplay old-style fascist rhetoric. The party was divided between a northern-based radical and ideological neo-fascist wing and a southern-based authoritarian conservative wing which was less dogmatic and radical than the neo-fascist faction and tried to integrate the MSI into the mainstream right. The party oscillated between 5 and 6% support for most of its history, though it won up to 9% of the vote (in 1972). Most of its support came from southern Italy, where the fascist regime’s oligarchic conservative networks had been left unscathed by the war (the south had not suffered a bloody civil war after 1943).

The ‘stable instability’ of the First Republic created a corrupt and fossilized political system in which a few political parties and their powerful leaders entrenched themselves in power and shared the spoils of power amongst themselves. This system extended beyond cabinets and the civil service, state-owned conglomerates were controlled by prominent politicians or their friends. The different governing parties came to carve up their own personal preserves in government, claiming various ministries for themselves and awarding them to loyal – though often incompetent – party stalwarts. The politicians who partook in this system of entrenched corruption often became particularly rich. Political parties and their leaders were funded through bribes from contractors and entrepreneurs. In southern Italy, most governing parties were tied to the mafia.

Italy enjoyed a period of relatively strong economic growth between the 1960s and the late 1980s, despite a few troughs and unemployment problems. However, the Italian economy was undermined by the devaluation of the Italian lira and the issuing of excessive amounts of high-interest treasury bonds, which led to a ballooning deficit and public debt in the 1980s. By the late 1980s, economic growth slowed to a halt. Bettino Craxi (PSI Prime Minister between 1983 and 1987) was able to reduce the high inflation rate by eliminating a system by which wages had been automatically tied to inflation, but his government’s high spending policies (including very generous pensions for civil servants and tons of dirty public works projects) led to a worsening debt and deficit problem. By 1994, Italy’s public debt stood at 121% of the GDP.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 had a major effect on Italian politics, which had been marked by a Cold War confrontation of communists and non-communists since its foundation in 1946. For example, in the watershed 1948 election both major parties (the DC on the right and the PCI-PSI coalition on the left) were proxies for foreign powers – the DC was bankrolled by the CIA, the PCI was funded by Moscow. Even if the PCI under Enrico Berlinguer had broken with Moscow and tried to integrate the system (the ‘historical compromise’), the right continue to play up the ‘red threat’ and anti-communism remained a powerful force on the right. The PCI, at the forefront of the evolution of the European communist left once again, split up in 1991. The party’s leader, Achille Occhetto, founded the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) as a post-communist democratic socialist party. The hardline minority which disagreed with the PCI’s dissolution formed the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC). The fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the PCI reduced, for a time, the clear left-right polarization in Italian politics.

The First Republic political system collapsed between 1992 and 1994. The intricate web of corruption, graft and bribery at the highest levels of power – a system nicknamed tangentopoli (bribesville) – was revealed by the Mani pulite investigations (clean hands) which began in February 1992. Initially involving only a PSI stalwart quickly denounced by his nervous party superiors as a rogue element, the investigation eventually uncovered the entire system and caused the political system and the governing parties to collapse. Opposition parties like the PCI were not left untouched, but most of the investigation concerned the governing parties – particularly the DC, PSI, PLI and PSDI.

The explosive revelations of prominent politicians filling their pockets with taxpayers’ money and living on the public dime led to the collapse of the First Republic and the emergence of new political forces. The beginning of the end was apparent by the 1992 elections, in which the governing parties – particularly the DC – did rather poorly. While the PSI, PSDI, PLI and PRI managed to perform well, the DC fell to a record low 30% of the vote. 1992 saw the emergence of the Lega Nord, a northern-based regionalist party which exploited disgust with endemic corruption and the north’s (primarily fiscal) grievances with the central government and southern Italy. The new populist party won 9% of the vote and took votes away from all traditional parties in the north. However, by the time of the 1992 election, only the tip of the iceberg had been in sight. In 1992 and 1993, the investigations uncovered the rest of the iceberg. In 1993, the PSI Prime Minister Giuliano Amato’s government (a DC-PSI-PLI-PSDI coalition) was forced to resign and replaced with a technocratic government led by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, whose cabinet also received the support of the left (PDS and Greens). The traditional parties, which had formed the backbone of an exceptionally solid and stable (despite apparent instability) political system since 1948, all collapsed overnight. The DC dissolved in 1994 and split between its left-wing and right-wing factions. The PSI’s leader, Bettino Craxi (a central figure in the corrupt system) had resigned in 1993 and the party collapsed in 1994. The PLI disbanded in 1994. The PSDI and the PRI kept going, but they become very small parties.

Silvio Berlusconi and the Second Republic (1994-2011)

The 1994 elections saw unprecedented political change and turnover. To begin with, the parties which had dominated the First Republic either disappeared or fundamentally transformed themselves. Above all, however, the 1994 election saw the dramatic emergence of a new political actor and movement on the right which went on to define contemporary Italian politics. Worried by the prospect of a left-wing victory in the 1994 election, wealthy Milanese businessman Silvio Berlusconi – the owner of Fininvest, a financial holding company which controls a football club and a TV station among others – “entered the field” and created his own party, Forza Italia – a populist right-wing party which sought to appeal to disoriented anti-communist/right-wing voters left homeless by the collapse of the pentepartito coalitions. Running a shrewd, well-oiled and classically populist campaign, Berlusconi won the 1994 elections. His party, FI, had formed two coalitions in the run-up to the elections – with two separate parties who disliked one another. In the north, he allied with Umberto Bossi’s federalist/separatist Lega Nord (LN). In the south, he allied himself with Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance (AN). Fini, who became leader of the MSI in 1987, had actively tried to transform the neo-fascist party’s image by dropping its original fascist ideology and becoming a nationalist and conservative party instead. FI won the most votes of any party (21%) and the two right-wing coalitions won 366 seats in the Chamber against 213 seats for the left (an alliance of the PDS, PRC, Greens and other parties including a moribund PSI which won 2%).

Silvio Berlusconi, il cavaliere (source: The Guardian)

Berlusconi formed a coalition government including FI, LN, AN and two right-wing ex-DC parties. This new coalition, however, proved unable to overcome its internal contradictions. Bossi’s Lega Nord advocated a very federalist and decentralist agenda, which clashed with Fini’s AN, which had not yet broken all bridges with neo-fascism and was a centralist and Italian nationalist party. The Lega, alleging that Berlusconi had broken his promises, left the government and the cabinet collapsed in January 1995. He was replaced by Lamberto Dini, a technocrat whose government received the support of the left and the Lega.

A centre-left coalition, L’Ulivo (The Olive Tree), composed of the PDS, the Italian People’s Party (PPI, the left-wing of the old DC), a party led by Dini and smaller parties won the 1996 elections. The centre-left, led by Romano Prodi, a former left-wing Christian democrat, won 285 seats in the Chamber, against 246 seats for Berlusconi’s FI-AN coalition. The Lega Nord’s decision to run separately doomed the right; on its own, the Lega won a record high 11% and 59 seats. The PRC, which had pledged to back a centre-left cabinet, won 35 seats.

Romano Prodi became Prime Minister, serving until the PRC withdrew its support in late 1998. Massimo D’Alema, a former Communist who some claimed engineered the collapse of Prodi’s government, replaced him as Prime Minister and served until 2000. Giuliano Amato returned to office and served a bit over a year until June 2001.

The three successive left-wing governments, especially Prodi’s government, continued Lamberto Dini’s economic policies aimed at restoring the sick country’s economic health to allow Italy to meet the strict parameters of the European Monetary System and eventually join the Euro. Italy’s economic situation in 1994 – a huge public debt, a very large government deficit (over 7% of the GDP) and over 11% unemployment – was catastrophic and most believed that the country would never meet Europe’s strict parameters. However, the government’s policies were quite successful. Italy quickly met the conditions required: its debt fell to 108% of GDP in 2001 and it came close to budgetary balance in 2000 (the deficit was only 0.8% of GDP in 2000). However, the right was able to retain momentum by focusing on the country’s high tax burden. Berlusconi promised tax cuts and a simplification of the tax brackets.

Berlusconi returned to power in 2001. Having patched up with the Lega, Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition (House of Freedoms) won 368 seats in the Chamber against 247 for the centre-left L’Ulivo, led by Rome mayor Francesco Rutelli. Berlusconi had signed a 5-point ‘contract’ which pledged to reduce the tax burden, reduce criminality, raise the minimum pension, reduce unemployment by 50% and make significant investments in public works. Unlike in 1994, Berlusconi was able to create a solid majority cabinet which lasted for the duration of the parliament’s 5-year term (a rarity in Italian politics). A more astute politician, he was able to keep the lid on internal tensions between his federalist, nationalist and centrist allies.

However, Berlusconi’s government eventually became rather unpopular. The country’s economy performed poorly during his term, with sluggish economic growth and a larger deficit than under the previous government. He was unable to deliver on most of his key promises, particularly tax cuts. He did manage to pass a pensions reform, a labour market reform, a judicial reform and an unsuccessful constitutional reform (rejected by voters in 2006). The weak economy and the widespread perception that he had not delivered on most (if any) of his 5 landmark promises hurt Berlusconi and his government. The left was victorious in the 2004 European and 2005 regional elections; all trends seemed to indicate that Romano Prodi, the top candidate of a broad left-wing coalition including the PRC, would win a comfortable majority in the 2006 elections.

Prodi and the left did win a majority in the 2006 elections, but Berlusconi made a remarkable comeback and ended up losing the election by a hair. The left won a strong majority in the Chamber thanks to the new electoral law, but it held a tiny 2-seat majority in the Senate – something which considering the very heterogeneous nature of Prodi’s coalition came back to haunt him shortly down the road. Prodi’s government led a reformist agenda, but it was constantly dogged and weakened by constant infighting between the plethora of parties which made up his big-tent coalition (from the far-left to centre-right). In 2007, the PRC almost brought down his government over foreign policy. In January 2008, a small right-wing ally of the government whose leader objected to same-sex civil unions and was being implicated in a corruption scandal pulled the plug on the government. It lost the confidence in the Senate and was forced to call early elections.

Results of the 2008 general election (Chamber of Deputies), winning coalition by province

Results of the 2008 general election (Chamber of Deputies), winning coalition by province

Berlusconi, like the proverbial phoenix, returned in force in the 2008 snap elections. His coalition won 46.8% against 37.5% for Walter Veltroni’s centre-left coalition. The elections did see a further polarization of public opinion, as the ex-DC centre-right (running independently from Berlusconi) did poorly and the communist coalition was crushed and shut out of Parliament (the first Italian legislature without any communist members since 1921).

Berlusconi’s third term in office was marked by the slow collapse of his government and the country’s economy. Politically, troubles began when Gianfranco Fini, who had been one Berlusconi’s closest allies in the past, started turning against him. Fini increasingly took positions opposed to il cavaliere on issues such as justice or immigration. Following months of conflict, Fini was kicked out of Berlusconi’s party in July 2010 and created his own party, followed by about 30 deputies and 10 senators. By December 2010, having lost its majority in the Chamber, Berlusconi’s government was on the verge on the collapse and was expected to lose a no-confidence vote. Against all odds, however, Berlusconi’s government survived – the motion failed by 3 votes – it was later shown that Berlusconi had bribed opposition MPs to back him in the vote.

Berlusconi remained relatively popular throughout the first two years of his government. The right performed quite well in the 2009 European and 2010 regional elections. However, as the economic crisis deteriorated further and the Prime Minister became embroiled in an even larger number of corruption/lifestyle scandals in 2011, his government’s popularity slowly declined. The beginning of the end came in May 2011, when the Berlusconian right was defeated in a series of local elections (including in Milan, the cavaliere’s political base). Then in June 2011, ‘abrogative referendums’ which sought to repeal controversial laws including a partial immunity for the Prime Minister were succesful, breaking the 50% turnout threshold required to be valid (similar referendums often fail in Italy because turnout is under 50%).

Italy was hit particularly badly by the European debt crisis and continues to suffer the aftereffects of the initial crisis. Italy’s economic troubles date back to the 1980s, when the post-war ‘Italian economic miracle’ ended and the country entered a long spell of low growth, high unemployment, rising deficits and a huge public debt. One of Italy’s main economic ills is 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 (such as Germany) and productivity has declined.

The Euro debt crisis and Italy’s own economic crisis worsened in the final months of 2011. Berlusconi’s government had largely failed to tackle the crisis and, by November, Italy was said to be on the verge of default. Indeed, Berlusconi’s government since 2008 had seemingly been more preoccupied with il cavaliere‘s judicial travails than actually tackling the crisis; although his government did implement several (controversial) austerity measures between 2009 and 2011. By this point, investors, foreign markets and other European governments – particularly Berlin – felt that Berlusconi had lost all credibility and legitimacy. On November 8, an austerity plan was passed but a majority of deputies abstained (the bill passed with 308 votes, less than the absolute majority). It was clear that the government had finally lost its majority in the lower house, and Berlusconi officially resigned from office four days later.

Italy, by November 2011, was in crisis-mode as it teetered on the cliff. The country’s ceremonial President, Giorgio Napolitano, managed to get the main parties – including the left and right – to agree to a technocrat (or ‘technical’) government to be 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.

The results of Monti’s austerity policies have been a mixed bag. On the one hand, Monti definitely managed to save Italy from default and he took the first steps in righting the ship before it sank. His reformist policies have won him the plaudits of investors, foreign markets and his European partners (especially Angela Merkel). The deficit, which was never really catastrophic in Italy compared to other countries, was projected at 2.6% of the GDP in 2012 (5.4% in 2009). Italy’s public debt, however, remains high at 126% of GDP and is still growing. On the other hand, Monti’s austerity policies have prolonged the recession, the country’s economy shrank by 2.3% in 2012 and will shrink by 0.7% in 2013. Similarly, Monti’s reforms have led to a major increase in unemployment, from 8.4% in 2011 to around 11% today; youth unemployment is even higher at over 36%.

Monti’s government lost the support of Berlusconi’s party in December 2012, compelling Monti to announce his immediate resignation following the approval of the 2013 budget by Parliament. With the budget approved, the Parliament was dissolved and elections scheduled for February 24 and 25 2013.

Silvio Berlusconi has been the single most important figure of Italian politics since 1994. He has fundamentally transformed Italian politics and political culture, and it would not an overstatement to say that the Second Republic was structured around his personality and ideology. While Italian politics remain structured around a traditional left-right opposition, it often seems that the traditional left-right divide is secondary to the Berlusconi-not Berlusconi divide which played a key role in the 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2008 elections. Similarly, under Berlusconi, the Italian right has been transformed. The DC was a centre-right party and it appealed to conservative Catholic voters with its anti-communist and Christian democratic ideology. However, the DC – with some exceptions in the 1950s and 1960s – often preferred to govern from the centre-left in coalition with parties such as the PSI. Economically, the DC implemented fairly interventionist (statist) policies, including a generous welfare state.

However, the Berlusconian right has been significantly to the right of the old DC. Berlusconi rehabilitated and integrated Gianfranco Fini and his party, which most considered an unpalatable neo-fascist party in 1994. He developed, despite a few hitches over the years, a close alliance with Umberto Bossi’s populist and often controversial Lega Nord. Several prominent far-right figures, who were associated with neo-fascist or other far-right movements in the past, have played a major role within the Berlusconian right.

Politically, Berlusconi liked to view himself as the later Italian incarnation of the Reagan-Thatcher. His populist rhetoric and political style, based on a repudiation of the ‘elites’ and the ‘partitocrazia‘ of the First Republic, in addition to his virulent attacks on ‘left-liberal elites’ which he claimed dominated the judiciary (a haven of communists according to il cavaliere) and even the media, marked a sharp break from the centrist and consensual politics of the First Republic. Berlusconi’s rhetoric was close to that of the New Right of the 1980s – which sought to represent the ‘hardworkers’ over the professional political elites and ‘moochers’; which denounced government bureaucracy, wasteful spending, a heavy tax burden and endorsed a tough law-and-order approach to criminality and ‘family values’. This was, again, a departure from the post-war economic interventionism favoured by the DC and its allies. Most would see a fundamental contradiction between Berlusconi’s ostensible reformist neoliberalism and his own personal business interests which he often sought to protect and defend while in government. Berlusconi, however, never saw any conflict between his own personal business interests and that of the country as a whole.

Under Berlusconi, Italian politics have become very personalized and political parties have lost the power and influence they held under the First Republic. The electoral system has favoured this personalization of politics. Parties, not individuals or personalities, dominated under the First Republic. Since 1994, however, Italian politics have become very personalized. This personalization has become very apparent in all Italian elections since 1994/1996, where great emphasis has been placed on the various ‘candidates’ for Prime Minister on all sides of the aisle. Political parties have remained powerful, but they are no longer the powerful political machines they were during the First Republic – where parties had large memberships and maintained close links with organizations in civil society.

On the right, Berlusconi’s political parties have certainly been personal vehicles for his own political ambitions. On the left, opposition to Berlusconi has often been the glue which kept the warring factions and parties of heterogeneous left-wing coalitions since 1994 together. Politicians and parties who chose to stand outside this system, often trying to represent a centrist third-way, have been marginalized and all have failed to become credible alternatives.

2013: Coalitions, Parties, Contenders and Issues

Centre-right led by Silvio Berlusconi

The People of Freedom (Il Popolo della Libertà, PdL): The PdL, currently the largest party in both houses of Parliament, is the latest partisan incarnation of the Berlusconian right, centered and built around the charismatic and populist figure of Silvio Berlusconi.

Silvio Berlusconi is a billionaire businessman who made his fortune with Fininvest, a financial holding company which still controls a football club (AC Milan) and a powerful private media empire (Mediaset). A cloud of secrecy surrounds Berlusconi’s personal wealth and his business empire and his business and political career has been racked with controversy including numerous accusations of conflict of interest stemming from his failure to sell his personal share in his companies after entering politics in 1994. Over the years, Berlusconi has been accused and charged on numerous cases of corruption, bribery, tax fraud, mafia collusion, tax evasion and embezzlement. In October 2012, Berlusconi received his first conviction in a tax fraud involved Mediaset, he was sentenced to four years in jail; but he will ultimately never serve jail time thanks to an amnesty law and the statute of limitations. In all other cases, Berlusconi was either acquitted, saved by the statute of limitations or the trials archived.

Berlusconi is a controversial and colourful character. His extensive control over a large private media empire in Italy has been criticized by numerous analysts who claim that his control of a media empire has stifled freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Italy’s press freedom rankings are pretty atrocious for a western European nation – ranking 57th by Reporters Without Borders and classified as ‘partly free’ by Freedom House. He is also a colourful character with a well-known reputation for making gaffes or insensitive remarks: he compared German MEP Martin Schulz to a concentration camp guard, he complimented Barack Obama on his ‘tan’, said that it was better to ‘like girls than be gay’, made disparaging remarks about Finland and Finnish cuisine and famously annoyed Queen Elizabeth II by yelling at a G20 summit.

Berlusconi is a noted womanizer, something which has gotten him in trouble in recent years. Berlusconi has always made comments about his appreciation for ‘good-looking girls’ and he likes to have ‘good-looking girls’, even those without any political experience or talent, on his party’s electoral lists. However, since 2009 Berlusconi has been embroiled in a number of sex scandals. His second wife, Veronica Lario, filed for divorce in 2009 after he attended a girl’s 18th birthday party in Naples. In 2010, he was accused of having paid for sex with an underage Moroccan dancer (known as ‘Ruby’) and he is currently awaiting trial on charges of underage prostitution.

Berlusconi created his own political party, Forza Italia, only two months before the February 1994 elections. The First Republic system having collapsed with the Mani pulite investigations and all dominant parties of that era having either dissolved or fallen into disrepute because of their involvement in corruption scandals. There was a large electorate on the centre and centre-right which found itself disoriented and politically homeless following Mani pulite, a large electorate ready to be picked up by any ambitious politician. Berlusconi, a charismatic populist and astute politician, with a mastery of media, communications and marketing was that man.

The 1994 election was a success for Berlusconi, whose new party won 21% of the vote. The party and its leader was weakened by his ouster from government in 1995 and the right’s defeat in the 1996 elections, but Berlusconi survived his first dry spell. He slowly reemerged as the leader of the opposition and the Berlusconian right won the 2001 election, in which FI won a record 29% of the vote. In the 2006 elections, however, FI suffered the brunt of loses incurred by the governing right-wing coalition.

The idea of a merger between Berlusconi’s FI and Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance (AN) first came up at the time of the 2006 election. Berlusconi took the initiative by announcing the transformation of FI into a larger party in November 2007, although Fini opposed the idea at the time. Both leaders reconciled before the 2008 election and Berlusconi’s FI and Fini’s AN formed a common list – The People of Freedom (PdL) – the 2008 election. The PdL also included a plethora of small, irrelevant parties on the centre-right and the right including Alessandra Mussolini’s far-right Azione Sociale (AS). The PdL won a fairly impressive 37.4% of the vote on its own in the 2008 election, a hefty sum in Italy’s fragmented multi-party system. The party was officially founded in March 2009.

The alliance between Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini, once widely seen as Berlusconi’s anointed successor, was short-lived. As early as 2009, Fini – now the president of the Chamber of Deputies – became a vocal critic of Berlusconi’s policies and broke from the conservative party line on certain issues. The ambitious heir-presumptive, Fini also took issue with Berlusconi’s personalist and centralist leadership style. Fini supported a more structured party leadership which relied less on il cavaliere‘s charisma. In April 2010, Fini set up his own association within the party and by the end of July he was pushed out of the PdL and created his own group in Parliament.

There was increasing unease within the party after the disastrous showings in the May 2011 local elections, in which the PdL lost its Milanese bastion and failed epically in its quest to win Naples. In response to both of these factors, Berlusconi tried to refresh the party’s worsening image by appointing his justice minister, Angelino Alfano (a Christian Democrat from Sicily), as the party’s secretary and new heir-presumptive. He later announced that he would not seek reelection in 2013. However, as the economic crisis worsened, the PdL became increasingly divided as a number of parliamentarians broke with the party and called on Berlusconi to resign.

The formation of Monti’s technocratic government in November 2011 divided the party. An anti-Monti faction of the party wanted snap elections, but others supported the new government. Ultimately, the PdL opted – reluctantly – to support the Monti government, at the price of breaking the alliance with the Lega Nord and being forcibly associated to the new government. The PdL was a restless and often petulant reluctant ally of the government, which often prevented Monti from doing more on issues such as liberalization or corruption.

The PdL suffered a humiliating beating in the 2012 local elections. Throughout the summer, with polls showing the bloodless party agonizing in third place, it seemed as if the Berlusconian era was over. Even il cavaliere, depressed and demotivated by his resignation in November 2011 and pursued by the courts on various charges, seemed to have accepted that. In October, Berlusconi announced that he would not run in 2013 and set the stage for PdL primaries in December. But Berlusconi, playing a confusing but also rather amusing game of in-and-out, quickly had second thoughts and called off the primary at the end of November. In early December, Berlusconi announced that he would in fact run. On January 7, after a last-minute coalition deal with the Lega, Berlusconi announced that he would lead the party but that, if elected, he would not serve as Prime Minister but rather as finance minister under Angelino Alfano.

The PdL, like FI before it, is a diverse big-tent party which has often struggled to find internal coherence. FI included former members of the DC (Giuseppe Pisanu, Roberto Formigoni, Claudio Scajola), the PLI (Giancarlo Galan, Alfredo Biondi) and the PSI (Giulio Tremonti, Franco Frattini, Renato Brunetta; Berlusconi’s political mentor was Bettino Craxi); as such, it attempted to synthesize these divergent political cultures (christian democratic conservatism, liberalism, reformist social democracy). In good part, today’s PdL is more or less a renamed FI dominated by former FI cadres with conservative ex-AN members as an appendage. There is a regional dimension to the PdL’s internal ideological diversity. Northern members, most of whom came from FI, tend to be libertarians who support fiscal federalism (like the Lega), deregulation and lower taxes. Southern members, many of whom are from the old MSI and AN, tend to be socially conservative but also more statist and authoritarian.

Under Berlusconi, populism has often tended to be the glue which held the various factions together. Since his entry into politics in 1994, Berlusconi – in line with Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher – has sought to present himself as an ‘outsider’ who spoke and understood the language of the ‘common man’; in his first election in 1994 he ran as the right-wing populist outsider, vilifying the old partitocrazia and corrupt establishment politicians of the First Republic, a rhetoric which he has used on-and-off since then. Another aspect of Berlusconi’s populism is his demonization of magistrates (painted as communists) and the left-liberal elites which controlled the institutions and dominated the media (seriously). Under his leadership, there was clear symbolic shift in attitudes towards the Mani pulite investigations of the early 1990s as Berlusconi tried to rehabilitate the fallen political leaders and vilify those who had gone after them. Most of this anti-elitist rhetoric was a self-interested attempt by il cavaliere to rally support for himself against the magistrates who gone after him in various corruption scandals.

Berlusconi is a master populist who excels at electoral strategy, campaigning and political communication. He is not an ideologue, far from it. He has always tried to be all things to all people, in the hopes of building the broadest coalition possible. For the northern petite bourgeoisie, he promised lower taxes; for statist conservative southerners, he promised public works. Berlusconi is likely an asset for his party, given how central he is to the entire party. Forza Italia and even the PdL today function as a personal vehicle for Berlusconi’s political ambitions, he is the boss at the helm of the party and has free reign over a fairly decentralized and poorly structured party.

Geographically, one of Berlusconi’s strengths has been his appeal both in northern and southern Italy. Although the Lega Nord takes right-wing votes away from the Berlusconian right in the north, the PdL is nonetheless quite strong in northern regions such as Piedmont (34% in 2008), Lombardy (33.5%) and the Veneto (27.4%). In the 2008 election, the PdL did especially well in southern Italy; maximizing support from former MSI-AN voters but also unideological voters who had backed Prodi’s coalition in 2006. The party won a very impressive 49% in Campania, the region which includes Naples, and also took over 40% in Apulia, Calabria, Sicily (46.6%), Sardinia and the Latium (the region around Rome, 43.4%). The FI and later the PdL’s electorate has traditionally consisted of small businessman, entrepreneurs (especially prominent in the north), conservative Catholic voters (especially in the south but also in some northern regions), traditional right-wing demographics such as high income earners but also a strong base with manual workers. For example, in 2008, the PdL swept the working-class suburbs of Milan – the old Communist ‘Red Belt’ which surrounds the city.

Berlusconi has transformed himself into a right-wing populist with nationalist inklings for this election. After 1994, Berlusconi and FI had worked hard to gain acceptance as a mainstream European centre-right party and gaining acceptance into the EPP; today, he has reincarnated himself as the anti-system, anti-elitist right-wing outsider he was in 1994. He has railed against austerity, even if he implemented austerity measures as recently as 2011 when he was Prime Minister himself. Quite bitter with Angela Merkel who precipitated his resignation in November 2011, Berlusconi’s campaign has also adopted nationalist and Eurosceptic undertones. He is now a vocal critic of Angela Merkel and Berlin’s actions in Italy’s economic crisis, he has said that the European Fiscal Compact is hampering growth and that the ECB should only be a lender of last resort. Berlusconi’s anti-austerity platform includes a pledge to cut taxes. One of his most popular positions is his promise to abolish and refund the IMU, a very unpopular property tax (to be levied on all residents) recreated by Monti after Berlusconi’s government had abolished a similar property tax (the ICI) in 2008.

Northern League (Lega Nord, LN): The LN is one of Italy’s most famous but also controversial party. The Lega, founded in 1991, is a federalist and regionalist (formerly separatist) party in northern Italy which has played a major role in Second Republic politics, most significantly on the right.

The LN reflects the major regional schism which exists between northern Italy and southern Italy (the Mezzogiorno). Italy’s existence as a nation-state is fairly recent, the country only came to be in 1870; but even following Italian unification the new country struggled to find internal unity. Until fascism, Italian politics were largely dominated by the Piedmontese elites which had spearheaded Italian unification under the King of Piedmont, Victor Emmanuel I. Northern Italy quickly became a ‘European’ industrialized and affluent region. Southern Italy, on the other hand, afflicted by deep socio-economic liabilities, remained (and, to a certain extent, has remained) a poor, agrarian and underdeveloped region. Poverty, social inequality (powerful landowners owned large tracts of land and employed landless labourers) and opposition to Piedmontese centralism led to an upsurge in organized crime (either banditry or mafia activities) and emigration (many southerners moved to North and South America, or northern Italy). In southern Italy, the oligarchic power of powerful landowners and the emergence of the mafia as a potent force in the 1850s diluted any communitarian feelings and created a conservative, individualist and atomized society. Until 1946, southern Italy had been ruled almost exclusively by autocratic regimes who maintained formal feudal structures into the early nineteenth century and which subsequently based their power on support from the rural landowning elite. The relation of the average southern Italian with corruption and the mafia is different than in other places; and to a certain extent, corruption is accepted as part of the political process.

The regional divide was quite apparent in the 1946 referendum, when 54% of Italians voted in favour of the republic. In industrialized, affluent and slightly more progressive northern Italy, two-thirds voted for the republic. In rural, poor and conservative southern Italy, 64% voted for the monarchy. Under the First Republic, the government actively sought to industrialize the south through an ambitious program of land reform and public investments (60% of government investment would go to the south). These policies were largely unsuccessful, as the south became subsidized and dependent on the state while deep regional disparities remained. Unemployment is much higher in the south while average incomes and labour force participation remains lower in the south than in the north.

In northern Italy, particularly in Lombardy and Veneto, the view that “hard-working” northern taxpayers were subsidizing the corrupt and “backwards” south created widespread resentment starting in the mid-1980s. A number of regionalist, federalist or separatist “leagues” started to proliferate throughout northern Italy in the mid to late-1980s, the most prominent of which were Umberto Bossi’s Lega Lombarda and the Liga Veneta. In the 1983 and 1987 general elections, these ‘leagues’ enjoyed weak support. Their first breakthrough came in the 1990 regional elections, when the Lega Lombarda took 19% in Lombardy and the Liga Veneta won 7% in Veneto (leagues also did well in Piedmont and Liguria). The Lega Nord, created in 1991, merged these different regionalist leagues in a single federal structure.

The party’s national breakthrough came in the 1992 elections, when the LN won 9% nationally (56 deputies and 26 senators) and became the fourth largest party in Italy. The Lega was able to exploit the north’s regionalist grievances with the central government and southern Italy, but as a radical anti-system voice, it also benefited from growing disgust with the corrupt partitocrazia just as the tangentopoli system was revealed. The party’s support grew in 1993 (notably winning the local elections in Milan) and 1994, but Berlusconi’s FI cut the grass under its feet and seized some of the party’s anti-system, anti-establishment right-wing support. In the 1994 elections, the party, in coalition with FI, won 8.4% nationally – but thanks to its alliance with FI, it doubled its parliamentary representation and came out with 117 deputies and 56 senators. The Lega originally participated in Berlusconi’s short-lived government in 1994, but it was the party’s decision to pull the plug on il cavaliere within a few months which led to the government’s demise.

Between 1995 and 2000, the party operated independently, having broken off its alliance with the right. At the outset, this new positioning was politically lucrative. The Lega won 10.1% of the vote in the 1996 election (59 deputies, 27 senators), its best result. Buoyed by these results, the Lega adopted a hardline separatist line and unilaterally declared the independence of ‘Padania’ – its name for a sovereign state in northern Italy. However, by 1998 the party’s heyday passed because of internal divisions and damaging splits by prominent leaders. It took a beating in the 1999 European elections, with only 4.5% of the vote nationally. The poor results convinced Bossi that the Lega could only survive in the long term through an alliance with the Berlusconian right. The party de-emphasized separatism and focused on devolution, for a federal country in which the north would have fiscal autonomy.

The alliance with the right, patched up before the 2001 election, held for the 2006 and 2008 general elections as well. The Lega did poorly in the 2001 elections (3.9% nationally); but it held powerful positions in the new Berlusconi government and Bossi developed a close working relationship and alliance with Berlusconi, whose right-wing populism and anti-elitist discourse was quite similar to that of the Lega. The party did poorly in 2006 as well (4.1%). A few months after the 2006 election, Berlusconi’s controversial constitutional reform, supported by the Lega – which would have strengthened executive powers and granted fiscal autonomy to regions (in addition to more powers) – was rejected by the electorate with 61% against. There was a clear regional divide in the vote: northern Italy voted against with only 53% (and Lombardy and Veneto voted in favour with about 55%) while opposition in southern Italy was nearly 75%.

Lega substantially increased its support in the 2008 election (largely at the expense of the PdL), winning 8.3% nationally and emerging much stronger with 60 deputies and 26 senators. The party had gained even more leverage over the government, using its new pivotal position to claim key portfolios and extract policy concessions from Berlusconi. The party’s support kept growing in 2009 and 2010, winning 10.2% in the 2009 European elections and around 12% in the regional elections in 2010. In the 2010 regionals, the Lega compelled the PdL to concede two major regional presidencies to it, and both Lega candidates in those regions (Roberto Cota in the Piedmont and Luca Zaia in the Veneto) eventually won the regional presidency.

However, in 2011, as the government’s popularity fell, the Lega entered a downward spiral and was split by a brewing internal battle between the long-time boss, Umberto Bossi and his deputy, Roberto Maroni. Maroni was a ‘moderate’ within the party and had been quite critical of the Lega’s close alliance with Berlusconi; while Bossi (and Roberto Calderoli) supported the close alliance with the right. He slowly gained more and more power within the party hierarchy. The party did poorly in the 2011 local elections, except in Verona where the incumbent Lega mayor, Flavio Tosi, easily won reelection (but he was a prominent opponent of Bossi’s inner circle). When Berlusconi’s government fell, the Lega broke off its alliance with the PdL and became the leading opposition to the Monti government. It used its position as the opposition to Monti’s cabinet to regain lost support.

The party faced an existential crisis in 2012. In April 2012, it was revealed that Bossi and his inner circle had massively embezzled the party’s public financing funds and used this money to ‘remunerate’ Bossi’s sons, buying them diplomas in Albania and crazy stuff about links with the Calabrian mafia and trafficking in Tanzania. Bossi, the party’s founder and longtime leader, was finally forced to resign and replaced with Maroni.

The Lega’s raison-d’être and dominant ideology is northern Italian regionalism or nationalism. The party continues to use thinly-veiled separatist rhetoric and constantly talks about ‘Padania’, but in reality nobody takes the Lega’s separatist pretensions very seriously and it is widely understood to be a federalist party. It supports the devolution of more powers to the regions and, in particular, fiscal autonomy for regions. Fiscal federalism would allow the northern regions to collect and administer their own taxes, without the central government redistributing (‘stealing’ as the Lega would say) tax revenues to the south. The Lega’s fiscal federalist scheme would like cripple southern Italy, given its dependence on transfers from the central government. The Lega has always been quite successful at exploiting northern Italy’s particular regionalist grievances, presenting the hypothetical ‘Padania’ as an ideal state unencumbered with the rest of Italy, represented as either corrupt, inefficient or a burden on the north. The Lega, like Berlusconi, is populist and anti-elitist.

