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Honduras 2017

Presidential, congressional and local elections were held in Honduras on November 26, 2017.

Electoral and political system

Honduras is a presidential republic, much like the other countries in Central or Latin America.

The President of Honduras is directly-elected to a four-year term by simple majority (FPTP), alongside three presidential designates (vice-presidents). Under the 1982 constitution, Honduras had an usually strict and rigid lifetime ban on presidential reelection: not only did article 239 ban anyone who had held the presidency from being president or a presidential designate, it also stated that “any person who violates this provision or advocates its amendment, as well as those that directly or indirectly support him, shall immediately cease to hold their respective offices, and shall be disqualified for ten years from holding any public office” – this ban on reelection was an ‘entrenched clause’ under article 374. In addition, article 42(5) provided for the loss of citizenship (political rights) for “inciting, promoting, or abetting the continuation in office or the reelection of the President of the Republic” and article 330 of the penal code made promoting or executing acts violating this constitutional ban a crime punishable by 6 to 10 years imprisonment.

In April 2015, the constitutional section of the Supreme Court, ruling on a challenge  from former president Rafael Callejas and 15 deputies (most from the ruling party), unanimously declared constitutional articles 239 and 42(5) to be ‘inapplicable’ and article 330 of the penal code to be ‘unconstitutional’ for “restricting, diminishing and distorting fundamental rights and guarantees established in the constitution and human rights treaties” (including political rights, freedom of expression etc.). This is therefore the first election in years in which an incumbent president is seeking reelection.

Some readers will undoubtedly remember that a previous president’s alleged attempts to have the constitution amended to allow for presidential election was what led to the controversial 2009 coup removing President Manuel Zelaya from office. Zelaya had not changed the constitution, but merely attempted to hold a non-binding poll on holding a referendum to convene a constituent assembly, which may have considered reelection. Articles 239 and 374 were used as post-hoc justification for the coup by its supporters. Many of the same people who had supported Zelaya’s removal on these grounds in 2009 now support presidential reelection.

The April 2015 decision from the five-member constitutional section of the Supreme Court was very controversial, rejected by all major opposition parties. Regardless of the validity of its legal arguments, its own legality is dubious because one of the five magistrates rescinded his own signature a day later, breaking unanimity and requiring the full court to hear the case. However, the section’s secretary ignored him and Congress rushed to have the decision published in the official journal (which is unusual).

The decision was rendered by magistrates who had been hand-picked by incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) in December 2012, when he was president of Congress, after Congress (under his control) dismissed four of the five members of the constitutional section for having declared a ‘police purification’ law unconstitutional. Congress had no constitutional power to remove members of the Supreme Court, until it granted itself that right in 2013.

honduras_departments_namedThe unicameral Congress (Congreso Nacional) has 128 deputies elected for four-year terms by department. The distribution of seats between the 18 departments is, in theory, roughly proportional to their population, with each department electing at least one deputy – but the seat distribution between departments has remained unchanged since 1989. Cortés department (pop. 2.1 million) elects 20 deputies while Francisco Morazán department (pop. 1.5 million) elects 23. Since 2005, deputies are elected by open-list proportional representation with panachage, with each voter having as many  votes as there are seats and allowed to split their votes between candidates of different parties. Votes for candidates from the same party are pooled, and seats are first allocated by party using the largest remainder method of proportional representation with a Hare quota. This website explains the electoral system and its history in greater detail.

Honduras also renewed its 20 seats in the Central American Parliament (Parlamento Centroamericano, Parlacen). Voters do not vote separately for them, their distribution is based on the results of the presidential vote.

There are 298 mayors (and an equal number of vice-mayors) and 2,092 aldermen (regidores) in the country’s 298 municipalities. Mayors, on a ticket with a vice-mayor, are elected by simple majority (minus one electoral quotient). Aldermen are distributed based on the mayoral vote, using the largest remainder method with a Hare quota. Each municipality has either 4, 6, 8 or 10 aldermen based on their population (i.e. all municipalities with over 80,000 people and departmental capitals elect 10).

According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017, Honduras is a partly free country – with a score of 46 (best = 100), the fourth lowest in all of the America after Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti. The report writes that “institutional weakness, corruption, violence, and impunity undermine its stability” and “journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists face significant threats, including harassment, surveillance, detention, and murder”. Honduras scores very poorly on ‘functioning of government’ and ‘rule of law’, reflecting widespread corruption, a weak, politicized judiciary and police/armed forces corruption and abuses. Many constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, including freedoms of assembly, association and the press are not respected and systematically violated by authorities. The press is not free and ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful business elites. Investigative journalists working on corruption or organized crime face threats, intimidation, violence and arbitrary legal decisions.

Honduras’ Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia) has 15 magistrates elected by Congress (with a two-thirds majority) for seven-year terms, from a list of names chosen by a nominating committee which is supposedly independent and representative (members from the court, the bar, the human rights commissionner, private enterprise, academia, civil society and workers). The judiciary, however, has long been politicized and typically seen by the two traditional parties as something to be partitioned as ‘spoils’ – the usual formula having been to split it equally between the two parties with one extra seat to the governing party (8-7). The nominating committee has been roundly criticized for lacking independence, transparency and professionalism. In January-February 2016, Congress elected a new Supreme Court, with 8 members close to the ruling National Party and 7 members close to the opposition Liberal Party, but because of the greater multi-party dispersion of Congress since 2014, it took five rounds (and, according to some allegations, bribing a few opposition lawmakers). Of the 15 new magistrates, two failed the polygraph test, three are ‘mentally retarded’ (and only 3 have above average intelligence, however they measured that) and only 5 got a score over 50 on an evaluation scale.

Honduran elections are, to a certain extent, free and somewhat fair but often marred by a number of irregularities like vote buying, harassment of international observers by immigration officials, problems with the voter roll (the national registry of persons) and potential fraud in the transmission of local tally sheets. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is often accused of bias towards the ruling party and general incompetence.

Until recently, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world (86.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011). Since 2011, the homicide rate has consistently fallen, reaching 59.1 in 2016 and projected to fall below 50 in 2017. Nevertheless, along with Venezuela and El Salvador, Honduras still has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Historical background: Entrenched elite corruption

Honduras was the original “banana republic” at the turn of the last century, leaving a lasting impact on elite structures and political practices.

In contrast with other Central American countries, Honduras lacked a strong land-owning oligarchy because most of its principal export industries (mining, bananas) were foreign-owned. ‘Traditional’ local landed elites were involved in cattle ranching, coffee, cacao, internal trade and – most importantly – politics. With the increase in cattle exports after World War II and growing pressure for agrarian reform, the traditional elites became more economically and politically active. They have historically controlled Honduras’ two traditional parties – the National Party (Partido Nacional) and Liberal Party (Partido Liberal) – rent-seeking clientelist organizations. Since the 1980s there have been few, if any, ideological differences between the two parties (with the potential exception of the ‘odd’ Manuel Zelaya). In the 1990s, both National and Liberal presidents implemented neoliberal economic reforms – sponsored by the IMF and the United States – including trade liberalization, privatization and reducing government expenditures. Politics have been about access to patronage and the other spoils of powers, with little regards for the formal constitutional rules (as repeatedly evidenced since 2009), and the state has always been seen as a source of legal and physical protection for the elites. With the decline in traditional exports since liberalization the 1990s, self-enrichment through public resources and contracts has become key to their power and wealth. The last three presidents have come from the ‘traditional elite’ – Manuel Zelaya (2005-2009) and Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo (2010-2014) were cattle ranchers from Olancho department in eastern Honduras, while incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández is from a coffee family in the interior western department of Lempira.

The traditional elite shares power with newer ‘transnational elites’ (term used by InsightCrime’s report on elites and organized crime in Honduras) – a small economic elite of European or Middle Eastern (Levantine) origin (locally known as los turcos or ‘the Turks’) – families like the Facussés, Rosenthals, Canahuatis, Nassers and the Kafies. They have established control over most of the modern private sector in the country (the prime beneficiaries of neoliberal economic reforms) – banking, media, telecommunications, agro-industry, retail, maquiladoras, food services and tourism. They also became active in politics. Liberal president Carlos Flores (1998-2002) was the nephew of the late business magnate Miguel Facussé. Yani Rosenthal, who recently pleaded guilty to money laundering charges in US federal court, was minister of the presidency under President Manuel Zelaya; his father, Jaime Rosenthal, was a prominent Liberal politician (vice president 1986-1989) and businessman.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, the military served as the instruments of caudillos in civil wars and coups (and, like elsewhere in Latin America, most leading political leaders were military men). During Tiburcio Carías Andino’s 16-year dictatorship (1933-1949), the military was professionalized and institutionalized – and began acting as such. A 1956 military coup was the first in a series of coups (1963, 1972, and ‘internal coups’ in 1975 and 1978) and the military ruled the country directly, with only a single interruption, between 1963 and 1982. During this period, the military became an independent elite in its own right, controlling key sectors of the state (customs, airports etc.) and building a vast business empire (airlines, telecommunications, cement, food retailing, banking etc.). In power, the military worked with the traditional political elites in the National Party (the Liberal Party, until 1980, was perceived as anti-militarist), giving rise to a new ‘hybrid elite‘ – politicians connected to the military, officers becoming business tycoons and financial partners, military children married with the children of the traditional elites. After 1980, the military oversaw a controlled transition to civilian rule, which culminated in the election of Roberto Suazo Córdova, a Liberal, to the presidency in 1982.

This democratic transition, however, coincided with the overthrow of the Somoza regime by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (1979) and the beginning of the civil war in El Salvador. Honduras became a strategic platform for US interests in Central America in the 1980s. US military aid to Honduras increased from $3.3 million to $31.3 between 1980 and 1982 and totalled $333 million in the 1980s. Honduras became the base of operations for the Nicaraguan Contras, trained and supplied by the US military and the CIA. Even after the democratic transition, defence (and, by extension, foreign policy) remained under military control, commanded by Brigadier General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez between 1982 and his ouster by a clique of rival senior officers in March 1984. Álvarez Martínez, educated in Argentina and the School of the Americas, was a hardliner who supported US policy in Central America and declared the country to be in a “war to the death” against Nicaragua. Álvarez Martínez chaired the Asociación para el Progreso de Honduras (Aproh), a quasi-fascist organization which included prominent conservative businessmen and politicians (its vice president was Miguel Facussé). Álvarez Martínez was ousted as commander of the armed forces by rival officers in 1984, who opposed his moves to streamline the military hierarchy and his close ties to the US.