Outside of federalism, the Lega is more or less a right-wing party, although it has some more left-wing positions (the environment, welfare state, pensions). On economic issues, the party supports low-taxes, small government and small businesses/entrepreneurs. It is Eurosceptic and moderately isolationist. The party’s notoriety also comes from its tough line on immigration, being the most vocal anti-immigration party in Italy. The party has often been widely accused of using racist, hateful and xenephobic rhetoric. The party’s stance on immigration, to a certain extent, pushed Berlusconi on the right on the issue and forced Berlusconi’s last government to adopt tough measures against illegal immigration.

The Lega finally reached a coalition deal with Berlusconi and the centre-right in January. In return for Lega’s participation in his coalition, Berlusconi announced that Alfano would serve as Prime Minister if the coalition won and the PdL supported Roberto Maroni’s candidacy in the concurrent regional elections in Lombardy.

The party’s support, naturally, comes from northern Italy. The Lega has defined the north as everything to the north of the Latium – hence including Umbria, Marche, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna (which are all traditionally defined as being central Italy). The party’s support in those central regions has usually been limited, although the Lega scored impressive breakthroughs in all of those regions – especially Emilia-Romagna – in 2009 and 2010, the Lega won nearly 14% in Emilia-Romagna in 2010 and even won 6% in Tuscany and Marche. The party’s core northern strongholds are Lombardy and the Veneto, where the Lega won 26% and 35% respectively in 2010. In those regions, the Lega polls best in rural areas, especially in the Pedemontana, the northern region at the feet of the Prealps in the Padanian plain. The party has had more trouble in the Piedmont and Liguria, although it is a major political actor in both regions. At its creation, the Lega stole votes across the ideological spectrum (mostly from DC but also from the PCI, PSI, PLI etc) and the party’s leadership is ideologically diverse with various partisan backgrounds. The Lega Lombarda leadership, including Bossi and Maroni, have left-wing backgrounds; the Liga Veneta’s leadership tends to be right-wing with DC backgrounds. In northern Italy, there is significant ideological overlap between local PdL and Lega cadres.

Great South – Movement for Autonomies (Grande Sud-Movimento per le AutonomieGS-MPA): Grande Sud-MPA is a southern regionalist alliance which will run in 14 constituencies for the Chambers and in six regions for the Senate. The list is a coalition of two groupings: Grande Sud (Great South) and the Movement for Autonomies (Movimento per le Autonomie, MPA). Grande Sud itself is a coalition of three regional parties; namely Gianfranco Micciché’s Sicilian Forza del Sud (Force of the South), Arturo Iannaccone’s Campanian Noi Sud – Libertà e Autonomia (We the South – Liberty and Autonomy) and Adriana Poli Bortone’s Apulian-based Io Sud (I the South).

There is a confusing array of vaguely regionalist parties in Southern Italy. It is certainly debatable to what extent these parties are actually fundamentally and genuinely ‘regionalist’ or autonomist or if they merely empty kleptocratic shells founded by regional political bosses to further their political interests or lobby for their constituencies. None of these parties are separatist and few (if any) may be considered as radical in their demands as the much more powerful and influential Lega Nord. To a certain extent, most Southern regionalist parties have tried to be counterweights to the Lega within the Berlusconian right. They mostly tend to lobby for Southern interests in government – either supporting further devolution of powers (Sicily already has special autonomy with full fiscal autonomy) or pushing for government investments, such as Berlusconi’s ambitious Strait of Messina Bridge between Calabria and Sicily.

The Movement for Autonomies (MPA) was founded in 2005 by Sicilian dissidents from various national centre-right parties and led by Raffaele Lombardo, a former Christian Democrat. The party allied with the Lega to form a common list in the 2006 election, but given the enmity between northern and southern regionalists, the alliance was shortlived. In 2008, the MPA – which had expanded outside of Sicily – ran separately in Berlusconi’s coalition. Winning 1% nationally, it won 8 deputies (and 2 senators) because of the ‘largest coalition party under the threshold’ clause of the electoral law. Lombardo was elected regional president of Sicily in regional elections that same day. The MPA’s political alliances have since been schizophrenic. In 2009, the MPA allied with the far-right but also other regionalist parties (including some in the north) for the Euros and won 2% nationally. In December 2009, Lombardo formed a new regional cabinet excluding members of the national PdL. The MPA’s slow breakup with the PdL and the Berlusconian coalition caused a rift in party ranks as 4 deputies were expelled for the party for supporting the alliance with the PdL. In November 2010, the MPA left the Berlusconi cabinet and announced that it would join the ‘Third Pole’ centrist coalition with Gianfranco Fini and the christian democratic UDC. Lombardo was forced to resign as president of Sicily in August 2012, precipitating early regional elections in which the MPA ran separately from the PdL, backing Gianfranco Micciché (a PdL dissident)’s presidential candidacy.

The Grande Sud is a coalition of the three aforementioned parties. The Forza del Sud was launched by Gianfranco Micciché in late 2010, the longtime regional leader of the FI and PdL in Sicily who wanted to build a broader southern regional parties. However, only a minority of the PdL’s Sicilian deputies followed Micciché in his adventures, and like most ambitious attempts at creating a new coalition/party the scheme has been an unmitigated disaster. Noi Sud was launched in January 2010 by those former MPA members expelled from Lombardo’s party for opposing the divorce with the PdL. The party attracted half of the MPA’s 8 deputies, and is led by Arturo Iannaccone, who represents Campania. Io Sud is an Apulian-based party led by Adriana Poli Bortone, a former AN MEP.

Gianfranco Micciché ran in the 2012 Sicilian regional elections, backed by the Grande Sud, MPA and Fini’s FLI. He won 15% of the vote, placing fourth. The MPA won 9.5% of the list vote, the Grande Sud won 6%. The MPA is in decline at this point, having been badly weakened by divisions and defections. It ultimately agreed to join Grande Sud and rejoin the Berlusconian coalition, although the MPA will run a separate list in Sicily for the Senate (in addition to a Grande Sud list). The MPA won up to 15% in Sicily (in 2009) and it had won 7% on the island in the 2008 general election, but its support will likely be marginal. Given the presence of two other small right-wing lists within the coalition, the Grande Sud-MPA are locked in a tough battle to either break 2% nationally (unlikely) or be the largest coalition party under the threshold.

The Right (La Destra, LD): The Right, or La Destra, is a far-right party which ran independently in the 2008 election (winning 2.4% nationally) but which is running as part of Berlusconi’s coalition this year.

The party was founded in July 2007 by Francesco Storace, a member of the AN. Storace had been the leader of the AN’s most right-wing and ‘unreconstructed’ wing, which was nostalgic of the MSI’s neo-fascist heritage and criticized Gianfranco Fini’s more moderate leadership of the AN. Storace had been critical of Fini’s visit to Israel in which he had described fascism as an absolute evil. Although many felt that Berlusconi had a hand in the creation of the party, to weaken his rival Fini, La Destra ran independently in the 2008 election. Its top candidate was Daniela Santanchè, another AN defector who is known for her controversial views on Islam. The party won only 2.4% nationally and won no seats. The poor result led to a leadership struggle between Storace and Santanchè, the latter supporting an alliance with Berlusconi. Santanchè left the party in September 2008.

La Destra, under Storace, started moving closer to the Berlusconian coalition starting in 2010. The party will run with the Berlusconian right this year, with Storace as the right-wing candidate in the concurrent regional elections in the Latium.

La Destra rejects the far-right or neo-fascist labels, although it allied with the openly neo-fascist Forza Nuova and Fiamma Tricolore in 2008. It is conservative and nationalist, with its economic program including both ‘statist’ planks (strong welfare state) and more libertarian planks (flat tax, fiscal federalism).

Brothers of Italy – National Centre-right (Fratelli d’Italia – Centrodestra Nazionale, FdI-CN): The ‘Brothers of Italy – National Centre-right’ is a new national conservative party, founded in December 2012.

The party was launched by ex-AN members of the PdL (Ignazio La Russa, Giorgia Meloni; Guido Crosetto was not AN however). La Russa, within the AN, had represented the party’s moderate ‘liberal-conservative’ wing which was closest to Berlusconi and FI, and somewhat critical of Fini. Within the PdL, La Russa and the others remained loyal to Berlusconi throughout the Fini breakup. Like most of the PdL’s ex-AN members, the party’s founders opposed Monti’s government. The party’s creation was a calculated move by Berlusconi to create a spinoff for more nationalist and right-wing (anti-Monti) voters who somehow cannot bring themselves to vote for Berlusconi’s party but who nonetheless support Berlusconi’s candidacy.

The party has received little attention or support, and – alongside fellow coalition ‘allies’ GS-MPA and La Destra – it is locked in a tough battle to either win 2% themselves or be the the largest party in the coalition below the 2% threshold.

The party’s name is rather amusing: Fratelli d’Italia, or ‘brothers of Italy’, is the first line (and common unofficial name) of the Italian national anthem. I can’t wait for the O Canada Party or the Star Spangled Banner Party!

The centre-right coalition also includes the Italian Moderates in Revolution (Moderati Italiani in Rivoluzione), Popular Agreement (Intesa Popolare) and Pensioners’ Party (Partito Pensionati).

Italy. Common Good (Italia. Bene Commune) coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani

Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD): The PD is the main centre-left party in Italy and the dominant party of the centre-left coalition. The PD was founded in 2007 by the merger of the two largest parties of the post-1994 Italian centre-left – the Democrats of the Left (Democratici di Sinistra) and Democracy is Freedom – The Daisy (Democrazia è Libertà – La Margherita) in addition to numerous smaller parties.

The social democratic Democrats of the Left (DS) was created in 1998 after the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) merged with smaller (irrelevant) parties. The PDS was created in 1991 by the transformation of the Communist Party (PCI) into a post-communist democratic socialist/social democratic party, led by the PCI’s last secretary-general Achille Occhetto. The PCI had been at the forefront of the evolutions of the western European communist left since the 1970s, having broken with Moscow’s autocratic rigidity and adopted a more consensual and moderate ‘Eurocommunist’ line. The PDS was confirmed as the main left-wing opposition force in the 1992 and 1994 elections, winning 16% and 20% nationally in those two elections respectively. In the 1996 election, the PDS, with 21% of the vote, was the largest force in the victorious centre-left coalition led by Romano Prodi. After Prodi’s government fell, Massimo D’Alema, a former Communist, became Prime Minister. Under D’Alema’s leadership, the PDS became a mainstream European social democratic party. In 1998, after merging with smaller ex-PCI, PSI, PRI and DC micro-parties it became the DS. It won 16.6% in 2001 and 17.2% in 2006, remaining the largest party of the centre-left coalition. Despite a small left-wing socialist faction, the DS was firmly controlled by moderate/Third Way social democrats who were avidly pro-European and support orthodox fiscal policies.

Following the collapse of the First Republic system between 1992 and 1994, the DC (Italy’s natural governing party) and the wider centrist (from centre-left and centre-right) coalitions which had led Italy since 1947 were in decrepitude. The DC, a big tent party with a right-wing and a left-wing, split between left and right – more or less between those who backed Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition and those who backed the centre-left coalition. The left-wing of the DC founded the Italian People’s Party (PPI), envisioned to be the main successor party to the DC. The PPI formed its own centrist coalition in the 1994 election, running with DC maverick Mario Segni’s Patto Segni; the PPI won only 11%. The PPI itself split between leftist and rightists in the 1995, with pro-Berlusconi right-wingers going off to form their own party (United Christian Democrats) and the PPI remaining under the leadership of a centre-left majority. Allied with smaller party and supporting Prodi, it won about 7% in 1996. The Democracy is Freedom – The Daisy (DL) was formed by the merger of the PPI, The Democrats (a party which included Romano Prodi) and Lamberto Dini’s Italian Renewal. Their common list did well in 2001, winning 14.5%. The DL gathered support from different ideological horizons, including social liberals (like party leader Francesco Rutelli, a former Radical), social conservatives, progressive left-wing Catholics (Christian left) and reformist liberals. The DL often compared itself to the US Democratic Party, an apt comparison.

Centre-left cooperation and electoral coalitions have existed since 1994. The most famous of these coalitions was The Olive Tree (L’Ulivo), founded by Prodi in 1995 and the centre-left coalition in the 1996, 2001 and 2006 elections (but also a common list in the 2004 Euros). Following the 2006 election, talk of a DS-DL merger increased. The creation of the PD was formalized in 2008, besides the DS and DL it also included six smaller parties (mostly moderate centre-left parties). Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome and a former DS leader, was an open primary in late 2007 with over 75% and became the first leader of the PD. Veltroni was competent albeit a bit boring and uncharismatic (although many liked to call him an ‘Italian Obama’), under his leadership he gave the PD a modern, reformist/Third Way and pro-market orientation. Veltroni, as the main opponent to Berlusconi in the 2008 election, won 37.5% while the PD itself won 33%. It was a very good result for the PD, which had succeeded in imposing itself as the major centre-left opposition force in an increasingly bipolarized system, but it was not enough.

The PD’s performance in opposition between 2008 and 2011 was fairly mediocre, hurt by uninspiring and stale leaders and internal divisions. The PD was defeated in regional elections in Abruzzo (2008) and Sardinia (2009), and its performance in the 2009 Euro and 2010 regional elections were disappointing at best. Veltroni quit following the bad defeat in the Sardinian elections in early 2009. He was replaced by Dario Franceschini (ex-DC unlike Veltroni, who was from the PCI), another stale and boring leader. Franceschini, however, lost the PD leadership during a leadership election in October 2009. He won 37% against 56% for Pier Luigi Bersani, a social democrat (ex-PCI) who had been a minister in past centre-left cabinets. PD moderates, led by former DL leader Francesco Rutelli, interpreted Bersani’s victory as a sign that the PD was being dominated by ex-DS/PCI cadres and moving into a left-wing direction. Rutelli and his allies quit the party in November 2009 to create the Alliance for Italy (ApI), which allied with the centre. The PD supported Monti’s government, although some on the party’s left often took issue with Monti’s austerity measures or economic liberalization reforms.

One of the PD’s problems since 2008 has been its internal diversity. The PD was meant to be a big-tent party which would move Italy towards a two-party system by uniting the various non-communist components of the anti-Berlusconi left and centre-left; including social democrats and ex-PCI left-wingers, social liberals, ex-DC progressives and liberal reformists. It has struggled to find a coherent ideology and identity besides ‘we hate Berlusconi’. Some, like Rutelli and Veltroni, wanted to model the PD on the US Democratic Party and differentiate it from the mainstream centre-left in the rest of Europe (SPD, PS, Labour, PSOE etc). Those who came from the PCI and the DS, however, wanted to integrate the PD with other European social democrats. The previous partisan allegiances of members (DC/PPI/DL, PCI/DS etc) are the main factional divides within the PD, although in recent years some factions and alliances within the PD have bridged old DC/PCI divides. In 2009, Bersani’s majority was backed by social democrats (around Massimo D’Alema) and most ex-DS members but also some moderates/centrists (Rosy Bindi, Enrico Letta). Franceschini was backed by most ex-DC moderates and centrists, social liberals but also by those like Veltroni or Rutelli who envisioned the PD as a big-tent American-like party. In 2010, Franceschini and former DS leader Piero Fassino joined Bersani’s majority, a move opposed by Veltroni and ex-DC/PPI moderates.

The domination of the party by an old guard of stale, boring and relatively uncharismatic leaders has been another of the PD’s main problems. Bersani, Franceschini, Rosy Bindi, Piero Fassino and above all Massimo D’Alema are widely seen as being stale ‘old guard’ leaders. In the open primary to determine the coalition’s top candidate for these elections, held in October 2012, there was a much-discussed contest between Bersani and the 38-year old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi. Renzi is a rising star and reformist ‘modernizer’ within the party. In addition to his anti-establishment creed, his support for economic liberalization, economic reforms, debt reduction and labour market flexibility make him a bit of a pariah for the PD’s left. Renzi won 35.5% in the first round of the primaries, and 39% in the runoff against Bersani.

Ideologically, the PD is close to mainstream European social democracy. Under D’Alema’s leadership, the DS firmly integrated the European centre-left mainstream and often edged close to Tony Blair’s Third Way reformism by supporting orthodox fiscal policies including debt reduction and a balanced budget. In government, the left has often being moderate and reformist. Even if Bersani is identified with the PD’s left (though there is a significant minority further to his left within the PD), as minister under Prodi’s second cabinet he was reformist, leading the liberalization of television broadcasting, local public services, and energy as well as cutting red tape. The PD supported, not without some reservations, Monti’s reformist policies.

Bersani’s platform in this election is a bit anti-austerity, though it agrees with the need for debt reduction and fiscal responsibility. It feels that the austerity policies are not healthy and not conducive to growth, instead it prefers more interventionist Keynesian policies. However, Bersani does not support major changes to European treaties such as the Fiscal Compact although he does support Eurobonds (but most Italian politicians advocate for Eurobonds). The left’s platform supports raising taxes on the rich while reducing them on low and middle earners. The PD also wants to do away with the IMU, replacing it instead with a ‘super tax’ targeting those persons with private residences whose value exceeds €1.2 million. It claims that such a super-tax would alleviate the tax burden on single home owners and middle-class families.

The left, the PCI in the past and the PD today, has found its strongest support in the ‘Red Quadrilateral’ of central Italy: Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Umbria. The PD won 46.8%, 45.7%, 41.4% and 44.4% respectively in those regions in 2008. These regions are wealthy and not industrial powerhouses (despite a few major industrial cities), but as former territories of the Papal States, there is a strong anti-clerical and republican/socialist tradition. The anti-fascist resistance movement was also very active in central Italy during World War II. The left is also strong in Basilicata (a poor and conservative southern region) and in major urban areas including Turin (Piedmont) and Venice or working-class regions in Liguria. It is weaker in Lombardy, Veneto, Sicily and other southern regions.

The PD’s lists for the Chamber of Deputies include members of the Socialist Party (PS), which will run independently for the Senate in Latium, Campania and Calabria. In the Aosta Valley, the PD is backing the local left-leaning local/regionalist coalition which won the Chamber seat in 2008 (but the right-leaning local/regionalist coalition won the Senate seat).

Left Ecology Freedom (Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, SEL): The SEL is a left-wing (democratic socialist/eco-socialist) party led by Nichi Vendola, it is the smaller (but still relevant) member of the centre-left coalition led by Bersani’s PD.

Nichi Vendola is the ‘gay (ex-)atheist communist’ who has been regional president of Apulia, a conservative and Catholic region of the Mezzogiorno, for two terms since 2005. Vendola was a member of the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC) until 2009. The PRC had been founded in 1991 by PCI hardliners led by Sergio Garavini who opposed the PCI’s evolution into the PDS. The PRC cooperated with the centre-left in the 1994 and 1996 elections, and joined Prodi’s coalition in 2006 but it remained a very unreliable ‘ally’ throughout, often breaking governments over disagreements on economic or foreign policy. In 2007, the PRC broke with the centre-left and formed a left-wing alliance with a smaller communist party (itself a PRC breakaway) and the very leftist Greens; in the 2008 election, this coalition ended in an unprecedented disaster for the ‘left of the left’ winning only 3% nationally and no seats whatsoever. The 2008 disaster led to an internal power struggle, with the party’s hard left defeating incumbent leader Fausto Bertinotti (who had tried to move the party away from doctrinaire communism towards a New Left, anti-globalization and eco-socialist line). Bertinotti silently encouraged PRC reformists/New Leftists around Vendola, on the losing side (but with 47.6%) of the leadership struggle in 2008, to leave the party. Vendola’s faction, the MpS, left in January 2009. Running separately from each other in the 2009 Euros, Vendola’s red-green alliance won 3.1% against 3.4% for the the ‘paleo-communist’ Anticapitalist List led by the PRC.

The Greens and the Socialist Party left Vendola’s coalition in 2009. The PD and SEL have formed electoral alliances in most elections since 2009, although in some cases they went separate ways. In 2010, Vendola won a second term as regional president of Apulia thanks to the divisions of the local right. In 2011, Giuliano Pisapia, an independent close to SEL, became mayor of Milan in a major victory for the centre-left. The SEL rode on a wave of momentum in 2011, often polling up to 8%. Vendola is a competent and intelligent politician, who is also particularly charismatic (in short supply on the left) and eloquent.

Vendola ran in the 2012 centre-left primaries, winning a fairly disappointing 15% in the first round (third place) although his support proved crucial to Bersani’s easy victory in the runoff. Vendola had been acquitted on corruption charges in November.

Ideologically, Vendola disagrees with Bersani and the PD on some economic and fiscal issues. From outside Parliament, he was a a vocal critic of Monti’s austerity policies, which he saw as strangling the working-classes while serving the elites which created the crisis. Vendola has also frequently attacked the global financial system. While he supports European federalism ‘as the only way out of the crisis’ and is open to debt reduction, he is anti-austerity and has opposed parts of the Fiscal Compact which he feels are limiting the decision-making powers of democratically-elected governments. Social issues also feature prominently on the SEL’s agenda. Vendola is a longtime supporter of feminist and LGBT causes, and his party supports gay marriage. A devout Catholic country with the Roman Catholic Church a powerful actor in civil society, Italy lags behind on gay rights – no same-sex unions are recognized in Italy, the centre-left’s attempts to introduce civil unions in 2007 failed. The right (PdL, LN) are pretty uniformly socially conservative (opposing civil unions, adoption or marriage); the PD, with a significant socially conservative wing, does not support gay marriage although it supports civil unions and stepchild adoption.

Democratic Centre (Centro Democratico, CD): The small and rather irrelevant CD is a small moderate party. But as it will be the largest coalition party under the threshold, it will win seats in Parliament.

The CD was founded in late 2012 by Bruno Tabacci (ex-UDC and ex-ApI) and Massimo Donaldi (ex-IdV). Tabacci is a former maverick member of Pier Fernando Casini’s centre-right UDC, who joined Francesco Rutelli’s bland centrist Alliance for Italy (ApI) outfit. Any momentum which the ApI had its foundation in 2009 quickly petered out as it became the irrelevant third component of the stillborn ‘Third Pole’ centrist coalition. In late 2012, the ApI moved back to the centre-left and Tabacci ran in the primaries and came last with 1.4%. Tabacci teamed up with Donaldi, a defector from Italy of Values (IdV) to create the CD. Rutelli is not running and keeps insisting that ApI is not dead. The moderate and centrist CD includes chunks of the ApI and most of Donaldi’s Rights and Freedom outfit.

South Tyrolean People’s Party (Südtiroler Volkspartei, SVP): The SVP is only a regionalist party active in one region, but it is worth profiling given that it will win seats in the new Parliament.

The Italian province of South Tyrol (Südtirol/Alto Adige), part of the region of Trentino-Alto Adige, was part of the Austrian Empire until it was annexed by Italy in 1919. Unlike the southern province of Trentino which has an Italian majority and had a significant Italian population even under Austrian rule, South Tyrol still has a German majority (64%). Under fascist rule, there was an aggressive campaign of Italianization and state-sanctioned discrimination against German-speakers in the province. South Tyrol was annexed by the Nazis in 1943, but it was returned to Italy in 1946 following an agreement with Austria in which Italy granted self-government to the region. However, Italian immigrantion into South Tyrol (which had begun under fascism) and the lack of specific self-government for South Tyrol itself made the region’s status an international issue in the 1960s. Trentino-Alto Adige now benefits from extensive autonomy, and keeps nearly 90% of tax revenues.

The SVP was founded in 1945 to represent German-speakers (but also a small Ladin minority) in South Tyrol. The party leans to the right, although it is a diverse party which includes a significant left-leaning faction. It has governed South Tyrol since 1948, although its support has declined in recent years – falling below 50% for the first time in a provincial election in 2008. At the national level, the SVP used to be allied with the DC, but under the Second Republic it has usually aligned with the centre-left coalition which tends to be more favourable to autonomy. The SVP won 2 deputies and 3 senators in the 2008 election. It won about 44% of the vote in South Tyrol. Most of its competition now comes from right-wing German parties, notably The Libertarians (right-wing separatist).

The SVP, in coalition with the Tyrolean Trentino Autonomist Party (PATT) in Trentino, is running for the Chamber in Trentino-Alto Adige.

The centre-left coalition also includes Moderates for Piedmont (Moderati per il Piemonte) running for the Senate in Piedmont and Rosario Crocetta’s The Megaphone (Il Megafono) running for the Senate in Sicily.

With Monti for Italy (Con Monti per l’Italia) coalition led by Mario Monti (not candidate)

The Monti coalition will run in separate lists for the Chamber of Deputies but will run a single, common list for the Senate. Mario Monti, who is a senator-for-life, is not a candidate in this election but supports the coalition.

Civic Choice (Scelta Civica, SC): The ‘Civic Choice’ is a new centrist party formed to support Mario Monti and his reformist agenda.

Mario Monti is an economist and former European Commissioner (1994-2009) who became Prime Minister of Italy in November 2011, at the helm of a technocratic cabinet. Monti became Prime Minister in a period of crisis, on the verge of default. Monti’s reformist agenda included an emergency austerity package in 2011-2012 which significantly raised taxes and cut pensions. He has implemented various measures aimed at liberalizing and reforming the Italian economy, including 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 targeting fiscal evasion in Italy. Monti’s reforms have succeded in saving Italy from default and significantly reducing the country’s budget deficit; but his austerity policies have been criticized by the left and the Berlusconian right for having significantly increased unemployment and slowed economic growth in 2012 and 2013. Monti, as an individual, remains widely respected by the electorate, who view him as an honest man (a rarity in Italian politics at times) with a true desire to reform the Italian economy (despite disagreeing with his policy choices). His austerity policies, however, have become unpopular with most voters.

In the run-up to this year’s election, the recurring question was whether or not Monti would join the fray and run in the elections. Those who were the keenest on the idea where those who knew that they were destined to be an irrelevant sidenote in the election – namely the stillborn centrist ‘Third Pole’ with the UDC and FLI. These centrist parties were the most enthusiastic supporter of Monti’s government in Parliament and actively lobbied him to run. For those centrist parties, Monti was everything they could ever wish for: a centre-right leader who was not Berlusconi, and a leader with enough stature to take them places. After his government fell in December 2012, Monti announced just before New Year’s that he would be ‘supporting’ a coalition in the election (he cannot run himself).

The Civic Choice list for the Chamber of Deputies consists of various individuals, defectors and a small party. The party includes ‘Toward the Third Republic’ (VTR), a party which includes a group led by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the former chairman of Ferrari and president of Confindustria (the employer’s organization). Some of Monti’s ministers including Andrea Riccardi (international cooperation/integration) Renato Balduzzi (health) and Enzo Moavero Milanesi (European affairs) are running in the election on the party’s lists. It has welcomed dissidents from both the PdL (Franco Frattini, Berlusconi’s former foreign minister, is not running but supports the SC) and PD as well as smaller parties.

Monti’s coalition is also supported by the European People’s Party (of which the PdL is a member), The Economist (a longtime enemy of Berlusconi) and L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s unofficial voicepiece. The European Union and Angela Merkel have been very supportive of Monti’s policies.

Monti is running a Europhile, reformist and economically liberal campaign. It has claimed, disingenuously, that is neither left, right or centre but rather that it is a different reformist alternative. In reality, it is a centrist/centre-right and pro-European liberal coalition. Monti’s platform supports continued fiscal rigor and reforms to liberalize the economy and open up even more noncompetitive industries to competition. He also wishes to tackle corruption and increase labour force participation by the youth and women (Italy’s labour force participation rate for the young and women is very low). He is an ardent Europhile, supporting further European integration and he fully adheres to the European Fiscal Compact although he too would support Eurobonds.

The gist of Monti’s agenda is broadly captured by The Economist‘s op-ed piece on ‘True Progressivism’ from October 2012. The Economist‘s article presents ‘True Progressivism’ as the modern alternative to both Keynesian social democracy and raw right-wing capitalism (which has spawned too much social inequality). The premise of ‘True Progressivism’ and Monti’s liberal reformist agenda is that excessive inequality, as it currently stands, hampers growth; hence the priority should be to attack monopolies and vested interests (which is what Monti has done with ‘closed’ industries in Italy), focus spending on the poor and the young rather than the elderly (raising the retirement age) and reforming taxes to eliminate deductions which benefit the wealthy and narrowing the gap between tax rates on wages and capital income (rather than the left’s ‘tax-the-rich’ planks). It is a broadly liberal platform, though with a twist – there is less emphasis on reducing the size of government or tax cuts across the board.

Union of the Centre (Unione di Centro, UDC): The UDC is the latest partisan embodiment of a plethora of various centrist (centre-right) parties, heirs of the right-wing of the former DC. The UDC is a coalition which includes a number of local and regional parties but whose hegemonic force is Pier Fernando Casini’s Union of Christian and Centre Democrats (UDC).

Casini’s UDC (the party) was founded in 2002 by the merger of three parties; most significantly the Christian Democratic Centre (CCD), basically the right-wing of the DC which backed Berlusconi, and the United Christian Democrats (UCD), a pro-Berlusconi right-wing breakaway from the leftish PPI. CCD-UCD join lists in 1996 and 2001 had won 5.8% and 3.2% of the vote respectively. At its foundation, the UDC was the third largest party in Berlusconi’s coalition, surpassing the Lega. The UDC stuck with Berlusconi in the 2006 election (6.8%), but the party was sometimes a critical voice in cabinet. The CCD’s old leader and Berlusconi critic, Marco Follini, split from the UDC in 2006. Casini took an increasingly critical tone against Berlusconi after 2006.

For the 2008 elections, Casini’s UDC formed an independent list, the Union of the Centre which was basically the old UDC taking up a few random politicians and parties (including Bruno Tabacci’s White Rose) while the pro-Berlusconians joined the PdL. The centrist list won 5.6%, 36 deputies and 3 senators, a disappointing result for the party. After the election, Casini stayed in the centre. At the local and regional level, the UDC has allied both with the right and the left or gone their own way.

Casini was the driving force behind the creation, in 2010, of the ‘Third Pole’ (or New Pole), an attempt at a centrist alternative to both the left and the Berlusconian right. The Third Pole included Casini’s UDC, Fini’s FLI (see below), Rutelli’s ApI and Lombardo’s MPA. The longstanding pipe dream of the UDC and the post-DC centre has been to recreate the DC and regain its central, dominant role over politics. However, Italian politics under the Second Republic have become increasingly polarized between left and right and personalized around charismatic figures (Berlusconi mainly), Casini’s UDC lacked the clout and he lacked the charisma to take on the entrenched left and right. Furthermore, politics – both domestically and internationally – have changed since the First Republic’s heyday, and it is harder for a big tent centrist party (especially drawing its strength from its ties to the Catholic Church) like the DC to become the central force in politics. As such, the Third Pole quickly died out despite brief momentum in 2011. More or less, Monti’s coalition has replaced the Third Pole.

Ideologically, the UDC is a very socially conservative party (because of its close ties to the Church) but it has some interventionist economic positions because most of the UDC’s base consists of southerners, who tend to be more dependent on the central government. Indeed, as the First Republic faded away, the DC and its venal allies (particularly the PSI and PSDI) had seen their support shift to the south (while parties such as the Lega were taking their northern voters), where the networks of political patronage and clientelism had built a resilient electoral clientele which endured post-1994. The UDC’s support has been heavily southern and Sicilian. In 2008, the UDC won 9% in Sicily, 8% in Calabria and Apulia and 6.5% in Campania. Its best northern region was the Veneto (5.6%), it won only 4-5% in northern and central Italy.

Future and Freedom for Italy (Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia, FLI): The FLI is a centre-right party founded and led by Gianfranco Fini, the former leader of the neo-fascist MSI and later the national-conservative AN.

Gianfranco Fini, the dauphin of longtime Italian Social Movement (MSI) leader Giorgio Almirante, became leader of the MSI in 1987 and transformed the party, dropping its controversial neo-fascist past and shifting in a more palatable nationalist/conservative direction. The MSI, untainted by the First Republic’s scandals because of its exclusion from the system, came out strengthened from the system’s collapse. Fini launched the National Alliance (AN) to take the MSI’s place in 1994. Under Fini’s leadership, the AN became a close ally of Berlusconi’s coalition (despite disagreements with the Lega on federalism). It won 13.5%, 15.7%, 12% and 12.3% in the 1994, 1996, 2001 and 2006 elections respectively. Fini gradually kept moving the AN closer and closer to the mainstream right, leading some neo-fascists or other hardliners to leave the party. Fini became widely seen as Berlusconi’s heir-presumptive. The AN merged with the PdL in 2009.

However, Gianfranco Fini became increasingly critical of Berlusconi after the 2008 election. On the one hand, Fini had moved towards more liberal/progressive positions on some issues, including stem cell research, euthanasia, voting rights for foreigners and even immigration (even if Fini had authored a restrictive law on immigration under Berlusconi’s 2001-2006 government). There was also a power struggle at work between the two men. Fini disagreed with Berlusconi’s leadership style and particularly the organization of the PdL as a Berlusconian personality cult which ran on Berlusconi’s charisma and little (if anything) else. Fini wanted to prepare the right for the post-Berlusconi era and establish himself as the next leader of the right, he felt that the right needed to be renewed and moved closer to the European mainstream right a la Sarkozy and Cameron (Fini is a supporter of both).

In April 2010, Fini and his finiani supporters created an association within the PdL. The conflict between Berlusconi, backed by the PdL but also most ex-AN (who disagreed with Fini’s social liberal turn) and Fini kept increasing. At the end of July 2010, Fini’s supporters were excluded from the PdL. On July 30, 33 deputies and 10 senators split from the PdL to create the Future and Freedom (FLI) group in both houses. In November, it was transformed into a political party.

Fini’s FLI quickly joined the Third Pole with the UDC and other parties. However, the party’s initial momentum quickly died out. It has been severely weakened and politically marginalized by several divisions and defections. Some in the party, who were not too keen on burning all bridges with the PdL, have since rejoined the PdL and new defectors from the PdL have not compensated for their departure.

Ideologically, the FLI is on the centre-right. It is definitely very different from the the MSI or even the AN, even if it has retained its strong focus on national unity. In part, many of the FLI’s supporters are southern conservatives who are suspicious of the Lega and strongly support national unity. On economic issues, many of the FLI’s members are fairly interventionist and statist, in line with the MSI-AN’s more statist economic positions.

It is yet to be seen where the FLI’s electoral support will come from. If the MSI and the AN are any indication, the party will be strongest in the Latium region around Rome and in southern Italy. Indeed, the neo-fascist MSI found most of its support (during the First Republic) in southern Italy, where it was backed by shopkeepers, bureaucrats, some oligarchs and the ‘underclass’; but also in and around Rome, the capital city which had been promoted and developed by Mussolini’s fascist regime and where some bureaucrats or conservative shopkeepers remained nostalgic of the fascist regime. Rome’s current mayor, Gianni Alemanno (PdL), is a former fascist. The AN was the largest party in Rome and the Latium in the 1990s. In 1996, the AN won 29% in the Latium, 23% in Calabria, and 18% in Campania and Apulia. By 2006, the AN’s support in the far south had dropped off a bit, compensated by new voters in the north and centre (10-11% of the vote); but in remained strong in the Latium, as always (19%).