Since the days of the military regime in the 1970s, senior officers have been implicated in criminal activities (drug trafficking) and enjoyed close ties to leading criminals, most notably Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, a major Honduran drug trafficker arrested in 1988. Matta Ballesteros connected the Medellín cartel (Colombia) and Mexican drug cartels (Guadalajara cartels and others) and had close connections to senior officers in the Honduran army, including Colonel Leónidas Torres Arias, the former head of military intelligence (who connected him to Panama’s Manuel Noriega). During the 1980s, Matta Ballesteros’ fleet of planes carried American weapons and supplies south to the Contras and returned north with drug shipments for his Mexican partners – and the CIA and DEA turned a blind eye to Matta Ballesteros and the Honduran military’s activities as long as Honduras remained useful to US security objectives in Central America. He built a billion-dollar business empire, gained a large popular following and rubbed shoulders with the elite. His luck ran out and connections faltered in the late 1980s, accused by the US of the murder of a DEA agent, and he was abducted by Honduran and American authorities in Tegucigalpa in 1988 and sent to the US via the Dominican Republic. His arrest led to massive anti-American protests in Tegucigalpa, during which an annex of the US embassy was burned down.

The military’s overt power declined with the end of the Central American conflicts and US involvement. The military lost its businesses and state agencies, and a civilian police force was finally reestablished in the 1990s. Nevertheless, retired officers and their families have remained powerful as a bureaucratic elite and the military – reframed as Honduras’ premier crime-fighting force, has regained in power and political influence under the National Party administrations since 2010, particularly under incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández.

Honduras is a major drug transit country between South America and Mexico/the United States. Drug shipments are handled by foreign (Mexican, Colombian) criminal groups or local ‘transporters’ – groups like the Cachiros, the Valle Valle and Handal Pérez families. Honduras is not only a major hub for drug trafficking, but also for arms trafficking and other, less lucrative, criminal activities – drug dealing, extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling. Economic changes, destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch, deportations from the US and realignments in drug trade dynamics led to a crime boom in Honduras beginning in the late 1990s, worsening in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Criminal organizations, particularly the foreign drug cartels and local drug traffickers/transporters, do not stand on their own in a separate sphere. They have strong ties to security forces and the political and economic elites. In exchange for safe passage of their merchandise and money laundering, they fund candidates and develop close ties to politicians.

Ties between criminals and elites are perhaps most obvious at the local level, but it extends to national politics. José Miguel ‘Chepe’ Handal Pérez, arrested in 2015 and accused of coordinating drug shipments for the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, was an aspiring Liberal politician and his brother, Esteban Handal, was defeated in the 2000 and 2010 Liberal presidential primaries. Even more explosively, former president Pepe Lobo’s son Fabio was arrested in 2015 and recently sentenced to 24 years in US prison for conspiring to import cocaine into the US. Lobo used his father’s position to connect drug traffickers to corrupt police and government officials. During Fabio Lobo’s trial, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga – one of the leaders of the Cachiros – claimed that he had given up to $300,000 to Pepe Lobo’s 2009 presidential campaign in exchange for ‘protection’, public contracts and non-extradition. He also said that he had bribed Tony Hernández, the president’s brother, in return for settling debts owed to a Cachiros-owned company which had done roadwork for the government.

Recent background: Honduras since 2005

Manuel Zelaya and the 2009 coup

oustedhonduranpresidentzelayaholdsnewsc4kvyxbt0xslLiberal candidate Manuel Zelaya, a cattle rancher from Olancho department, narrowly defeated Pepe Lobo Sosa in the 2005 presidential elections. At the time, there appeared to be few ideological between the two candidates. However, Zelaya, in spite of his elite background, turned out to be ‘rogue element’. In a departure from the hardline anti-crime approach of his Nationalist predecessor, Zelaya supported the rehabilitation of violent offenders – although during his presidency, the homicide rate increased from 37 (2005) to 66.8 (2009). A populist who ‘shifted left’ and grew increasingly close to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Zelaya increased the minimum wage by over 60%, expanded social programs (aid to the poor, free schooling), opened investigations into land disputes between farmers and palm oil producers (including Miguel Facussé’s Dinant corporation) in the Bajo Aguán valley and overhauled fuel sourcing and distribution (seeking cheaper fuel from Venezuela). In 2008, Honduras joined ALBA, the alliance of leftist countries spearheaded by Venezuela and its allies (Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador).

In a leaked US diplomatic cable from then-US ambassador Charles A. Ford, Zelaya is described as a “rebellious teenager, anxious to show his lack of respect for authority figures” whose “principal goal in office is to enrich himself and his family while leaving a public legacy as a martyr who tried to do good but was thwarted at every turn by powerful, unnamed interests”. His behaviour is described as ‘erratic’, deliberately stirring “street action in protest against his own government policy – only to resolve the issue at the last moment”. It is also claimed that Zelaya has “no real friends outside of his family, as he ridicules publicly those closest to him”. The cable also details corruption in Zelaya’s government, the most prominent case being his nephew Marcelo Chimirri, appointed head of Hondutel (the state-owned telecom company, plagued by corruption, debt and mismanagement). The cable reported that Chimirri is “widely believed to be a murderer, rapist and thief”; he was recently sentenced to 9 years in jail for illicit enrichment. The cable, without much substantiation, states that “Zelaya’s inability to name a Vice Minister for Security lends credibility to those who suggest that narco traffickers have pressured him to name one of their own to this position” and notes “his close association with persons believed to be involved with international organized crime”. Far more seriously, ambassador Ford said that he was “unable to brief Zelaya on sensitive law enforcement and counter-narcotics actions due my concern that this would put the lives of U.S. officials in jeopardy”.

Zelaya repeatedly clashed with the traditional media – which, in Honduras, is controlled by the ‘transnational elites’ (La Tribuna by former president Carlos Flores, Tiempo by Jaime Rosenthal, La Prensa and El Heraldo by the Canahuatis) – which he accused of bias, and responded chavista-style by imposing mandatory two-hour government broadcasts. He also clashed with his own party in Congress (and the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti) and his first vice president, Elvin Santos, distanced himself from him before going on to win the Liberal Party’s 2008 presidential primary.

In March 2009, Zelaya announced his intention to hold a plebiscite on June 28 on whether to organize a referendum convening a constituent assembly alongside the November 2009 general elections – the so-called fourth urn (cuarta urna). This idea was opposed by Micheletti, and challenged in court by the attorney general. In late May, an administrative court ruled that Zelaya’s plebiscite was illegal, a decision upheld on appeal. Despite the ruling, Zelaya pressed forward, although at the last minute he reformulated his plebiscite as a non-binding ‘opinion poll’. The constitution does not provide for any way to call a constituent assembly (although that’s never stopped anyone), and it may only be amended with a two-thirds majority in two consecutive congressional sessions. The constitution does allow for the president to call referendums and plebiscites, subject to congressional approval (article 5).

In the final days before the scheduled June 28 poll, tensions between Zelaya and his opponents escalated amid growing anti-Zelaya protests in the streets. On June 24, Zelaya fired General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the commander of the armed forces, for refusing to provide logistical support for the poll. The defence minister and the chiefs of all three branches of the military resigned in solidarity. The next day, as ballots printed in Venezuela landed in Tegucigalpa (collected by Zelaya’s men before the attorney general could seize them), the Supreme Court ordered general Vásquez’s immediate reinstatement and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) declared the poll illegal. Unable to reach any compromise with the presidency, Congress turned firmly against Zelaya, setting up a commission to look into illegal actions committed by the president (but failing to provide proof for its allegations). On June 26, the Supreme Court issued a sealed arrest warrant against Zelaya, accusing him – among others – of treason and abuse of power.

On the early morning of June 28, soldiers stormed the presidential palace, arrested Zelaya and jetted him off to Costa Rica (in violation of several constitutional rights). Congress ‘obtained’ a forged/fake resignation letter, removed Zelaya from office and declared Roberto Micheletti as president for the remainder of Zelaya’s term (which ended in January 2010). The Supreme Court supported Zelaya’s ouster, and two days later the Public Ministry formally filed 18 criminal charges against Zelaya, vowing to arrest him if he returned to Honduras (as he was conspiring to do from Costa Rica). Zelaya’s opponents claimed that his removal from office was justified because the June 28 poll would have automatically convened a constituent assembly (false) and/or Zelaya would have used an hypothetical constituent assembly to allow reelection (a supposition, although Zelaya on June 25 had publicly declared that “re-election is a topic of the next National Constitutional Assembly”). The famous article 239 (see above) was, however, used a justification for the coup only after the fact. Others claimed that Zelaya automatically ceased to be president as soon as he issued the illegal decrees, although nowhere does the constitution provide for that. In any case, even if a constituent assembly had been convened in a November 2009 vote, Zelaya would have been ineligible for immediate reelection because his term ended in January 2010. To claim that he would have done away with this and extended his term in office unconstitutionally is an assumption which can hardly be proven.

In a July 24, 2009 cable, the US ambassador (Hugo Llorens) summarized the events: “the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch, while accepting that there may be a prima facie case that Zelaya may have committed illegalities and may have even violated the constitution”, considering Micheletti’s accession to the presidency to be illegitimate. The cable concluded that neither the military or Congress had the right to remove the president, something which at the time could only be done by the Supreme Court after indictment, trial and conviction. It also argued that the article 239 arguments against Zelaya were flawed on multiple grounds. Beyond the legality of the events, however, there was clearly near-unanimity among institutions and the elites for Zelaya’s ouster: the Congress, Supreme Court, TSE, attorney general, the Catholic cardinal, lower courts and both major political parties.

There were several pro and anti-Zelaya protests in Honduras after the coup. The new government imposed a curfew, temporarily suspended civil liberties, censored and restricted media coverage, arbitrarily arrested protesters and – according to several reports – harassed journalists (including foreign correspondents from Venezuela) and  arbitrarily detained three foreign ambassadors (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). An Amnesty International report from August 2009 reported excessive use of force (police brutality), gender-based violence and attacks against human rights defenders and journalists.