Five Star Movement (MoVimento 5 Stelle, M5S) led by Beppe Grillo (not candidate)

The M5S is the new movement which may shake up Italian politics, the party (or ‘movement’) which may achieve a significant electoral breakthrough this year. The party is fairly young, it was founded in 2009 by popular and successful comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo.

The M5S is a populist, anti-corruption, anti-establishment, anti-system and anti-elitist movement – basically a true populist ‘outsider’ party which wants to destroy the existing political system, which virulently attacks and opposes everything it sees. Besides this anti-system populism, the M5S is tough to place ideologically. The party’s ‘five stars’ stand for public water, public transportation, development, connectivity (internet freedom) and the environment – those are more or less the party’s main ideological orientations. At the outset, the M5S was classified as a left-wing or even far-left party. Indeed, the M5S is radical ecologist (of the ‘degrowth’ kind) and it has strongly supported maintaining public services and social justice.

At the core of the M5S is a vitriolic and foul-mouthed denunciation of the entire Italian political system. Italy’s political system is very flawed, with endemic political corruption being chief amongst Italy’s political problems. Many politicians, both left and right, have campaigned against corruption and been vocal critics of corrupt politicians or groups. What makes Grillo different is that he denounces the entire political system; for him, the system is rotten to its core and must be destroyed entirely. He represents career politicians as ‘parasites’ who live at the expense of taxpayers and bring nothing but ruin and corruption to the country, and voters must get rid of them. As such, the M5S feels that traditional representative democracy is dead, the party wants to replace it with direct democracy in which internet and new technologies would play a major part.

Beppe Grillo is not the formal leader of the party, and he is not a candidate in this election (because of a criminal conviction in the 1980s, apparently); but M5S is pretty clearly his party. Grillo, a former comedian, is a charismatic (others would say demagogic) populist leader, whose speeches consists of tirades and insults against the system and politicians. He also enjoys generating controversy by making bold pronouncements: politicians are worse than the mafia, and more recently a “call” on terrorists to blow up the Parliament.

‘Grillist’ lists started to flourish about a year before the M5S’ official creation; in the 2008 election, a ‘Grillist’ list had won 0.2% nationally. The party first gained notoriety in the 2010 regional elections when the party took 2-6% of the vote in some regions, enough to allow the right to win. In its early days, the M5S mostly attracted far-left voters, unhappy with the PD’s mediocre performance in opposition and left disoriented by the disarray of the communist left. It won 7% in Emilia-Romagna, a left-wing stronghold, and took 2 seats there. In the Piedmont, where it won 4%, it ‘stole’ votes from the left and allowed the Lega’s Roberta Cota to win the regional presidency. The party’s support may also have ‘spoiled’ the 2011 regional election in Molise, where the M5S won more votes than the right’s margin of victory over the left.

The party burst onto the scene in the May 2012 local elections, where it surprised almost everybody by performing extremely strongly in both major cities and smaller towns. While the PdL was annihilated at the polls, the M5S came out of nowhere to perform very strongly: it won 14% in Genoa (ahead of the PdL), 12% in Alessandria, 9% in Verona, and 10% in Monza and Piacenza. In the runoff, the biggest upset came from Parma, where the M5S’ Federico Pizzarotti had won 19.5% in the first round and qualified for the first round against the left (which came out far ahead of the pack with 39%). But in the runoff, Pizzarotti won 60.2% of the vote, trouncing the left. It owed its victory to the support of first round right-wing voters. But the victory in Parma and two smaller cities (Mira, Comacchio) put the party on the map. The M5S surged nationally, riding a wave of momentum. It regularly polled 15-20%, often second ahead of the PdL, throughout summer 2012.

In the October 2012 Sicilian regional elections, the party – despite a little-known candidate and a shoestring campaign dependent on Grillo’s antics (swimming across the Strait from the mainland) – won 18% in the presidential race and 15% in the list vote (becoming, in the process, the largest party in a divided landscape). The Sicilian elections confirmed that M5S was not merely a flavour of the month or a passing trend.

The M5S’ momentum has leveled off a bit during the actual campaign, but the party will nevertheless do very well on January 24-25. What explains the M5S’ surge to such heights?

The economic crisis and austerity has played a major role. The other side of Monti’s austerity measures have been a prolonged economic recession, increasing unemployment, particularly among the youth, lower pensions for retirees and even higher taxes for entrepreneurs or small businessmen (given that Italy’s tax burden is already very high). The austerity and the reforms (particularly tax increases, the IMU and pension reform) have created resentment and major social discontent. As in all economic crises, many Italians – especially the youth, the poor and low-income retirees – are suffering considerably.

What Grillo says about Italian politicians also resonates with many voters. There are many worthy politicians in Italy, but at the same time the observation that many (most?) Italian politicians are corrupt criminals, stale and boring party hacks, selfish career politicians, incompetent or self-absorbed egomaniacs holds some truth – Italy ranks as the third most corrupt country in the EU after Greece and Bulgaria and is rated as more corrupt than Brazil, South Africa, Romania and Turkey.

One of the main subjects of debate in Italian politics since Monti took over has been the privileges of la casta, a previleged caste of politicians, MPs, senior bureaucrats and public servants (who have lifelong pensions).

Corruption is nothing new in Italy, whose political system has long been riddled with political corruption, arch-corrupt politicians and links between organized crime and senior politicians (the DC, for example, had close ties to the mafia; the mafia is tied to both left and right-wing politicians in the south). But voters either accepted corruption as a part of life, sought to benefit themselves from political corruption or sighed powerless as corruption was something impossible to fully tackle. However, with the climate of austerity and a government demanding ‘sacrifices’ from all Italians, there has been a major upsurge in popular anger towards privileged political elites and those who abused the system and filled their pockets. Beppe Grillo’s virulent attacks on the entire political system and corrupt politicians everywhere has certainly resonated with many voters who want to express their frustration and anger.

The M5S benefited, especially in 2012, from the decrepitude of the Berlusconian right – the PdL was falling apart without Berlusconi there to hold together; the Lega lost all its credibility and its original anti-corruption populist appeal with the Bossi embezzlement shenanigans. In the 2012 local and regional elections, many right-wing voters abstained – turnout in the locals and especially in Sicily was abysmal by Italy’s high-turnout standards – but many right-wing voters also voted for the M5S, as the nature of the M5S’ victory in Parma shows. One must remember that the Lega, especially in its early days (1992) but even in later years, chased the anti-establishment protest vote which the M5S is now appealing to. Despite ideological disagreements between the Berlusconian right and Grillo – although both share a similar anti-tax rhetoric – the M5S has proven to be a good receptacle for angry right-wing voters, especially those who voted for the Lega in the past.

Grillo’s platform in this election is rather vague on some matters, but clearer on other issues. It is clearly anti-austerity, and also anti-Euro. The M5S opposes the common currency and is nostalgic of the “lovely old lira we could immediately devalue by 40% to 50%” which would make Italy, it claims, more competitive. Grillo promises to organize a referendum on exiting the Euro. He also opposes public funding for political parties and would naturally crack down on corruption and conflict of interest. On other issues, however, the manifesto is vaguer: to reduce the budget deficit, for example, Grillo’s party wants to ‘cut waste’ and introduce ‘new technologies’ to allow ‘public access to information and services without the need for intermediaries’.

Civil Revolution (Rivoluzione Civile, RC) led by Antonio Ingroia

The Civil Revolution is a left-wing anti-corruption list which includes Italy of Values (Italia dei Valori, IdV), the Communist Refoundation Party (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, PRC), the Party of Italian Communists (Partito dei Comunisti Italiani, PdCI), the Federation of the Greens (Federazione dei Verdi) and the Orange Movement (Movimento Arancione). All these parties form a single list for both the Chamber and Senate. The coalition was formed in January 2013.

The coalition is led by Antonio Ingroia, an anti-mafia magistrate with no prior political or electoral experience.

Italy of Values (Italia dei Valori, IdV): IdV, whose heyday of political relevance has seemingly passed, is a uniquely Italian party which reflects the oddities of the Italian political system, especially since 1994. IdV is a centre-left/left-wing party, but its raison-d’être is fighting political corruption and promoting honesty and integrity. Its law-and-order orientation would make it an odd fit for the left in any other western European country.

The party was founded in 1998 by Antonio Di Pietro, a famous Milanese anti-mafia/anti-corruption magistrate who spearheaded the mani pulite investigations which brought down the First Republic in 1994. Di Pietro had already served as a cabinet minister in the Prodi I cabinet in 1996, and as a novice politician he became known for his vocal opposition to Berlusconi, who had used the breakdown of the First Republic to launch his political career but who later vilified those who brought it down as ‘communists’. In its early years, IdV cooperated with Prodi’s party, the Democrats; IdV ran with the Democrats in the 1999 Euros and they won 7.7%. However, Di Pietro opposed Prime Minister Giuliano Amato’s centre-left cabinet (Amato, a former PSI stalwart, had been investigated by Di Pietro in the past) and IdV stood alone in the 2001 election, winning 3.9% and falling just short of the threshold for PR seats.

Between 2001 and 2006 it slowly walked out of its isolation and joined The Union, the left-wing coalition. It won 2.3% in the 2006 election, but because of its alignment with the centre-left coalition it won 17 deputies. The party did not join the PD, but it was part of Walter Veltroni’s coalition in the 2008 election. It made sizable gains, taking 4.4% of the vote and 29 deputies and 14 senators. With Di Pietro’s virulent opposition to Berlusconi and his tough, uncompromising style against the government, IdV benefited from the PD’s underwhelming performance in opposition and enjoyed high levels of support between 2009 and 2011. It won 8% of the vote in the 2009 European elections and in the 2011 local election in Naples, IdV candidate Luigi De Magistris eliminated the PD candidate by the first round and crushed the PdL in the runoff. In 2012, Leoluca Orlando, a longtime anti-mafia icon in Sicily and former mayor of Palermo in the 1990s, won the local election in Palermo. The party originally backed Monti but joined the ranks of the opposition after the first austerity decree.

Luigi De Magistris, a left-wing (ex-PCI) former prosecutor in Catanzaro, emerged as a forceful rival to Di Pietro’s leadership of the IdV. De Magistris wanted to move the party to the left, somewhat at odds with the party’s membership in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and its nature as a big-tent party uniting anti-corruption activists of various ideological backgrounds (many deputies had a DC background). De Magistris pushed Di Pietro to align with the left, alienating some IdV deputies in the process – two IdV deputies even voted for Berlusconi’s cabinet in December 2010 and proved crucial to his government’s survival in that vote. The party’s momentum ended abruptly in 2012 with M5S’ emergence on the scene. M5S is like a more radical version of IdV, which rejects traditional party politics and brands all politicians as crooks.

IdV’s strong anti-corruption, moralistic and law-and-order stances are somewhat odd for a left-liberal or left-wing party; although in the context of Italian politics since 1994, anti-corruption politics is often associated with the left because of Berlusconi. On other issues, the party may find common ground with the right (on federalism) but in most other aspects it aligns with the left.

Luigi De Magistris and other IdV left-wingers left the party in October 2012 and founded the Orange Movement (Movimento Arancione).

The Communist Refoundation Party (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, PRC) was, as related above, founded in December 1991 by PCI hardliners led by Sergio Garavini who opposed the PCI’s evolution into the PDS. Between 1992 and 2006, the PRC usually won in the vicinity of 5-6% nationally although it peaked at 8.6% in 1996. The PRC was unofficially allied to the centre-left coalitions in the 1994 and 1996 elections. The PRC propped up Prodi’s cabinet from the outside until 1998, when it withdrew its support and caused his government to collapse. Those PRC members, led by Armando Cossutta, who disagreed with the decision to withdraw from the government formed a new party, the Party of Italian Communists (Partito dei Comunisti Italiani, PdCI) which continued the alliance with the centre-left but never achieved much success electorally in doing so (1-2%).

The PRC reunited with the centre-left coalition ahead of the 2006 general election. It joined Prodi’s cabinet, and although it disagreed with the government on some foreign policy matters it never went as far as bringing it down (that was done by a venal centre-right ally, Clemente Mastella).In 2007, the PRC broke with the centre-left and formed a left-wing alliance (The Left – The Rainbow) with the PdCI and the very leftist Greens; in the 2008 election, this coalition ended in an unprecedented disaster for the ‘left of the left’ winning only 3.1% nationally and no seats whatsoever (the first Parliament with no communists since 1921).

The 2008 disaster led to an internal power struggle, with the party’s hard left defeating incumbent leader Fausto Bertinotti (who had tried to move the party away from doctrinaire paleocommunism towards a New Left, anti-globalization and eco-socialist line). Bertinotti silently encouraged PRC reformists/New Leftists around Vendola, on the losing side (but with 47.6%) of the leadership struggle in 2008, to leave the party. After Vendola left the party, the PRC allied with the PdCI to form a Federation of the Left (FdS), which has had limited success – Vendola’s SEL was a much more attractive force on the left.

The Federation of the Greens (Federazione dei Verdiis Italy’s main green party. Green politics in Italy, in contrast to its neighbors, has been a miserable failure since they kicked off in the 1980s. Most of green politicians who would lead a green party in Germany or France are members of the PD, where they form a sizable faction. The Greens have never managed to win over 2% of the vote on their own in any election (they first ran in 1987). They did have, at their origins, considerable success in the Veneto region – winning up to 7% in the 1990 regional elections there.

The party shifted to the far-left in the twenty-first century, abandoning their ertswhile moderate left-wing orientation and firmly aligning with the PRC. After the 2008 disaster, the Greens briefly joined Vendola’s coalition for the 2009 European elections, but fearing that they would stop being a miserable failure, they quickly decided to tie its fortunes to the moribund FdS. To mimic the French greens (which is rarely a good idea), they recently founded some kind of green superstructure – the Ecologists and Civic Networks.

Outside these five major actors, the most relevant also-ran outfit – out of over a million – is Stop the Decline (Fare per Fermare il Declino), a neoliberal/libertarian party which supports major debt and deficit reductions, tax cuts, federalism, economic liberalization and privatization. It is led by Oscar Giannino, a journalist. The party only made headlines recently, but for the wrong reasons: Giannino fabricated his resume by falsely claiming he had an Italian law degree and a masters from the University of Chicago’s prestigious School of Business.

What to expect

This election hasn’t worked out like the pundits wanted it to. This election was supposed to be the ‘1994 election’ all over again, the election which marked a clean break with a political era and ushered in a new political era – the Third Republic. Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011 and the subsequent unraveling of both his dominant right-wing coalition and his own party left many thinking that this election would mark the end of Berlusconi’s influence over Italian politics. The PdL and the Lega had basically been annihilated and left dying on the side of the road after the 2012 elections; as recently as October, the Sicilian elections had shown that the Berlusconian right was facing extinction.

The Italian political system since 1994 was rather unusual within western Europe. Most other western European countries have a traditional left-right political system, with relatively strong partisan and ideological traditions which have subsisted – albeit not unchallenged – for decades, despite trends towards ‘de-ideologization’ and greater convergence between the left and the right after the fall of communism. Even if charismatic politicians are powerful leaders in those countries, political legitimacy in those countries is based on ‘legal authority’ as described by Max Weber. Italy under the First Republic was even the epitome of such a system, given the strong power of political parties and the relative absence of dominant charismatic political leaders. And Italy, like western Europe, went through a clear process of ‘de-ideologization’ following the end of the Cold War; the clear left-right division was blurred a bit by the dissolution of the PCI and the legitimization of previously marginalized or irrelevant political forces (right-wing populism and nationalism with the MSI-AN, regionalist populism with the Lega).

In Second Republic Italy, however, despite the presence and relevance of a left-right cleavage and past ideological traditions; politics have been heavily structured around one man, Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi revolutionized Italian politics; he personalized a political system which under the First Republic had been extremely impersonal and driven by parties, not individuals. Berlusconi imported American-style campaigning techniques (TV advertising, mass mailings, focus groups) in Italy, and he radically changed the structure, direction and style of the Italian centre-right. He structured his parties – personal vehicles – along the ‘business-firm party’ model and relied extensively on his own personal charisma to lead his parties. Political legitimacy under the Italian Second Republic has been based, not entirely but in good part, on ‘charismatic authority’ rather than traditional modern ‘legal authority’.

The 2013 election was seen by many as the election which would change Italian politics, as profoundly as the 1994 election had changed Italian politics then. Berlusconi had lost all credibility and legitimacy in government between 2008 and 2011; his poor record, his governance style, his incessant buffoonery and antics, his sexual travails and corruption scandals had alienated most voters as Italy teetered on the edge of the cliff. Even if he returned to take the helm of the PdL for a final time, he would no longer be an asset to his party. The right’s collapse in 2012, combined with the rise of an anti-system receptacle of protest votes (the M5S) which was similar to what the Lega Nord had been in 1992, seemed to confirm that 2013 would see a major political realignment and the birth of the Third Republic. At that point, the right would ‘de-Berlusconize’ and find new bases and styles, perhaps with the ‘Third Pole’ of 2010-2011.

But Berlusconi has already proven almost everybody wrong. When everybody thought he was going to retire, he came back with a splash, truly like the proverbial phoenix rising from the flames one last time (or the Titanic’s stern rising one last time?). When everybody dismissed him, judging by his party’s abysmal polling in 2012, he came back with a roar.

The main headlines of this election have been “Berlusconi’s comeback“, not unlike his comeback from the lows of 2004-2005 in the 2006 election. From around 23-25% support for his coalition in early January, Berlusconi has boosted his support to 27-30% today. The surge is slightly less impressive than often portrayed. Part of the surge illusion comes from comparing apples and oranges: the Lega’s decision to back the coalition added 4-6% to its totals; before the Lega rejoined him, the PdL alone was polling at 15-17% alone. Today, the PdL is polling about 19-22% or so, the Lega has 4-5% support and the other parties poll around 3% altogether. Nevertheless, it is clear that Berlusconi has boosted his support in polls.

Berlusconi remains a master at campaigning, probably the best campaigner in Italian politics today. Like in 1994, he is a master at political communication; television remains his medium and he knows how to work it and his speeches interlaced with jokes and snide remarks are still successful. Although Berlusconi is far more unpopular with the wider electorate than in 2008, his well-oiled and well-run populist campaign have reignited latent support for the old Berlusconian right and has regained some lost supporters, who fell out with him in 2012 and turned to abstention or other parties.

Berlusconi’s somewhat outlandish pledges have also resonated well with a part of the electorate. His big promise to abolish and refund the hated property tax (IMU) decreed by Monti’s cabinet is popular with voters who feel strangled by even higher taxes. Berlusconi also knows to milk the popularity of his IMU promise to its maximum; he didn’t only promise to abolish it, he then promised to refund it and he sent out a mass mailing to households detailing his plan to refund the IMU.

Monti was always going to have an uphill battle in his attempt to recreate the pre-1994 vaguely centre-right moderate coalitions of boring politicians. Since 1994, Italian politics (like those in other countries) have become heavily personalized and the personality of the ‘top candidates’ for Prime Minister have played a major role in every election. More or less, successful candidates need to be charismatic, telegenic leaders who are able to communicate.

Monti was not that kind of candidate. Even without taking into account the unpopularity of his policies with most voters, Monti is a competent technocrat but he is a terrible politician. He is uncharismatic and has a fairly stale and boring style and demeanor. He’s awkward on television and is bad at communicating his platform.

If only The Economist, The Financial Times and Angela Merkel’s cabinet could vote, then Monti would win a landslide. His close association with these various groups, his strongest supporters, don’t play well in Italy. A fairly horrible campaign, a stale and unexciting technocrat selling policies which are unpopular with most voters and a close association with foreign actors which are distrusted or disliked at home has made this campaign a tough one for Monti.

The left has been the favourite to win this election since 2011. While the right ripped itself apart and while the M5S surged out of nowhere, the left was comfortably riding atop it all. It is not to say that the left, the PD in particular, was doing all that well. It too failed to excite many voters, given its mediocre leadership and its poor performance in Parliament since the last election. Nichi Vendola was a brief exception to this, briefly riding a wave of momentum to around 6-8% support in polls until last year. But his momentum has since petered out and the SEL will come out with a paltry 3-4% of the vote when all is said and done.

Pier Luigi Bersani, Italy’s next Prime Minister? (source: Yahoo news)

In part, the left – if it wins – will have won a Pyrrhic victory, with lower support than in the 2008 election. Not, by any measure, an emphatic endorsement of either the PD or its broader coalition. It will have won partly by default, partly by managing to remain above the fray and not tear itself apart like the right. It will not have won by assembling a large coalition of new or first-time voters excited by the prospect of a centre-left government or a Prime Minister Bersani. What has changed since 2008 is that the ‘threshold’ for victory is much lower, because of the fragmentation of the political landscape in 2013.

Bersani, like Monti, is a boring and stale politician who delivers sleep-inducing stump speeches. He also has the damaging image of being one of the PD’s ‘old guard’ party bosses who have prevented renewal and change on the centre-left. If Matteo Renzi, the young reformist mayor of Florence who threatened the PD establishment and challenged party orthodoxy on major issues, had been the left’s candidate, many believe he would have done much better in this election and would be riding to victory.

But while the Italian left is good at governing, it is absolutely horrible at actually winning elections. It once again showed off its time-honoured ability to turn sure victories into elections which are far too close for its comfort. The left tried to take the easy way out throughout the campaign by remaining above the fray and hoping that it would not get pulled down by the actions of the other actors. This strategy hasn’t really worked out. Grillo’s support didn’t evaporate during the campaign and Berlusconi reignited the right and started pulling down the left.

This election has confirmed the personalization of Italian politics since 1994. The two men who came out stronger during the campaign were Berlusconi, the slick and wily old politico who worked the crowds; and Grillo, the brash and histrionic outsider who fired up new crowds. The two men who didn’t come out stronger during the campaign were Monti, the technocrat who isn’t a politician; and Bersani, the boring ‘old guard’ politician and unremarkable former cabinet minister.

It should be noted, however, that control of the television is not the only route to success. Grillo’s campaign deliberately avoided many TV appearances, instead focusing on the internet/social media and traditional rallies in town squares across Italy. Grillo, with his “mad-as-hell” style, has managed to turn out crowds of thousands. His final huge rally in Rome turned out thousands.

Polls and predictions

Italian law bans the official publication of polls in the last two weeks before the election. The average of the last polls by all pollsters, on Feb 6-8, was as follows:

IBC/Centre-left 34.3% (32.2%-37.2%)
Centre-right 28.9% (27.4%-32.7%)
M5S 15.6% (12.5%-18.8%)
Monti 13.4% (10.2%-14.8%)
RC 4.3% (3.5%-5.9%)
Others 3.4% (1.3%-8.4%)

Polls by coalition, past year (source:

All pollsters, throughout 2012 and the campaign, have shown the centre-left coalition leading. Only three pollsters (Euromedia, SpinCon, Piepoli) have had the centre-right coalition at over 30% in polls in 2013.

However, while the law bans the publication of polls, it does not ban polling and pollsters have continued polling in secret since February 8. These polls are disguised, dressed up and published ‘unofficially’ on various blogs or news outlets. One way, on, has been to shift the focus from politics to “horse racing”; on YouTrend, the focus is now a running commentary on a Papal Conclave with a leftist cardinal from Piacenza (Bersani) and a conservative cardinal from Monza and Brianza (Berlusconi).

The horse race numbers on February 22 (by Piepoli) showed the ‘Bien Commun’ running on 36 minutes, ahead of the ‘Maison Liberté’ which is trailing on 30 minutes. Igor Brick (M5S) is up to 18.5 minutes, solidifying his advance on the Ipson team (Monti) which is down to 10.5; Galopin du Zacapa (RC) is disqualified, it only has 3.5 minutes. The papal conclave shows different results: the cardinal from Piacenza is at 33 supporters, his conservative rival from Monza and Brianza has 28 supporters (20 of which support him directly). The surprise in the conclave could be a strong showing by an exuberant chap from Genoa, denouncing the previliges of the clerical elites, he has 19 supporters; this places him well ahead of the icy cardinal from Milan who has only 14 supporters. The ‘inquisitor from Palermo’ has the backing of only 3 cardinals.

These conclaves and horses seem to confirm that Bersani’s centre-left has maintained its momentum and retains a lead over the right (but a poll has shown its lead down to only 1.5%), while Grillo is the late surger of this campaign and is heading to a strong third place showing with nearly 20% of the vote – well ahead of Monti, who will place a paltry fourth.

The expectation is that the centre-left coalition will come out victorious on Monday evening. The leaked polls still have it ahead. By nature of the electoral system, Bersani’s coalition – even on an underwhelming level of support – will win an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies. The Piepoli poll leaked above, obviously, predicts 340 seats for the left (302 PD, 28 SEL, 10 CD) against 141 for the right (111 PdL, 23 LN, 7 others). Monti would win 49 seats (36 SC, 11 UDC, 2 FLI) and M5S would take 87 seats. If Berlusconi staged an upset and won the election, regardless of the margin, it would also win a majority (over 340 seats).

Within the respective coalitions, the PD has coalesced almost the entirety of the centre-left coalition’s votes around it. In 2008, the PD had won 33% of the vote, a very good result. This year it could win around 27-30% of the vote, while Vendola’s SEL will come out with only 3-4%. Vendola likely peaked way too soon, and some of his erstwhile likely preferred the more radical and uncompromising M5S and RC.

On the centre-right, Berlusconi’s own party – the PdL – is not polling particularly well despite his ‘surge’. Most polls peg him at around 18-21% support, with a chance that Grillo could beat him to become the second largest party. The Lega Nord is consistently polling around 4-6%, which would be down from its 2008 result. The other parties in the centre-right coalition, collectively, poll around 3% support – but for each one of them, the race will be tough to either break 2% or become the largest centre-right coalition party below the threshold.

The leaked polls in the final days have shown late momentum for Grillo’s party, which will almost certainly finish at least in third place and place comfortably ahead of Monti’s coalition. Grillo has about 17-21% support in the polls, and he could even become the second largest party.

Monti’s coalition will probably be in for bad news for Monday. While it should manage to break into double digits, polling around 10-13% together, it will be in a distant fourth. Monti’s SC has managed to coalesce almost the entirety of the coalition’s support behind it, and should emerge with 7-10% support, while Casini’s UDC and especially Fini’s FLI will be crushed. The UDC could poll about 2-3% at most, while the FLI should stay in the 1% range. However, by virtue of being in a coalition with only three parties, the FLI will manage to eek out a few seats in the Chamber – but it will still be a horrible showing by Fini’s party.

For Ingroia’s Civil Revolution, it will be touch and go. Most polls show him barely below the 4% threshold, stabilizing at around 3-3.5% support, but there is an outside chance that he could be pushed over 4%.

The race will be for the Senate, where the majority bonus works at the regional level. The leaked Piepoli poll for the Senate showed that the left would fall short of a majority there (it needs 158 seats to win a majority), even with a 7 point led nationally over Berlusconi. It would win 148 seats (141 PD, 7 SEL) against 89 for Berlusconi (71 PdL, 18 LN), 42 for Grillo and 22 for Monti. If the right won an upset victory, it would probably not win enough to win an absolute majority in the Senate either.

There are a few major battleground regions, closely watched like in American elections, which will decide the senatorial race. One of those regions is Lombardy, traditionally a right-wing stronghold which is highly competitive this year and a major trophy for whoever wins it. A leaked poll on February 22 had the right with 40.5% against 39% for the left (9% Monti, 7% M5S). A ‘papal conclave’ leaked poll also had the right ahead recently, up 3.5% on the left.

The right is said to hold a comfortable lead in the Veneto, one of the most conservative regions. The papal conclave poll had it up 4 points there. Friuli-Venezia Giulia is also a battleground region, likely with a narrow lean to the left. If Piedmont were to go for the right on election night, the left would be in major trouble.

In the south, Sicily – traditionally a right-wing stronghold – is the main battleground region. The papal conclave poll had the right up 3 points there. But the race in Campania and Apulia is also closely contested. The same leaked poll showed a tied race in Apulia, while the left had a statistically insignificant 1 point edge in Campania.

Scenaripolitici sums up the various options for the Senate in a handy chart here. If the right wins only Veneto and Lombardy, the left would hold a tiny majority on its own. If it added Sicily to that, the left would lack a majority but could govern with Monti’s support. A victory in FVG or Apulia, in addition to those three regions, would make a left+Monti upper house majority shakier. If the right, in an upset, were to sweep all uncertain regions, it would hold only a tiny plurality over the left according to these scenarios and would be unable to form an upper house majority.

Therefore, if Berlusconi won, he would have the confidence of the Chamber but he would certainly lack the Senate. It is very hard to see Berlusconi reaching a deal with either the left or Monti (M5S won’t deal with anybody) in the Senate, given how the left/Monti hate Berlusconi and how he hates them in return. Berlusconi’s victory on Monday would probably mean a snap election very quickly, unless he achieves the impossible in the Senate.

Regional elections

There will also be regional elections in Lombardy, Lazio (Latium) and Molise on Sunday and Monday. All three are snap elections in which the regional president will be directly elected alongside the regional legislature.

Largest party by comuni in the 2010 regional elections, Lombardy (source:

Lombardy, Italy’s most populous region and the economic powerhouse of northern Italy (Milan), will be the big prize of these regional elections. It has been a right-wing stronghold since 1948, it only had a single left-wing regional president (1992-1994). Roberto Formigoni, one of the leading ex-DC figures in Berlusconi’s party (FI and later PdL), has been the region’s president since 1995. He has always won comfortable majorities, in the 2010 regional elections he was reelected with 56.1% against 33.3% for the centre-left candidate. Even in the 2005 regional elections, a ‘red wave’ year throughout Italy, he beat the left by about 10 points.

Lombardy is also the birthplace of the Lega Lombarda, and while the Veneto has usually been the Lega’s strongest region, the Lega’s leadership (Bossi, Maroni) comes from Lombardy and the Lega is a very powerful force. In 2010, the Lega won 26.2% (second largest party behind the PdL) on the list vote and swept the mountainous provinces of Bergamo and Sondrio. The Lega briefly held the regional presidency, between 1994 and 1995.

The left has been weak in the region for decades, but the Second Republic proved especially tough for the centre-left. The left is strongest in the low-lying border provinces of Mantova, Cremona, Lodi and Pavia; it also has substantial support in Milan’s working-class suburbs (the old ‘Red Belt’ where the PCI was dominant) but Berlusconi and the Lega made major inroads in those areas since 1994.

Formigoni was forced to resign when one of his allies was arrested on accusations he bought votes from the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian mafia) and extorted favours and public building contracts.

One of the points in the Berlusconi-Lega coalition deal in January was that the PdL would support Roberto Maroni’s candidacy for the regional presidency. If he wins, the Lega would control the regional presidencies of the three largest regions in northern Italy: Piedmont, Lombardy and the Veneto. Maroni’s left-wing rival (also supported by RC) is Umberto Ambrosoli, a lawyer. The Monti’s coalition candidate is Gabriele Albertini, a PdL MEP and the right-wing mayor of Milan between 1997 and 2006. Silvana Carcano is the M5S’ candidate.

The race is extremely competitive this year. The last official polls had Ambrosoli (PD) with a statistically insignificant 1 or 2 point edge over Maroni (LN-PdL) with Carcano (M5S) at around 10% and Albertini (Monti) with about 7% support. A final leaked poll showed Maroni’s horse a short distance behind Ambrosoli’s horse, 41-39. But another recent leaked poll had Maroni up 44.5 to 42 over the left.

Lazio (Latium) includes Rome and surrounding provinces and it is the third most populous region in Italy. Unlike Lombardy, the Lazio has been a hotly contested ‘swing’ region since 1948, with close DC-PCI contests under the First Republic and similarly close left-right battles since 1994. The right, with Renata Polverini (a trade unionist linked to a right-wing union, UGL), regained the region from the left in 2010. Polverini won 51.1% against 48.3% for Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner and leader of the Italian Radicals. The left had won the region in 2005, defeating Francesco Storace (AN) who had himself defeated a left-wing incumbent in 2000.

The left enjoys strong support in the province of Rome, both in the capital itself and in industrial suburban towns surrounding the city to the north and east. The right is usually strongest in the Roman hinterland, particularly strong in the coastal Latina province – a province built and promoted by Mussolini. The fascist regime has had a strong influence over regional politics. Mussolini’s grandiose imperial dreams meant that he developed, modernized and promoted Rome and its hinterland and envisioned to turn a fairly marginal region into the lavish capital of a reborn Roman Empire. Even if Mussolini’s imperial projects failed, his regeneration of Rome and the Lazio were rather successful. Electorally, after the end of the war, fascist nostalgia was particularly strong in the region – the MSI was strong, and after 1994, the AN was the dominant right-wing party in Rome and the Lazio (with strong support, peaking at nearly 30% and rarely dipping below 20%).

Polverini was forced to resign amid a scandal over the alleged embezzlement of public funds by regional councillors who used those funds to buy cars, holidays, lavish dinners and even a bawdy masked ‘toga party’. This scandal came at a particularly inappropriate time, given the austerity and calls on ‘sacrifices’ by regular Italians. It reinforced views of politicians as corrupt and overpaid.

The left’s candidate is Nicola Zingaretti, the PD president of the province of Rome. The right’s candidate is former regional president Francesco Storace, leader of the hard-right La Destra. The centre is backing Giulia Bongiorno, a finiani FLI deputy; the M5S candidate is Davide Barillari. Zingaretti is the favourite to win, the last polls had him with about 45% against only 28% for Storace.

The tiny southern region of Molise is a rural, conservative and devout Catholic region. Under the First Republic, it was one of the DC’s best regions – the DC won an absolute majority in the regional council in every election between 1970 and 1990. Since then, the left has been stronger in the region – partly because Antonio Di Pietro’s IdV has been rather strong in his native region. The left won the regional presidency in 1995 and 2000, but the 2000 election was later invalidated and the right won the 2001 election. The right’s Angelo Michele Iorio (FI/PdL) was reelected in 2006 and 2011. In the 2011 election, Iorio won 46.9% against 46.2% for the left – a close election in which the M5S’ 5.6% likely allowed the right to win. The election was overturned in 2012.

Iorio is running again. The left’s candidate, backed by IdV, is Paolo Di Laura Frattura. While the UDC is backing Iorio, Massimo Romano seems to be a local centrist candidate. Polls are hard to come by, but Scenaripolitici’s poll showed Iorio running one point ahead of the left with Romano in third on 21%.