The Honduran coup was quickly condemned by nearly the entire regional and international community, including the US which also considered it a coup. Honduras was suspended from the OAS and most Latin American countries and EU member-states recalled their ambassadors. Micheletti’s unrecognized regime became stubbornly isolationist, effectively telling the international community to mind their own business. The United States supported Zelaya’s reinstatement and suspended aid to Honduras in July, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton soon became more interested in settling the crisis by supporting the scheduled November elections rather than pressing for Zelaya’s reinstatement (as most Latin American states did). Clinton’s murky role in the Honduran crisis came back to haunt her during the 2016 Democratic primaries. In a 2016 interview, she claimed that the Congress and judiciary had actually followed the law in removing Zelaya (which is false) and defended her decision not to call the coup a military coup (because it would have suspended aid).

In July, talks between Zelaya and Micheletti mediated by Costa Rican president Óscar Arias failed in large part because the two sides held mutually exclusive views on the key question: Zelaya wanted to be reinstated, Micheletti refused to go and let Zelaya return. In October, both sides, in principle, agreed on a US-brokered agreement which was to let Congress decide whether or not to reinstate Zelaya – Congress, unsurprisingly, voted against and Zelaya had already demurred from the deal. Elections were held, on schedule, in late November 2009. National Party candidate Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo, a former president of Congress (2002-2006) and 2005 presidential candidate, was elected with 56% of the vote against 38% for Liberal candidate Elvin Santos (Zelaya’s former first vice president, who had distanced himself from the deposed president). Elvin Santos was badly hurt by the coup, trying to claim a seemingly non-existent middle ground with a non-committal stance. Boycotted by Zelaya, turnout was 50%, about 6% less than in 2005.

The elections did, in fact, ‘end’ the crisis (as far as the rest of the world was concerned) and Lobo’s inauguration in January 2010 made the Zelaya case moot. The US, despite earlier statements, quickly recognized the elections and resumed close relations with Tegucigalpa. Most Latin American countries, led by Costa Rica and right-wing Panama and Colombia, also began recognizing the results of the election. Brazil, which had strongly supported Zelaya and given him refuge at their embassy in Tegucigalpa after September 2009, told him to move out by January 2010 and recognized the new government. Zelaya, following an agreement with Lobo, was allowed to go to the Dominican Republic. Only the ALBA states (plus Paraguay and Uruguay) did not recognize the election. In 2011, an agreement between Zelaya and Lobo allowed Zelaya to return home.

National Party in power since 2010

Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), a shrewd political operator and Nationalist congressman from Lempira department, became president of Congress under Lobo’s presidency. The presidency of the Honduran Congress is the most powerful legislative position (controlling debates, special commissions etc.) and is a stepping stone to the presidency of the Republic. As president of Congress, JOH was behind the adoption of several important laws and controversial decisions – one of which, the illegal December 2012 purge of the constitutional section of the Supreme Court, was discussed above. Several of the laws passed while JOH was president of Congress have favoured the activities of the country’s political and business elites.

JOH manoeuvred his way to the Nationalist nomination in 2012 against Tegucigalpa mayor Ricardo Álvarez (who became his first vice president). He campaigned on a demagogic, populist and hardline anti-crime platform – promising a ‘soldier on every street’ and a slew of populist promises (CCTs, 800,000 jobs, some gimmicky home renovation program marketed like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and even a discount card with the party’s logo). He was elected president in November 2013, winning 36.9% of the vote against 28.8% for Xiomara Castro, the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya and the candidate of Zelaya’s new left-wing party, Libertad y Refundación (Libre). Mauricio Villeda, the right-wing candidate of the Liberal Party (from Carlos Flores’ faction), won 20.3%. A fourth candidate, melodramatic former TV presenter and sports commentator Salvador Nasralla of the new right-wing populist Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), won 13.4% of the vote – performing very well in San Pedro Sula, the country’s economic capital. The elections marked the collapse of the old two-party system and the new Congress reflected the new multi-party system: 48 Nationalists, 37 Libre, 27 Liberals, 13 PAC and 3 from the three old minor parties (left-wing UD, centre-right Christian Democrats, centre-left PINU).

Pepe Lobo and JOH’s administrations have their differences, particularly in terms of outcomes, but it makes sense to discuss them together. Much of the information below is drawn from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s excellent report, When Corruption is the Operating System. One passage stood out for me:

“‘I have to have someone to manage the state,’” a Latin American official working in Tegucigalpa represented the elite’s viewpoint. “‘You do it in my service. You’re there to guarantee our businesses. In return, you can steal as much as you want.’” Or, in the words of another highly placed interviewee, “The politicians are at the service of the economic elite. When the president tries to be a real president and doesn’t obey the ten families, you get a coup d’état.”

‘Open for business’ – or open for crony capitalism?

A public-private partnership law (2010) allows businessmen to carry out public contracts under flexible (non-transparent) arrangements, potentially allowing for embezzlement or diversion of public funds. Pepe Lobo and his foreign minister, Mario Canahuati (from a Levantine elite family and former president of COHEP, the private business council), advertised that Honduras was “open for business” and aggressively sought to attract foreign investment.

Coalianza, a commission to promote public-private partnerships, was created in 2010. It choose projects, coordinates any public bidding process (which are non-transparent) and enters into contracts. Coalianza projects are under a cloud of secrecy: they have not been audited and it is unclear if they fit under the national budget. It certainly doesn’t help that Honduras’ independent audit bodies, like the Superior Tribunal of Accounts or the banking regulatory commission, have been weakened or lost in their independence vis-a-vis the executive.

An even more famous and controversial piece of Pepe Lobo and JOH’s “open for business” agenda are the “model cities” (or charter cities), officially known as ZEDE. Trying to emulate Singapore or Hong Kong, these model cities go even further than traditional free trade zones – allowed to establish their own laws (under Honduran sovereignty and partial application of certain constitutional rights), tax systems and judiciaries. The original model cities law (RED), brainchild of American economist Paul Romer, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in October 2012 amidst concerns of creating ‘states within the states’ and the loss of national sovereignty.

However, Congress reworked the law a bit and a new law creating the ’employment and economic development zones’ (ZEDE) in 2013. The new law makes clear that the ZEDE are part of Honduras and subject to the state for ‘sovereignty, application of justice, territory, national defence, foreign relations, elections and issuance of identity documents and passports’, although only 6 articles of the constitution’s 379 fully apply to the ZEDE. The ZEDE have, according to the official website, autonomy with their own political, administrative, economic and judicial system. They are overseen by a 21-member ‘committee for the application of best practices’, which appoints individual ZEDE on-site administrators and proposes names for the ZEDE’s judiciaries (appointed by the Honduran judicial system). The rest of the law is intentionally vague, only providing a framework for the creation of low-tax, free market zones where those in charge will have ample leeway to create their own political, economic, fiscal, judicial, security and even educational systems. ZEDEs may be as small or as big as their promoters want them to be; they need to be approved by Congress, although only ZEDE in high-density areas require popular consent through a referendum. There are significant concerns about the imposition of ZEDEs in low-density regions, especially areas with large indigenous or Garifuna populations.

An August 2017 article in The Economist discusses these model cities, which have excited North American libertarians and conservatives. They are still slow to get off the ground, but enjoy political support in Honduras (and foreign libertarians and private businesses are still interested). The ‘committee for the application of best practices’ originally included the likes of Grover Norquist, Mark Klugmann (former speechwriter for Reagan and Bush 41), Richard Rahn (then at the Cato Institute) and Michael Reagan. The Economist said it met just once in 2015, and that it has been reduced down to 12 members (including Rahn and Austrian economist Barbara Kolm, a former FPÖ politician).

State-owned enterprises like Hondutel and the National Electrical Energy Enterprise (ENEE) have been wracked by corruption, mismanagement and debts. ENEE’s financial situation has improved since 2014, although largely due to PPPs, falling oil prices and layoffs. Since the 1990s, ENEE has given sweetheart contracts to private sector electricity generators – including, since 2007, renewable energy generators (given locked-in tax breaks and exemptions, a 10% premium over market rates, annual increases on these higher prices; the state is mandated by law to buy all renewable energy they produce etc.). The beneficiaries of these fossil fuel and renewable energy contracts have been the ‘transnational elite’ families – Facussés, Kafies, Nassers. Following IMF recommendations, Honduras is trying to slowly privatize ENEE.

The Honduran government, with international funding, has pushed forward on highly controversial hydroelectric dams which threaten local environments and their communities. One of these is Patuca III (in Olancho department), already well underway since 2015 in association with Sinohydro (a Chinese state-owned company) and financed with a loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. The government has pressed forward with this project, riding roughshod over local and foreign opposition, in spite of an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) letter very critical of Honduras’ weak environmental assessment and the lack of proper consultation with local communities. The dam will have a significant impact on ecosystems and communities downstream, where residents fear that the river will get lower, affecting navigation and their livelihoods. Beyond the effect on the river’s ecosystems and endangered species, work on the dam has already caused deforestation. Any ‘consent’ was obtained by deceit. ENEE advertises Patuca III as a ‘clean energy’ project, hoping to get carbon credit and generate income by exporting power through the integrated Central American electricity market (SIEPAC).

The most infamous of these hydroelectric projects is the now-halted Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque river in Intibucá department. The project was launched by DESA, an Honduran company created solely for the Agua Zarca in 2008 and with ties to both public and private sector elites. The project has been strongly opposed by local Lenca communities, organized by the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). DESA’s local consultations were superficial at best and obtained approval from the local mayor by bribing him. With an engineering contract with Sinohydro and financing from Finnfund (Finland’s development finance company) and FMO (the Netherlands), work began in 2011. Agua Zarca faced massive organized local resistance in 2013. In July 2013, the military – protecting the site – opened fire on unarmed peaceful protesters, killing one indigenous leaders and wounding several others. Mounting local opposition prompted Sinohydro to terminate its involvement, but other outside investors stayed put and DESA moved construction to the opposite side of the river without informing anyone.

Berta Cáceres, a Lenca community leader and environmental activist in Intibucá who co-founded COPINH in the 1990s, was one of the most prominent opponents of Agua Zarca and an internationally-recognized community leaders (awarded several prizes for her work). Cáceres and other opponents of the projects had faced intimidation, physical violence, criminal charges and death threats from the beginning. In March 2016, Cáceres was assassinated at her home. Cáceres’ murder drew international attention and immediate condemnation/indignation from abroad. Yet, the initial official response to her death was shockingly poor: the first arrest made in relation to the case was of a COPINH member, while the sole witness (a Mexican friend of Cáceres) was kept for interminable questioning. Authorities, it seemed, didn’t care about investigating the repeated death threats she had faced. Finally, in May 2016, the government arrested four men including DESA’s manager for social and environmental affairs, two military men and a former security employee. The military is deeply implicated in Cáceres’ murder: in 2016, a former soldier later admitted that Cáceres’ name was on a military hit-list; three of the eight suspects in custody are military or ex-military, two of them were trained at Fort Benning, GA (former School of the Americas) and one was also a trainer for the Honduran military police PMOP. Despite these arrests, the Honduran government has been criticized for being very slow to actually prosecute those responsible (including the intellectual authors). Given widespread international condemnation, Finnfund and FMO formalized their withdrawal from the project in 2017.

As detailed in the Carnegie Endowment’s report, hydroelectric dams are not the only economic development projects sparking local protests and resistance. Since the 1990s, there have been violent conflicts between cooperatives/campesinos and palm oil agro-industrialists (predominantly Miguel Facussé’s Dinant Corp.) in the Bajo Aguán valley (Colón department, in the northern Caribbean region). A 1992 agricultural modernization law allowed for previously inalienable land cooperatives (formed during an early agrarian reform in the 1960s) to be parcelled out into small plots which could be sold to private landowners – a law which has, in practice, greatly favoured the interests of powerful landowners, particularly the ‘transnational elites’ in the lucrative palm oil industry. As in Colombia, the expansion of African palm oil has been accompanied with major human rights violations and a certain proximity between agro-industrialists and organized crime.

Unsurprisingly in this context, the environment ministry has been deliberately debilitated, obediently rubber-stamping the government’s proposed development projects – often without conducting a thorough environmental impact assessment.

The government has vaunted its economic and fiscal achievements. With improved tax collection, reforms in the parastatals (ENEE, Hondutel), a 2013 tax reform and austerity measures, Honduras’ deficit fell from 7.9% of GDP in 2013 to 2.6% of GDP in 2016. In December 2014, Honduras obtained a $189 million loan over three years from the IMF, in exchange for ‘fiscal consolidation’ and ‘structural reforms’. As the government likes to boast, Honduras has gotten positive reviews from credit rating agencies – Moody’s upgraded the country’s rating from B1 to B2 (and before that from B2 to B3) while Standard and Poor’s has maintained it at B+ with a positive outlook. FDI inflows reached $1.4 billion in 2014, although it fell to $1 billion in 2016.

The government claims to have created 594,000 ‘jobs and opportunities’ in three years (2014-2016). Honduras has enjoyed strong economic growth in recent years: 4% in 2017, compared to 3.1% in 2014 and 2.8% in 2013. The government’s glossy 2014-2016 ‘achievements’ brochure boasts of its achievements in attracting FDI, restoring Honduras’ credibility on global markets, fiscal responsibility, security and job creation (among other areas) and ambitiously claims that Honduras will become the “logistical centre of the Americas” by 2020, with a new international airport, six development and tourism ‘corridors, three ports, ‘attractive tax regimes’ and free trade zones/ZEDEs.

Noticeably absent from the government’s self-congratulations is any mention of poverty. Honduras is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America (Gini coefficient 50.1) and has a persistently high poverty rate. In 2016, 65.7% of the population lived in poor households (42.5% in extreme poverty and 23.2% in relative poverty), nearly unchanged from 2010 (66.2%). Poverty increased between 2010 and 2012 (reaching 71%) and has fallen since 2015 (68% to 66%). Vida Mejor is the government’s flagship anti-poverty social development project – including a broad array of programs like the Bono Vida Mejor (cash transfers to poor families with children enrolled in school) and various social housing and education projects. According to the presidency’s data, over 515,000 people have benefited from the Bono Vida Mejor and thousands have benefited from other programs under the Vida Mejor label. Critics claim that the Bono Vida Mejor, de facto managed directly by the presidency (and marketed as a presidential project), is a clientelist scheme distributed to party supporters or that its funds are being used for partisan purposes. The program and the Secretariat of Development and Social Inclusion are relatively underfunded and have yet to make a significant (lasting) dent in the poverty rate.

Militarization and crime

To face the crime wave, Pepe Lobo and JOH’s administrations have militarized the police and deployed the armed forces to fight crime. The armed forces, in decline in the 1990s, have regained some of their previous strength under JOH. One rationale for the deployment of the military is that the National Police is deeply corrupt, with police at every level infiltrated by organized crime (including street gangs) and implicated in extra-judicial assassinations. In 2009, top drug czar Julián Arístides González Irías was killed, with police, politicians and drug traffickers implicated. The police, serving the interests of political and economic elites, has been repeatedly accused of harassing people opposed to government policies – including its economic agenda. At a more basic level, police demand bribes and, through involvement with gangs like MS-13, are said to be involved in extortion in the barrios. In response to police corruption, Pepe Lobo’s government passed a police depuration law – which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2012 for violating officers’ rights to due process. JOH created a police reform commission in 2016, which has been controversial and the subject of some criticism, but may also have helped reduce homicide rates. Since 2016, it has dismissed over 4,400 officers – although most for restructuring, death, mandatory or voluntary retirement.

The military has seen its role and powers expand greatly since 2010, going far beyond ‘national defence’ to encompass maintenance of public order, fighting crime, patrolling indigenous communities, protection of land or development projects and suppressing protests against government economic development policies. Setting the clock back to the 1980s, a military police force (PMOP) was created in 2013 and charged with maintaining public order against organized crime and drug traffickers. According to critics, PMOP is at the personal service of the president and arbitrarily imposes its will through fear. In addition to PMOP, JOH as president of Congress oversaw the creation of other crime-fighting elite unites – TIGRES, ostensibly under the security rather than defence ministry, and FUSINA – an inter-agency task force mixing military, PMOP and TIGRES.

JOH has centralized national security decision-making into a single National Defence and Security Council, which mixes all three branches of government (president, president of Congress, president of the Supreme Court, defence and security ministers) and the attorney general. It has broad powers over security, defence and intelligence matters, and its activities are shielded from public scrutiny by a broadly-worded 2014 secrecy law. Hernández has also surrounded himself with top ‘securocrats’, including his brother, retired colonel Amílcar Hernández (now head of the national anti-extortion force). Retired General Julián Pacheco, the former head of military intelligence, was appointed security minister (police) in January 2015 while still in active service (he resigned his commission to take his cabinet post). Óscar Álvarez, a former US-trained special forces office, served as security minister in 2002 and 2010 and is now a prominent Nationalist congressman.

Despite all the criticism which the militarization of public safety and the state has elicited, even JOH’s critics admit that he has reduced drug trafficking and violence. As noted in the introduction, the homicide rate in Honduras has dropped from 79 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 (85.5 in 2012 and 86.5 in 2011) to 59.1 in 2016, projected to fall below 50 in 2017 – perhaps its lowest level since 2006 (46.2). InSight Crime offered seven explanations for the decline in murders: a new anti crime policy focus (anti-gang, extortions), dismantling large criminal structures (Cachiros, Valle Valle), the police reform and purge, prison reform and modernization (2 new max security prisons, and closing San Pedro Sula’s infamously criminally-run prison), increased spending on security and justice, better training and recent penal code amendments, and lastly joint work between the state and civil society. Others, however, claim that JOH has been pressured into going after organized crime and drug trafficking by the United States. Shortly after JOH took office, the Honduran government began extraditing top drug lords to the United States: Carlos ‘El Negro’ Lobo in May 2014, Juving Alexander Suazo Peralta in October 2014 and two of the Valle Valle brothers in December 2014. In 2012, the Congress had adopted a constitutional amendment allowing extradition for cases of drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime.

The government’s glossy achievements brochure reports that, between 2014 and 2016, over 4,000 new police officers were recruited and 18 criminals extradited. FUSINA arrested over 35,600 people, destroyed 10 drug laboratories and 138 landing strips and decommissioned over 8,000 firearms. In 2016 alone, the government reports, the police and armed forces arrested 20,400 delinquents.

The Carnegie Endowment’s report offered a far more sinister and cynical explanation for JOH’s tough hand against the drug cartels:

Geography may play a role in the more intensive counternarcotics enforcement under Hernández for the simple reason that he grew up in the mountainous southwestern part of the country, which is not the most convenient transshipment zone. Conversely, many of the human rights violations that are sparking social conflicts under Hernández are taking place precisely in his native region.

Zelaya and Lobo, by contrast, hailed from contiguous departments in the east, Olancho primarily, as well as Colón, which anchor the eastern end of narcotics trafficking routes through Honduras. And both apparently became entwined with local cartels, seeming to affiliate primarily with the Sarmientos and Cachiros respectively.

It may be that Hernández’s willingness to crack down on this lucrative trade—despite his close political collaboration with Lobo over the years—derives in part from his lack of opportunity to become engaged in it himself. It was taking place too far from his home base. (p. 80-1)

The US has been the key external player in Honduran defence and security policies for decades. Its involvement has increased under Hernández, who is strongly pro-US and has closely supported all US policies related to Honduras. US funding for the Honduran military and police – mostly counter-narcotics – reached $22 million in 2015 and $17 million in 2017. Overall, according to USAID’s website, US foreign aid to Honduras in 2016 from all US government agencies totalled $127.5 million in 2016 (estimated to fall to $90 million in 2017), most of it (86%) classified as ‘economic’ aid and from the US Agency for International Development.


As you can guess from the above, corruption is an entrenched part of politics and economics in Honduras. The country scores just 30 on Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 123rd in the world out of 176 (tied with Mexico) – although neighbouring Guatemala and Nicaragua rank even lower.