Italian politics are almost always a mess, this year they’re an even bigger mess (hence why this post is absurdly long!). The polls, the trends and common wisdom seem to indicate that Bersani and the left will pull out an underwhelming, Pyrrhic victory on Monday evening. But the left had been supposed to pull out a comfortable victory in the 2006 election, but Berlusconi ended up almost winning the election which was decided by less than one percentage point. The ‘Berlusconi comeback’ this year and the left’s shrinking lead in the last stretch of the campaign has left-wingers in Italy and abroad worried about the prospect of a Berlusconi upset, like in 2006. But the circumstances seem different this year, and even the leaked polls are not showing any last minute Berlusconi surge – if anybody is in a position to do extremely well and surprise everybody on Monday, it’s Grillo, not Berlusconi. Besides, even if Berlusconi was to win on Monday, he would lack a senatorial majority and would find it impossible to govern.

The Italian left in government has usually been moderate, reformist and hardly radical. What seems to worry foreign investors and Monti’s foreign fanclub is Vendola’s presence in the centre-left coalition. Few are worried about Bersani, who was a reformer while in Prodi’s second government and will likely govern in a way which will not ruffle feathers and upset his European partners or investors. However, they fear that Vendola, who is anti-austerity and unambiguously left-wing, could be in a strong position to influence the government and push it in a left-wing direction. Vendola, for example, supports a Hollande-like super tax on high-income earners, which is totally unpalatable for foreign investors and the markets.

Monti’s foreign fanclub is resigned to a left-wing victory, but their best-case scenario is one where Bersani lacks a majority in the Senate and is forced to come to an agreement with Monti. Monti doesn’t dislike the PD or the left, he just dislikes Vendola and some left-wingers in the PD who are closely tied to the left-wing trade union CGIL. A Bersani-Monti deal for a senatorial majority is not impossible, in fact it is probably even likely. But Vendola is opposed to any deal with Monti and could find it hard to go along with such a deal, which would likely mean that Monti would retain a certain degree of influence over economic policy and would pressure Bersani’s government into supporting further economic liberalization and austerity measures. Then again, with the PD coming out as the hegemonic force on the centre-left, he could afford – though it could prove costly later – to break off the alliance with the SEL altogether and team up with Monti.

Italy’s election on Sunday and Monday could prove of capital importance to the future of the country and its political system. Besides, Italian politics are always fun to follow.

Election Preview: Israel 2013

A general election will be held in Israel on January 22, 2013. The Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, has 120 seats.

The Knesset is elected by party-list proportional representation (d’Hondt) with the entire country serving as a single constituency. The threshold for parties to win seats is very low in Israel, currently standing at 2%. This 2% threshold is, in fact, higher than past thresholds – it was previously 1% and then 1.5%. The very low threshold has had several effects on Israeli politics. From a partisan standpoint, the low threshold makes it fairly easy for small parties to win at least one seat and gain some degree of influence in the legislature. This has favoured the growth and survival of small parties, the creation of new parties by dissidents from other parties and the birth of new small parties every election. The low threshold has also made governing difficult, because no party has ever won the 61 seats required to win an absolute majority (the closest that a party came was 56 seats, but this was back in 1969). In the past two elections, the party which won a plurality of seats won only 22% of the popular vote. As a result, the larger parties must necessarily form coalition governments with the smaller parties, many of which cater to sectional religious or ideological interests and have a tendency to abandon their senior coalition partners very quickly. This has resulted in short-lived governments, very heterogeneous coalition governments which often includes parties with differing interests or political bases and has made the life of Israeli Prime Ministers quite difficult.

Electoral and political reform has been a long-standing issue in Israel. One attempt was to directly elect the Prime Minister, alongside legislative elections (in 1996 and 1999). It had been hoped that by personalizing the system and directly electing the Prime Minister (all three times in two-way races), the winning candidate could lead his party to a strong showing. Voters did not behave that way, and in all three cases the Prime Minister-elect needed to form broad coalitions with smaller parties. The system was scrapped after the 2001 prime ministerial election and Israel returned to the old system. Others have proposed to modify the electoral system by raising the threshold, using the German MMP system or switching to FPTP in single-member constituencies. However, small parties, which are necessary for every governing coalition, have resisted any such changes which would likely hurt them or force them to merge with larger parties.

The Parties

The Israeli ‘party system’ is very unstable, and marked by the proliferation of many small parties all across the spectrum. The parties are a reflection of the electoral system which has created an extreme case of multi-party system, but the many parties are also a reflection of Israel’s religious, ideological and ethnic diversity: parties representing the various strands of Zionism, parties representing the religious diversity within Judaism, parties representing the different Jewish immigrant or ethnic groups and the three parties for the Arab Israeli minority. Ideologically, Israel often speaks of the ‘right’, the ‘centre’ and the ‘left’ – with these ideological labels referring primarily to various positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict (hawks vs. doves) rather than differences over economic policy. The ‘right’ includes both a mainstream right, a religious right and a far-right (the religious right is often considered the far-right). The ‘centre’ is divided and its history has seen many parties come and go, many disappearing after one or two elections before being replaced by a new centrist party which often, invariably, suffers the same fate.

The party standings in the Knesset at the moment of dissolution were as follows:

Likud 27 seats
Kadima 21 seats
Yisrael Beiteinu 15 seats
Shas 11 seats
Labour (HaAvoda) 8 seats
Hatnuah 7 seats
Independence 5 seats
United Torah Judaism 5 seats
Hadash 4 seats
United Arab List-Ta’al 3 seats
Jewish Home 3 seats
New Movement-Meretz 3 seats
Balad 3 seats
National Union 2 seats
Otzma LeYisrael 2 seats
Am Shalem 2 seats
Arab Democratic Party 1 seat

Likud (The Consolidation) is the major right-wing party in Israel, and currently the largest governing party. The Israeli right and Likud were born from Revisionist Zionism, a conservative and nationalist variant of Zionism developed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It was distinguished from Ben Gurion’s Labour Zionism both for its conservative anti-socialist character but also its territorial maximalism/irredentism, claiming the entire British Mandate of Palestine, including modern-day Jordan, for an independent Jewish state. Jabotinsky and his successor, Menachem Begin (the leader of the Irgun militia and later the Herut party) refused to sacrifice part of the historical land of Israel to establish an Arab state. However, after the creation of the modern-day state of Israel, the Herut party, under Begin’s leadership, grew more moderate in their advocacy of Jewish sovereignty on both banks of the Jordan river. By the 1970s, irredentist sentiments had largely subsided and the legitimacy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was no longer questioned by the right. However, the Israeli right and Likud have always taken a harder stance (hawkish) on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the issue of a Palestinian state and negotiations with the Arabs and Palestinians.

Herut and its successors (the Gahal alliance with the liberals, then Likud in 1977) were out of power during the first 28 years of Israel’s existence. Begin’s Likud finally came to power in 1977, defeating the centre-left Alignment (Labour) which had been in power since the creation of the Israeli state in 1949. Menachem Begin’s historic victory in the 1977 election marked a major political realignment in Israel and the defeat of the Ashkenazi elite. The founder of Israel and the leaders of then-dominant Labour Zionism were all Ashkenazi, Jews of European (including eastern European) descent. Ashkenazi Jews became the political and economic elite of the new Israeli state, while Sephardic (Jews of Iberian descent) and Mizrahi (Jews from the Muslim Middle East and North Africa) Jews were largely poor, living in working-class neighborhoods of major cities or in peripheral cities. The Ashkenazi elite looked down on the poorer Sephardic and Mizrahi (nowadays, the two terms are interchangeable) communities. The growth of both of these communities in the first decades of Israel’s existence proved politically beneficial to Likud, whose more religious, conservative and hawkish/nationalist outlook appealed to these more religious (often called ‘traditionalist’ Jews in modern Israeli parlance) communities. To this day, the Likud performs best with lower-income and traditionalist Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, in lower-income urban or peripheral areas. It is also strong in the Negev development towns, and polls well in some of the larger West Bank settlements.

Despite the Likud’s historic hawkish positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, their leaders have often proven more moderate and pragmatic than their parties. Menachem Begin negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to cede territory to the Palestinian Authority in 1998 with the Wye River Memorandum while Ariel Sharon, in 2006, evacuated all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip (the unilateral disengagement plan). The unilateral disengagement led to a major split in the Likud, which culminated in Sharon walking out to form the centrist Kadima. At the outset, Kadima’s creation and its victory in 2006 left Likud as a decimated right-wing rump, which polled very badly in 2006. However, after three years as the largest opposition party, Likud, led by Netanyahu, roared back in 2009.

The party’s current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is considered a moderate within his own party. He has often faced opposition from the party’s ‘hard-right’ which is strongly opposed to a two-state solution. In contrast, Netanyahu tepidly endorsed the two-state solution (under certain conditions) in 2009, though he has generally given the image, especially abroad, that he is sliding his feet on negotiations.  At the same time, under his government, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have continued to expand. Governing has forced him to be more pragmatic and moderate than the Likud hardliners, but Netanyahu gives the impression that he has no great appetite for rapid negotiations. Netanyahu needs to be careful of not alienating his own party, which is generally to his right on the Palestinian issue.

The ‘hard right’ of the party performed very well in the recent Likud primaries, something which will shift the party further to the right, much to the chagrin of the ‘peaceniks’. Moshe Feiglin, who had won 23% in the January 2012 Likud leadership election as Netanyahu’s only opponent, did very well in the primaries and will finally enter the Knesset, placing 22nd on the list. Feiglin, a close ally of the hard-right settlers’ lobby, is a controversial politician who wants to encourage the Palestinians to emigrate, with financial incentives to push them in that direction. Other new Likud hawks are far more assertive against Israel’s traditional allies in Europe and in Washington, warning that Israel should ignore the West’s demands for a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. On the other hand, old timers and moderates – incumbent cabinet ministers Benny Begin (the son of the former Prime Minister) or the centrist Dan Meridor did not find enough support in the primaries to win a place on the party list.

The Likud is running a common list with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home). Lieberman, a Moldovan immigrant, created YB in 1999. By and large, the party’s support lies predominantly with Jewish immigrants who came from Russia and the former Soviet Union. It polls best in towns with large Russian Jewish immigrant populations: Ashdod but also Karmiel or Arad.

The party’s ideology reflects its largely Russian electorate: hawkish but secular. The party is characterized by the foreign media as far-right, hardline or ultra-nationalist. Lieberman has often taken hardline stances on Arab-Israeli relations and negotiations with the Palestinian, but he supports a two-state solution – with a major twist, which is the subject of much controversy. The Lieberman plan suggests a transfer of populated territories between the Jewish state and an Arab-Palestinian state which would see Israeli settlements in the West Bank transferred to the Jewish state and Arab regions within Israel transferred to a Palestinian state. Arab Israelis and many on the left have contended that this plan is racist, others have questioned the legality of such a plan (as it would likely involve the revocation of citizenship for many Arab Israelis). On domestic issues, YB is a secular party. It strongly supports civil marriages alongside religious marriages, and wants to end the ultra-orthodox’s exemption from military service (an issue which came up again in the past year). It is not, however, anti-clerical: it opposes the separation of religion and state.

Avigdor Lieberman is a love-or-hate figure. Many of his opponents have claimed that he is a virulent racist and a far-right nationalist demagogue. His ties with certain local and foreign entrepreneurs are the subject of controversy. The police has been investigating allegations that he received millions from an entrepreneur while serving in the Knesset, which is illegal in Israel. In December 2012, Lieberman was indicted for breach of trust and fraud (but not witness tampering or money laundering). He resigned as foreign minister and deputy Prime Minister the following day. Even if corruption only very rarely kills Israeli politicians, these latest corruption charges against him likely signal that his star power and political influence may be starting to wane, even with his Russian base.

The Israeli right’s traditional stance on negotiations with the Palestinians is ‘peace for peace’, indicating that it sets peace and the end of terrorism as a necessary precondition for any negotiation and the creation of a Palestinian state. In a 2009 speech, Netanyahu seemed to endorse the two-state solution, over the opposition of some Likud hawks. However, at the same time, the Likud strongly opposes evacuating West Bank settlements or a partition of Jerusalem (handing East Jerusalem over to the Arabs). The party has always tried to appeal to the settlers and placate them, while still maintaining an arm’s-length from them. This may prove harder as the Likud hawks and hard right has gained even more prominence within the party. Both Likud and YB support forceful military responses to any terrorist attacks against Israel. In November 2012, the IDF responded to Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from Hamas’ stronghold in Gaza with air strikes against Hamas militants and leaders.

On economic issues, both Likud and YB support right-wing economic policies including privatization or lower taxes, though some within the Likud have tended to favour more interventionist policies. Netanyahu served as finance minister under Sharon between 2003 and 2005 and gained a reputation as one of the most free market liberal finance minister, backing free trade, privatization and criticizing the power of Israel’s largest trade union (Histadrut).

Israel is a religiously diverse society. A significant and rapidly growing Jewish demographic are Haredi Jews, the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism. Haredi Jews should segregate from non-Jewish culture, focus on Torah study and participate in modern society as little as possible. They are expected to abide to Jewish religious laws very closely, and enforce a strict gender segregation. Historically, the Haredi have been strongly opposed to Zionism, in large part because they felt that a Jewish state would only be established through divine intervention by the Messiah and that human attempts to establish the Jewish state equated to open rebellion. The Haredi also strongly disliked the secular and socialist Zionist elites which founded Israel. If certain Haredim sects still strongly oppose Zionism and even refuse to recognize Israel, most Haredim in Israel have accepted the Jewish state as a fait accompli and made their peace with the state in return for special advantages. They have focused their political efforts on certain religious issues such as religious education, military service exemption and strengthening the Jewish religious identity of the state. Sephardic Haredim is more supportive of Zionism and Israel than Ashkenazi Haredim are. There are two Haredim parties in Israel, forming the religious right. Both support the establishment of a theocratic state governed by Jewish religious laws.

The Shas were founded in 1984 to represent the Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredim communities who felt discriminated against or marginalized by the Ashkenazi Jewish elite. The Shas’ spiritual leader is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and its chairman is Eli Yishai. In this election, however, the Shas have no actual leader because Aryeh Deri, a former leader and cabinet minister who had been found guilty of bribery in 2000, wanted to return to politics and the Shas leadership needed to prevent him from creating his own party. The Shas are a small party, but they have a solid electoral clientele which has allowed them to be the eternal kingmaker in Israeli politics since the 1980s. The party has participated in every coalition government besides Sharon-Olmert’s coalition between 2003 and 2006.

Traditionally, the party did not place a heavy emphasis on the Palestinian question and maintained a pragmatic, ambiguous and moderate stance on the issue, preferring to focus on religious questions. In recent years, however, they have shifted heavily towards the right and adopted far more nationalist stances on the Palestinian question. In 2010, the Shas joined the World Zionist Organization, signaling their evolution from a religiously-focused pragmatic Haredi party to a Zionist-Haredi party. It now strongly opposes dismantling settlements in the West Bank. On religious issues, the Shas define Israel as a Jewish state which should abide by Jewish religious laws. While it has decried extremist attacks against women, it supports maintaining the gender segregation on public transit in predominantly Haredim areas. On economic issues, the Shas strongly oppose free market capitalism and tend to emphasize social justice, alleviating poverty, a strong social safety net and ‘social solidarity’.

The Shas are the Sephardic and Mizrahi Haredim party, but most of their votes, in reality, come from Modern Orthodox or traditionalist (non-Haredim) Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.

The smaller United Torah Judaism (UTJ), founded in 1992, is an alliance of two ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi parties: Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel. The Degel HaTorah (Banner of the Torah) represents the “Lithuanian” non-Hasidic Haredim Ashkenazi Jews, it was founded in 1988 from a split in Agudat Israel. Agudat Israel (Union of Israel) is the Hasidic (Hasidism is a variant of Haredi Judaism) party, which is also heavily Ashkenazi. The two parties often disagree with one another, largely over religious issues; this does not seem to matter as much as it would in other parties because the UTJ structure has little power, with MKs having individual autonomy and most important votes being decided by rabbis. The two parties did split in 2004 but reunited in 2005. While the Shas have shifted to the right on Arab-Israeli/Palestinian issues, UTJ has maintained a position of neutrality (status-quo) on the issue and it has retained its exclusive focus on religious issues. Like the Shas, UTJ defines Israel as a Jewish state, believes that religious law should take supremacy over democratic values, supports gender segregation in public transit, opposes opening businesses on the Sabbath and opposes any changes to the ultra-orthodox exemption from military service.

UTJ and Shas, evidently, are strongest in cities and towns with large Haredim populations. This is the case in Jerusalem, where UTJ topped the poll in 2006 and where they won 19% in 2009 (and the Shas won 15%). UTJ is very strong in Bnei Brak, a heavily Haredim town near Tel Aviv.

There is a new religious party in this election, Am Shalem, a Shas splinter led by ex-Shas MK Haim Amsalem. The party appears slightly less ultra-orthodox, supporting “religious-secular unity”. It says that it supports the  ‘separation of religion from politics’ and calls on all citizens to share the ‘national burden’ of serving in the IDF. It has maintained ambiguous silence on the Palestinian question, though Amsalem claimed that he was in the ‘middle’ on those issues but stressed that his emphasis was on religious and domestic issues. It has focused most of its attacks on the Shas, notably accusing it of corruption.

The Shas and UTJ are both identified as the ‘religious right’ parties in Israel. Given their very conservative positions on religious issues, they have often been lumped into the larger ‘far-right’ category by observers. However, given that Israel’s left-right spectrum is largely defined by the Palestinian question rather than economic or moral/religious issues, it might not be very accurate to consider these two parties, especially UTJ, as far-right. The Israeli far-right is formed by The Jewish Home and the National Union parties, which are running a common list in these elections, unlike in 2009.

The Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) was founded in 2008 and it is the successor of the National Religious Party (NRP, Mafdal). The NRP was founded in 1956 and represented the Religious Zionist/National Religious movement, a conservative strand of Judaism (often similar in their faith to some orthodox Jews) which strongly supported Zionism. The movement’s founder, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, attempted to reconcile Zionism (a largely secular and socialist ideology) with religion. Kook argued that Zionism was also a tool of God to promote His divine scheme and to initiate the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. God wanted the Jews to return to Israel and establish a sovereign Jewish state where they could follow Jewish religious teachings. The NRP was born as a fairly moderate party interested in its religious issues, and its pragmatism on other issues allowed it to participate in every government between its foundation and 1992 (and between 1998 and 2005). However, after 1967, the NRP had a very marked shift to the right coinciding with a “messianic revival” spawned by Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. The NRP and Religious Zionism became very closely linked to the settlement movement in the West Bank, and the party was at times described as the political arm of the settlers’ movement.

The National Union, founded in 1999, is an alliance of four far-right parties: Moledet (supports a voluntary population transfer to establish Jordan as the Palestinian state, Israeli annexation of the territories), Hatikva (secular), Eretz Yisrael Shelanu (linked to the Kahanist movement) and Tkuma. The NU has always been a shaky political coalition, with parties coming and going (Lieberman’s YB was originally part of the NU). They have been held together by their vociferous opposition to any independent Palestinian state within the “Land of Israel” (Israel and the Palestinian territories), and their very strong support and links to the West Bank (and, formerly, Gaza) settlements. In 2008, the NU and NRP united to merge into a single party, Jewish Home. However, the new party was quickly dominated by the NRP, with most of the top spots on the party’s list going to the NRP. Moledet and Hatikva revived the NU, and were later joined by Eretz Yisrael Shelanu and MK Uri Ariel (ex-Tkuma). The NU, which is very closely tied with the settlements, won many settlements in the West Bank (which it calls Judea and Samaria) in 2009.

Naftali Bennett, the son of American Jewish immigrants and a former high-tech tycoon and entrepreneur, won the Jewish Home leadership primaries in November 2012 with 67% of the vote. Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff between 2006 and 2008, and between 2010 and 2012 he was the director general of the Yesha Council, an organization of municipal councils of West Bank settlements. In 2011, he founded, alongside Ayelet Shaked, the ‘My Israel’ organization, a right-wing organization aimed at fighting “left-wing elites” or “anti-Zionist” sentiment.

The JH is far less ambiguous than Netanyahu on the issue of Arab-Israeli relations or Palestinian negotiations. It naturally strongly opposes any evacuation or dismantlement of West Bank settlements or a partition of Jerusalem. But it is also unequivocally opposed to a Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Bennett supports the direct Israeli annexation of Area C of the West Bank (the zone under Israeli control according to Oslo-II, where most settlements are located). Palestinians could retain municipal autonomy under tight Israeli tutelage within their islands of control. This is more or less a “one-state solution”, but unlike one-staters on the left, the far-right’s one-state vision seeks to uphold Jewish hegemony and protect Israel as a Jewish state. According to the party, “Jordan, which accounts for 75% of the Palestinian population, is the Palestinian state”.

On religious issues, the Jewish Home (and the NRP before it) is generally conservative, though unlike the ultra-orthodox parties it does not support a theocratic state, instead supporting a “Jewish and democratic” state. The party’s platform says that it will “fight for the Jewish identity of the state on every level” and opposes any attempts to “damage religious legislation”. However, the party wants to name religious Zionist rabbis to the chief rabbinate, to take control of that institution from the ultra-orthodox. Bennett has appealed to religious communities, but Ayelet Shaked, the 36-year old co-founder of My Israel, is a secular young woman (a big deal in a party such as the JH/NRP) whose comments hinting in favour of civil marriage sparked a row with the ultra-orthodox parties (particularly Shas), which have violently denounced the party for its alleged secularism. The party also wants to simplify the conversion process. On economic issues, the JH is right-wing.

Otzma LeYisrael (Strong Israel) is a new far-right party, even further to the right than the JH. It was founded by two NU MKs, Aryeh Eldad (Hatikva) and Michael Ben-Ari (Eretz Yisrael Shelanu). Ben-Ari still openly defines himself as a Kahanist, the extremist movement which has been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries. Like the JH, it strongly opposes any Palestinian state or settlement freeze or evacuation. The party has been accused of race-baiting against the Arab Israeli minorities. One of its billboard ads was banned by the Central Elections Committee on the ground thats it was racist, in a TV ad the party’s two leaders spoke in Arabic and warned that “without duties there are no rights”.

In the centre, Kadima (Forward) was founded by Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after his unilateral disengagement plan had created a major crisis within the Likud. Sharon had been something of a maverick within the Likud, because of his weak ties to the Revisionist Zionist ideology (he was originally a member of the left-wing Mapai) and his more moderate positions within the party. The party was launched by Sharon in November 2005, and was immediately joined by a good number of Sharon supporters within the Likud (Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert) but also Shimon Peres, a former Labour Prime Minister. However, Sharon suffered a stroke in December 2005 and another massive stroke in January 2006 which left him debilitated. It was Ehud Olmert who led the party to victory in the 2006 elections and became Prime Minister, the first non-Labour or non-Likud member to hold that office. Olmert was unpopular as Prime Minister, because of constant corruption allegations (he was finally indicted in 2009 and convicted of ‘breach of trust’ in 2012) and the summer 2006 war in southern Lebanon, described as disastrous in Israel. The right also opposed his peace talks with the Palestinians. He stepped down as leader in July 2008. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, narrowly won the leadership battle against Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister and former IDF chief of staff. Livni’s Kadima actually won one more seat than the Likud in the 2009 elections, but Likud formed government because of its better relations with right-wing parties. Her mediocre performance as opposition leader led to a leadership challenge in March 2012, in which Shaul Mofaz handily defeated her.

Shaul Mofaz had pledged during the leadership campaign that he would not join a government headed by Netanyahu. In May 2012, as the country was set for new elections in September 2012, Kadima and Mofaz agreed to join the government and the elections were cancelled. The issue which precipitated Kadima’s surprise decision to join the coalition was the Tal Law (the law which allows Haredi to indefinitely defer their national service), Kadima (and YB) had attempted to amend the law. In July, however, Mofaz quit the coalition, citing the failure of the parties to reach a compromise on the Tal issue. Mofaz’s decision to join the government after being adamant a few months before that he would not seriously hurt his image and popularity. He has also been painted as something of a lightweight.

Sharon supported the old ‘Road Map for peace’ and Kadima supports a two-state solution, even if it supports maintaining large legal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and supports Israeli control over Jerusalem. The Israeli ‘centre’ has usually been more supportive than the right of an independent Palestinian state and the two-state solution, however, it has always taken a tough stance against Palestinian terrorism and insists that dismantling Palestinian militant/terrorist groups should be the first steps in negotiations towards a two-state solution. The party’s platform says it will ensure the safety of Israelis against terrorist organizations.

On domestic issues, Kadima has been concerned by the growing divide between the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) sector and other Israelis, and it has sought to bridge this gap. It is secular on religious questions, notably opposing the current military service exemption for ultra-orthodox Jews or supporting civil marriage. It has described its vision of Israel as being a “Jewish and democratic state”. On economic issues, the party is centrist: it supports the market economy but also wants to increase social security benefits, fix the public housing problem and raise taxes on the highest earners.

Hatnuah (The Movement) was created in late November 2012 by Tzipi Livni, the former Kadima leader defeated by Shaul Mofaz in the party’s March 2012 leadership election. 7 Kadima MKs, not including Livni who had resigned from the Knesset, joined the party. It was later joined by two Labour leaders: Amram Mitzna (2002-2003) and Amir Peretz (2005-2007), both of whom are known as ‘doves’ on the Palestinian question.

The party has placed a large emphasis on the Palestinian question in this election, Livni has stated that the existence of a “Jewish, democratic state” is threatened by the lack of progress on peace agreements with Palestinians and the Arab world. She has criticized Netanyahu’s record on the issue, attracting attention to his government’s inability to defeat Hamas and its international PR defeat in 2012 when Palestine was recognized by the UN as a non-member observer state. Hatnuah strongly supports a two-state solution and it is open to freezing construction of new West Bank settlements. Livni was one of the few non-Arab Israeli politicians who strongly opposed the government’s citizenship-loyalty law (requiring non-citizens to take an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state), passed in 2010. On religious matters, it is strongly secular.

To add to the pathological division of the centre, there is a new centrist party in 2013: Yesh Atid (There is a Future). Yesh Atid was founded in January 2012 by Yair Lapid, a popular journalist and the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the former leader of the extinct anti-clerical liberal Shinui party. Built on the ruins of the once-mighty Shinui, Yesh Atid has placed its emphasis on secularism (civil marriage, extending the draft to all Israelis, gender equality) and domestic priorities (economic growth, combating red tape, reducing cost of living and housing costs) rather than the Palestinian question. It has also adopted an anti-corruption agenda, including a smaller cabinet (18 members), protecting judicial powers and independence and protecting the rule of law.

The party has not placed much emphasis on the Palestinian question during the campaign. While Yesh Atid supports a two-state solution, it is strongly opposed evacuating settlements in exchange for peace and it has pledged to meet Palestinian militancy with a forceful military response. Recently, Lapid said that  he did not think that Arabs wanted peace and that he wanted to “be rid of them” and “put a tall fence between us and them”, in order to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel.

The centrist parties have been stronger with secular and more middle-class Ashkenazi Jews, in central Israel. Kadima won 34% in Tel Aviv in 2009 against only 19% for Likud, performing well in affluent and secular north Tel Aviv.

The traditional party of the left in Israel is the Labour Party (HaAvoda). The current party was founded in 1968, but seen as the latest incarnation of the Labour Zionist movement, its power and influence predates the establishment of the state of Israel. At the outset, the Zionist movement was largely dominated by a secular and socialist Ashkenazi elite which placed great emphasis on Jews moving to Israel to become farmers, workers, and soldiers. They established cooperative agricultural communities, the kibbutzim. The early leaders of Israel, first and foremost David Ben-Gurion, all came from this Labour Zionist tradition. Some more left-wing and radical members of the movement were Marxist, but Ben-Gurion – representative of the ‘right-wing’ of the movement – was a non-Marxist socialist. Labour and its predecessors (most importantly the Mapai) were the dominant political party in the new Israeli state between 1949 and 1977, when Begin’s Likud defeated the Alignment (the coalition in which Labour was the largest bloc).

The party lost its dominant position in Israeli politics after its defeat in 1977 election, even though it returned to power in 1984 (a grand coalition with Likud), in 1992 under Yitzhak Rabin (until his assassination in 1995) and Shimon Peres and again between 1999 and 2001 with Ehud Barak. Barak won the 1999 prime ministerial election and formed a large coalition, including religious parties, which pushed a dovish agenda and supported peace talks with the Palestinians. However, the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit and the start of the Second Intifada in 2001 led Barak to call special prime ministerial elections in 2001, in which he was badly defeated by Likud’s Ariel Sharon. It remained in government because the divided Knesset forced Sharon to form a grand coalition. However, in the 2003 elections, Labor was routed, winning only 19 seats. It briefly joined Sharon’s coalition in 2005, to bolster support for his disengagement plan.

In 2005, Amir Peretz, a trade union leader identified with the dovish left-wing of the party became the party’s leader. Under Peretz’s leadership, which sought to move the party to the left and reemphasize its traditional socialist policies, the party had a brief upturn, winning 19 seats in the 2006 election. However, when Peretz and his party joined Olmert’s government, the party lost popularity. Peretz became defense minister and his handling of the Lebanon conflict in 2006 was criticized. On his left, his decision to take the defense portfolio rather than the finance portfolio (where he could have pushed for social policies) was criticized. In 2007, he placed third in a leadership election won by Ehud Barak, who had become more hawkish. The party was decimated again in 2009, winning fourth place and a mere 13 seats. Barak pushed Labor to remain in government under Netanyahu and Barak still claimed the defense portfolio. In 2011, internal opposition to Barak’s leadership led to Barak leaving the party with 4 other MKs to form the ‘Independence’ party, a ‘centrist and Zionist’ party. Independence (and Barak) is not running in this election.

Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist, became leader of the party in 2011. Described as a staunch social democrat, she is on the left of the party and has placed emphasis on domestic policies. There were large ‘social justice’ protests in Israel in 2011 and 2012, a largely middle-class and urban movement which targeted the high cost of living (particularly housing), high prices, low wages and the deterioration of public services. Yachimovich moved the party in the direction of the protest movement, criticizing the government’s economic policies, accusing them of hurting the middle class.

Historically a more hawkish party, Labour has become a much more dovish party in the past decades. Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin actively pushed for a peace deal with the Palestinians, signing the Oslo Accords. While he was Prime Minister, Ehud Barak also unsuccessfully tried to revive the moribund peace process. It supports the two-state solution, a peace deal which it claims will ensure the safety of Israeli citizens. It supports Israeli sovereignty over large settlement blocs in the West Bank, but it would transfer settlements which are not part of large blocs to Palestine. The Israeli left has traditionally backed the ‘land for peace’ vision of negotiations. It supports the targeted killings of Palestinian terrorist leaders.

The Labour Zionist tradition is strongly secular. The Labour Party has retained this character, though it wishes to maintain (albeit limit) the current ultra-orthodox exemption from the draft and defines Israel as a Jewish state.

Over its history, the Labour Party played a large role in the establishment of a modern welfare state in Israel. However, the party nevertheless slowly drifted to the right in its economic policies in the 1980s, a shift which contributed to the party’s decline and current problems. Under Amir Peretz and, seemingly, now with Yachimovich, the party has sought to reclaim lost ground on the left by adopting more left-wing economic policies. It supports “renewing” the social welfare model, strengthening the public service, halting the privatization process and increasing taxes on high earners. It claims that reducing inequalities is its priority.

The founders of the Labour Zionist movement and the Labour Party were overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, and these Jews of European (including eastern European) origin formed the political and economic elite in Israel after 1949. The party never placed much effort in reaching out to lower-income and more religious immigrant groups (Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, later Russian Jews), in fact the Ashkenazi elite often discriminated against these new Jewish immigrant communities, creating a feeling of marginalization and exclusion against which the party has always struggled. Its weak support with these right-leaning demographics are a major problem, which led to its 1977 defeat and its subsequent decline. The party has not really been able to shake off its association with the Ashkenazi middle-classes, and its urban support remains strongest in middle-class (often Ashkenazi) areas, notably northern Tel Aviv. The Labour Party is also dominant in most non-religious kibbutzim, they won 31% in the kibbutzim in 2009, though this was a low figure in part because of left-wing tactical voting for Kadima (they won 31% on the kibbutz). In past years, the party had very strong support with Arab Israelis, but in recent years, it has lost most of its Arab vote to the Arab parties.

Meretz (Energy), founded in 1992, is the most left-wing Jewish party in Israel. It was originally a coalition between three parties, Ratz, Mapam and Shinui. The Mapam, founded in 1948, represented the Marxist current within Labour Zionism and originally had pro-Soviet positions. It was a member of the Alignment coalition between 1965 and 1984. Ratz was founded in 1973 by an Alignment MK who opposed the occupation of the Palestinian territories and called for a peace settlement with the PLO. The party won 12 seats in the 1992 election, and joined Rabin’s Labour-led coalition. The party’s strength has since declined considerably, falling from 10 seats in 1999 to 5 seats in 2003 (following the Second Intifada) and only 3 seats in the 2009 election (hurt by strategic voting on the left for Kadima against Likud). The party’s electoral weakness in the twenty-first century has been attributed to low and declining Jewish interest for the left-wing peace settlement in the face of renewed Palestinian violence and a further polarization of the conflict.

The party, naturally, supports a two-state solution. It has based its peace plan on the Geneva Accord, under which the Palestinian state’s borders would be close to that of the 1967 line and which would have East Jerusalem as its capital. Meretz supports an end to the Israeli occupation and an evacuation of the West Bank settlements and returning the Golan Heights to Syria. It recognizes that terrorism which harms innocents is an obstacle to the peace process, but does not wish for the political agenda to be dictated by terrorists. Meretz is closely associated with the Israeli peace movement and human rights groups. Alongside Labour and the Shas, Meretz is one of the few Jewish Israeli parties which has made a serious attempt to reach out to Arab Israeli voters. In the past, Meretz had Arab MKs and it has Arab candidates on its list.

On religious issues, the party is strongly secular and it is the most socially liberal party in Israel. It is closely associated with LGBT rights (it supports gay marriage) and women’s rights, and wants to enact a basic law on freedom of religion which will guarantee “freedom of religion and freedom from religion”. It also emphasizes a liberal and secular public education system. The party is quite left-wing on economic issues, supporting state intervention in the economy to ensure a social safety net or raising capital gains tax.

Meretz performs well in secular, young and artsy areas (downtown Tel Aviv) but is also quite strong in some secular kibbutzim, where they won 18% overall in 2009.

There are four major “Arab parties” which represents the Arab Israeli minority in Israel. The Arab minority accounts for 20% of the country’s population. They form a majority of the population in the Northern Region of Israel, there is also a substantial Bedouin population in the Negev and an Arab minority in Jaffa (Tel Aviv). Most Arab citizens of Israel will self-identify as Palestinians, though Negev Bedouins are more susceptible to define themselves as Israeli. Most Arab citizens of Israel are Muslim, but there is a substantial Arab Christian and Druze minority (around 9% of the Arab population each). Most Druze will not self-identify as Palestinian, and many Druze politicians are members of ‘Jewish’ parties, including right-wing parties such as Likud or YB. Arab Israelis are a growing minority, their high birth rates poses, according to the Jewish rate, a major demographic threat because they could form a majority of the population as early as 2035. Current statistics do not confirm this “demographic threat”. Most Arab Israelis support Palestinian nationalism, but it is questionable if they would move to Palestine if an independent state is created.