The most outrageous corruption scandal of JOH’s term involved the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS), the public healthcare provider and pensions administration. 7 billion lempiras ($296.8 million) in public money were embezzled – and part of that money (at least 3 million lempiras), by the president’s own admission, found its way to the Nationalist presidential campaign in 2013. To make matters worse, 3,000 people may have died from ingesting fake medicine or due to shortages. The first revelations of the IHSS scandal were publicized by the National Anti-Corruption Council and Public Ministry in 2014. Perhaps up to 60-70% of the IHSS’ operating budget was embezzled through shell companies using various stratagems (procurement fraud, fake contracts with no goods or services delivered, inflated and unjustified purchases, buying placebos). Several politicians and senior public officials including IHSS’ director general, chief of purchases and treasurer were implicated. A drug company founded by the vice president of Congress Lena Gutiérrez (National), her father and two of her brothers sold fake medicine and charged inflated prices for other supplies; she was arrested in 2015. Some members of the ‘transnational elite’ have also been embroiled, like Shukri Kafie.

According to the Carnegie Endowment’s report:

This case illustrates the rough division of labor or territory that characterizes the Honduran kleptocratic network, with most of the outright looting of government coffers perpetrated by public-sector members, often via private companies in the hands of relatives or immediate proxies. In general, companies that win public procurement contracts from government agencies like the IHSS tend not to belong to members of the self-contained, Levantine-descended business elite (p. 49)

The eruption of the IHSS scandal in 2015 led to major protests in Honduras (and among the Honduran emigrant population in the US) demanding JOH’s resignation and the creation of an Honduran version of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose remarkable work against corruption in Guatemala led to the resignation of the country’s president and vice president in 2015. Relenting, the government of Honduras allowed for the creation of a ‘support mission against corruption and impunity in Honduras’ (MACCIH) which, unlike CICIG, cannot bring corruption cases forward itself but may support Honduran authorities and help design institutional reforms.

The main thesis of the Carnegie Endowment’s report is that corruption in Honduras isn’t a series of isolated, unrelated stand-alone cases but rather part of an “integrated kleptocratic network”, “the operating system of sophisticated networks that link together public and private sectors and out-and-out criminals and whose main objective is maximizing returns for network members”.

Since 2013, the United States has been a key player behind several high-profile corruption and organized crime cases. In October 2015, Yankel Rosenthal, the nephew of wealthy business magnate and former Liberal vice president Jaime Rosenthal, was arrested by American authorities in Miami. Shortly after his arrest, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York unsealed an indictment against Yankel Rosenthal, Jaime Rosenthal, Jaime’s son Yani Rosenthal and a company laywer. The US Treasury added the Rosenthals and their businesses to the ‘Kingpins list’ (Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act) at the same time. Jaime Rosenthal, the patriarch of one of the most powerful elite families, owned Grupo Continental, a large business conglomerate with a diverse portfolio including a major bank (Banco Continental), media (Tiempo newspaper, TV channels), finance, insurance, real estate, meatpacking, cement and agro-industry. The Rosenthals, who are of Bessarabian Jewish ancestry, were also a major Liberal faction: Jaime was first vice president (1986-1989), congressman (2002-2006) and unsuccessful presidential candidate in the 2005 primaries; his son Yani Rosenthal was minister of the presidency under Mel Zelaya (2006-2007), a congressman (2010-2014) and runner-up in the 2012 Liberal primaries (with hopes for another presidential run in 2017); Yankel Rosenthal was JOH’s investment minister until June 2015. The Rosenthal family is accused of money laundering for the Cachiros drug cartel. The Cachiros (Rivera Maradiaga family), who owned one of the main cattle ranching businesses in the north, sold cattle to the Rosenthal’s meatpacking plant and opened accounts with Banco Continental. In 2006, the Rosenthal started lending money to the Rivera Maradiaga’s cattle and milk businesses – and later their African palm plantations. Banco Continental became a major investor in the Cachiros’ successful zoo and eco-park. Yankel and Yani Rosenthal have both pleaded guilty in the US, but Jaime Rosenthal remains a fugitive in Honduras despite an extradition order.

Candidates and Campaigns

There were 9 presidential candidates, three of them ‘important’.

presidentebioIncumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández ran for reelection, a first in recent Honduran politics made possible by the Supreme Court’s controversial 2015 decision to allow presidential reelection. JOH was born in Gracias (Lempira) to a coffee-growing family. He attended a military academy and graduated with a bachelor’s from the Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) and a master’s from SUNY-Albany. He is married to Ana García Carías, a direct descendant of former dictator Tiburcio Carías Andino (1933-1946).

He got his first job in politics as assistant to his brother, Marco Augusto, who was first secretary of Congress and connections to the National Party’s top echelons. JOH was elected to Congress as deputy from Lempira in 1997, and went on to serve four terms in the legislature. Rising through the ranks of the Nationalist leadership, he was leader of the Nationalist caucus (2005-2009) and later president of Congress (2010-2013). JOH became a key Nationalist power-broker, who supported Pepe Lobo’s 2005 and 2009 presidential campaigns and spearheaded the administration’s legislative agenda in Congress. Some of the laws adopted under JOH’s tenure as president of Congress were mentioned above – ‘security tax’, tax reform, ‘model cities’, military police (PMOP), first attempt at police depuration, national security and defence council, wiretap law and public-private partnerships. As president of Congress, JOH also stage-managed the controversial and almost certainly illegal ‘purge’ of four of the five members of the constitutional section of the Supreme Court in 2012. Having consolidated control of party structures and formed lucrative connections to other elite sectors, JOH manoeuvred his way to the presidential nomination in the 2012 primaries. His main rival was Tegucigalpa mayor Ricardo Álvarez. who was later brought under control as JOH’s first vice president – although JOH has still tried to screw him over, most notably by sneakily implying that he should take the blame for the IHSS scandal. JOH was elected president in 2013.

His record in government is thoroughly detailed in the previous section and hardly needs greater explanation. According to his critics, JOH is an autocrat who has concentrated most state powers – including those ostensibly held by independent institutions and control agencies – in the executive branch. As explained above, JOH has expanded the military’s power and influence, surrounding himself with powerful ‘securocrats’ of military extraction like his brother Amílcar and retired general Julían Pacheco (security minister). Like in the 1970s and 1980s, retired military personnel have also been appointed to head civilian agencies like civil aviation, ZEDEs, the housing authority, the port authority and the agricultural marketing institute. The judiciary, already weak and politicized, was further weakened and politicized by JOH. This weakened and politically favourable judiciary led to the 2015 decision declaring inapplicable the constitutional ban on reelection. The new Supreme Court elected by Congress in early 2016 (not without drama) is just as politicized (and of questionable competence) as previous courts.

JOH is well connected to the country’s elites – both traditional political elites, transnational economic elites and, to a certain degree, new illegal elites. According to InSight Crime’s report on elites and organized crime in Honduras, JOH “reportedly owns coffee farms, amongst other agricultural holdings, as well as hotels, and radio and television stations” and “has been linked to a mysterious lobbying group called Colibrí, which has reportedly engineered lucrative government contracts and kickback schemes for its members and supporters” (p. 47). Unlike his predecessor, JOH isn’t directly connected to local drug lords, although there are questions about some of his ‘securocrats’. He has also politically associated with and supported Nationalist politicians directly connected to organized crime. Hugo Ardón, who ran his 2013 campaign in western Honduras and then ran the highway authority until 2015, is the brother of Alexander Ardón, former mayor of El Paraíso (Copán), suspected of being part of the mysterious ‘AA Brothers’ drug trafficking network. As noted in the historical background section, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga (Cachiros cartel) claimed in US federal court that he had bribed Tony Hernández, the president’s brother, in return for settling debts owed to a Cachiros-owned company which had done roadwork for the government. In 2016, a former national police chief who detailed how drug traffickers financed politicians, had said that Tony Hernández (“the brother of The Man”) was the National Party’s go-to man for drug money and connected to Alex Ardón’s drug trafficking network.

As achievements, JOH can claim the reduction in homicide rates, the general improvement in security (even if the means to achieve those ends are controversial) and a relatively strong economy with sounder financial indicators. For people on the right of the political spectrum, they will likely appreciate the government’s pro-business policies – although, as explained above, the façade of ‘open for business’ likely hides a system of corrupt crony capitalism beneficial to a small circle of connected elites. The United States sees in JOH a key regional ally – on drug trafficking, the ‘war on drugs’, business, trade regional political stability and balance and even on immigration. The government’s official communications presents a long list of achievements, successes, programs, international praise and ambitious future goals.

Cleared to run for an historic second consecutive term by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision, JOH announced his reelection bid in November 2016. Supported by two Nationalist factions (Unidos and Juntos), JOH won his party’s primaries in March 2017 with 92.6% of the vote against the candidate of the Monarca faction of former president Rafael Callejas (1990-1994). Callejas was one of the petitioners in the legal challenge to the ban on reelection, and fully intended to run for president once the verdict dropped. However, Callejas, who was president of the Honduran football federation from 2011 to 2015, was extradited to the US in December 2015 facing bribery charges in the FIFA scandal. He pleaded guilty in US federal court to racketeering and corruption charges in March 2016.

JOH’s presidential campaign – in public – largely focused on continuing down the current path, ‘for more changes’. As is usual in Latin American presidential campaigns, JOH set out ambitious objectives for the next four years (pie in the sky?) like promising that, in 2022, Honduras will be admired and an example for both the region and the world. The seven pillars of his platform were vague aspirations and goals: productive innovation (i.e. attracting businesses), access to credit, Honduras as the ‘logistical centre’ of the region (see above), education (better schools! internet! bilingual system! massive bursaries!) and healthcare (universal access to healthcare and pensions), security (continuation of current policies, new prisons), economic stability (pro-business and investor confidence) and transparency.

nasralla_pacThe main opposition candidate was Salvador Nasralla, the candidate of the Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship (Alianza de Oposición contra la Dictadura) or ‘Alianza’, an electoral coalition between former president Manuel Zelaya’s left-wing Libre party (Libertad y Refundación) and the old minor centre-left Innovation and Unity Party (Partido Innovación y Unidad, PINU). Nasralla is a former businessman, sports journalist, TV presenter and master of ceremonies who became a politician in 2013, running for president and placing a surprisingly strong fourth with 13.4%. Fitting with his past career, he has a loud, direct, exuberant and boisterous personality. His critics have described him as selfish, egocentric and narcissistic.

15 years older than JOH, Nasralla was born in Tegucigalpa to Lebanese parents (although his mother was born in Chile). He began working dabbling in radio journalism as a teenager. Between 1970 and 1976, he studied industrial civil engineering at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile – a period overlapping with the 1973 Chilean coup and the first years of Pinochet’s regime. Thanks to his friendship with the dictator’s son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, he scored an interview with Augusto Pinochet some years later in 1984 on the occasion of the Viña del Mar festival. In a recent interview with the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, Nasralla said that he does not admire Pinochet but that he saw how Chile went from an impoverished country with queues for everything to a ‘Latin American power’ because of Pinochet and the Chicago Boys’ economic policies.

Back in Honduras, Nasralla was general manager of Pepsi-Cola Honduras for six years and an engineering and administration professor at UNAH for eight years, before quitting the university complaining about the low academic level of the students. Nasralla became famous as a sports commentator on TV in the 1980s, serving as press officer for the national football team during the 1982 FIFA World Cup. He was disliked by radio commentators and became know for heated arguments with referees, managers, owners, colleagues and even politicians (and fanatic commentating). In 1990, he started hosting a very popular game show program. Throughout his TV career, Nasralla also hosted various special events or programs, from the Viña del Mar festival in Chile to beauty pageants like Miss Honduras.

Nasralla was a bachelor until very recently, which fed rumours that he was gay. Nasralla rejected such rumours by assuring everyone that he is a macho and that many women can vouch for his sexuality. In a very creepy and disturbing 2016 interview, he said that he has had sex with ‘more than 700 women’, that he has never used viagra and that every woman who has had sex with him was satisfied (he also gives his ‘tactics’ to ‘conquer women’). Nasralla claimed that his busy life always prevented him from getting into serious relationships with women. In March 2016, he married former Miss Honduras 2015 Iroshka Elvir, who is 38 years younger than Nasralla (he is 64, she is 26). There are many pictures of their honeymoon on Google Images, and they are rather creepy. Their first child was born a few weeks after the election. In an interview which caused a bit of a stir in Israel, Iroshka Elvir said that Adolf Hitler was a great leader and that her personal political icons included John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Eva Perón, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. She later apologized for her ‘misquoted’ Hitler comment; according to The Times of Israel, in her apology she “attached a photo where she is portrayed holding an Israeli flag and closed the message with ‘Shalom’.” Iroshka Elvir was a PINU congressional candidate in Francisco Morazán department (Tegucigalpa).

With his fame as one of the country’s most famous TV personalities and his loud, direct and flamboyant personality (am I the only one seeing the parallels with Donald Trump?), Nasralla created his own political party – the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) – and ran for president in 2013. As his party’s name suggests, Nasralla’s campaign focused on corruption – consisting mostly of endless rants against corrupt politicians, mostly targeting the National Party. Nasralla placed fourth with 13.43%, doing particularly well in San Pedro Sula (Cortés department). However, confident that he would win in a landslide, Nasralla refused to admit defeat and still claims that he is certain that he won the election and that over 636,000 votes were stolen from him.

In a rather absurd chain of events, Nasralla lost control of his own party (the PAC) earlier this year to rebellious factions led by PAC deputy Marlene Alvarenga. In April 2017, Nasralla’s faction organized internal elections (with a single candidate) which were not recognized by the TSE for violating electoral law. In May 2017, the rival Alvarenga-led factions of the PAC organized their own internal elections, which were recognized by the TSE and therefore left Nasralla’s party in the hands of dissidents. In parallel to that, however, Nasralla was proclaimed as the opposition alliance’s presidential candidate – an alliance formed by former president Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya’s left-wing Libre party, the old minor centre-left PINU and some minor dissident groups from both the Liberal and National parties. In 2013, Mel Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, placed second behind JOH (she too claims she won) with 28.9% and Libre became the main opposition party with 37 seats – an historic showing which broke the old duopoly. Given the Supreme Court’s decision on reelection, Manuel Zelaya also became eligible to run for president in 2017, and he publicly considered it before ruling it out – because he now opposes reelection (which the alliance says is illegal) and, officially, ‘sacrificing personal interests for national interests’.

Nasralla and his followers (6 congressmen) was ‘welcomed’ by the PINU after losing control of the PAC. Many of Nasralla’s allies – including his wife, Iroshka Elvir – appeared on PINU’s congressional lists (Libre and PINU ran separately in congressional and municipal elections). Mel Zelaya was the ‘coordinator’ of the Alliance. Nasralla’s three running mates were Xiomara Castro (Zelaya’s wife and Libre candidate in 2013), PINU leader Guillermo Valle (whose sister, Beatriz Valle, ambassador to Canada under Mel Zelaya, is a Libre congresswoman) and Belinda Martínez (Libre). The anti-Zelaya newspaper El Heraldo argued that Salvador Nasralla was ‘absorbed’ by Libre’s ideology, policy and leadership. Nasralla’s opponents (and the right, in Honduras and abroad) painted him as a ‘pawn’ of Mel Zelaya and Libre. Nasralla rejected claims that he was a left-winger, declaring himself to be a centrist.

Nasralla’s campaign focused primarily on attacking JOH and the Nationalists (mostly for being corrupt and authoritarian), in his trademark melodramatic and hyperbolic rhetorical style. Nasralla and the opposition alliance’s platform, however, did show the strong influence of Libre and Mel Zelaya’s ‘left-wing’ views – not only in the actual policy proposals, but also the language, replete with references to the 2009 coup. Structured around 14 axes, the first of which was the ‘refoundation’ of the country and fighting corruption – proposing a plebiscite to decide on the ‘mechanism’ to write a new constitution (very similar to Mel Zelaya’s cuarta urna in 2009) and asking the UN to create a Guatemalan-like international commission against impunity and corruption (‘CICIH’, a local equivalent of Guatemala’s CICIG). Mel Zelaya said that, if the opposition won, there would be a constituent assembly (which the hostile press quickly tied to Nicolás Maduro’s constituent assembly in Venezuela). He also said that Nasralla’s presidency would be a ‘transition government’, never bothering to explain what was meant by that. Given the recent antecedents of constituent processes in Honduras (and Maduro’s constituent assembly), this idea was particularly controversial and seized upon by the Nationalists to attack Nasralla as a ‘puppet’ of Mel Zelaya (and raise the ‘leftist threat’).

The Alliance proposed a rather left-wing ‘alternative economic model’ – eradicating poverty, reverting privatizations, regulation of tax exemptions for corporations, progressive taxation, reducing consumption taxes, auditing the public debt, reviewing commercial treaties, promoting different types of property (mixed, private, shared etc.), provision of liquidity through the public bank to reduce interest rates and finance employment-generating activities and provision of credit and technical assistance to ‘productive sectors’. Nasralla also promised to repeal ‘harmful’ economic laws like the ZEDEs, Coalianza and a ‘fiscal responsibility law’ (limiting deficits). The platform further promised an ambitious laundry list of infrastructure projects, all while striking a very ‘green’/environmentalist tone on environmental issues (green economy, fourth generation rights, revision of 300+ mining concessions). The Alliance’s platform also promised universal public education, guaranteed universal access to healthcare, a public healthcare system and social housing (500,000 new houses in 4 years).

On security matters, Nasralla attacked JOH’s ‘militarization of society’ and claimed that violence is increasing considerably despite Nationalist denials. He said that he would continue with extraditions, but limit the armed forces to their constitutional role with the national police in charge of public security. The platform detailed a security strategy built around ‘prevention, dissuasion and control’. Some were worried by Nasralla’s announcement that he would review police depuration and the cases of police officials removed by the depuration commission, claiming that they were removed without due process and some may have been removed for investigation political corruption or criminal ties.

The Alliance’s platform was very critical of the weakness of JOH’s foreign policy, particularly his ‘subordination’ to US government priorities. On paper, the Alliance promised a stronger foreign policy – ‘strengthen, increase and reorient bilateral relations’, ‘expand and innovate regional relations’, strengthened role in international organizations, deepening Central American integration – and greater support and protection for migrants. According to the US Census Bureau, there are 948,500 Hondurans (by ethnicity) in the US – the third largest Central American immigrant group. Juan Orlando Hernández and the Nationalists repeatedly connected Nasralla to Venezuela, raising the ‘threat’ of castrochavismo (to use a Colombian term), the new favourite boogey of the Latin American right. In a May 2017 interview, Mel Zelaya said that Venezuela would be a “paradise of peace and harmony” if “the gringos, American and Europeans multinationals oppressing the people were kicked out”. Salvador Nasralla said that the international media has ‘exaggerated’ the situation in Venezuela, implying that there is no real crisis in the country. Unprompted, he also claimed that the media exaggerates about North Korea – saying that “there is no unemployment in North Korea”. Ten days before the election, immigration authorities denied entrance to a left-wing Venezuelan musical group. Later, the government imposed new visa requirements on Venezuelans seeking to enter Honduras. Based on reports that 150 Venezuelans sent by President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling party (PSUV) to interfere with the elections, JOH and much of the Honduran media claimed that Venezuela was trying to interfere with the elections.

c2p4v7cwqaerysjIn the March 2017 primaries, the Liberal Party nominated the little-known political novice Luis Zelaya (unrelated to Mel). Zelaya, born in 1967 in Tegucigalpa, studied industrial engineering in Mexico and obtained a MBA. He was rector of the Central American Technological University, a private university, between 2005 and 2016. Although he joined the Liberal Party’s youth branch over 20 years ago and his brother was a Liberal congressman, this was Luis Zelaya’s first electoral candidacy. In the primaries, Luis Zelaya defeated an old-timer, Gabriela Núñez – a former congresswoman, finance minister to presidents Carlos Flores and Roberto Micheletti, president of the central bank (2006-2007) and vice president of Banco Atlántida. Núñez was said to be the candidate of former president Carlos Flores (widely seen as the real power in the party for years), while Luis Zelaya was supported by Mauricio Villeda (2013 presidential candidate) and Roberto Micheletti. Zelaya won 56.9% against 33% for Gabriela Núñez. Nevertheless, Luis Zelaya’s campaign was weakened by internal divisions in the party – with public confrontations with Gabriela Núñez and Elvin Santos (he denied a congressional candidacy to Núñez), only belatedly (and without much enthusiasm) reuniting the party in October.