The Arab minority is a hot topic in Israel. Many Arab Israelis feel marginalized, sidelined or discriminated against by the Jewish majority in Israel, a sentiment which has increased considerably since the Al-Aqsa Intifada at the turn of the century. There are large disparities in general living standard and education between Israeli Arabs and the non-Arab Israeli population. In addition, more and more Arab Israelis are withdrawing from participating in Israeli politics, turnout dropped from 75% in 1999 to only 53% in 2009 and it may be even lower this year. In the past, a substantial number of Arab voters backed Jewish parties. In prime ministerial elections in the 1990s and 2001, they overwhelmingly backed the Labour candidates (Peres in 1996, Barak in 1999 and 2001 – despite very low turnout in 2001); Labour has traditionally performed well with Arab voters, though it has lost most of this support. There are currently 17 Arab members in the Knesset, including 6 Druze. 11 of these 17 members represent Arab Israeli parties.

There have been attempts to ban the Arab parties from participating in Israeli elections, most recently in 2009 when the electoral commission disqualified some of them (on the grounds that they did not recognize the State of Israel), but the courts overturned this decision.

The United Arab List (Ra’am), founded in 1996 and led by Ibrahim Sarsur, is running in coalition with Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al (Arab Renewal Movement), as it has since 2006. The UAL split recently, when Taleb el-Sana of the Arab Democratic Party left the coalition. The dominant force in the UAL is Sarsur’s southern (less radical) branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a conservative Islamist organization. While the other Arab parties are secular, the UAL is a fairly religious party. The party’s rhetoric includes numerous references to the need to establish an Islamic Caliphate over (seemingly) the whole of Israel. The UAL does not support the separation of religion and politics, in contrast to the other Arab parties, especially Hadash and Balad. In the short term, the party’s immediate goal is to “preserve the Arab existence in the country” (their national and religious identity) and “to protect the holy places”.

The party’s core base lies with Bedouins in the Negev. According to Ha’aretz, the UAL won 80% of Bedouin vote in the 2009 election. It is also strong in poorer Arab cities and town, including the impoverished city of Kafr Qasim.

The UAL has been allied with Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al party since 2006, and they are forming a common slate again. The party is more secular than the UAL. One of the few major ideological differences that I can spot with Hadash and Balad is that Tibi objects to the redefinition of Israel as a state “for all its citizens” (it is currently defined as a “Jewish and democratic state”, which Tibi argues is a contradiction and that both cannot coexist), he would redefine it as a state “for all its nationalities” to protect the collective rights of the Arab minority and prevent a uniformization of the state along individual lines.

Hadash (The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality or New) is actually a bi-confessional left-wing alliance which has some Jewish voters and has a Jewish MK (Dov Khenin), but because most its voters and members are Arabs, it is labelled – somewhat erroneously – as an ‘Arab party’. The largest faction within the party is Maki, the Israeli Communist Party. The current Communist Party was founded in 1965 as Rakah, led by the pro-Palestinian and pro-Moscow faction of the old Maki. The party has always been non-Zionist, keeping in line with Marxism’s opposition to nationalism. However, the party has shifted towards Palestinian-Arab nationalism, leading some left-wing critics to say that it had lost its left-wing social agenda in favour of Palestinian nationalism.

Hadash is strongest in the largest Arab cities and with Arabs in northern Israel (perhaps because the northern Islamic Movement boycotts elections, unlike the southern wing which forms the UAL). It won 54% in Umm al-Fahm, the largest Arab city; and 52% in Nazareth, another large Arab city in the north with a large Christian majority (Jesus’ birthplace being a communist stronghold is quite amusing). Most Arab Christians seem to vote for Hadash.

Balad (National Democratic Assembly), the smallest Arab party, is hard to pin down. It is similar to Hadash, and generally leans to the left; but it is an Arab nationalist party which at one point was close to the Ba’athist ideology and Syria. It also openly expressed support for Hezbollah. Some years ago, Balad tried its hand at a short-lived reincarnation as a liberal party, it has since returned to a pan-Arabist and anti-Zionist orientation.

One Balad MK, Haneen Zoabi (the first Arab woman MK) is quite controversial; a Likud MK attempted to disqualify her from running for reelection this year. She participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla and has been a very loud critic of the Israeli state, branding most Jewish Israeli politicians as ‘fascists’.

All Arab parties support Palestinian independence and the two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders, the complete evacuation of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian control over East Jerusalem and returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Hadash is usually moderate in its advocacy of the Palestinian cause, while Balad often tends to be considerably more radical in its support for Palestinian nationalism. The UAL couches its support for the Palestinian cause in religious language.

All the parties seek full equality for Israel’s Arab minority, and disagree with the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. The Arab parties been particularly critical of the Israeli state and successive governments; they have often criticized the human rights abuses in Israeli military actions against Gaza. The Arab parties have often branded Israel a ‘racist’ state and vocally criticized policies and laws which they viewed as blatantly discriminatory against Arabs. Balad and Hadash wish to redefine Israel as a state “for all its citizens”, irrespective of ethnic or national identity, with Balad supporting cultural autonomy for Arab Israelis while Hadash wants to eliminate all forms of ethnic discrimination. In addition, all Arab parties strongly oppose extending the military draft to Arab Israelis. As it currently stands, the Israeli government does not actively seek to draft Arab Israelis (besides the Druze and some Bedouins) into the IDF, more or less exempting them. The debate over the Tal Law, however, led to some on the right raising the question of extending the draft to Arabs as well.

Campaign, Polls and Cabinets

Final polls ranges from January 17-18 [current seats at dissolution].

Likud Yisrael Beiteinu 32-37 seats [42]
Labour (HaAvoda) 15-17 seats [8]
Jewish Home-National Union 12-15 seats [5]
Shas 10-12 seats [11]
Yesh Atid 8-13 seats [0]
Hatnuah 5-8 seats [7]
Meretz 5-7 seats [3]
United Torah Judaism 5-6 seats [5]
Hadash 4-5 seats [4]
United Arab List-Ta’al 3-4 seats [3]
Balad 3-4 seats [3]
Kadima 2-3 seats [21]
Otzma LeYisrael 0 or 2 seats [2]
Am Shalem 0 or 1 seat [1]

More likely than not, Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to form government and win another term as Prime Minister of Israeli. Right-wing, far-right and religious parties will run away with the election on Tuesday January 22.

However, Netanyahu’s Likud-YB coalition is unlikely to receive a very strong mandate or win an overwhelming victory. In fact, while it will certainly win some 32 to 35 seats, this result will be quite underwhelming considering the combined strength of the Netanyahu-Lieberman bloc at dissolution (they held 42 seats). By allying with Lieberman, Netanyahu had hoped to secure his right flank, after the success of Likud hardliners in his party’s internal primary. By allying with Netanyahu, Lieberman aimed to eventually succeed Netanyahu as the leader of the Israeli right and Prime Minister. It seems like neither Netanyahu or Lieberman will be successful in their objectives. Lieberman was indicted for breach of trust and fraud, which led to his resignation as deputy PM and foreign minister the next day. Additionally, it appears as if Lieberman might have cooled on the idea of working with Likud and an actual merger of the two parties seems to be off the table for now.

Lieberman’s political star rose during the 2009 election, and he gained significant political clout within Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition after the 2009 election. Now, deep in a major corruption scandal, his immediate political outlook is quite bleak. The hardline right in Israel no longer has Lieberman as its leader and icon. This means that he was unable to shore up Netanyahu’s right flank.

Netanyahu had hoped to win a strong mandate by fudging the hawk-dove/left-right divide, he was happier to talk about the economy. He argues that his economic policies have meant that Israel is in far better state than other OECD economies in the current global economic crisis. Labour’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich, was also quite happy with such a strategy. As Labour leader, she has placed a big emphasis on economic and social issues, trying to attach her party to the goals of the 2011 social justice protests and attacking Netanyahu primarily over his economic policies. She cautioned doves within her party to be too vocal in their positions or to speak ill of West Bank settlers, which she sought to appeal to. Her focus on economics and social matters rather than the old hawk-dove battle alienated prominent doves within her party, most notably two of her predecessors: Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, who opted to join Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah because Yachimovich had not talked enough about peace (while Livni, positioning herself to the left of Labour on the peace issue, made peace one of the cornerstones of her campaign).

The idea, ostensibly supported by both Netanyahu and Yachimovich, was that Labour and Yachimovich would join a moderated and more centrist  second Netanyahu cabinet after the elections, with Yachimovich as his finance minister or perhaps foreign minister or defense minister.

This strategy backfired on Netanyahu, who failed to dominate the Likud primaries and got overwhelmed by a right-wing tidal wive. As noted above, several prominent hardliners – most notably Netanyahu’s right-wing rival Moshe Feiglin – won high spots on the Likud-YB list and spoke openly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in rallies. But this right-wing tidal wave was not only confined to his party. It saw the rapid emergence of a new hardline right-wing icon, Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home.

Bennett’s position on the Palestinian question is unequivocal. He opposes any Palestinian state and he will fight to make sure that there is never a Palestinian state. He wants to unilaterally annex 60% of the West Bank and place the remaining Palestinian towns under Israeli military security. He openly says that there will never a peace deal with the Arabs. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s position is far more ambiguous. In 2009, at Bar-Ilan University, he ostensibly endorsed the two-state solution though he has done nothing to follow through. The Bar-Ilan speech was viewed as a betrayal by many hardliners on the right, including many within his own party. Bennett’s clear and unequivocal positions on the Palestinian question is very popular with hardliners on the right, be they secular and cosmopolitan or religious Zionist (like his party in the past) settlers in the West Bank.

Naftali Bennett’s profile and biography is very appealing to many right-wing voters, who have grown even more wary of any negotiated settlement with the Palestinian and whose opposition to a Palestinian state has been reinforced in recent years (in part because the chaotic post-Arab Spring situation in Egypt or the civil war in Syria). His cosmopolitan lifestyle and culture and his past as a start-up software entrepreneur and successful businessman appeals to more secular right-wing Jews living outside the settlements. At the same time, Bennett is also quite religious, lives on a settlement in the West Bank and wears a small knitted kippa (like most religious Zionists). He can also appeal quite successfully to the religious Zionist sector, who make up a large portion of the West Bank settlers.

His strategy is very ambitious. In the past, the Israeli hard right was left divided because of its internal squabbles and the longstanding enmity between very religious and more secular Jews. Bennett’s strategy is to build a broad right-wing nationalist (hardline) alliance, which goes beyond the old religious/non-religious divide on the far-right. Bennett’s appeal to the Haredim might be limited, but the rising force in Israeli politics and society are the religious Zionists, who dominate settler politics and are ambitiously trying to strengthen their role and voice in Israeli politics. To appeal to the religious sentiments on the Israeli hard right, there are several religious figures (tied to religious Zionism) on his lists. Religious Zionists still make up a large majority of the party’s electorate. On the other hand, Bennett is a new kind of leader for the hard right, with an unusual youthful cosmopolitanism and business profile which could appeal to more secular but still very right-wing Jews, in the coastal plain or outside the settlements. His close ally, who is fifth on the list, Ayelet Shaked, reflects this desire to appeal to a secular demographic.

Bennett’s rise scares Netanyahu, the Likud and even the Shas. Netanyahu stepped up his attacks on Bennett, but they do not seem to have worked. The Likud-YB bloc lost many of its more nationalist and right-wing voters to Bennett. The Shas recently lashed out at Bennett over religious matters, they might feel that the power and influence of the Haredi bloc might be weakened following the election. The religious Zionists’ goal since the the late 1980s has been to ‘penetrate’ the political and business world, Bennett’s religious platform seeks to strengthen the place of the religious Zionist movement within the Jewish religious hierarchy in Israel.

Bennett’s party could win between 12 and 15, likely closer to 14-15. It would be a very strong result for the party, obviously. This reflects the strength of the right in Israeli politics. While Israel, between 1949 and 1967, was dominated by a secular and socialist Zionist elite which cared little about religious matters (but, for political reasons, conceded religious matters to religious authorities); today, the religious sectors of Jewish Israeli society are gaining prominence, power and influence. The religious Zionists have been at the forefront of this power shift, which began with Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu will win the next election, but with a disappointing result. He will have to deal with a much stronger hardline right, which will exert significant pressure on him to lead a more right-wing agenda. The Likud-YB’s caucus after the election will have been pushed further to the right, with the entrance of new (or the reelection of older) ‘hardliners’ and right-wingers,including Moshe Feiglin. Just like the Tea Party movement forced the GOP leadership in the United States to shift to the right, the hardliners within Likud-YB (and Bennett’s troops in the JH-NU) will insist that Netanyahy acknowledges their power and presence within the Israeli right.

Cabinet formation is a long, difficult and tortuous process in Israel. Small parties try to extract concessions from the largest party and impose their conditions on them. The next cabinet will most likely have a distinctively right-wing flavour to it. The old idea that Netanyahu would seek to bolster his moderate credentials by forming a coalition with Labour and Shelly Yachimovich has fallen through. The radicalization of the campaign on the hawk/dove battle forced her to come out tough saying she’d either be Prime Minister or in opposition. Given that Labour will not finish first, she will be in opposition.

A Likud-YB-Haredi coalition (more or less the outgoing coalition) on its own will probably come about 10 seats short of the 61 seats needed for a (bare) majority. Yeir Lapid, the leader of the secular centre-right Yesh Atid, has said that he would be open to participating in a Netanyahu cabinet to ‘moderate’ it and limit the influence of the religious parties. He is not as militantly secular/anti-clerical as Shinui was, so there appears to be little issue for him to be in coalition with the Shas and UTJ. A Likud-YB-Haredi-Lapid coalition would probably come out with a tiny majority. Hatnuah has not closed the door on participating in government either, but it could be hard for Netanyahu backed by a very right-wing caucus to find enough common ground with the increasingly dovish Livni (who was very critical of Netanyahu during the campaign, if such things matter) to form a government.

Could Bennett’s JH-NU enter government? The Jewish Home is currently a small junior partner in the Netanyahu coalition, but the JH-NU will be much different after January 22. Naftali Bennett (and Ayelet Shaked) both worked under Netanyahu when the Likud was in the opposition to Olmert, but they both suddenly resigned – most likely after a spat with Netanyahu’s powerful but unpopular wife Sara (described by some as similar to Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan). Bennett nevertheless hopes to gain a spot in the leadership, it seems. This long article (a must read) on him and the Israeli right ended with a comment from Bennett: ” ‘The best analogy is that Bibi is the bus driver with two hands on the wheel,” Bennett said. “I want to put a third hand on the wheel.’ ” Such a coalition would certainly be very right-wing, and exert considerable pressure on Netanyahu to move further to the right on the Palestinian issue, even at risk of clashing with the US.

Israel is a major geopolitical hotspot, and it will always remain one. As such, the 2013 elections in Israel are quite important and may hold high stakes. A further shift to the right in Israel could have repercussions both inside and outside Israel’s borders.

Israeli politics is a very hot topic, which many feel quite passionately about. There is much sensationalism, knee-jerk responses, and misrepresentations on both sides of this inflammatory topic; it is an issue where it is quite hard to strike a neutral tone which tries to depict the various opinions of the various actors, Jewish or Muslim, fairly and accurately. I hope that this article provided a neutral, fair and accurate description of Israel’s various parties and complex politics, as well as the stakes of the 2013 election.

Catalonia 2012

General elections were held in Catalonia on November 25, 2012. There are 135 seats in the Parliament of Catalonia (Parlament de Catalunya/Parlamento de Cataluña), elected by d’Hondt closed list proportional representation in the region’s four provinces. There is a 3% threshold in each province to win seats.

The province of Barcelona elects 85 deputies while the provinces of Girona, Lleida and Tarragona elect 17, 15 and 18 deputies respectively. The province of Barcelona, where some 73% of the region’s population lives, is underrepresented to the benefit of the three, smaller, provinces who hold 41% of the seats in the Parliament but only 27% of the region’s population. The Catalan Parliament elects the President of the Generalitat, the government of the autonomous community.

The last regional elections took place in fall 2010 and they resulted in the victory of the Convergence and Union (CiU), a centre-right Catalan nationalist party led by Artur Mas, who became President of the Generalitat. Mas’ CiU had won 62 seats and a healthy plurality of seats, but they fell short of the 68 seats required for an absolute majority.

My Guide to the 2011 Spanish Election offers some background on Catalonia and its history, of particular relevance to the current situation.

Catalonia is Spain’s second most populous community and has long been the industrial motor of Spain, to this day it accounts for 18.6% of the Spanish GDP. Catalonia, which has a strong national identity, is often portrayed as the “civilized” counterpart to Euskadi: Catalan nationalism is expressed peacefully and politically, while Basque nationalism is expressed (in part) through terror and violence. Catalan nationalism is one of the most enduring and potent political issues in Spain and Catalonia is a key piece in the economic, political and social makeup of Spain. The population of Catalonia is 7,535,251 (INE 2011). The capital of Catalonia is Barcelona and the community is composed of the provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona.

Catalonia has never been a kingdom or a powerful empire of its own, but its language alongside a long history of cultural splendor, political power and prominent role in what became Spain has been a key element in the construction of a Catalan national identity, a national identity which is shared by the vast majority of Catalans to this day. As the Franks pushed the Muslims back in the 8th and 9th centuries, a plethora of vassal counties emerged in present-day Catalonia, with the county of Barcelona becoming the leading force of these increasingly independent counties. In 987, the Count of Barcelona’s refusal to swear loyalty to Hugh Capet of France sealed the division of Catalonia from the Frankish realms. Under the reign of Ramon Berenguer I, Barcelona rose to a position of economic and political prominence in the region. In 1137, the marriage of Ramon Berenguer IV with Petronilla of Aragon (well, technically, she was one year old. Royals were sickos) united the crowns of Barcelona with that of Aragon. While the future ‘counts’ were known as kings of Aragon, Catalonia was very much the driving force. Catalonia’s rising embryo of a future urban bourgeoisie became a very potent political force, organized in parliament (the Corts, a kind of Estates-General) and a governing body, the Generalitat. Catalonia’s economic opulence and cultural influence during this era (13-14th century) was a contributing factor in the early development of a sort of proto-national identity. However, the accession to the Aragonese throne of a Castilian branch in 1410 led to the slow decline of Catalan influence and political power and most of the region’s initial rights were surrendered to the growing power of Castile – especially after the dynastic union of 1469. In 1652, a Catalan revolt aided by France was crushed. In the War of Spanish Succession, the Catalans sided with Archduke Charles, the Habsburg claimant, over the eventual winner, Philip V of Bourbon. Catalonia chose the wrong side and was totally destroyed. In 1716, the institutions of Catalan self-government were abolished. In the next hundred years and more, Catalans showed extraordinary resilience despite losing their particularities, power, influence and wealth. During the nineteenth century, Catalonia experienced rapid industrialization based around the textile industry. Textile production started inland in mills powered by mountain rivers, and later expanded into a large, sprawling textile empire in and around Barcelona. Until the development of Basque industry in the late nineteenth century, Catalonia was the only part of Spain which had entered the new world order of industrialization and even after Basque industrialization it remained an industrial powerhouse in a feudal country where most lived lives of misery in unprofitable and nonviable agriculture. Is it a surprise that Catalans increasingly started perceiving Madrid and the rest of Spain as an uncivilized feudal backwater which seemed to be controlled by creaking old nobles in cahoots with the landed class which profited from the super-protected nonviable feudal agrarian Spanish economy?

Influenced by European Romanticism, Catalonia underwent a cultural rebirth in the late nineteenth century – the Renaixença. The Renaixença represented the creation by the Catalan intelligentsia of a Catalan national identity distinct from Spain, which they viewed with much frustration. The Renaixença placed a role in the birth of Catalan nationalism (sometimes called ‘Catalanism’) as a political movement. The main actors of Catalan nationalism at the turn of the century were Catalonia’s middle-class industrialists, the Catalan elites who aspired to expand their industrial empire to the rest of Spain. Their goal was to increase the power and prestige of Catalonia and Catalan industry within Spain, eventually taking the reins of power in Madrid from the hands of the landed gentry whose interests laid primarily in the feudal agrarian system. Regionalism was used as political tool to gain power and extract concessions from the dominant interests. For obvious reasons, they were certainly not separatists and in fact the Lliga Regionalista used to talk in terms of a “greater Spain”. This moderate, pragmatic stream of Catalan nationalism which seeks power and influence for Catalonia, not separation, and values compromise and dialogue with Madrid exists to this day in the form of the Convergence and Union (CiU) coalition. However, this moderate “we only care about your cash”-type of nationalism did not appeal to the more radical intellectuals, who would slowly go on to form a far more radical, sometimes separatist or sometimes federalist, republican stream of Catalan nationalism which exists to this day in the form of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). The ERC was the driving force of Catalan nationalism during the Republic and Civil War, but the moderate stream emerged victorious as soon as 1977 under what would become the CiU, the heir to the Lliga.

Catalonia accounts for 18.7% of Spain’s GDP, making it the second largest economy in Spain after the Madrid region. Historically, of course, industry was the motor of the Catalan economy and by consequence a motor for a lot of the Spanish economy. Under the inspiration and leadership of Catalonia’s industrious middle-class, the region developed a booming secondary sector based around the production and entire industry of textile. The Catalan textile world used to be concentrated up in the valleys, far inland; but in the 1800s it took its present base in and around Barcelona along the Mediterranean coast. It later diversified beyond textiles into automobiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs or shipbuilding. While industry used to account for up to 40%, it accounts for only 18% of Catalonia’s GDP today. Like most western economies, services (72%) now concentrate most employment. Catalonia is a major financial and banking centre and it is a prized tourist destination (specifically the coasts). Catalonia has long turned industry into wealth, and it has historically been a “shining beacon” of prosperity within a feudal Spain. The region’s GDP per capita of €27,053 places it in fourth place.

As much as Catalonia was a “shining beacon” of prosperity in Spain for a very long time, that shouldn’t be tailored to mean that Catalonia enjoyed wonderful social peace. It didn’t. Influenced by Barcelona’s history of federalism, Barcelona and Catalonia was an anarchist bastion for most of the first half of the twentieth century and Catalonia was often at the heart of labour disputes, notably between 1916 and 1923. Socialism never really gained a foothold in Catalonia until the transition, in fact (when it gained a stronghold).

But to many poorer Spaniards, Catalonia was a ”shining beacon” of prosperity and hope. Its industrial sector needed cheap labour, so it attracted a lot of internal migrants mostly from Andalusia and the poor regions of southern Spain. Immigration from southern Spain to Catalonia was particularly important under Franco’s regime, at the end of which one could talk of Barcelona as “Andalusia’s ninth province”. The Andalusian Party (PA) ran in the 1980 Catalan elections and actually won two seats (and 3% of the vote in Barcelona province). Today, there is little immigration into Catalonia from within Spain. Rather, immigration to Catalonia these days is mostly foreign. Besides South American and Romanian immigration, Catalonia has a very large Muslim North African (Moroccan) community. Many Moroccan and North African youths are attracted to Barcelona by the fabled FC Barcelona (and also economic reasons, of course). 16% of the Catalan population is foreign-born. Today, most Catalans are born in Catalonia itself (77% in a 2010 study). But when Catalans are asked where their parents were born, that same study showed that only a minority – 44-45% – said that their parents were born in Catalonia. Up to 27% said that their parents were born in Andalusia. These people have integrated in Catalan society and culture remarkably well, but it is still common to speak of their parents as “other Catalans” – Catalans, yes, but different. Most of the “other Catalans” came to work in the industrial suburbs of Barcelona and settled in the industrial ‘C’ which surrounds Barcelona.

Catalanism as an ideology whose basis is the recognition and promotion of Catalan national ideology is embraced by a vast majority of Catalan voters and all but two of the current parties in the Catalan Parliament (PP and C’s). The Catalan Socialists (PSC) by far and large embrace the Catalan national identity and support a federal vision of Spain which includes national recognition for Catalonia and Senate reform. It was the PSC-led government of Pasqual Maragall who spearheaded the ambitious 2006 reform of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy. The PSC, however, is unambiguously against Catalan independence. The governing CiU is in practice a pragmatic, moderate nationalist party whose goal is to give Catalonia full fiscal autonomy (like Euskadi) and self-determination within Spain, not independence. Of the parliamentary parties, only the ERC and Joan Laporta’s SI support Catalan independence from Spain. In contrast to Euskadi, the expression of Catalan nationalism has rarely taken a violent form. The terrorist organization Terra Lliure dissolved itself in the early 1990s and it never carried out acts of violence equivalent to ETA’s actions. That is why Catalan nationalism is always described as a “civilized” thing, whose expression is democratic and political. One of the reasons for this is that the issue of nationalism (though obviously not the issue of independence) is not as polarizing in Catalan society as it is in Basque society. ‘Catalanism’ has long been supported by a huge majority of Catalans, and there is a long history of national identification in Catalonia – unlike in Euskadi.

The official languages of Catalonia are Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is, like Spanish, an Ibero-Romance language. It is easy to pick up for a Spanish-speaker and quite similar to Spanish overall. Catalan is close to Occitan, which was spoken in southern France, and as such it appears as an intermediate language between Ibero-Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese) and Gallo-Romance languages (Occitan, French). Roughly 95% of Catalans understand Catalan and around 75% of them can speak it (a lower percentage can write it too). However, Catalan is the primary language of identification for only 32% of Catalans: 50% identify with Spanish, 7% with both Catalan and Spanish and 9% with another language. The use of Spanish, understandably, remains pervasive in media and business. However, the Catalan government is extremely stringent on linguistic policy. Catalan is defined as the “preferred” language of administration, public business, education and cultural activities. All city names are official only in their Catalan forms (for example, Gerona become Girona and Lerida became Lleida). Public servants must speak Catalan and it is the preferred language of business in government. All students must be proficient in both Catalan and Spanish in order to graduate, and Catalan is by far the top language of education in Catalan schools. The government also spends large sums of money on promoting Catalan culture in movies, television, radio or print media. There is some opposition to the very stringent pro-Catalan policies of the Generalitat: the PP and C’s both oppose the current state of language legislation and instead lobby for ‘bilingualism’ which means full equality between both languages, as well as equal education in both Spanish and Catalan. The former leader of the PP in Catalonia and incumbent MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras described the linguistic policies as some sort of ‘apartheid’. On the other hand, Catalan nationalists claim that tough promotion of Catalan in the public sphere is necessary to preserve the language and prevent Spanish from gaining the upper-hand in everyday life. Spanish is already preferred over Catalan in everyday life situations. Some of the most radical nationalists are opposed to bilingualism. Rather, they would want to see Catalan recognized as the sole official language with the use of Spanish being a “right of individual citizens”.

It is important to note that this system of bilingualism is not universal in Catalonia. The mountainous northwestern territory of the Val d’Aran speaks Aranese, an variant of Occitan. The Val d’Aran has its own directly-elected legislature (general council) and a special status of autonomy. Aranese is co-official there with Catalan and Spanish.

Catalans are ticket-splitters. In general, municipal and European elections they are loyal to the Socialists (PSC). The PSC has been the largest party in all general elections, and has been the largest party in all but one municipal and European election (2011 and 1994 respectively). In 2008, the PSC won 46.1% of the vote against 21.26% for the CiU, 16.65% for the PP, 7.95% for the ERC and 5% for the ICV. The PSC’s landslide – beating even its previous high in 1982 – played a major role in the reelection of the Zapatero government in Madrid. Catalans, also worried in large part of the effects of a new PP government (the PSC did similarly and abnormally well in 1996), rewarded the Socialists for their role in the reform of the Statute in 2006. The CiU’s utter weakness and pitiful state in general elections is a new phenomenon, however. In 2004, the 5.4% margin between the PSC and CiU turned into 18.9% margin in the PSC’s favour and increased to a record-high 24.8% margin in 2008. Between 1986 and 2004, however, the CiU had a high stable vote ranging between 29% and 32%, with the margin between them and the PSC being between 5% and 9%. The PSC also has the edge in municipal and European elections. Most importantly, the PSC has controlled Barcelona’s city hall between 1979 and 2011. During the 1990s, the Socialist-controlled Barcelona was a major counterweight to Jordi Pujol’s control of the Generalitat. Pasqual Maragall was mayor of the Catalan capital between 1982 and 1997.

In elections to the Catalan Parliament, however, voters are far more likely to support the CiU (and to a lesser extent the ERC) at the expense of non-nationalist parties like the PSC or PP. In 1980, despite a poor performance in the 1977 and 1979, Jordi Pujol’s newly-founded nationalist coalition CiU emerged as the strongest force to the PSC’s dismay with 27% and 43 seats against 33 seats for the PSC and 25 seats for the communist PSUC. Pujol, an intelligent, charismatic, competent and shrewd politician would go on to become the embodiment of Catalonia and Catalan nationalism. In 1984, the CiU won 46.8% and an absolute majority in the Parliament which it held on to in 1988 and 1992. By 1995, Pujol’s star had begun fading and he was reduced to a minority. In 1999, Maragall’s PSC won slightly more votes (37.9% vs. 37.7%) though Pujol won more seats. Pujol held on for a final term with the votes of the PP. In 2003, support for both the CiU (now led by Artur Mas) and the PSC fell but Maragall took power from the CiU with an historic tripartite coalition with the ERC and ICV. This coalition was reelected in 2006, though the CiU won more votes and seats. In 2010, the PSC collapsed to a record-low 18.4% and 28 seats, while Artur Mas’ CiU won 62 seats – almost an absolute majority.

The PSC’s base in Catalonia is Barcelona province, which concentrates 73% of the region’s population (though only 63% of seats in the Catalan Parliament). Barcelona has the heaviest concentration of so-called “other Catalans” – Catalans whose parents (oftentimes) were born outside Catalonia and came to work in the industrial hinterland of Barcelona. These voters, though they may feel Catalan, do not identify with Catalan nationalism. Besides, most of them being poor and working-class do not naturally identify either with a right-wing party like the CiU. Industrial suburbs of Barcelona or old working-class towns like L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, Badalona, Terrassa, Sabadell, Santa Coloma, El Prat or Manresa are some of Catalonia’s largest cities and strongholds of the PSC (over 50% in good years). The CiU’s vote is concentrated in rural areas, where Catalan remains the dominant language, and in affluent towns (most of the Catalan middle-class is nationalist) like Sant Cugat. The CiU was the largest party in general elections between 1986 and 2004 in the provinces of Girona and Lleida. Perhaps a trend which should worry the PSC (or is it an ephemeral fad linked to the poor state of the Socialists?) is the rise of the PP and the far-right in its working-class strongholds. Most PP gains in 2010 came from these type of areas, where the economic crisis has prompted anti-immigration feelings (immigrants to Catalonia being largely North African) which are exploited by the PP but also the PxC, a far-right party based in the old textile town of Vic (where it is the second largest party on council behind the CiU). In 2011, the PP won Badalona, the region’s third-largest city and a PSC stronghold.

Catalan politics have evolved rapidly and dramatically since this profile was written last summer. Catalan nationalism, which for decades had been seen as the “civilized” and consensual peripheral nationalism (the so-called seny catalá) in contrast to the Basque Country’s acrimonious, polarizing and violent brand of nationalism. Today, the situation has been reversed. Even as Euskadi elected a nationalist regional government last month, the new Basque government seems to prefer consensus and accommodation rather than confrontation with Madrid over a nationalist agenda. On the other hand, the Catalan government has moved towards is actively pushing a nationalist – many would say downright separatist – agenda, in the process creating a polarizing and divisive national debate within Catalonia and Spain as a whole.

The backdrop to the new crisis between the Generalitat and la Moncloa is the economic crisis, which has played a huge role in the revitalization of Catalan nationalism. Spain’s central government has a big public debt and deficit, but many of the country’s 17 autonomous communities – Catalonia included – have also contracted large debts through years of reckless and profligate spending by careless governments. Their huge debts are coming back to haunt them, and nowhere is this truer than in Catalonia; Spain’s economic powerhouse and traditionally the wealthiest region in Spain.

The central government has pressured regional governments to dramatically reduce their debts and deficits, given that the debt contracted by Spain’s regional governments is one of the major factors weighing on the country’s economic and fiscal situation. The regions, notably Catalonia and Andalusia, have argued that they cannot cut their debt to the threshold imposed by Madrid.

Catalonia’s debt was 21% of the GDP in the first quarter of 2012, up from 14% in the first quarter of 2010; this the largest debt both in raw and percentage terms for any region in Spain (the Valencian Community’s debt is 20.2%). In response, the Generalitat passed strict austerity measures, which aim at reducing the region’s deficit from 4.22% in 2010 to the 1.3% deficit threshold in 2012. These austerity measures have included deep spending cuts, major job cuts in the public sector (notably in education, healthcare or social services), a 5% pay cut for regional government employees, some tax hikes and a commitment to sell public assets. While the government has been fairly successful in its attempts to reduce the deficit, the region’s debt has kept growing because markets have lost trust in Catalonia (a credit rating agency recently downgraded the region’s credit rating). Asphyxiated by debt, the regional government was forced to seek a bailout from the autonomous liquidity fund to stay afloat. The CiU’s campaign promise to reduce unemployment has amounted to hot air, given that the region’s unemployment rate has increased from around 17.5% when the CiU was elected in 2010 to 22.56% today (still below the national average of 25%).

The economic crisis has reignited Catalan complaints about the “fiscal deficit” – the idea that Catalonia pays more to the central government (in taxes) than it gets back (in investments), which means that Catalan taxpayers are “subsidizing” the poorer regions of Spain. The central government has recognized the existence of the fiscal deficit and it has been evaluated at 6 to 9% of the region’s GDP.

Artur Mas’ austerity measures have been fairly unpopular, but they have not caused the same level of social unrest and discontent as the PP government’s similar measures in Madrid. Additionally, Mas’ popularity did not fall significantly, quite unlike Mariano Rajoy. There are two explanations for his party’s resilient support. The first explanation is used by most governments around the world these days: blame the bad stuff on the guys who were there before you. In Catalonia, the CiU government has claimed (with good reason – to an extent) that the tripartite PSC-ERC-ICV coalition which was in power between 2003 and 2010 was a disaster which left a huge deficit.

The other claim which the CiU has made in order to justify its policies is that, as noted above, the current financing of autonomous communities is unfair. The Catalan nationalists have been very good at exploiting the idea that Catalans are getting robbed by Spain (their tax money being used to “subsidize” the poorer regions in the south). These feelings were, of course, present long before the economic crisis but there has unarguably been a surge in nationalist sentiments in Catalonia. People have offered differing explanations to account for this surge, though most will agree that the economic crisis and the ‘fiscal deficit’ have played a major role.

Catalan nationalists, again, have been successful at presenting the situation in simple terms: Catalans are being robbed because of a broken and unfair regional financing model, and that Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest regions, could recover very quickly if its taxes weren’t being used by Madrid to subsidize poorer regions (and if it was an independent country within the EU). With the economic crisis, people have lost their bearings while a lot of Catalans – most of whom are very attached to their cultural identity and proud of it – are seeing Spain as a broken and decadent state. In this context, the offer of independence as an easy fix-all solution to Catalonia’s catastrophic economic situation has proven quite attractive.

The size of the pro-independence rally on the Diada (Catalonia’s national day on September 11, which commemorates the day in 1714 when the pro-Habsburg Catalan forces were defeated by the Spanish Bourbons during the Spanish War of Succession; a symbol for the loss of Catalan autonomy) this year surprised both the CiU and the opponents of Catalan independence. The organizers estimated that around 1.5 million turned out to march in support of Catalan independence, opponents said the number was below 1 million (but still quite high).

Whether or not Mas supports the independence of Catalonia as a nation-state is not entirely clear, because he has a noted aversion to the use of the word ‘independence’ but it is nonetheless quite clear that Mas’ tends towards full independence, or falling short of that, very extensive autonomy for Catalonia in Spain. The days when the CiU sought to extract advantages (some kind of “devo max” similar to what Alex Salmond’s SNP might be aiming for in Scotland) from Madrid while standing as a bulwark against the radical separatists are gone. Mas and the CiU argues that circumstances have changed because of the economic crisis and the Spanish government’s “recentralist” attitudes (for example, the courts striking down the controversial parts of the 2006 reform of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy).

The economic crisis has exposed flaws and cracks in the country’s 1978 constitution which had been the product of careful compromise between conflicting groups. Peripheral nationalists, primarily Catalan nationalists, have long been clamoring for extensive constitutional reforms. Now, several mainstream Spanish politicians on the left (notably the PSOE’s hapless boss, Alfredo Peréz Rubalcaba) have converted to federalism. On the other hand, any reform of the constitutional model remains unacceptable for the Spanish right. For them, the economic crisis has revealed that regional governments are careless toddlers who cannot be trusted with the purse.

Mas’ core demand is a new “fiscal pact” which would allow Catalonia to raise and manage its own taxes (paying Madrid only for the services provided by the central government in the region), an arrangement which would be akin to that which Euskadi and Navarre currently have (the Concierto Económico). In Euskadi and Navarre, this constitutionally-entrenched concierto has allowed the regional government to keep more of its taxes and invest them in the region (they also do not participate in the Spanish form of equalization payments).

Negotiations between Rajoy and Mas on the fiscal pact foundered in September. The PP is ideologically inclined towards centralization rather than devolution, so it had no appetite for Mas’s schemes – which Rajoy rejected as being unconstitutional. Rajoy agreed to a renegotiation of the autonomous financing system, last negotiated in 2009, but he also vowed to oppose any moves contrary to the constitution or actions which would disturb the country’s political stability. Even if Rajoy has carefully eschewed provocative language, many in his entourage and his party have a knack for such language. Martin Prieto, in the very conservative La Razón newspaper, recently accused Mas of “high treason”.

Mas was surprised by the strength of the Diada rallies, and he chose to latch on to the nationalist train. He announced early elections September 25, and stated that he would hold a referendum within the term of the next legislature on Catalonia’s institutional future. Prior to its dissolution, the Catalan Parliament voted a motion calling for a consultation on Catalonia’s future. Mas said that he would seek to hold a referendum within the legal framework, but he would still hold a referendum even without legal backing. The referendum, he argued, should go forward regardless.

The Spanish constitution is not clear about many things when it comes to regional autonomy, but it does make clear that only the Spanish Parliament has the authority to organize a referendum (Article 149.1) and that sovereignty resides in the Spanish people (Article 1.2). Some feel that Mas could settle for a “devo max” arrangement with Madrid, because he has shied away from using the word independence. However, the way in which he talks about the referendum makes it is clear that his goal would be Catalan statehood. In this election, for example, Mas said that he was seeking a mandate to turn Catalonia into “a state within Europe”. Catalan nationalists have insisted that if all went well, the new Catalan state would automatically become a member-state within the EU. The reality is not as straightforward  Most feel that Catalonia would not automatically retain EU membership if it became a “state”.

It is unclear whether Mas supports sovereignty in the traditional sense of the term, or if his scheme is closer to that proposed by Juan José Ibarretxe, the former Basque regional president, in 2003. Ibarretxe’s plan would have created a sort of confederal Spain in which Euskadi would hold a statute of free-association with Spain and would have very wide powers, including representation in EU institutions. He too had sought to hold a referendum on his plan, but the Spanish parliament rejected his demand as unconstitutional and the plan collapsed after he failed to win a popular mandate for it in snap regional elections. Ibarretxe’s plan represented an unusual and novel notion of “post-sovereignty” which sees many sources of sovereignty and authority rather than a single source, as in traditional definitions. By some of his statements, Mas has given hints that his project falls in this category. He noted that “independence” and “sovereignty” are outdated concepts, because of supranational structures such as the EU. Some in the CiU have also stated that their goal would be similar to that of the United States, with the EU being the US federal government and Catalonia being a state within the larger confederation. On the other hand, he has been much clearer than Ibarretxe was in some of his statements and it appears as if he favours independence.

In the short-term, both the CiU and the PP saw a debate over Catalonia’s institutional future as a politically lucrative solution. By placing the referendum and the issues it entails at the core of the campaign, the CiU (and the PP) could distract attention away from the economic crisis. The CiU could awake nationalist sentiments and ensure that voters were not reminded of its unpopular austerity measures. The PP could use the CiU’s nationalist campaigns to mobilize anti-nationalist energy against the CiU, while also ensuring that voters forgot about Mariano Rajoy in Madrid and the PP’s support for the Generalitat’s austerity policies in Barcelona.

The campaign turned into a polarized debate on Catalonia’s future, with the economy and the crisis being relegated to a secondary role. The polarization of the debate favoured the parties with strong and clear positions on the issue, while hurting those parties whose standing was more ambiguous. On the nationalist side of the equation, the CiU’s objective was to win an absolute majority in Parliament which would give it a strong mandate to hold a referendum, even over Madrid’s refusal (there is basically no chance that Rajoy would let a Catalan referendum go ahead). The party’s campaign took a clearly nationalist tone, with Mas’ messianic promise to lead Catalonia to the promised land of statehood within the EU. At his huge rallies, the senyera – the traditional Catalan flag which is the official flag of Catalonia – was replaced by the estelada – the senyera defaced with a star in a blue triangle, and a flag associated with separatism. At the outset, it appeared as if the CiU would be successful. It was helped out, unintentionally, by the Rajoy government. José Ignacio Wert, the PP education minister, said that he wanted to “hispanicize” (españolizar) Catalan children; a provocative statement which fanned the flames of Catalan nationalism.

The CiU is not the only avatar of Catalan nationalist. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which had experienced a huge surge in support in 2003-2004 but who had seen its support go down fairly dramatically since that high point (only 10 seats in 2010), openly supports independence. Under a new leader, Oriol Junqueras (a local mayor and former MEP), and an even more nationalist orientation, the ERC’s platform included a road map towards independence including a referendum on independence in 2014 to be followed by a ‘constituent phase’. On other issues, the ERC’s platform was social democratic and used keywords such as reindustralization, the knowledge economy and the green economy. During the campaign, Junqueras and the ERC avoided direct criticism of Mas.

The Initiative for Catalonia Greens-United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), a permanent coalition of the smaller EUiA (which is the IU’s local branch) and the ecosocialist ICV (a successor of the old PSUC, refounded in the late 1990s as a New Left ecosocialist party), has often been considered as a nationalist party. The party supports “plurinational” federalism and rejects what it calls the PP’s “recentralization”, but it also strongly supports the Catalan people’s “right to decide” of their institutional future – including independence – in a referendum. It does not see independence and federalism as competing projects, because it views them as two models which recognize the right to self-determination. The common enemy is centralism. As such, ICV’s 10 deputies backed the CiU motion calling for the organization of a referendum. Agreement with the CiU, however, stops there. ICV, led by Joan Herrera, campaigned under the slogan “right to decide, yes; social rights too!”. It presented itself as the strongest left-wing opposition to the “right’s” (CiU and PP) austerity policies.

On the left, ERC and ICV faced competition from the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), an old medley of left and far-left nationalist independents. The CUP, which has no party hierarchy or leadership but is rather a broad assortment of local assemblies functioning on the base of participative democracy, has been around since the 1980s but it had never run in elections above the municipal level. In the May 2011 local election, the CUP did very well – taking over 2% of the vote and 104 seats. The CUP strongly supports the independence of the “Catalan Countries” and is far to the left on economic issues, supporting a “planned economy based on solidarity” and nationalization of public utilities, transportation and communication networks. The CUP’s candidate, David Fernández, said that he wanted a “Trojan horse for the lower classes” in Parliament.

At the other end of the spectrum, the PP and the Citizens (C’s) represented the staunch opponents of Mas’ nationalist gamble. The Catalan PP, led by Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, sought to benefit from a polarized campaign fought around the divisive idea of Catalan independence. The Rajoy government’s austerity policies are unpopular and the PP voted in favour of the CiU’s austerity policies at the regional level, so the PP ran a more low-key campaign which focused its attacks on Mas, whom they presented as a ‘coward’ who was dead-set on the divisive idea of separation and was unwilling to deal with urgent social and economic problems, including unemployment. Sánchez-Camacho presented her party as the only national party “which defends without shame that Catalonia is part of Spain”.

The Ciudadanos-Partido de la Ciudadanía (C’s) was founded in 2006 and it obtained only 3 seats in both the 2006 and 2010, with about 3% of the votes nationally. In the same ideological tradition as UPyD, the C’s are a centre-left liberal party viscerally opposed to further decentralization, let alone independence. In the liberal tradition, C’s places emphasis on individual rights and claims that only individuals have rights, not political territories. In the past, the C’s, led by Albert Rivera, had functioned as something of a one-issue for anti-nationalists, placing most emphasis on the government’s linguistic policies (active promotion of Catalan in the media, education, public sector etc) and called for ‘equal’ bilingualism. In this campaign, the C’s broadened their focused and discovered a new, more left-wing side. To differentiate themselves from the PP, with which they share their attachment to the current Spanish constitution and their opposition to Catalan nationalism, they took strong positions on corruption (Mas and Jordi Pujol have been accused of having Swiss bank accounts;the C’s criticized CiU the most while castigating the PSC and PP for their passivity) and launched attacks on banks and austerity measures. For example, the party’s program talked of “rescue the citizens, not the banks” or “healthcare, education and social services are right, not a business”.

Stuck between these two poles is the Socialist Party (PSC), traditionally Catalonia’s dominant non-nationalist party and one of the most powerful and important federations in the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE). In 2010, weakened by seven years in government (the tripartito), the PSC won only 18% and 28 seats – its worst result. Its troubles did not end there. The party has been divided between its federalist faction, which opposes independence but supports federalism; and the more nationalistically-inclined catalanista faction, which is sympathetic to some of the nationalist left’s (ERC and ICV) ideas. Pere Navarro, the mayor of Terrassa and a member of the ‘federalist’ faction, won the internal primary and was the PSC’s candidate. Navarro and the PSC platform defended a vague brand of federalism and opposed Mas’ referendum idea. The PSC’s federalist proposal is fairly vague, but it seems to propose some kind of symmetric federalism with a federal Senate which represents the constituent units of the federation. Notably, the party drew on Germany and Canada as examples (Canada is often used by both sides in Catalonia, with the nationalists drawing on the experience of the Canadian federal government recognizing the legitimacy of Quebec’s referendums on independence). However, with a vague and middle-of-the-road federalist proposal, the PSC tried to focus the campaign on economic and social issues – it has called Mas’ referendum gambit a smokescreen to hide its ‘failures’ on economic policies (austerity, unemployment etc).

Turnout was 69.56%, up over 10 points since 2010 (58.78%) and the highest turnout in Catalan regional elections since the advent of democracy. Voters were motivated and mobilized by the high stakes of the campaign, in which most parties – CiU and PP most notably – had stressed that these were the most important elections ever. The results were:

CiU 30.68% (-7.75%) winning 50 seats (-12)
ERC-Cat Sí 13.68% (+6.68%) winning 21 seats (+11)
PSC 14.43% (-3.95%) winning 20 seats (-8)
PP 12.99% (+0.62%) winning 19 seats (+1)
ICV-EUiA 9.89% (+2.52%) winning 13 seats (+3)
C’s 7.58% (+4.19%) winning 9 seats (+6)
CUP 3.48% (+3.48%) winning 3 seats (+3)
PxC 1.65% (-0.75%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SI 1.28% (-2.01%) winning 0 seats (-4)
Others 2.78% (-1.68%) winning 0 seats (nc)

CiU won the election on paper, but in reality it lost the election. This result is very far from the strong mandate which the CiU had set at its objective, but even when the CiU’s chances of obtaining an absolute majority looked dim in the last days of the campaign, most had predicted that the party would win a strong result – at least similar to or only minimally less than its 2010 result. Mas had sought a strong mandate from voters to push for his referendum, but he received a stark rebuke from voters. The CiU lost 12 seats and its vote share fell by nearly 8 points compared to the 2010 election, leaving the CiU far ahead of the pack but also with a much smaller and weakened minority in Parliament.

What happened? In the final days of the campaign, the CiU and Mas had been facing an onslaught of corruption allegations concerning secret offshore (Swiss) bank accounts held by Mas and Jordi Pujol, Mas’ political mentor. These allegations are linked to the old Palau case and the recent allegations were spearheaded by El Mundo, Spain’s main conservative newspaper. The newspaper cited a police report linking him and other high-ranking figures in his party (the CDC, which is the dominant component of the CiU) to secret offshore bank accounts where they received illegal funding from Catalan entrepreneurs and businessmen. The CDC has claimed that it is the victim of a dirty war led by its opponent, and Mas is suing El Mundo for libel. Did the controversy related to the case of the allegations of a ‘dirty war’ against the Catalan nationalists influence voters in the final days?

Did voters reject Mas’ nationalist/separatist schemes and his referendum agenda? While the CiU did badly, the broader nationalist constellation (CiU, ERC, ICV, CUP) nonetheless won the elections and together they still retain over three-fifths of the seats (87 seats, up 1 from 2010). The election can hardly be described as a rebuke of the broader Catalan nationalist agenda.

In the obligatory “where did we cock up?” article (see here), pollsters lay the blame on the unexpectedly huge increase in turnout (which favoured the anti-nationalists) and the buzz related to the offshore accounts scandal/anti-CiU ‘dirty war’.

The CiU suffered its heaviest loses in the greater Barcelona area – the city’s working-class and historically Socialist hinterland. Turnout was particularly strong in the area (over 10 points higher than in 2010), and CiU suffered some very heavy loses in the area (where it has historically been weak, outside a few cities) – between 10 and 14 points lower than in 2010. In L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, the second largest city in Catalonia, the CiU’s vote share fell by over ten points from 24.7% to only 14.3% while the PSC lost 5 points (from 29.6% to 24.8%). In Badalona, the CiU lost almost 12 points (31% to 19%) while the PSC lost about 3, down to 19.5% (regaining first place, but with an all-time low result). The PSC was able to hold up better in Terrassa, where Pere Navarro has been the mayor since 2002. The PSC vote increased by 3 points (to 23.5%) while the CiU lost nearly 13 points (down to 24.8%).

In the comarca of Baix Llobregat (Barcelona’s western working-class suburbs), the CiU vote fell 12 points to a mere 19.8%, collapsing to its lowest point since 1980 while the PSC lost about 3 points, falling to 20.1% (also an all-time low for the party, which had won 48% there in 1999…). Turnout increased by 11 points.

In all of these cases, the beneficiaries of the CiU (and, to a lesser extent, the PSC)’s collapse were the smaller parties – ERC, ICV and C’s – while the PP’s support remained stable at fairly high levels. The ERC gained, on average, a bit more than 5 points and was victorious in Sant Vicenç dels Horts (with 23.5%), the town where Oriol Junqueras is the mayor. The ICV, traditionally strong in Barcelona’s proletarian hinterland on the traces of the old PSUC, gaining about 2-4 points and winning 13% in Baix Llobregat, 12.3% in Barcelonès comarca and 11.6% in the Vallès Occidental. Undoubtedly, however, the most impressive gains were made by the vehemently anti-nationalist C’s, whose support increased from 4.9% to 10.8% in Baix Llobregat and from 4.2% to 9.8% in the Vallès Occidental. The C’s, likely feeding off the PSC’s decline (in part) and reaping the electoral benefits of their new left-wing political orientation, won strong support in Barcelona’s proletarian suburbs: 13.6% in Viladecans, 11.6% in Cornellà de Llobregat, 11.4% in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, 10.6% in L’Hospitalet and 10.1% in Badalona etc.

Outside of the greater Barcelona conurbation, the CiU’s loses are smaller. While it did lose a fairly substantial amount of support around the city of Tarragona, in the heavily nationalist rural areas of Lleida and Girona (the CiU vote fell by 3.9 and 2.1 points respectively in these provinces, against -7.6 in Tarragona and -8.7 in Barcelona). In some small and solidly nationalist comarcas, the CiU vote even increased by a tad. Throughout these rural and Catalonophone nationalist comarcas, the CiU and ERC took first and second while the PSC and PP placed distant thirds or fourths with single-digit results.

The ERC (and also ICV)’s gains in Barcelona’s working-class hinterland make it hard to attribute the CiU’s collapse to a broader collapse of the nationalist brand in regions which have been the most reticent towards Catalan nationalism in the past. The turnout surge in these places certainly benefited the anti-nationalists, but rather than a substantial collapse in the broader nationalist vote there was instead a strong mobilization and motivation of the anti-nationalist vote. The CiU’s collapse can be attributed to either unease with Mas’ referendum plan or discontent with the Generalitat’s austerity policies (these lower-income towns have been hit the hardest by the austerity policies) – though the latter option appears more likely.

The ERC was the biggest winner of the night. They won 21 seats, which far surpassed even their wildest expectations, and stole the symbolic second place from the PSC (but only due to malapportionment which favours the smallest provinces). The party had been fairly optimistic of its chances to regain the ground it had lost in 2010, which had marked the lowest ebb for the party since the 1980s; despite fears that Mas’ nationalist campaign could hurt them.

By playing up nationalist rhetoric, Mas had certainly hoped to capitalize on the nationalist mobilization which followed the Diada, in an attempt to win an absolute majority to pursue his own agenda (despite his weak economic record and the unpopularity of his austerity policies). It almost worked, but the ERC, by expanding its campaign to talk about social issues, was able to reach out to nationalist voters who flirted with Mas in the first days of the campaign but who remained uneasy with the Generalitat’s austerity policies. In the final stretch, the possible corruption cases surrounding the CiU likely also took their toll on the CiU and encouraged a large transfer of votes from the CiU to the ERC.

Oriol Junqueras, the new leader of the ERC, was able to inject new energy and hope in a party organization which had been demoralized by a series of electoral humiliations in 2010-2011 and internal squabbles between its hapless leadership. The ERC’s result this year is similar to what it had won in 2006 and a bit below its historic 2003 result, but nonetheless an excellent performance.

The PSC’s result cannot be described as anything other than catastrophic. In 2010, with only 18% and 28 seats, it had already won its worst result ever. This year, it managed to do even more pitifully than in 2010, with barely 14% and 20 seats. True enough, the election could have been even more disastrous for the PSC, which had polled as low at 16 or so seats during the course of this campaign. Strong turnout in its old strongholds and the successful motivation and mobilization of the anti-nationalist electorate probably allowed it to save face with the best possible performance, though it remains a catastrophe. In a polarized campaign which profited to the ‘extremes’ of both the nationalist and anti-nationalist coalitions, the PSC, with a vague and unappealing ‘federalist’ proposal, was squished in the middle and its voice muted by the confrontation between the nationalists and their most vocal opponents (PP, C’s). A vague and unappealing platform, a national party which is going down the drain, a party wracked by very public internal divisions as of late and a bad campaign led by a man with little charisma: all factors which sealed the PSC’s fate.

The PSC’s annihilation in its old strongholds – Barcelona’s working-class suburbs (a region with a large population of migrants from other regions of Spain or their descendants) – is quite something. In places such as L’Hospitalet, Badalona, Terrassa, or Sabadell, the PSC used to regularly win over 40-50% of the vote in most elections. Now, the PSC has now collapsed to the low 20s (or even lower in certain cases) in these towns. It placed second in Barcelona province but placed a distant third in Girona and fourth in Tarragona. In the city of Barcelona – which they governed for over 30 years until 2011 – the PSC placed fourth with 12.2%.

The PP added an extra seat to the 18 they held after the 2010 election, and although this is a good result for Alicia Sánchez-Camacho’s party, it falls below their expectations. The PP had hoped to capitalize on the polarization of the electorate in the wake of Mas’ new nationalist agenda, with the stated aim of becoming the second largest party in Parliament (to form the largest opposition party). Although the PP’s result is the party’s best result in a type of election which is usually the most difficult for the PP (it polls much better, up to 20%, in general elections), it had been hoping for a clearer success. The party was likely dragged down by the unpopularity of Mariano Rajoy’s austerity policies in Madrid. The C’s, with their similarly strong anti-nationalist message plus its leftist anti-austerity stance, profited the most from the polarization of the electorate.

The PP were nonetheless very pleased by Artur Mas’ major setback, who they accuse of having paralyzed and divided Catalonia with his nationalist agenda.

ICV-EUiA, like the PP, did quite well – taking 13 seats and nearly 9% of the vote, its best result since 1995 – but again, like the PP, it found its result slightly disappointing. Presenting itself as the strongest voice on the left against Mas’ economic policies, as the party which participated in every protest against cuts in social services or education, Joan Herrera’s party had hoped to capitalize on social discontent against Mas’ austerity policies. To a certain extent they did so, regaining votes from the PSC or other parties in Barcelona’s working-class suburb – the traditional base of the post-communist left in Catalonia. However, they had likely hoped for a slightly stronger performance.

The C’s, however, can hardly be disappointed by their tremendous performance. As noted above, the party, which in the past had focus its virulently anti-nationalist campaigns on narrow issues such as the government’s linguistic policies and the “positive discrimination” in favour of the Catalan language, expanded its message to talk about corruption (which the main parties – CiU, PSC and PP – were reluctant to mention) or the effects of the austerity policies implemented by the Generalitat and la Moncloa. Albert Rivera’s unambiguous anti-nationalist rhetoric, combined with his criticism of the banking system or the austerity policies, allowed him to make major inroads in the PSC’s old turf in suburban Barcelona. The C’s won 8.5% in the province of Barcelona (8 seats), up from 3.8% in 2010. However, the party, which in the past had been confined to the Barcelona metro area, expanded its support to Tarragona province, where it won one seat and 7.3% of the vote (up from 2.7%). In the traditionally anti-nationalist Tarragonès comarca, it won 11.6% of the vote, even reaching over 15% in Vila-seca.

The very left-wing and nationalist CUP, in its first regional electoral participation, broke the 3% barrier in seat-rich Barcelona province, which gave it 3 seats. With an unusual low-scale and grassroots-based campaign, it built on its fairly substantial base in some local councils and benefited from social discontent on the nationalist left.

Where does this result leave Catalonia? Artur Mas’ plan had been for him to win an absolute majority on the back of the post-Diada nationalist mobilization, and used his strong mandate from the Catalan electorate as a bargaining card against Rajoy to push for his referendum, on his own terms. Even as the CiU’s chances of conquering an absolute majority started dropping, they had hoped – and predicted – a fairly strong minority mandate which would still Mas with sufficient legitimacy to push his referendum on his terms. The whole thing backfired badly against him, leaving Mas with a smaller minority than in 2010 and a fairly uncertain mandate from voters. While voters returned a majority of deputies favourable to the “right to decide” (derecho a decidir), nationalist voters preferred “the original” (ERC) to “the copy” (CiU).

The CiU’s result was so bad for the party that there was some speculation that Mas could be compelled to step down. The PP and C’s both claimed that Mas had lost his legitimacy with the election results, Albert Rivera (the C’s leader) even called him to step down. Those rumours passed, and Mas will remain in power, but what seems to be clear is that Mas’ very disappointing showing on 25-N has reopened internal divisions in the CiU coalition between Mas/Pujol’s more nationalist CDC and Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida’s more pragmatic and right-leaning UDC. Duran’s smaller UDC had been quite uneasy with Mas’ bombastic nationalist rhetoric, when they have always favoured a ‘confederal’ Spain and have traditionally been very much against any rapprochement with the ERC (they would rather prefer to work with the PP). Duran was fairly silent during the campaign, but since 25-N he has publicly broken ranks with his senior partners in the CiU by expressing his concerns over Mas’ nationalist agenda and his desire to see better relations re-established with the PP.

Between his election in 2010 and this summer, Mas had enjoyed fairly cordial working relations with the PP. The two parties agreed to disagree on institutional issues, but the two parties share much common ground when it comes to economic policy. The PP voted in favour of the CiU’s austerity policies in Barcelona. However, the cordial relationship between the CiU and PP rapidly collapsed after Mas started taking a confrontational position against Madrid and pushing for his referendum. The PP focused most of its artillery fire on the CiU and Mas during the campaign, branding him as a divisive and polarizing “coward” who did not have the courage to take on ‘urgent’ issues (the economy, jobs) and preferred to take cover with his nationalist agenda. Following the elections, the PP expressed satisfaction at Mas’ setback. The CiU ruled out collaborating with the PP.

Will Mas’ plan go the way of the Ibarretxe election following Juan José Ibarretxe and the PNV’s failure to win a strong popular mandate to push for the Ibarretxe plan in the 2005 Basque elections? The situation is slightly different. Following the 2005 Basque elections, it was clear that the Basque nationalists had lost ground and that they had not received any mandate from the voters to push for the Ibarretxe plan, meaning that the elections dealt Ibarretxe’s ambitious plan a mortal blow. This year, the Catalan elections did not provide Mas and the CiU with a popular mandate for their agenda, but it would be wrong to claim that voters rejected the entire premises of the nationalist agenda (even if there was no substantial increase in nationalist support). The ERC, which ran on a platform calling for a referendum on Catalan separation as early as 2013, did very well.

Mas indicated that the ERC was his preferred coalition partner, even offering them to participate in his cabinet. Oriol Junqueras finally turned down Mas’ offer, but he did promise strong support for Mas (una solidez gigantesca to use his terms), including support for his government’s budgets. The basis for this tacit deal between Mas and the ERC is their common agreement on institutional issues. Mas’ post-electoral statements about the future of his referendum were a bit all over the place, but he said that the Parliament retained a strong majority of deputies in favour of the derecho a decidir (87/135 including ICV) and that the referendum remained on the table. It is a bit unclear what the ERC demanded in exchange for this legislative support, though it seems to be on some budgetary issues and on an agreement to keep pushing for a referendum.

With his government likely to be dependent on support from the left-leaning and strongly nationalist ERC, will Mas be pushed by the ERC to maintain confrontational and nationalist positions, including to keep pushing for a referendum? If he does continue pushing for a referendum but then finds himself blocked (as is certain to happen) by Madrid, will he do like Ibarretxe had done and quietly drop his plans, or will he push forward to organize an “illegal” referendum, not legitimized or recognized by Madrid? The results of these elections only provide more headaches for both Rajoy and Mas. Both may have reason to be satisfied by the results of 25-N, but in the long run the results do not satisfy either of their agendas.

Next: Canadian by-elections (Nov 26) and the disintegration of the French right (Nov 18 onward).

Election Preview: Quebec 2012

Provincial elections will be held in Quebec (Canada) on September 4, 2012. All 125 members of the provincial legislature, the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale), are elected in single-member constituencies (often known as ridings in Canadian English, or comtés/circonscriptions in French). Quebec’s political system, like that of every other province in Canada, is built on the Westminster system. The Premier of Quebec (called Prime Minister in French) and his government are responsible to the National Assembly and must retain its confidence in order to govern. With only two exceptions since 1867, all provincial elections in Quebec have resulted in majority governments, allowing the leader of the largest party to form a stable government.

These elections will be disputed on a new map, following a provincial redistribution in 2011. While the National Assembly retained 125 seats, there were changes in the regional distribution of seats with the elimination of some seats in less populous regions (Gaspésie, Bas-Saint-Laurent, Chaudières-Appalaches and Centre-du-Québec) and the creation of new seats in demographically vibrant regions (the suburban regions of Montérégie, Laval and Lanaudière). Other constituencies saw their borders altered somewhat, but there were no major changes to the look and layout of the electoral map otherwise. The DGEQ has maps of the new districts here, and has a very handy historical atlas (in Google Earth format) which shows the constituency maps since 1965.

Political History of Quebec since 1867

Quebec (source: Natural Resources Canada)

Quebec’s political history since Canadian Confederation in 1867 has been significantly influenced by the province’s unique place in Canada and North America. In a country where only a quarter or so of the population is Francophone, around 85% of Quebec’s 7.9 million inhabitants are Francophones. The issue of Quebec’s place within confederation has been one of the most important political issues in Quebec and Canada, and since the 1970s provincial politics are driven by the so-called “national question” – simply put, whether or not Quebec should be a sovereign, independent nation-state.

Quebec nationalism is predominantly territorial or civic nationalism, even if the issue of language and Quebec’s ‘difference’ from the rest of Canada is indisociable from the national question. Furthermore, by and large, the Quebec nationalist movement is a largely secular, left-wing and progressive movement. However, when Quebec joined confederation as one of the founding provinces in 1867, there was no notion of Quebec as a secular community. What defined Quebec in 1867 was its heavily Roman Catholic and French-speaking population, who identified not with their province bur rather with their correligionists and fellow Francophones, including large French-speaking Catholic minorities in the Maritimes, Ontario and especially Manitoba.

The idea that Quebec should separate from the rest of Canada was inexistent prior to the Conscription Crisis of 1917, and it would not be until the 1960s that separatism would find significant public support. The leaders of the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837-1838 was the work of liberal reformers and nationalists who defined themselves as Canadian (canadiens) in contrast to most English-Canadians who defined themselves as loyal British subjects – and would continue doing so until at least the 1930s. Progressively, the liberal civic (Canadian) nationalism in Quebec would be replaced by a far more conservative brand of nationalism, sometimes styled clerico-nationalism. Until the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church held tremendous religious but also social and political power in the province. Separation of church and state did not become a reality until the 1960s in Quebec.

Following confederation and until at least the 1880s, Quebec politics both federally and provincially were dominated by the Conservative Party, which had the favours of the powerful clergy and Montreal’s protectionist business interests. At the provincial levels, the Conseratives ruled the province until 1887 (with the exception of a short-lived Liberal (PLQ) government between 1878 and 1879). However, the Conservatives’ stranglehold on provincial politics weakened under the weight of their own internal divisions, between a moderate faction close to Georges-Étienne Cartier (John A. Macdonald’s Quebec partner and fellow ‘Father of Confederation’) and an ultramontane clerical faction. External factors also precipitated the Conservative Party’s decline in Quebec in the late nineteenth century. Cartier’s death in 1873 was not a mortal blow but with his passing, the party lost its dominant figure. In 1885, the execution of Métis rebellion leader Louis Riel by Macdonald’s federal Tory government was deeply unpopular in Quebec and contributed to the victory of the PLQ, led by Honoré Mercier, in the 1886 provincial election.

In contrast to the bland Conservative Premiers, Honoré Mercier was the first Premier of Quebec who had the stature of statesman. His government, although still close to the Catholic Church, represented the first expression of Quebecois demands for provincial autonomy. He was not alone in this movement for provincial autonomy. The terms of confederation in 1867 had created a very centralized federation, and several prominent Premiers including Oliver Mowat of Ontario demanded more provincial powers.

A railroad scandal brought down Mercier’s government in 1891 and returned the Conservatives to power in 1892, but it proved to be the Conservative Party’s last hurrah in Quebec. Once again, it was largely external factors which hastened the provincial Conservatives’ final downfall. Macdonald’s death in 1891 severely weakened the federal Conservatives, and the Manitoba Schools Question (1890-1896, dealing with the public funding of separate religious schools including French Catholic schools in Manitoba) would fatally divide the party. Given that the Quebecois still identified primarily with their faith and language rather than their province, the Manitoba Schools Question was perceived as an affront to French Catholics and severely hurt the Conservatives at both levels. Federally, the Liberals led by Quebec’s native son Wilfrid Laurier used the divisions of the federal Tories on the Manitoba Schools Question to win the 1896 federal election. In 1897, the provincial Liberals handily defeated a divided and severely wounded Conservative government.

After 1897, the PLQ would rule with only token opposition for the next 39 years, winning ample majorities in ten successive elections. In 1917, the federal Conservative government’s decision to implement conscription during World War I would be the fatal blow to whatever remained of the provincial Conservative Party. The Liberals abated their historical anti-clericalism and come to a silent agreement with the Catholic clergy, focusing rather on the economic development of Quebec and abandoning ambitious plans for education reform (education was heavily controlled by the Church). The two main avatars of the nearly four decades of Liberal dominance were Lomer Gouin (Premier, 1905-1920) and Louis-Alexandre Taschereau (Premier, 1920-1936). Both led laissez-faire policies favourable to businesses and particularly foreign investors (opponents accused the PLQ of selling the province to foreigners, mainly Americans), resulting in a strong economy and healthy finances in the years before 1929. Both Gouin and Taschereau toyed with the notions of provincial autonomy and would sometimes flex their muscle against Ottawa.

Taschereau’s response to the Great Depression was slow and tepid, and the economic crisis proved to be his government’s downfall. In 1934, a group of PLQ dissidents led by Paul Gouin formed the Action libérale nationale (ALN). The ALN, influenced by the conservative nationalism of Lionel Groulx, was a corporatist and fairly nationalist party which supported an interventionist response to the economic crisis including the nationalization of electricity. In the 1935 election, the ALN allied with the Conservatives, led by Trois-Rivières lawyer Maurice Duplessis, to form a coalition styled Union nationale (UN). With 48 seats against 26 for the ALN and 16 for the Conservatives, Taschereau’s Liberals came close to defeat.

Inevitable defeat was what awaited the PLQ government after Duplessis, a particularly cunning politician, revealed the extent of corruption in the government. Taschereau was forced to resign in June 1936 and replaced by Adélard Godbout, who was steamrolled by Duplessis’ UN in the August 1936 election (14 PLQ against 76 unionistes). Maurice Duplessis had won power by allying with the ambitious reformists of the ALN, and had adopted a similarly ambitious and reformist platform (fighting corruption and patronage, major economic reforms). However, as soon as he won power, the deceitful Duplessis quickly forgot any reformist drive he may have had, and in doing so dashed the hopes of most of his ephemeral reformist allies (most of the ALN’s leaders quickly left the UN).