The Liberal Party was greatly weakened by the 2009 coup – which was, essentially, a Liberal factional dispute turned very nasty – and the subsequent creation of Mel Zelaya’s Libre, which overtook the Liberal Party in votes in the 2013 election. The weakened, smaller Liberal Party – which is now obviously dominated by its ‘right-wing’ (anti-Mel Zelaya) factions – has struggled to find a place in the post-2009 political landscape, often failing to distinguish itself from its rivals. It has continued to be wracked by internal factional conflicts. Carlos Flores’ faction has collaborated with JOH and the Nationalists in Congress several times since 2012, notably in the December 2012 Supreme Court ‘purge’. Given the party’s support for the Nationalists in Congress on repeated occasions, they lack credibility as an opposition party.

After he won the primary, there was some speculation (and meetings) about Luis Zelaya joining the opposition Alliance, but talks quickly broke down and Luis Zelaya later said that there had never been a realistic chance of allying with the Alliance. The Liberals were, in theory, ready to join the Alliance – but on the condition, unacceptable to either Libre or Nasralla, that Luis Zelaya be the candidate. Luis Zelaya later explained that Nasralla told him that there had already been a deal between him and Mel Zelaya on the Alliance’s presidential candidacy – and that while Luis Zelaya could join, rule number one was accepting that Nasralla was the candidate.

Luis Zelaya clearly defined himself as an opposition candidate, but sought to offer a ‘sensible centrist option’ between left-wing and right-wing polarization. His plan esperanza (plan hope) included a mix of vague goals and ideas and more concrete ideas, under the catchphrase ‘opportunities for all, without privileges for anyone’. A major theme of his campaign was ‘strengthening institutions’ – restoring a system of checks and balances, increasing the independence of key public institutions and respecting the constitution. Obviously, in seeking to strengthen and reform current institutions, he differed significantly from Nasralla and Mel Zelaya (who wanted to adopt a new constitution entirely) – it was perhaps the main political difference between the Liberal candidate and the Alliance’s candidate.

There were six other candidates besides the three major ones. None of them stood a chance.

Retired general Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, former head of the Joints Chiefs of the armed forces (2005-2010), was the candidate of the right-wing/far-right Honduran Patriotic Alliance (Alianza Patriótica Hondureña), as in 2013. During the 2009 crisis, General Romeo Vásquez was dismissed by President Zelaya for refusing to provide logistical support for the poll, but the Supreme Court quickly ruled – 14 hours later – that his dismissal was illegal, restoring him to office. On June 28, three days after his abortive dismissal, General Romeo Vásquez led the coup which removed Mel Zelaya from office. After his retirement from the military in early 2010, he was appointed director general of Hondutel (the state-owned telecoms company) by Pepe Lobo. When he resigned from Hondutel to run for president in 2013, it was on the verge of bankruptcy as Vásquez had substantially increased the company’s payroll and salaries. Vásquez’s Patriotic Alliance party, more a military lobby than actual party, supports tough law-and-order and militarization policies. Despite claiming the support of 1 million voters, Vásquez won 0.2% (about 6,100 votes) in 2013.

Marlene Alvarenga was the ‘official’ candidate of the PAC, Salvador Nasralla’s old party. From a Christian evangelical family, Alvarenga said she entered politics in 2013 after receiving a ‘call from God’ and listening to Nasralla’s speeches. She was elected to Congress in 2013, becoming Nasralla’s leading opponent within ‘his party’. Alvarenga was one of the ‘rogue’ PAC deputies who voted with the National and Liberal parties to elect the new Supreme Court in early 2016; Nasralla disowned these members, claiming that they had been bribed by the government. As described above, anti-Nasralla factions organized and led by Alvarenga gained control of the PAC and she was officially recognized as the party’s leader and candidate by the TSE. Alvarenga has said that Salvador Nasralla is misogynistic and ‘crazy’; she also called him ‘Mrs.’ (insinuating his rumoured homosexuality). In turn, Nasralla has claimed that her husband is a member of the Cachiros drug cartel. Alvarenga proposed to make Honduras a Christian state with mention of the Bible in the constitution.

Lucas Aguilera, a former peasant leader and preacher, was the candidate of the small centre-right Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano de Honduras, PDCH). The Christian Democrats, founded in 1968, have participated in all elections since 1981 but without much success besides the election of a few members of Congress (1 in 2013, 5 in 2009). It has usually aligned as a minor partner of both traditional ruling parties, trading its support for bureaucratic or ministerial appointments. Arturo Corrales, one of the main leaders of the party, was a ‘super minister’ for security under Pepe Lobo and foreign minister under JOH between 2015 and 2016. Lucas Aguilera, who claimed to be the only candidate to ‘come from below’ and truly understand poverty, is a former member of the TSE and a deputy in the Central American Parliament (and, previously, alternate deputy in the national Congress). The PDCH’s presidential candidate in 2013 won 0.2%.

Alfonso Díaz Narváez was the candidate of the left-wing Democratic Unification Party (Unificación Democrática, UD). The UD was founded in 1992 from the merger of four clandestine or semi-clandestine communist and far-left parties including remnants of the main Communist Party of Honduras. The UD, like the PDCH, has participated in every election but has never achieved significant electoral success besides electing a few members of Congress. In 2009, UD supported Mel Zelaya’s cuarta urna plebiscite, opposed the coup and later supporting his reinstatement in power, but UD nevertheless participated in the 2009 elections (boycotted by Zelaya’s supporters). The party’s 2009 candidate joined Pepe Lobo’s ‘reconciliation government’ as head of the National Agrarian Institute (INA). By the looks of Díaz Narváez’s economic ‘platform’, it may be a stretch to consider UD to be left-wing: he wanted foreign and domestic private investment, an alliance with ‘economic blocs’, ‘friendly governments’ and the People’s Republic of China.

Isaías Fonseca was the candidate of the left-wing Frente Amplio (Broad Front), the youngest candidate in these elections (at age 30). The leftist Broad Front is the renamed Frente Amplio Político Electoral en Resistencia (Broad Political Electoral Front in Resistance, FAPER), founded in 2012. The party said that it changed its name because ‘FAPER’ was too long and difficult for people to remember. In 2013, the FAPER ran in coalition with UD with Andrés Pavón, a leftist activist (with ‘revolutionary political training’ from Cuba and Nicaragua) and former head of the human rights commission. However, Pavón was suspiciously friendly towards JOH (and very critical with Nasralla and Xiomara Castro), which led Nasralla to claim that he was a Nationalist plant. The Broad Front’s leaders supported Mel Zelaya and opposed the 2009 coup, but later broke with Zelaya – officially because he isn’t a revolutionary and too much of a caudillo. Fonseca accused the Opposition Alliance of ‘abandoning its ideals’. Fonseca’s main campaign proposal was to disarm all civilians, authorizing only the government to bear arms (yes, “taking away your guns”).

Eliseo Vallecillo was the candidate of Va Movimiento Solidario (Vamos), a splinter party from the PDCH formed in 2016. It was founded by Augustin Cruz, a vice president of Congress, after he lost the PDCH’s leadership following a dispute with Arturo Corrales. Augustin Cruz was accused by Mel Zelaya of being one of the congressmen ‘bribed’ to vote with the government to elect the new Supreme Court in January 2016.

The preliminary report of the EU’s observation mission (Nov. 28) discussed several of the problems with the campaign and election administration. It noted “significant disparities in the amount of coverage given to different candidates”, favouring the incumbent president. Hernández dominated paid advertising (64%), while Luis Zelaya (17%) and Nasralla (15%) were far less visible. The incumbent also received 44% of news coverage compared to 21% for Nasralla and 10% for Luis Zelaya, the remaining 25% split between the minor candidates. The EU observer mission said that the national television “did not give equal or equitable treatment to the different parties in its news programmes or interview formats, and it openly discriminated against the Opposition Alliance and its member parties, who received 6% of all coverage, as compared to the PNH’s 36% and the PLH’s 22%.” The EU’s media monitoring also showed a “sharp asymmetry between the majority of traditional media outlets, largely favourable to Juan Orlando Hernández, […] and a smaller number of media which openly favour the Opposition Alliance.” Its media monitoring also noted the “almost complete absence of investigative journalism”, because of a tradition of self-censorship and the high incidence of threats and intimidation against journalists who investigate political corruption or links to organized crime. As the EU mission’s report touched on, private media – especially print newspapers – presented dull generic information about candidates and the campaign, albeit often with a marked bias (most newspapers being implicitly pro-government). JOH also benefited from greater news coverage of his institutional activities as president and had certain built-in advantages as the incumbent, although as the EU observer mission pointed out, Nasralla also had extra TV coverage because of his continued presence as a sports and entertainment commentator on TV during the campaign.

The EU mission’s preliminary report had a generally positive evaluation of the legal framework and electoral administration with some improvements compared to 2013. It expressed concerns about trafficking in party observer accreditation at polling stations, the inclusion of deceased people and emigrants on voter rolls (although strict voter IDs with photos reduce the potential of fraud), the staffing of polling stations with party representatives and potential bias of the electoral management body (TSE) towards the ruling party.

Opposition parties, especially the Alliance, have argued for a long time that the TSE is effectively controlled by the National Party and biased in that party’s favour. The TSE’s magistrates were elected by the outgoing 2010-2014 Congress in early 2014, shortly before the new 2014-2018 Congress took office, which means that new parties which emerged in the 2014-2018 Congress (Libre and PAC) are not represented in the TSE, which includes members from the two traditional parties and from the two ‘old’ minor parties (PDCH and UD). The president of the TSE, David Matamoros Batson, is a former two-term Nationalist congressman and former secretary general of the National Party. Despite the opposition’s worries, the EU mission’s preliminary report said that the TSE “actively fostered consultation and consensus with political parties” and “guaranteed access to the pre-electoral preparations for all political parties.”

Results and Crisis

The election took place on November 26. The results presented below are the official results proclaimed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) on December 18. These results are not recognized by the opposition or the Organization of American States (OAS).

Turnout was 57%.