Duplessis adopted a much more assertive position in federal-provincial relations, and became known as a forceful defender of provincial autonomy against federal encroachment. As World War II erupted in September 1939, Duplessis – who opposed the Canadian war effort – quickly called snap elections for October 1939, hoping to profit from Quebec’s opposition to the war. However, Mackenzie King’s federal Liberal government – led by his Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe – directly intervened in the provincial campaign by playing a slick game of the carrot and the stick: Ottawa promised that it would not implement conscription, but warned that if voters reelected Duplessis, the province would risk major political isolation as the Quebec federal Liberal caucus would withdraw from cabinet. The game worked, and Godbout’s Liberals staged a major comeback, taking 69 seats against only 15 for the UN.

Godbout was a reformer who implemented a number of major reforms including giving women the right to vote (Quebec was the last province to do so, in 1940), making education for 6-14 years old mandatory and nationalizing a Montreal-area electricity firm to create Hydro-Québec. However, Godbout was much less vindicative than Duplessis in his relations with Ottawa. He did not oppose the federal government’s moves to take over provincial responsibilities (collecting the income tax) and he was hurt by the conscription crisis in 1944. Although they won the popular vote in the 1944 election, the PLQ lost the 1944 election to Duplessis and the UN, which won 48 out of 91 seats against 37 for the PLQ.

Maurice Duplessis would rule Quebec until his death in 1959, winning three successive majority governments in 1948, 1952 and 1956. Duplessis’ fifteen year rule is referred to as la grande noirceur (the ‘great darkness’). Even if Quebec slowly inched forward with urbanization, the development of urban middle-classes and the rise of a more liberal intelligentsia, Duplessis’ government remained obstinately traditionalist, conservative (if not reactionary), authoritarian and clerical. He built an extremely powerful political machine, which acted as a powerful vehicle of graft and patronage.

In the tradition of clerico-nationalism, his government took an assertive stance against the federal government, officially to defend provincial powers against federal centralization, in practice as a tool to consolidate his own political power. Duplessis is at the root of Quebec’s separate provincial income tax and the adoption of the current provincial flag.

On economic matters, Duplessis favoured a laissez-faire approach and opposed the Keynesian welfare states which were taking root in Europe. He had no interest in developing social programs, and was stridently opposed to trade unions, suspecting them of being communist (a big anti-communist, his government passed the famous padlock law to ‘counter communist influence’).

Somewhat in contradiction of his soft-nationalism against Ottawa, Duplessis aggressively developed the province through a close alliance with American investors (leading many to say that he was ‘selling the province’ to foreign investors). The provincial economy, especially in Montreal, was largely dominated by the powerful Anglophone minority, while the Francophone majority faced discrimination and socio-economic marginalization. Faced with mounting labour opposition to the alliance of local and American capital, the UN government broke up a number of strikes, the most memorable of which was the 1949 Asbestos Strike.

Duplessis ruled in tandem with an omnipotent clergy which controlled education and healthcare. Together, the church and the UN state formed a tremendous bulwark against any kind of political evolution or ‘liberalization’. Duplessis died in September 1959 and was succeeded by Paul Sauvé, who promised major reforms. However, Sauvé, a man of some stature who could have modernized Quebec on his own terms, died only a few months after taking office, in January 1960. The hapless Antonio Barrette replaced him and led a divided party into the 1960 election, in which he struggled to measure up to Jean Lesage’s Liberals, who vowed to dramatically change the province.

Even though the 1960 election was fairly close – the PLQ won 51 seats against 43 for the UN – Lesage had received a fairly clear mandate. The new Liberal governemnt was stacked with talented academics, intellectuals and reformers (including a young René Lévesque as public works, and later natural resources minister), and quickly set the tone for what would come. Lesage’s government passed a series of spectacular reforms including the creation of a modern public education system, the bases for Quebec’s public health insurance, and later the creation of the province’s distinct pension plan. The government grew as it assumed new roles such as education, healthcare but also the promotion of Quebec culture.

At the cultural level, Quebec experienced a revolution – the so-called Quiet Revolution – with the Catholic Church seeing its power and influence collapse overnight. The largely rural, marginalized and morally traditionalistic French Catholic society was replaced by a new secular civil society, more progressive but also much more confident than the Catholic society of yesteryears. Quebec’s new society largely embraced the moral and sexual liberalism of the 1960s, while at the same time began to affirm its distinctiveness more forcefully.

Indeed, Jean Lesage’s government was influenced by a strong nationalist tendency, which was not afraid of standing up to the federal government and enhancing Quebec’s image at the national and international level. The old tradition of provincial autonomy, defended by past PLQ and UN governments, was gradually transformed into a true nationalism. In retrospect, Lesage’s most nationalist action was certainly the nationalization of electricity. Godbout’s government had taken the first step in the 1940s with the creation of Hydro-Québec to replace a corrupt and inefficient private utilities company in the Montreal region. In 1962, René Lévesque urged an originally lukewarm Lesage to push through a full nationalization of Quebec’s hydro-electric resources, by consolidating all private electricity firms (a lot of them being owned by Anglophones) into a single public electricity monopoly (Hydro-Québec). Lesage called a snap election in 1962 on the issue, in which the Liberals ran on a clearly nationalist platform with the emblematic slogan, maîtres chez nous (masters in our own home). The PLQ received a decisive mandate from voters, with over 56% of the vote and 63 out of 95 seats.

Inadvertently, however, Lesage’s bold reforms and the transformation of Quebecois society would encourage the growth of a nascent movement which demanded the independence of Quebec from Canada. In 1960, a group of left-leaning sovereigntists led by André D’Allemagne and Pierre Bourgault founded the RIN (Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale), which would become a political party in 1963. That same year, a group of young radicals founded the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a revolutionary movement which sought to win the independence of Quebec through violent means.

The forces of nationalism unleased by Lesage during the Quiet Revolution are credited for the PLQ’s defeat in the 1966 election. Daniel Johnson Sr., the leader of the UN, adopted a very nationalist slogan during the 1966 election which seduced many nationalist voters: égalité ou indépendance (equality or independence). Even though the PLQ actually ran away with the popular vote in 1966 (47.3% against 40.8% for Johnson’s UN), the UN returned to power with 56 seats against 50 seats for the incumbent government. Bourgault’s RIN obtained 5.6% of the vote and a centre-right sovereigntist party (RN) won an additional 3.2%. Neither party won seats.

Johnson’s election did not usher in a return to the Duplessis-UN darkness. In fact, Johnson continued and built on Lesage’s reforms, and he further enhanced Quebec’s standing on the national and international scene. Relations with Ottawa became frosty, especially after the election of Pierre Trudeau in 1968 (the day after violent clashes between police and sovereigntist activists in Montreal, on June 24 – Quebec’s national day). It was during Johnson’s short two-year tenure that Montreal hosted the successful Expo ’67 and that French President Charles de Gaulle pronounced his famous Vive le Québec libre speech in Montreal. However, Johnson’s death in 1968 and his replacement by Jean-Jacques Bertrand, a far less nationalist leader, marked the end for the UN. Bertrand was not as bold or ambitious as his predecessor, and he faced dissent within his own party.

The 1970 elections were fought with the emergence of a new political party, the Parti québécois (PQ) founded by René Lévesque in 1968 after he had quit the PLQ in 1967, when they rejected his “sovereignty-association” project. Lévesque’s vision of independence (styled as sovereignty in traditional parlance) included a proposal for political and economic association with Canada, to create some sort of customs and possibly monetary union with the rest of Canada after the independence of Quebec. Following the party’s founding congress in 1968, Pierre Bourgault’s far more radical RIN gradually dissolved itself into the new party, providing the PQ with its ‘hardline’ wing (purs et durs).

The PQ won 23.1% of the vote in the 1970 election, but managed only 7 seats. The PLQ, led by the young Robert Bourassa, staged a comeback by winning a huge majority (72/108 seats, 45% of the vote) while the UN collapsed, winning only 17 seats and 19.7% of the vote. The social credit movement, on the heels of success in conservative rural Quebec at the federal level (SoCred won 26 seats in Quebec in the 1962 federal election), won 11% of the vote and 12 seats.

Months after his election, Bourassa was confronted with Quebec’s biggest political and institutional crisis in its history. On October 5, a FLQ cell kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and, five days later, another FLQ cell kidnapped Pierre Laporte, the labour minister and one of the new cabinet’s highest ranking members. Bourassa, an inexperienced rookie Premier in 1970, was in way over his head in the October Crisis, and it was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who would take the forefront of the reaction to the October Crisis. On October 16, Ottawa invoked the War Measures Act, which gave authorities exceptional powers to suspend habeas corpus and civil liberties and arrest suspected FLQ sympathizers. Though James Cross was released after 60 days in captivity, Pierre Laporte was executed by his captors a week after his kidnapping. Laporte’s execution would destroy any base of public support for the FLQ and seal the fate of the terrorist organziation. Some of its leaders were granted safe passage to Cuba, while Laporte’s captors were later found and arrested by authorities.

The development of hydro-electric resources in James Bay in northern Quebec was perhaps the most memorable achievement of Bourassa’s first government. His government kicked off the development of the province’s hydro-electric capacity in the north, through the construction of huge dams which remain the main source of electricity for the province to this day. In the social sphere, Bourassa’s government also passed Quebec’s current public health insurance law in 1970. Bourassa was reelected in 1973, winning all but 8 seats out of the 110 seats in the National Assembly. The PQ won 30.2%, but only 6 seats, though the UN’s collapse (the party lost all seats) allowed Lévesque’s party to form the official opposition (in the absence, however, of its leader, who did not win his riding).

However, Bourassa’s second term was marked by a declining economic situation, major labour unrest in the public sector, the beginnings of language discord (the loi 22, which made French the official language of Quebec, went too far for the tastes of Anglophones and allophones, but did not go far enough for Francophone nationalists) and the debacle of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In opposition, the PQ had moderated its rhetoric. In 1974, the party had adopted a resolution which stated that independence would be declared only after a referendum, and not unilaterally by the government after a PQ electoral victory. Bourassa called a snap election for November 1976.

In one of the most famous provincial elections in Canadian history, René Lévesque’s PQ won a shockingly large majority. The PQ won 41.4% of the vote against 33.8% for the PLQ, but won a huge majority in the National Assembly with 71 out of 110 seats. The PLQ won only 26 seats. The UN made a modest recovery, winning 18% of the vote and 11 seats, and made major inroads with Anglophone voters. However, it would be the old beast’s last hurrah, like the Titanic’s stern sticking out of the water for a last time before plunging underwater.

Lévesque’s victory sent a shockwave across Canada, raising fears in the rest of Canada that Quebec would separate. However, the PQ’s strategy was to prove its worth as a government before going to the people with the question of separation. The PQ had won on a platform of “good government” and turned immediate attention to fulfilling this pledge, with the introduction of a new law on party financing, an anti-scab law and the introduction of car insurance. That being said, the new government’s most memorable legislative achievement was the famous loi 101, the Charter of the French Language. Bill 101 replaced Bourassa’s Bill 22, making French the sole official language of Quebec. French became the official language of work in the public and private sector, in education, in advertising and in courts. The new bill restricted access to English schools to those children whose father and/or mother had received instruction in English.

Federal-provincial relations in the 1970s and 1980s were marked by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s vision of federalism and his ambition to patriate the constitution (Canada’s founding document, the BNA Act, was British legislation). Pierre Trudeau was the most vocal opponent of the Quebec sovereigntist movement, and was a strong advocate of centralized federalism. He rejected the idea that Canada was the result of the union of two nations, the English nation and the French nation, instead viewing Canadian confederation as the federation of ten equal provinces. In Quebec City, Trudeau faced provincial governments which were strong advocates of provincial autonomy and, after 1976, Quebec’s outright independence. Already in 1971, Bourassa had rejected Trudeau’s first attempt to patriate the constitution.

Lévesque announced the organization of a referendum on his proposal for sovereignty-association in May 1980. While the YES had momentum at the campaign’s outset, the return of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals to power in Ottawa following the 1980 election changed the cards. Trudeau took the lead of the NO campaign and promised Quebecois voters to reform the constitution if the NO won, an ambiguous message interpreted by some as a message that Ottawa was ready to satisfy Quebec’s demands. His promise certainly had some impact on the results, which saw the NO win handily with 59.6% of the vote.

Despite the loss of the referendum, Lévesque’s government remained popular and was reelected with a stronger majority in the 1981 election, in which the PQ increased its share of the vote to nearly 50%+1 (49.3%). In the aftermath, Trudeau did live up to his promise of renewing the constitution, but certainly not in the way which some soft-nationalists might have hoped for. Trudeau’s goal in the patriation of the constitution had always been to adopt an amending formula (the basis of patriation itself – to make the BNA Act amendable by Canada only) and the addition of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Eight provinces, including Quebec and Alberta, opposed the inclusion of a charter and wanted an “opt out” clause. Trudeau threatened to patriate the constitution unilaterally, over the heads of the provinces. The Supreme Court ruled, in two judgements, that unilateral patriation was legal but at the same time ruled unilateral patriation was not in accordance with constitutional convention.

The decision led to a conference of Premiers and Trudeau in November 1981. Trudeau, always the sly fox, broke up the so-called ‘gang of eight’ by luring Lévesque with an alternative proposal before the federal government reached an alternative compromise with all other provinces – except Quebec, which was kept (literally) in the dark – during the so-called “kitchen meeting” or “night of the long knives” (in Quebec). The other provinces agreed to a compromise which would take out their “opt out” clause in return for the inclusion of the notwithstanding clause in the Charter. Lévesque was not informed about this compromise until the next morning, and he refused to sign the deal. To this day, Quebec has not ratified the Canadian Constitution.

Constitutional issues remained at the forefront of Canadian federalism during the 1980s. In 1984, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives came to power in Ottawa, after a landslide victory which had been built, in part, on huge Tory inroads in Quebec, a province where the federal Conservatives had been dead in the water since 1967 (with the exception of the 1958 Diefslide). Mulroney had built his winning coalition with an appeal to Quebec nationalists, by promising to renew the constitution to include Quebec. Following Mulroney’s victory in September 1984, Lévesque declared that he was ready to negotiate with the federal government and put independence on the backburner in the meantime. This strategy, the so-called beau risque, proved controversial within his own party, with a sizable base of PQ purs et durs refusing to endorse Lévesque’s beau risque. Several cabinet ministers resigned in disagreement with the Lévesque strategy.

In June 1985, crippled by the internal dissent in PQ ranks, an economic crisis and ongoing labour unrest in the public sector, Lévesque announced his resignation and was succeeded in September 1985 by Pierre-Marc Johnson, the son of the former UN Premier. A few weeks later, Johnson called an election. Even if the PQ dropped its focus on independence and shifted its campaign to economic issues, he was unable to salvage the sinking ship. Robert Bourassa, who had reclaimed the Liberal leadership in 1983, reclaimed his old office after a landslide victory in December 1985. The Liberals won 56% of the vote and 99 out of 122 seats – even though Bourassa was defeated his own riding (which he had won in a 1985 by-election).

Bourassa’s primary objective was economic growth and healthier finances, and he led a fairly liberal economic policy. However, his government soon found itself at the core of Mulroney’s constitutional negotiations. In 1987, a major constitutional reform – the Lake Meech Accord – was reached after the other provinces and the federal government accepted Bourassa’s 5 preconditions. Meech Lake recognized Quebec as a ‘distinct society’, gave Quebec and the other provinces a veto power over future constitutional amendments, allowed provinces to “opt out” of federal programs, increased provincial powers over immigration and gave Quebec three judges on the Supreme Court who would have been chosen on the recommendation of the provincial government. The deal required the unanimous consent of all provinces within three years. The provincial legislature of Manitoba did not ratify Meech Lake, and Newfoundland subsequently receded its ratification.

In 1989, Bourassa’s PLQ won reelection with a reduced majority (92/125 seats against 29 for the PQ). The 1989 election was marked by the remarkable success of the Equality Party, which won only 3.7% but elected 4 members from Montreal’s largely Anglophone West Island. In 1987, the Bourassa government had angered the Liberal Party’s Anglophone base with Bill 178, which enforced French unilingual advertising outside private businesses. Three Anglophone PLQ cabinet ministers had resigned in protest against Bill 178.

Constitutional negotiations were given a second chance in 1992. The provinces came in agreement with the federal government in August 1992, signing the Charlottetown Accord. The Charlottetown Accord would have reinvented federal-provincial relations in Canada by reducing federal powers (most significantly, its spending power would have been limited and it would not have been able to attach conditions to fund transfers to provinces used for things such as education or health). The Senate would have been reformed to the West’s likings on a Triple-E model, but Quebec was compensated by a few goodies: distinct society, the 3 Supreme Court judges requirement and a clause which guaranteed Quebec a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons. The project was submitted to a nationwide referendum. In Quebec, sovereigntists such as PQ leader Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, the former Tory cabinet minister who had left the cabinet to form the federal sovereigntist Bloc québécois (BQ), opposed the deal. The Quebecois opponents of the Accord claimed that it had not gone far enough to address Quebec’s grievances against the 1982 Constitution and had taken the form of a grocery list to please all sectional interests. In Canada, 54% of voters rejected the deal. In Quebec, the NO won 56.7%. The rejection of Meech Lake in 1990 and the unpopularity of the Charlottetown Accord relit sovereigntist feelings, after having been considered dead in the early 1980s.

Bourassa became unpopular, and he announced his resignation in 1993, a short time after the BQ won a landslide in the province during the 1993 federal election. He was replaced by Daniel Johnson Jr., the son of the former UN Premier and the brother of the former PQ Premier. Quebec’s economic situation worsened in the early 1990s, and the province was faced with a large deficit which required the government to make major spending cuts and continue its privatization of state-owned companies.

The 1994 election was closely fought – less than one percentage point separated the PQ and the PLQ (44.8% vs. 44.4% for the PLQ), but Jacques Parizeau’s PQ won a majority of the seats – 77 out of 125 against 47 Liberals. A new party, the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), won 6.5% and one seat. The ADQ had been founded in March 1994 by Jean Allaire, the Liberal architect of the Allaire Report which proposed a very decentralized federal model. The PLQ had sidelined Allaire’s plan, leading Allaire and a few others to found the ADQ, which supported the “autonomy” of Quebec within Canada and had right-wing positions on economic issues (balanced budget, reducing the size of the state). Allaire stepped down from the ADQ’s leadership a few months before the September 1994 election and was replaced by the young (25-year old) Mario Dumont, the former leader of the Liberal Party’s youth wing. Dumont was the ADQ’s only MNA after the 1994 election.

Results of the 1995 independence referendum by provincial constituency (YES in green, NO in red)

Parizeau, a London-trained economist and passionate believer in the sovereigntist cause, had made no secret of his intention to organize a second referendum on independence if the PQ won. On October 30, 1995, the second referendum was held. Unlike in 1980, it was the NO which started out with the momentum, but the YES staged a major comeback, engineered in good part by Lucien Bouchard, who was a more popular campaigner than Parizeau. Support for independence surged to around 55% in the final week(s) before the vote, but the margin narrowed to a dead heat in the final days, including after a massive NO rally on October 27. In the end, the NO won – but by the skin of its teeth – with 50.6% of the vote. Parizeau resigned the next day, claiming that independence had been defeated only by “money and the ethnic vote”.

Parizeau was succeeded by Lucien Bouchard in January 1996. With independence on the backburner for a while, the objective of the new Bouchard PQ government became deficit reduction, with the aim of attaining the fabled balanced budget (déficit-zero) before 2000. Traditionally a social democratic party, the PQ took a major turn to the right under Bouchard’s leadership. The government made sharp budget cuts including deep cuts in healthcare and controversial education reforms. In 1998, the PQ government won reelection with 76 seats against 48 seats for the Liberals and one seat for the ADQ. In April 1998, Jean Charest, the former leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives (Charest had been a Mulroney-era cabinet minister and one of two PC MPs to win reelection in the 1993 disaster), became the leader of the provincial Liberals. The PLQ actually won the popular vote (43.6% vs. 42.9% for the PQ, the ADQ won 11.8%) in the 1998 election.

Bouchard’s government implemented very unpopular municipal amalgamations in 2000, which included the amalgamation of all muncipalities on the island of Montreal into a single municipality (the reforms also concerned, among others, Quebec City, Longueuil and Sherbrooke). Bouchard resigned in 2001 and was succeeded by Bernard Landry. Landry reoriented the PQ on a more social democratic course, notably with an anti-poverty law, and became a more vocal advocate of sovereignty than Bouchard had been. The government remained quite unpopular, but in 2001 and 2002, its unpopularity mostly benefited the ADQ, which won impressive victories in a string of by-elections in 2001 and allowed Mario Dumont to become a serious contender for Premier in 2002 and 2003.

In the 2003 election campaign, however, the ADQ’s support collapsed, with voters uncomfortable with Dumont’s conservatism and inexperience as they learned more about him (courtesy of the PQ and Liberals). Jean Charest campaigned on reducing wait times in healthcare, major income tax cuts, a reduction in the size of the state and a promise to hold referendums on deamalgamation. The PLQ won the election with 46% of the vote and 76 seats, against 33% and 45 seats for the PQ. Dumont’s party increased its support to 18.2%, a gain of over 6.4% on the 1998 election, but the ADQ elected only three additional members to the National Assembly (for a total of 4 seats).

Charest quickly became unpopular. His government did not follow suit on its promise to cut taxes, but the Charest government made major spending cuts, including controversial reductions in student loans and scholarships. The government also aimed to reduce the size of the state, by contracting out in the public sector and experimenting with public-private partnerships in areas such as healthcare. Charest faced the opposition of organized labour in the public sector, students, environmental groups and social movements. However, later in his term, Charest was able to benefit from the troubles of the new leader of the PQ, André Boisclair.

The 2007 election was a very closely fought affair, opposing a fairly unpopular incumbent government to a mediocre opposition leader. Immigration was a major issue in the 2007 campaign, with the controversy over so-called “reasonable accommodations”. It is likely that Mario Dumont’s ADQ benefited from voters’ concerns over immigration, given that the ADQ surged – almost out of nowhere – to win 31% of the vote and 41 seats, placing a close second behind a severely weakened PLQ (48 seats and 33%) but placing ahead of the PQ, which won a calamitous 28% of the vote and only 36 seats. Charest was reelected, but for the first time in over 100 years, the new government was a minority government.

Charest, a shrewd politician, was able to reinvent himself in a bit over a year. He improved his personal image, and his government finally passed those income tax cuts. Charest called a snap election for December 2008, arguing that he was best suited to govern the province during the economic crisis. Charest, proving his remarkable ability to bounce back from defeats, was reelected to a third term (unprecedented for any government since Duplessis) with a majority mandate. The Liberals won 42.1% and 66 seats against 35.2% for the PQ, which won 51 seats. The ADQ, propelled to official opposition with an untested team of paper candidates and rookies, performed badly in opposition – appearing as young amateurs – and it was badly defeated at the polls, winning only 16.4% and 7 seats. Québec solidaire (QS), a sovereigntist party to the PQ’s left, won its first seat with the election of the party’s spokesperson, Amir Khadir.

Recent Developments: Quebec since 2009

The economy, corruption, post-secondary education and northern economic development have been the top issues in Quebec politics.

Quebec has weathered the post-2008 economic crisis fairly well. The unemployment rate stood at 7.6% in July 2010, only 0.3% above the Canadian average. The government’s infrastructure projects, with much-needed work on roads and bridges, has helped to create jobs in the province and keep the provincial unemployment rate comparatively healthy (Quebec has historically tended to have higher unemployment than the rest of Canada).

The province has had budget deficits since 2009, but the Charest government targets a balanced budget by 2013-2014. In the latest budget, the provincial deficit sat, better than expected, at $3.3 billion, representing 1% of the GDP. Quebec could be one of the first provinces to eliminate the deficits which have raked up since 2009 if it balances its budget by 2013-2014. The Charest government’s deficit reduction efforts meant fiscal restraint – job cuts in the provincial public sector and spending cuts – but also some revenue raising measures, notably an increase in the provincial sales tax in 2011 and again in 2012. The tax burden in Quebec remains the highest in the country, proponents would argue that this high tax burden is needed to finance the province’s very generous social programs including subsidized $7-per-day daycare and drug insurance.

While Quebec’s deficit picture is better than that of other provinces – only Saskatchewan (which has a surplus) and Alberta had better government budget balances in 2010-2011 – the rising concern in Quebec is the provincial debt, which is the highest of all provinces (over 51% of the GDP). The Charest government created a “generations fund” to pay off the debt in the long term, and the last budget allocated some funds to this generations fund to help alleviate the provincial debt.

While Charest’s economic record might be one thing which he has going for him, his government has been crippled by an unending flow of corruption allegations. The major allegations began in 2009 and have continued since then. In 2010, Charest’s former justice minister Marc Bellemare came out with allegations that the judicial nomination process was rife with political interference from PLQ fundraisers and cadres. The government created a public inquiry into the judicial appointments process, which in 2011 concluded that Bellemare had not received “collosal pressures” in his nomination of judges, but warned that the appointment process remained permeable to political interference.

The government itself was rocked by the Tomassi scandal, after it was revealed that family minister Tony Tomassi had been granting permits for subsidized daycare places to PLQ donors and activists. Tomassi was expelled from cabinet and caucus in May 2010 before he was forced to resign from the National Assembly.

The main corruption cases, however, involve Quebec’s construction industry. The construction industry in Quebec has long been known to be corrupt and infiltrated by organized crime, and construction costs in Quebec are higher than in any other province. The industry is ridden with corruption, graft, juicy kickback schemes and collusion. The corruption has a major political twist, given the close links which seem to exist between major construction contractors, engineering firms and the PLQ. Contractors and private companies, through various means, have been contributing substantial sums of money to the PLQ’s warchest, a practice which is illegal under Quebec law. Politicians – at all levels of government (the municipal level is particularly corrupt) – take illegal donations from major construction contractors; while organized crime maintains links and contacts within the construction industry, notably the FTQ-Construction (the main union for construction employees). The opposition parties called for a public enquiry into the construction industry and illegal party financing for months, but Charest refused to heed to their demands and preferred alternative routes. The PQ accussed Charest of being unwilling to bite the hand which fed him. Finally, in October 2011, the government announced a public enquiry into the construction industry.

Since spring 2012, Quebec has been rocked by a major student strike which was sparked by the Liberal government’s decision to increase tuition fees by nearly 75% in five years. Tuition fees in Quebec were frozen at $1,668 between 1994 and 2007, at which point they grew by $100 per year to reach $2,168 in 2012. The government announced its intention to increase tuition costs by $256 per year over a five year period to reach $3,793 in 2017. Quebec currently has the lowest tuition fees of all provinces in Canada, and even after the planned fee hike, Quebec would still place in the lower tier of provinces in terms of tuition fees. The government claims that this tuition increase is required to alleviate the underfinancing of the province’s universities. However, student unions found the hike unacceptable, in part also because of serious concerns about the rising burden of student debt.

Student strikes and protests began in February and intensified throughout the spring, but have died down somewhat during the summer and the election campaign. In some cases, protests turned violent as demonstrators attacked private businesses or police forces. Some 20 or so individuals have been injured and over 2,500 persons have been arrested. Neither side have been able (or willing) to come to an agreement or even move past meeting each other, turning the student movement into a widespread political and social crisis. The government’s inability to deal with it and some apparent divisions in government ranks, as evidenced by the recent resignation of the education minister and deputy prime minister, likely forced Charest to call early elections. In May, the government adopted a controversial law – Bill 78 – which restricts freedom of assembly and protest without prior police approval. Some have questioned the constitutionality of the law.

One of the government’s most ambitious projects is the Plan Nord, a plan to develop the economy of northern Quebec and create jobs. This plan, presented by Charest as the “largest project in a generation” involves substantial public and private investments into the construction of mines, the development of renewable energy and the construction of new transportation infrastructures. The government claims that the plan would not only develop the economy of the largely barren but natural resource-rich northern regions of the province, but also created a large number of jobs. Opposition parties are concerned by the low royalties which the province would get from new mining companies, and there are concerns about “selling off” Quebec’s unexploited natural resources to foreign-owned mining companies.

At the partisan level, the PQ went through a major internal crisis in 2011 while the political right in Quebec got a face lift. The PQ has been led since 2007 by Pauline Marois, a long-time politician who has a record as a fairly technocratic cabinet minister (she has served in most high-profile cabinet portfolios). Marois is a strong-willed leader, but she is also a fairly divisive figure and has always faced some dissent from other péquistes. In June 2011, the PQ and her leadership were tested in a major internal crisis after four PQ MNAs quit the party to protest the party’s decision to support a government bill which immunized the controversial construction of a new hockey stadium in Quebec City from judicial proceedings. However, beyond this reason, these resignations also symbolized the unease of certain of the PQ’s purs et durs with Marois’ decision to put the national question on the backburner for a little while. The ranks of those who stepped down included Pierre Curzi and Lisette Lapointe (the wife of former Premier Parizeau, himself a critic of Marois), two well-known hardline sovereigntists within the PQ. Jean-Martin Aussant, another of those who stepped down in June 2011, went on to create his own party – Option nationale (ON), a hardline sovereigntist party, in October 2011.

After its collapse in the 2008 election, the ADQ lost its leader, Mario Dumont. Dumont had been the face of the party since 2008 and remained, even after the ADQ’s surge in 2007, the only prominent member of the party. The leadership contest to succeed him turned into a farce, leading the losing candidate to leave the party and force the party to hold a second leadership contest. The party’s numbers recovered somewhat in 2010 and 2011, returning to their 2008 levels, due to the PLQ’s decling popularity and the PQ’s internal wranglings. However, the fate of the ADQ and Quebec’s political right in 2010 and 2011 rested on one man, François Legault. Legault was in charge of Air Transat, a major airline, until 1997. He was elected as a PQ MNA in the 1998 elected and served as education and later health minister in the Bouchard and Landry cabinets until 2003. Reelected in 2008, Legault resigned from office in 2009. He had progressively disattached himself from the PQ’s raison-d’être, sovereignty. In October 2011, Legault ended speculation and created his own party, the Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ).

Parties and Campaigns

Results of the 2008 provincial election, on original 2001 borders

The Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) is Quebec’s oldest political party. In the polarized field of Quebec politics, the PLQ is a big-tent federalist party which has opposed the independence of Quebec and supports Quebec’s continued place in Canada. However, despite being a federalist party, the PLQ’s vision of federalism has always been quite distant from the Trudeau-era federal Liberal vision of federalism. Robert Bourassa was not a sovereigntist, but he was clearly a nationalist. During the constitutional debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bourassa defended the recognition of Quebec as a ‘distinct society’ and he generally agreed with Brian Mulroney’s vision of decentralized federalism. In his first term in office, Bourassa’s relations with Pierre Trudeau were acrimonious, with Trudeau patronizing Bourassa. Under Jean Charest’s leadership, the PLQ has been slightly less affirmative against Ottawa and the PQ has often accussed Charest of poorly defending Quebec’s interests against the federal government. It is true that there were no constitutional debates during Charest’s term, and neither Quebec nor Ottawa had any interest in opening the Pandora’s box which is the Canadian Constitution. However, Charest’s relations with Stephen Harper (since 2006) have been fairly friend but not particularly warm. Furthermore, the PLQ has made no efforts to loosen the province’s language laws, passed by the first PQ government. Charest is often boasting about how his government has enforced language laws, and Bourassa alienated Anglophones in 1989 with Bill 178.

As a big-tent party, the PLQ unites right and left-wing federalists who might support either the federal Liberals, Conservatives or even New Democrats at the federal level. However, ideologically, the PLQ has a slight lean to the centre-right, especially under Charest’s leadership.  Bourassa’s government led a fairly liberal economic policy which included many privatizations and early spending cuts. Charest’s economic policies have been even more right-wing. He won the 2003 election on a platform of tax cuts for the middle-class (which he would not implement until his second term) and vowed to reduce the size of the state. In office, he experimented with private-public partnerships in healthcare and the private sector now plays a significant role in healthcare in the province. He also implemented some concepts of New Public Management in office. That being said, for many on the right, the PLQ is not a ‘truly’ right-wing party. It has not shied away from government intervention in the economy, and it has raised taxes in the past.

The PLQ’s core electorate are minorities – linguistic and ethnic minorities. It receives well over 60-65% of the vote from Quebec’s English-speaking minority and allophones (those whose mother tongue is a non-official language), both groups who strongly oppose Quebec independence. The PLQ’s margins in constituencies with a large percentage of Anglo- or allophones is huge, even if voter turnout in these constituencies is very low. The PLQ’s strong base with these voters has advantages and disadvantages for the party’s electoral performances. The Anglophone and allophone vote for the PLQ is almost a given, which provides the PLQ with a good floor both in the popular vote and the seat county. On the other hand, this rock-solid base of support means that the PLQ suffers from an inefficient vote distribution. It can rake up 65-80% of the vote in constituencies with a very large percentage of linguistic or ethnic minorities, but in the case of a tied popular vote – like in 1994 or 1998, the PLQ tends to be at a disadvantage, unless, of course, the Francophone vote is particularly divided, like in 2007. Besides this federalist base, the PLQ also polls better with wealthier and/or older Francophones who tend to be cooler towards the idea of independence.

The language divide in Montreal: % of francophones by census tract, 2006 Census (source: Stats Can)

Jean Charest is campaigning with a very tough record to defend. Even if he might have an advantage on the economy and jobs, his record on healthcare or education is mediocre and he carries around a huge weight with him – the lingering suspicions of deep corruption within the Liberal Party. The PLQ’s numbers have tanked since the 2008 election, polling third with the Francophone vote and coming dangerously close to hit its floor. The PLQ could have capitalized on the social disturbances linked to the student movement this spring, and it originally did, but the controversial Bill 78 and its incapacity to respond to the student strikes destroyed any chance it had of gaining political capital from the movement. Beyond all this is the fact that Charest has been in power for 9 years, and there is major voter fatigue with his government. Even if Charest is a strong debater and a tested politician who has a knack for miraculously rebounding from the depths of hell, this is certainly one of Charest’s toughest races in his career and one where a huge rebound seems almost impossible.

At the core of Charest’s campaign is the economy and the Plan Nord. Charest has hammered in his “strong management” of the economy, boasting his record – even if it is not all that great – on job creation and public finances. He wants to create 250,000 jobs and reduce unemployment to 6% if he wins reelection. Charest says that his Plan Nord is the biggest project in a generation and he wants it to be the cornerstone of his political legacy. He claims that some 20,000 jobs a year could come out of the plan.

The PLQ had trouble finding prominent candidates, given the low standings of the party in opinion polls. It did dig out a few 2007 ADQ rookies, including Linda Lapointe (Groulx) and Pascal Beaupré (Joliette), and a former federal Liberal MP, Eleni Bakopanos (Crémazie). The PLQ’s candidacy news were rather marked by retirements: Michelle Courchesne, the latest education minister and Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, in office since 1985 and incumbent minister of international relations.

The Parti Québécois (PQ) is the main political representative of the Quebec sovereigntist movement. The party’s raison-d’être has always been the independence of Quebec, and the province’s sovereignty remains its top priority. PQ governments since 1976 have held two referendums on the independence of Quebec, the first in 1980 and the second in 1995, but both were defeated (the last one by less than 1%). The Quebec sovereigntist movement is a civil territorial nationalist movement, which means that the PQ’s project for independence is not overtly ethnic or linguistic based (even if critics may claim that it is), unlike some past nationalist movements in Quebec. The PQ’s project is the independence of Quebec as a territorial entity, not the independence of a French-speaking state in North America which would include more than just Quebec. However, linguistic and ethnic issues and independence are all interconnected, to the point where one might go with the other. The PQ has presented itself as the best defender of Quebec’s distinct culture and the French language. One of its most famous legislative achievement was Bill 101 in 1976, the law which still regulates the use of French and other languages in the province. At various times in its history, the PQ has taken controversial stances on linguistic or cultural issues which have led critics to accuse it of fanning the flames of intolerance and xenophobia. Within the party, there have been some divisions, most famously in 1984 (and 2011?), over the prioritization of independence. The party includes a sizable pur et dur faction which has always placed independence as its top priority, regardless of circumstances, and has rejected any attempts to put sovereignty in the backrooms for a little while.

Ideologically, the PQ is a social democratic, centre-left party. PQ governments are behind some of the province’s generous social programs, including car insurance or $5 (now $7)-per-day daycares. The first PQ government under René Lévesque followed a fairly clear social democratic orientation, but the party shifted quite far to the right (on economic issues) under Premier Lucien Bouchard. After the defeat of the sovereigntist cause in 1995, the PQ government reoriented itself to balancing the budget, which it did by major spending cuts including unpopular cuts and layoffs in the healthcare system. Under his successor, Bernard Landry, the PQ shifted back towards its centre-left origins, but Landry’s hapless successor, André Boisclair (2005-2007) was less social democratic. The party’s current leader, Pauline Marois, appears to be close(r) to the PQ’s centre-left, social democratic roots.

The PQ’s main base is, of course, with francophone voters, though it does not command the level of support that the PLQ commands with Anglo/allophone voters. In regional terms, the sovereigntist movement has been strong in the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean region, in most of Gaspésie, Abitibi and large swathes of the north shore of the St. Lawrence (Laurenties, Lanaudière, Mauricie). In the 2007 election, one of the main factors behind the PQ’s spectacular collapse was its wipe out in the middle-class suburban and exurban commuter belt of the north shore of Montreal-Laval, where the ADQ swept nearly everything. The ADQ also made major gains in similar exurban middle-class commuter belt communities on the south shore of Montreal, where the PQ is traditionally strong. In the 2008 election, the PQ regained most of its old strongholds on the north and south shores. The PQ has traditionally been strong in heavily Francophone low-income urban areas.

As of today, there does not appear to be a realistic chance for Quebec to become an independent, sovereign country in the near future. Popular support for independence is low, at its floor (a bit over a third of voters), and there is certainly very little appetite for a third referendum in the foreseeable future. Voters are becoming increasingly tired of the old, divisive issues of independence/referendums/sovereignty, and while a large majority of Quebecois are keen on upholding their rights and values within Canada, comparatively few of them still actively support independence. The NDP’s sweep of Quebec in the 2011 federal election was indicative of this fairly widespread sentiment of soft-nationalism without accompanying sovereigntism. The 2011 federal campaign showed that the NDP started running away with the game in Quebec when the Bloc, desperate to turn a tilting ship around after the first signs of the Orange Crush, resorted to old sovereigntist rhetoric and in the process only sped up the NDP’s ascent.

The PQ is placed in a very fragile position with the declining appetite for sovereignty. It must satisfy the hardliners within the party and the sovereigntist movement who would not accept a péquiste campaign which places sovereignty on the shelves, but it must be careful not to overplay the old question of a referendum lest they fancy handing the Liberals a golden issue.

Marois’ campaign this year has been intentionally ambiguous and unclear on the issue of when a PQ government would hold a referendum. She officially states that she would hold one only when she would have “winning conditions”, a line already used by the PQ government after the 1995 defeat. On the other hand, to please the hardliners who threatened her leadership in 2011, she has promised an ambiguous “popular initiative referendum” which would allow for there to be a vote on the issue if 850,000 voters (15% of the electorate) signed a petition. The popular initiative referendum has turned into a nightmare for the PQ, with Marois hinting that there could be certain circumstances in which she would refuse to hold a popular initiative referendum even if 15% of voters asked for one.

In the meantime, the PQ has said that its strategy, if elected, would be to engage Ottawa in a game of tug-of-war. It wants to gain full control over programs such as employment insurance which are currently federal jurisdiction, and it would use a refusal on Harper’s behalf as a tool to boost support for sovereignty.

Language and identity have featured prominently in Marois’ campaign. The PQ wants to adopt a new, tougher Charter of the French Language which would subject businesses with over 10 employees  (rather than 50 under the current law) to the law and which would bar Francophones and allophones from attending English-language CEGEPs. The PQ wants to adopt a charte de la laïcité which would ban the public display of any distinctive religious symbol by public employees, but Marois stepped into controversy when she said that she would not remove the crucifix from the National Assembly. Finally, her campaign created a firestorm when she said that she would prevent Anglophones and allophones who do not have an appropriate knowledge of French from running in elections. Critics have accused the PQ of playing on ethnonationalism and fanning the flames of intolerance.

The PQ’s economic platform includes the creation of 15,000 new places in daycares, a temporary freeze in tuition fees at their 2012 level and abolishing Charest’s controversial health tax. To compensate for these new expenses, the PQ wants to increase taxes on high incomes (over $130,000 per year) and limiting the growth in government expenditures to 2.4% a year.

The PQ attracted a number of star candidates this year including notably two journalists, Jean-François Lisée (Rosemont) and Pierre Duchesne (Borduas), and 2o-year old former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin (Laval-des-Rapides).

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) was created in 2011 by François Legault, a former businessman who served in PQ cabinets under Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. Legault resigned from the National Assembly in 2009 and entertained suspense about his political ambitions for over a year afterwards, with much speculation as to whether or not he would create a new party. In February 2011, Legault laid the foundations for a new party, which was officially registered in November. Legault had distanced himself from sovereigntism, claiming that the national question had become outdated and archaic. The CAQ seeks a middle ground between doctrinaire federalism and sovereigntism, aiming to prioritize more urgent issues, such as the economy, while placing the national question on the shelves. The CAQ wants a ten-year moratorium on any referendum, and Legault recently said that he would vote NO in a future referendum (before backtracking and saying that he would vote NO but would not defend federalism). On economic matters, the CAQ generally lies on the centre-right.

The CAQ is in many aspects similar to Mario Dumont’s ADQ. The ADQ represented a similar ambiguity on the divisive national question, seeking an ‘autonomist’ or soft-nationalist middle ground between the PLQ’s doctrinaire federalism and the PQ’s doctrinaire sovereigntism. Both were populist and right-leaning on economic matters, the ADQ perhaps more so than Legault’s CAQ. The ADQ would have been squeezed out of existence by the CAQ, and there was little rationale for two ideologically similar parties to coexist separately. In January 2012, the ADQ officially merged with the CAQ. At dissolution, the CAQ held nine seats: the four remaining ADQ MNAs, two former ADQ MNAs sitting as independents and three former PQ members.

It is likely that most of the CAQ’s core electorate comes from the old ADQ, even though it is incorrect to assume that all 2008 ADQ voters are backing the CAQ. In terms of regional support, the ADQ was strongest in suburban Quebec City and the south shore of Quebec City, the Chaudières-Appalaches region. This conservative region, where the federal Conservatives have done well, has been described by one political scientist as the Québec mou (‘soft’ Quebec) or the Québec tranquille (the ‘quiet’ or ‘calm’ Quebec). It is a bit of an enigmatic region because it is one of the most heavily French-speaking regions in Canada, yet the sovereigntist cause has found only limited backing in this part of the province. The Beauce region, the most conservative part of Quebec , has a reputation for being an entrepreneurial and ‘pro-business’ right-wing region. Some have thought that this region’s sociological makeup – it is lily-white, older, more blue-collar, fairly poor and socio-politically marginalized from the rest of the province – might explain its voting patterns.

At the outset, the CAQ’s creation was greeted by a short-lived outburst of popular support, which was built on little else than a vague desire for “change” and a “third way” between two tired old parties. Leading the PLQ and PQ in the fall of 2011, the CAQ collapsed to third place as early as January 2012. Legault’s actual political platform, besides “change” and putting sovereignty on the shelves, was always very vague and proposed little of substance. His political opponents still accuse him of trying to play to all sides of the spectrum at the same time, and being intentionally vague about his policies. Despite proximity with some of the ADQ’s old proposals, many on the right still feel relatively uneasy about Legault.

Legault has led a “straight-talking” populist campaign, talking about the need to “clean up” politics. Voters have judged him to be the most competent leader on corruption and integrity issues, and he certainly made a splash when he managed to get the former Montreal police chief-turned-whistle blower Jacques Duchesneau to run for the CAQ (in Saint-Jérôme, a PQ seat). On economic issues, Legault strikes a more centre-right tone. He wants to devote 100% of the royalties from natural resources to pay off the province’s debt, he generally supported the government during the student strike on tuition fees, he has promised immediate tax cuts totaling $1,000 and supports private-public partnerships in healthcare. He has vowed time and time again that a CAQ government would “shake things up” and “clean up waste” by abolishing school boards , health centres and by cutting a lot of jobs in the public sector. His more confrontational attitude against trade unions have won him the ire of Quebec’s two main unions, the FTQ and CSN. He says that just as the PLQ is in cahoots with “corrupt business interests”, the PQ is tied to its “corrupt union” supporters.

Legault’s opponent, both Charest and his former cabinet colleague Pauline Marois, have accused him on several occasions of being an unreliable flip-flopper who besides seeking to pander to all ideologies has changed allegiances from sovereigntism to de facto federalism. To what extent, however, is Legault’s “big flip-flop” a negative for him? At its outsets, one of the CAQ’s main assets beyond being a vague vehicle for change, was that it represented a type of non-sovereigntist soft-nationalism which is quite attractive to a significant proportion of the Quebecois electorate which has grown tired of the divisive national question and the strict division between the doctrinaire federalism and sovereigntism of the PLQ and PQ. The federal NDP’s victory in Quebec in May 2011, as mentioned above, must be interpreted as being reflective of this state of mind rather than any huge NDP inroads with the core of the sovereigntist base.

Despite the original excitement which surrounded the creation of the CAQ, Legault had trouble attracting well-known candidates to his label. In the Argenteuil by-election, the CAQ had a star candidate with former Bloc MP Mario Laframboise. In this campaign, Legault boasts about his “trio” of incorruptibles candidates with a reputation for being anti-corruption crusaders: the whistleblower and former police boss Jacques Duchesneau (Saint-Jérôme), the former president of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec Maud Cohen (Laval-des-Rapides) and incumbent ADQ-CAQ MNA Sylvie Roy (Arthabaska). The other big CAQ star is Dr. Gaétan Barrette, the former president of the provincial specialist doctor’s union, running in Terrebonne. The party’s leader has chosen to run in L’Assomption, a traditionally péquiste seat in the growing exurbs on the north shore of Montreal.

Québec solidaire (QS) is a left-wing sovereigntist party founded in 2006 by the merger of two left-wing parties, including the UFP which was an electoral coalition made up of the remnants of the provincial NDP and the Communist Party. The party has no leader, but is defined by its two spokespersons, feminist activist Françoise David and Iranian-born Amir Khadir. Like the PQ, QS supports the independence of Quebec, which has opened QS to accusations of being a spoiler which divided the sovereigntist vote. However, while the PQ sees sovereignty as an end in itself, QS seems sovereignty as a mean to its ends. It believes that its platform of social justice, environmental protection, defense of women’s rights and upholding Quebec’s culture and language can only be achieved in an independent Quebec. QS also has a different method of reaching this ultimate goal. If elected, it would hold a constituent assembly, which would decide, among others, the political status of Quebec (while the QS would support independence, it would not necessarily result in independence). One or more proposals for a constitutional text for Quebec would then be submitted to the people in a referendum.

QS is the first major threat to the PQ from its left. While QS won a relatively modest 3.8% in the last provincial election in 2008, its profile received a major boost with Amir Khadir’s victory in the downtown Montreal constituency of Mercier. As a third party, QS has the benefit of having a part of its votes concentrated in two ridings – Mercier and Gouin – two gentrified bobo constituencies in downtown Montreal.

QS’ platform is clearly to the left of the PQ. It received attention during the student strikes, where it unambiguously supported the student movement and now supports free tuition. The party supports electoral reform (MMP), abolishing privatization in health care, reducing greenhouse gases by 40% by 2020, developing renewable energies and making income taxes more progressive. It is also concerned by issues such as the French language, Quebec culture, reducing poverty and women’s rights.

QS co-leader Françoise David participated in the main leaders’ debate, in which she performed very strongly. She was lauded for her clear, coherent and concise answers and for attempting to inject other issues, such as education and poverty, into the debate. The emergence of QS as a major political actor has worried the PQ, which has claimed that QS divides the sovereigntist vote.

Option nationale (ON) is a new party founded in 2011 by Jean-Martin Aussant, an ex-PQ MNA. Aussant left the PQ to sit as an independent in June 2011, contending that the PQ had abandoned the issue of sovereignty in favour of “electoralist groupthink”. ON places sovereignty as its first objective, and it considers that a ON government would be a mandate for Quebec to declare de facto sovereignty, at which point a constitution could be drafted and submitted to the people in a referendum to allow for formal, de jure sovereignty.

ON is not the first ‘hardline’ rival to the PQ which has criticized the PQ’s wait-and-see approach to independence, but it is the first of these ‘hardline’ groupings which has become a fairly significant minor threat to the PQ. Aussant received a major boost during the campaign when former Premier Jacques Parizeau, whose dislike for Marois is no secret, endorsed him. Parizeau’s wife, Lisette Lapointe, a retiring independent (ex-PQ) MNA, had already endorsed ON.

Besides independence, ON has a very left-wing platform. It wants to nationalize natural resources, free tuition (from preschool to the doctorate, with conditions) and supports limiting the role of the private sector in health care. To achieve the de facto sovereignty of Quebec, a ON government would seek to gain control over all taxes payed and all powers from Ottawa.

ON is ideologically similar to QS, despite certain differences between the two parties, notably on the prioritization of sovereignty. However, both parties agreed to a mini-deal for the elections. QS is not running a candidate against Aussant in his constituency of Nicolet-Bécancour, while ON is not running a candidate against David in Gouin. ON has managed to field 121 candidates (125 seats in total), a very impressive result for a young party with a limited organization.

The Green Party of Quebec (PVQ) is running only 66 candidates. The Greens were reborn in 2001 after a short-lived stint as a sovereigntist party in 1989 (2% of the vote). In 2007, the Greens ran 108 candidates and won 3.9% of the vote, but they ran only 80 candidates and won 2.2% in 2008. The Green Party’s position on the national question is very unclear. The PVQ’s potential electorate is naturally attracted to QS, meaning that the PVQ’s only real base is with Anglophone voters who do not vote Liberal. In 2007 and 2008, it placed a very distant second to the Liberals in a number of West Island Liberal citadels, winning about 15% of the vote in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

There are a handful of other parties, including a new Conservative Party led by former federal Conservative MP Luc Harvey. The PCQ is running only 27 candidates. The federal NDP does not have a provincial party in Quebec, though a provincial NDP with formal ties to the federal party existed between 1963 and 1989, at which point the NPDQ and the federal NDP broke all formal ties. The provincial NDP had become a left-wing sovereigntist party. However, after the success of the federal NDP in Quebec in May 2011, there has been some speculation about the recreation of a provincial party. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair recently announced that there would be a provincial party for the next provincial election. The left-federalist side of the spectrum is largely unrepresented in Quebec, given that the PLQ leans to the right. A new left-federalist party, the UCQ, is running 20 candidates this year.

Polling and Predictions

Polls in this campaign, thus far, have indicated a close three-way contest with the PQ maintaining a narrow but consistent advantage over its two major rivals.

The absence of consistent polling, most notably a daily tracking poll, is quite frustrating. We are dependent on three pollsters, of which only two are tested in the field of Quebec provincial elections. A poll from Léger, which has a long track record in the province, gave the PQ 33% support against 28% for the CAQ and 27% for the PLQ. QS received 7%, ON and the Greens were at 2% apiece. A new poll from CROP gave the PQ 33%, with the CAQ at 28% and the PLQ down to 26%. For comparison, in the 2008 election, the Liberals won 42.1% of the vote against 35.2% for the PQ and 16.4% for the ADQ.

On such a split of the vote, the PQ would be able to eek out a bare absolute majority in the National Assembly, but any margin smaller than 5% between the top two parties would likely result in a minority government. Too Close to Call’s projector, which can be modified, predicts 64 seats (majority: 63) for the PQ against 32 for the Liberals and 27 for the CAQ (+ 2 for QS) on the basis of the latest poll from Léger. Using the CROP data, the PQ would have 66 seats against 28 apiece for the CAQ and Liberals, with QS winning two seats and Aussant (ON) holding his seat.

Obviously the only thing which matters is the seat count, but an absolute majority on something like 33% of the vote would be a Pyrrhic victory for the PQ. While losing the 2008 election, the PQ had won 35% of the vote, which had been considered a strong showing. In the 2003 election, in which the Liberals won a convincing victory, the PQ won only 33% of the vote. In the 2007 disaster, the PQ was reduced to a mere 28% of the vote.

Pauline Marois is not an asset for the PQ. Even if she is a tough leader who managed to survive the onslaught of dissidence and polling disasters in the summer of 2011, she is not perceived favourably by most voters and she has failed to inspire many voters. Her campaign has been surprisingly weak and though she performed decently both in the all-leader debate and two individual “one-on-one” debates with Charest and Legault, she did not score any knockout punches. In the past week or so, the PQ campaign has gone from kerfuffle to kerfuffle: the “charter of laïcité“, the “popular initiative referendum”, the ban on Anglo/allophone candidates with poor French language skills or just recently with the mini-brouhaha about “conservative sovereigntists” (she told them to vote PLQ or CAQ, but later backtracked by saying that she misunderstood the question). She has been forced to clarify her positions, backtrack from previous statements, contradict things she said in the past or correct the pronouncements of other people in the PQ.

If Marois and the PQ wins, it will not only be with an unconvincing popular vote mandate but it will be in spite of Pauline Marois. Against Jean Charest, reviled by over 60% of voters, she weighs up as a good ‘least worst’ option, though Legault now poses a major threat to her for this dubious honour. A PQ government would not be a mandate for a third referendum within a short time frame, which is something which Marois understands quite well. Voters are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues in this election than they are with picking fights with Ottawa (even if Harper is hardly popular in the province) or talking about a third referendum.

Even if the PQ is performing quite poorly, the PLQ’s performance is set to be disastrous. In existence since confederation, the worst Liberal result was 33.1% of the vote in the 2007 election. It has never dropped below 30% of the vote, yet it is quite likely that the PLQ could be winning less than 30% of the vote on September 4. The Liberals are hitting their floor at a rapid pace.

Jean Charest’s extreme unpopularity is the top reason for the PLQ’s apparent decrepitude. Even if he is a good campaigner, a strong politician and winning debater, the lingering dark cloud of corruption which hovers over his head (added to his unpopular record in government and a botched response to the student crisis) have prevented him to bounce back for a final time. The race for first remains very close, and there is still a chance that if the PQ sheds support to its left and right, then the PLQ could stand a chance at bouncing back to win a minority government. The Liberals certainly hoped that the PQ’s decision to jump head first into the murky waters of linguistic issues and referendums would provide them with a golden opportunity to coalesce the federalist vote against the PQ, but thus far if there is any PLQ bump due to the PQ’s poor campaign, it has not been picked up by pollsters.

Even if the party places third in the popular vote, it could salvage official opposition status. At 27% or so support, the Liberals are very much relegated to their core non-Francophone/minority vote. Léger had the PLQ polling only 18% and distant third with Francophone voters, a number which would spell disaster for many PLQ incumbents in heavily Franco seats. With Anglo and allophone voters, the PLQ still retains over 65% support. The CAQ was making some inroads with this rock-solid Liberal electorate, and it now polls roughly 15-20% with these voters (clearly not insignificant) but the solid Liberal vote with this electorate is not in any sort of doubt or jeopardy. While in cases of a tied popular vote for first place, the PLQ’s vote distribution is inefficient, in the potential case of a tied popular vote for second-third place, the PLQ has an advantage over the CAQ because it can count on at least 20 seats off the bat from the West Island and the Outaouais. However, the PLQ would be swept out in most of central Quebec, the Eastern Townships, metro QC City and Abitibi.

Charest is seriously threatened in his own riding, Sherbrooke. His seat, which he has held since the 1998 election, is not a traditional Liberal stronghold and he has never won by fantastic margins. In 2007, the TV networks famously announced his defeat in Sherbrooke before doing a Florida 2000 and retracting the call. He won by 1,332 votes in 2007 (36.6% vs. 32.9% for the PQ) and increased his majority to 2,314 votes in 2008 (45.2% vs. 37.6% for the PQ). The PQ is running a strong and popular candidate against Charest, former Bloc MP Serge Cardin (defeated by a NDP rookie in 2009). Two riding polls in Sherbrooke have given Cardin a lead over 10% over Charest, with the anti-Charest vote apparently coalescing heavily behind Cardin.

Sherbrooke is notable for having the largest student population of any major city in Quebec, though with the election being held on September 4, student turnout across Quebec will likely be fairly low. Polls have shown that there is a strong generational cleavage in this election: the Liberals are still dominant with voters aged over 65, but their numbers with the youngest cohort have totally tanked (below 20%).

The major question mark in this election is the CAQ. To begin with, there is the unknown of to which extent the 2008 ADQ vote can be assumed to be a good predictor, universally, of the CAQ’s floor in this election. While polls have shown that most 2008 ADQ voters are backing the CAQ, the transfer between the two parties is not perfect at 100% and would be, at best, only 75%. That being said, the structure of the CAQ’s electorate seems similar to the ADQ/centre-right vote in Quebec. It has been strongest in metro Quebec City, where it is currently ahead of the PLQ and PQ, and it will likely perform as strongly as the ADQ in the Québec tranquille to the south of the capital.

There has been some disagreements as to where the CAQ’s “new voters” (besides 2008 ADQ voters) have come from. The June by-elections and polling trends would seem to indicate that the Liberals bled a considerable number of their 2008 voters to the CAQ, but others have contended that the CAQ has drawn more or less equally from the PQ and PLQ. I vaguely remember a second-choice poll not too long ago in which the CAQ’s voters split their second choices equally between the PQ and PLQ, while Forum Research (even though some of its number are often fishy…) told us that the CAQ drew 21% of 2008 PLQ voters and 15% of 2008 PQ voters, in addition to 58% of 2008 ADQ voters.

As mentioned above, public opinion greeted the CAQ’s creation last fall by placing it far ahead of the field with some 35% support, but the CAQ’s honeymoon with voters was short-lived. They dropped to the low 20s by the new year. However, Legault led a strong campaign, with his straight-talking populism and his tough talk of “shaking things up” and “cleaning up” likely striking a chord with many voters. The CAQ progressively started roaring back into serious contention, if not for power then at least for official opposition. Legault is the most popular of the three main leaders – though that only means that his approval and disapproval numbers are tied rather than being deeply in the red (like they are for Charest and Marois), and to most voters, the CAQ is the best representative of change and the best party to fight corruption.

While a week and a bit is definitely a short time frame for the CAQ to actually win the election, it is a real possibility. Quebec has a knack for surprising election results, with ADQ-2007 and NDP-2011 being the two most recent example. While at this juncture it would be very difficult for the CAQ to make further inroads with the Liberals, given how the Liberal vote is coming primarily from the Anglos and allophones, the CAQ can hope that QS grinds into PQ support to close the gap between first and second. Recently, the media narrative is that Legault is Marois’ main threat, and if this narrative holds on, it is not impossible to see the anti-PQ/anti-Marois/anti-independence vote coalesce behind Legault and the CAQ to defeat the PQ. That being said, the nature of PLQ support at this point means that it would require, on the CAQ’s behalf, major inroads with ethnic and linguistic minorities. Much ink has already been spilled on the CAQ’s potential with Anglophone voters and Legault has courted their votes somewhat, but Charest has been careful not to forget the PLQ base and reminded them of their beef with one of Legault’s top planks – abolishing school boards. Even if the CAQ can pull upwards of 20% with non-Francophones, it would probably not be enough to wrestle many seats away from the PLQ, especially on the West Island.

QS has been pulling 6-8% in this campaign, which despite being below the heights reached by the party during the pre-campaign (up to 10) are still excellent numbers. The party’s main objective in this election is to win a second seat. In Gouin, Françoise David is in her third attempt to take down PQ incumbent Nicolas Girard, who defeated her in 2008 by a 9.3% margin. QS’ changes in Gouin are on a knife’s edge, but with QS likely to score most of its gains on Montreal Island and David likely to receive a major boost from her strong performance in the leader’s debate, she might be the narrow favourite. Nicolas Girard is a fairly high-profile PQ incumbent, but David clearly built up her profile and notoriety tons with the debate.

While the road from one seat to two seats is fairly straightforward for QS, the road from a second seat to a third seat is quite difficult and would require a significant swing in QS’ favour, and 6-8% in the province would not be enough (unless the gains from 2008 are all on Montreal Island). QS’ third seat would probably be Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques, where Manon Massé received 15.4% of the vote in 2008 (she had won 22% in a 2006 by-election). But the PQ won 46.6% in that seat, hence requiring QS to eat up a 31% PQ majority. Laurier-Dorion (13% QS, 30% winner-QS margin) and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve (12.9% QS, 41% winner-QS margin) are the fourth and fifth strongest QS seats in the province, but even more out of reach for QS.

ON managed to field an impressive amount of candidates, nearly a full slate, but their only real objective in this election is likely to reelect their leader, Jean-Martin Aussant in his riding of Nicolet-Bécancour. When Aussant quit the PQ to create his new party, a majority of the local PQ riding association followed in his lead. There have already been two riding polls out of his riding (loads of salt and all that), one of them had him a close second behind the CAQ while the other had him leading the field. The unexpected public endorsement of Jacques Parizeau might boost Aussant’s chances to win reelection. Provincially, ON with 121 candidates will certainly easily beat the Greens and their 66 candidates.

Regional Outlook

Results of the 2007 provincial election

This election is still very much up in the air because of the number of real three-way contests, and the high potential for many ‘fluke’ victories or holds because of the three-way tossups in some seats. The real battleground will likely be the 450 area code (the north and south shore suburbs of Montreal, excluding Laval) with a good number of three-way races, PQ-CAQ battles or PQ-PLQ contests.

The north shore (Laurentides and Lanaudière) will be make-or-break for the CAQ, which will need to match the ADQ’s impressive 2007 performance in these traditionally solidly PQ ridings if it wants to place second in the seat count or win the election altogether. The CAQ has three of its star candidates in these crucial ridings: Legault himself in L’Assomption, a PQ-held seat with a 28.6% margin in 2008 between the PQ and ADQ (on notional results) but which has no defending PQ incumbent; Dr. Barrette in Terrebonne, a seat with a defending PQ incumbent which had a 24% margin between PQ and ADQ in 2008; and Duchesneau in Saint-Jérôme, a seat with a defending PQ incumbent who had a 22% majority over the ADQ in 2008. The north shore also features two other key races for the CAQ in Blainville and Deux-Montagnes, where PQ-turned-CAQ MNAs Daniel Ratthé and Benoit Charette are seeking reelection for the CAQ.

The south shore is slightly less exciting in terms of close races, and the CAQ’s impact will be more limited. The Liberals will certainly hold La Pinière (Brossard, a seat with a very large non-Franco population) and might squeak through in Laporte (Saint-Lambert/Greenfield Park); the PQ is safe in Marie-Victorin, Taillon and Vachon. In the new constituency of Sanguinet, PQ-turned-CAQ incumbent François Rebello is running for reelection under the colours of Legault’s party, and the CAQ might have a shot in La Prairie as well.

In the exurban and rural reaches of south shore (Montérégie), the CAQ will definitely be a major threat to PQ incumbents in Iberville, Saint-Hyacinthe, Saint-Jean while it threatens the Liberals in Huntingdon.

CROP’s crosstabs showed a very close contest between the PQ and the CAQ in the 450, with the PQ (37%) leading Legault’s party by only two points (35%), with the Liberals out of the match entirely (21%). On these numbers, the PLQ would be dead in the water outside Brossard (La Pinière), Vaudreuil and probably Laporte; while a good number of both north and south shore suburban and exurban ridings would be on a knife’s edge between the PQ and CAQ, holding the keys to a PQ majority government or a CAQ official opposition/surprise victory.

Outside the suburban regions of the 450, the CAQ’s surge has likely placed the ridings of Joliette and Berthier (both in Lanaudière), previously assumed to be solidly péquiste, into serious contention between the PQ and the CAQ.

Laval could see some close (three-way) races in all but one of the island’s six ridings. Laval-des-Rapides is certainly the most closely fought battle, given that it pits a Liberal incumbent against PQ and CAQ star candidates. The seat has a thin 6.4% notional Liberal majority, but the CAQ’s Maud Cohen will certainly poll much better than the ADQ’s paltry 10% in 2008. Additionally, Fabre, Vimont, Sainte-Rose and Mille-Îles should all see some very closely disputed three-way battles, with PLQ incumbents in very tenuous positions.

Montreal itself is extremely polarized, meaning that despite the big number of seats up for grabs on the island, only a few (five at most) are even remotely competitive. Gouin, where the QS’ David faces the PQ incumbent for a third rematch, is the most closely disputed races in Montreal. The PQ has a shot at gaining Saint-Henri-Sainte-Anne (8.8% PLQ majority), Laurier-Dorion (9.1% PLQ majority),Verdun (12.4% PLQ majority) or Anjou-Louis-Riel (16% PLQ majority) from the Liberals, but it is quite possible that the PLQ could still walk out with a win in these four seats even if it does poorly in the province as a whole. If the PLQ sinks below 30 seats, it is likely that a majority of the new Liberal caucus will hail from Montreal Island.

The CAQ, like the ADQ, has not made a breakthrough on the island. There are no ridings, as far as I know, on Montreal Island, where the CAQ holds a solid chance of winning or at least coming close to first place.

Central Quebec and the Eastern Townships will also be a key region with major contests to follow and three-way battles. Besides the Premier’s race in Sherbrooke, which will monopolize all attention on September 4, there is also Jean-Martin Aussant’s battle for reelection in Nicolet-Bécancour. For the CAQ, one of their top incumbents (and one of Legault’s trio of incorruptibles), Sylvie Roy, saw her constituency abolished by redistricting, forcing her to run in Arthabaska against Liberal incumbent Claude Bachand, who has a 14.3% majority over the ADQ on 2008 notional results. In the core of the Québec tranquille, the CAQ will be seeking to defeat two Liberal incumbents in Beauce-Sud and Bellechasse, two seats which the Liberals gained from the ADQ in 2008 with a thin majority.

Between the PQ and PLQ in the Eastern Townships, the contest in Richmond between the PQ’s Etienne-Alexis Boucher (the incumbent in the old seat of Johnson) and Karine Vallières, the daughter of retiring PLQ incumbent Yvon Vallières (Richmond) is getting some serious attention. The Liberals have a small 5% majority on notional results from 2008, but the PQ needs to make gains in the towns of Asbestos and Richmond which went heavily for the Liberals in 2008. The PQ is also a major threat to PLQ incumbents in Orford, Saint-François and Mégantic. The CAQ could be a major factor in Johnson, Drummond-Bois-Francs, Lotbinière-Frontenac and Nicolet-Bécancour, ridings where the ADQ was dominant in 2007 and strong in 2008.

In Mauricie, located on the north shore between Montreal and Quebec, the CAQ will be hoping to gain seats which the ADQ had won in 2007 but which the PQ or PLQ had regained in 2008. Trois-Rivières is a key three-way contest, the PLQ is defending with Danielle St-Amand (who won the seat, Premier Duplessis’ old political base, from the ADQ in 2008), and the PQ has a well-known candidate with Djemila Benhabib, famous for her activism in favour of secularism (and at the centre of a firestorm with the very traditionalist conservative mayor of Saguenay Jean Tremblay). A poll showed Benhabib up on the Liberals, but a more recent poll showed the PLQ ahead. The CAQ, furthermore, could very well creep up from behind in Trois-Rivières or other seats in the regions, including Maskinongé and Champlain.

In metro Quebec City, all polling has shown the CAQ with a strong advantage over the Liberals, who have maintained second place (but with their usual crummy numbers), with the PQ in a close third. If these numbers hold up for the CAQ, it would be a major upset if they did not gain ridings such as Lévis (where they appear to have a fairly prominent candidate), Vanier-Les Rivières, Montmorency, Charlesbourg or Portneuf. In Louis-Hébert, incumbent Liberal cabinet minister Sam Hamad is seriously threatened by the CAQ, leaving only health minister Yves Bolduc in a fairly good position in Jean-Talon. In Taschereau, the PQ’s only foothold in Quebec City, PQ incumbent Agnès Maltais faces Clément Gignac, the Liberal natural resources minister (who is an incumbent for a Montreal-area riding, but running in Quebec City this year), but she should have no trouble winning.

In the Bas-Saint-Laurent, the contests in Côte-du-Sud and Rivière-du-Loup-Témiscouata, two ridings whose boundaries changed considerably, are closely fought. The Liberals are the defending incumbents in both, but they face a strong challenge from the CAQ in Côte-du-Sud, which includes part of the old riding of Montmagny-L’Islet, which the ADQ won in 2007; and the PQ fancies its chances in Rivière-du-Loup-Témiscouata but there is an outside chance for a CAQ upset. In the Gaspésie region, the PQ has the ambition of taking out three PLQ incumbents. In Gaspé and the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, this seems like a very reasonable proposition given the decrepitude of the Liberals. However, taking out the Liberals in Bonaventure will be more difficult. The PLQ held that seat without too much trouble in a by-election in November, and while the PLQ’s fortunes have only worsened since last fall, it still seems like Bonaventure would go down with the Liberal ship.

In the Saguenay, the PQ will regain Dubuc from the Liberals and hold all other seats. In Abitibi, the two PLQ incumbents in Abitibi-Est and Rouyn-Noranda-Témiscamingue look like goners. The Outaouais region should prove one of the last Liberal holdouts, with the PQ requiring major swings to overturn the large Liberal majorities in a region where the PQ has been shut-out since 1981. However, with the state of the PLQ, the PQ has a fighting chance in two seats in the region: Hull and Papineau, two seats where the Liberals won over 50% of the vote in the last election.

Quebec’s election on September 4 promises a very closely fought contest between three parties, and the unpredictable nature of Quebec politics certainly promises us a good deal of surprises. But Quebec’s election will also hold consequences beyond the provincial border of Quebec. The election of a PQ government would change power relations between Quebec and Ottawa in a fairly dramatic way.