Juan Orlando Hernández (National) 42.95%
Salvador Nasralla (Opposition Alliance/Libre-PINU) 41.42%
Luis Zelaya (Liberal) 14.74%
Romeo Vásquez Velásquez (APH) 0.20%
Marlene Alvarenga (PAC) 0.18%
Lucas Aguilera (PDCH) 0.18%
José Alfonso Díaz (UD) 0.14%
Isaías Fonseca (FA) 0.1%
Eliseo Vallecillo (Vamos) 0.09%

Honduras 2017


National Party 61 seats (+13)
Libre 30 seats (-7)
Liberal Party 26 seats (-1)
PINU 4 seats (+3)
APH 4 seats (+4)
PDCH 1 seat (nc)
UD 1 seat (nc)
PAC 1 seat (-12)


National Party 173 mayors
Liberal Party 89 mayors
Libre 31 mayors
Local parties 2 mayors
APH 1 mayor
Vamos 1 mayor
PDCH 1 mayor

There were few major incidents on election day on November 26. The OAS’ preliminary report (Dec. 4) reported delays in opening polling stations in addition to more ‘typical’ voting irregularities like low-level intimidation, vote buying, partisan campaigning near polling stations. In general terms, both the OAS and EU missions described the actual voting process as peaceful, smooth, well-organized and without systematic incidents or irregularities.

On November 25, a day before the election, The Economist obtained a recording that “suggests the ruling party has plans to distort results in the upcoming elections“. The recording, apparently at a training session for National Party members supervising polling stations, mentions a ‘plan B’, which “appears to be a scheme for fraudulently boosting the vote of the National Party at the expense of its rivals”. The Economist enumerated several vote rigging strategies on the basis of the recordings:

  1. Obtaining poll workers’ credentials from smaller parties.
  2. Letting Nationalists vote more than once, by not marking their fingers and inking their pinkies.
  3. Altering votes: spoiling ballots by adding extra marks, filling in leftover ballots, damaging the bar code on tally sheets (to be electronically transmitted) favouring the opposition
  4. Delay the inclusion of pro-opposition tally sheets in the preliminary vote count (by damaging them), but tally sheets won by the National Party should be signed, sealed and delivered quickly.
  5. Urging trainees to remain alert and take advantage of the inattention or weaknesses of representatives of rival parties.

The Economist published transcripts of some of the recordings as well as the audio files on November 29. The Nationalists were quick to dismiss the story, while the Alliance seized on it as evidence of the Nationalists’ intentions to rig the election. Salvador Nasralla, before polls even opened, had implied that he would not recognize any outcome which did not have him winning.

Shortly after polls closed, President Juan Orlando Hernández proclaimed victory on the basis of two ‘exit polls’. The OAS was preoccupied by the allusions to ‘exit polls’ beginning in the morning, despite electoral law banning their publication until polls close. Honduran pollsters, particularly this year, are unreliable and have obvious partisan biases or political agendas – often owned by former politicians. They are quite often not transparent about their methodologies. At least one of the ‘exit polls’ which the president cited on Twitter to claim victory was done by a polling firm owned by his former security and foreign minister Arturo Corrales (of the small PDCH). It gave JOH a 10-point lead over Nasralla (44-34), with results reported to two decimal points. JOH also claimed that he had received congratulatory phone calls from Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno. Salvador Nasralla also proclaimed victory.

On the night on November 26, the TSE did not publicly release any results. Unlike nearly every other country with democratic elections (including basically every Latin American country, except Venezuela), the TSE did not therefore provide live updates of the vote count online. It claimed, much like Venezuela’s CNE usually does, that it was waiting to get a ‘representative’ or ‘regionally balanced’ sample of polling stations before releasing any. This long delay was the first incident which hurt the TSE’s credibility and raised the spectre of fraud. The TSE had set up an online system for the transmission, processing and publication of results including uploaded scanned copies of individual actas (tally sheets) from polling stations. There were concerns, underlined in the OAS’ second report, that the TSE changed the provider for this transmission system at the last minute.

Only in the early morning hours of Monday November 27 did the TSE, pressured by the OAS, finally release the first public results. At 57.2% of precincts reported, the TSE’s results had Nasralla with a 4.96% lead over JOH, 45.2% to 40.2% (or a lead of 93,975 votes). After this first update, the TSE’s website stopped updating for much of Monday and only fired up again later on Tuesday. The TSE promised to have conclusive results by November 30, although it was showing that its track record for keeping such promises was very poor.

The TSE explained that it was receiving physical actas which were not electronically transmitted on election night, receiving and processing (scanning) them at a logistical centre (INFOP). The OAS’ preliminary report (Dec. 4) said that there were no pre-established protocols for the reception and unloading of actas and found that, in some cases, trucks reached the INFOP without custodians and TSE personnel needed to break the locks on the material received because of the absence of military personnel. The OAS also reported that the order in which these actas were processed was altered without explanation and observers found that some boxes arrived from polling stations already opened or with missing materials (actas, etc.). In the midst of confusion, TSE alternate magistrate Marco Ramiro Lobo (who has no vote in proceedings), presented as the body’s only ‘opposition’ or ‘critical’ member, said that the presidential trend was ‘irreversible’ with the remaining 43% of precincts.

By late on November 28, Nasralla’s lead was reduced to about 48,300 (about 2%) and began shrinking rapidly – to about 35,600 by the early morning hours of November 29, and 24,200 on the morning of November 29. By the evening of November 29, JOH took the lead (when about 83% of precincts had reported). On November 29, at one point, Nasralla’s vanishing lead went from +16,600 to +3,800 with just an extra 2% of polling stations.

Both candidates continued to claim victory. JOH was confident that the remaining ‘rural votes’ would give him the triumph he claimed. Liberal candidate Luis Zelaya recognized Salvador Nasralla as the winner (who was also ‘recognized’ by Bolivian President Evo Morales).

On November 29, the media reported that both candidates had committed themselves, in writing, before the OAS to respect the final results and to call on their supporters to peacefully await the end of the vote count. Yet, within hours, Nasralla, flanked by Mel Zelaya, held a bombastic and melodramatic press conference in which he proclaimed himself as president-elect, retracted his signature from the OAS’ document and presented his own results while claiming fraud. Nasralla claimed that, with 91% of actas in their possession, he had a lead of over 18,500 votes (with fraud included in JOH’s vote count!). As concrete proof of irregularities, the Alliance claimed that there were unsigned actasactas from precincts they’ve won but which the TSE excluded from the count, and actas which the TSE had fraudulently passed over to ‘special scrutiny’. He also called on his supporters to take the streets, in typical Latin American style, a decision which both the EU and OAS regretted as irresponsible. As a result of Nasralla’s ‘call to the streets‘, there were opposition protests outside the INFOP which were dispersed. The OAS mission needed to evacuate observers which were there.

After the TSE’s website placed JOH in the lead, the system broke down – a literal repeat of the infamous se cayó el sistema from Mexico’s rigged 1988 election – because of technical problems on a server which reached maximum capacity. The TSE apologized for the error and the systems were back up by midnight on November 30, but the caída del sistema only further fuelled rising tensions,

The TSE’s website continued updating at snail’s pace, with JOH’s lead consistently growing. In a communiqué to the TSE released on December 1, the Alliance conditioned its acceptance of final results to a full list of actas under special scrutiny (about 1,000 of them for inconsistencies), a full list of the 5,100+ actas processed from the INFOP, a complete archive of the database, information about the internal control interfaces, and access to the software. The Alliance asked that one Alliance member be accredited as an observer for each precinct under special scrutiny, and that each table in special scrutiny be observed by the three major parties (Nats, Liberals, Alliance) and international observers.

The defeated Liberal candidate reiterated, on December 6 and 10, that according to the Liberal Party’s own parallel vote count (up to 82% counted), Nasralla was the winner. Luis Zelaya’s consistent support for the Alliance and Nasralla divided the Liberal Party, with certain factions of the party recognizing the TSE’s results. Mauricio Villeda, the party’s 2013 candidate, supported Luis Zelaya but Elvin Santos, the party’s 2009 candidate, was critical of Luis Zelaya.

Protests escalated and got increasingly heated, with incidents of violence and looting and repression of demonstrators by the military, military police (PMOP) and police. The OAS and EU, somewhat futilely, appealed for calm, repeating that everybody should wait until 100% of all actas have been processed and recounted where necessary. On the evening of December 1, however, the government imposed a curfew – effective from 11pm on December 1 – for at least ten days between 6am and 6pm. The government decree suspended the constitutional guarantee of freedom of movement; allowed the military to ‘assist’ the police to “execute the necessary plans to maintain the order and security of the Republic”; ordered the detention of all individuals violating the curfew or “that is in some way suspected of causing damage to people or their property, those who are associated with the purpose of committing criminal acts or are endangering their own lives” and the immediate eviction of all public and private facilities occupied by demonstrators or housing people committing illegal acts. TSE members, party representatives, international observers and communicators accredited by the TSE – but not the media – were excepted from this curfew (as well as freight trucks, emergency vehicles, diplomats etc.). On December 4, a new curfew was issued for 6 days, banning the free movement of people between 8pm and 5am. The decree from December 1 was repealed.

Despite the curfew, protests continued in many Honduran cities, with massive demonstrations called by the opposition. The opposition called for massive cacerolazos, beginning on November 3. These protests turned bloody. By December 3, there were already seven fatalities. As of December 17, 18 people had been killed in protests. However, on December 5, the foreign press reported that sectors of the national police were refusing to suppress protests violating the curfew. Nasralla called on the military to follow suit and disobey orders. As explained in my ‘recent background’ section, JOH has clearly favoured the military while the national police has been the target of a depuration campaign which has dismissed over 4,400 officers (although most for restructuring, death, mandatory or voluntary retirement rather than criminal ties).

TSE alternate magistrate Marco Ramiro Lobo, ‘the internal critic’ of the TSE, said in an interview on December 3 that the caídas del sistema on Wednesday November 29 ‘generated many doubts’ in people’s minds about fraud. He said the trends ‘shifted’ (in JOH’s favour) after the system came back on and questioned whether the caída del sistema was really an accident or technical problem. He said that it would be very difficult for people to believe the TSE if when they declared JOH as the winner.

On December 3, the TSE began the ‘special scrutiny’ of 1,001 actas with inconsistencies. The Alliance refused to participate in this process, despite its earlier demands that they be accredited observers. At the petition of the OAS, the TSE allowed for the count to be observed by domestic civil society observers. The OAS mission’s preliminary report found that there was no protocol or detailed instructions for this process, using different criteria to validate votes and not fully revising all materials from polling stations (list of incidents, voter roll etc.). The OAS’ mission’s second report (Dec. 17) did not express additional concerns, praising the TSE’s decision to scrutinize these actas. Most of these problematic actas were scanned and transmitted electronically from polling stations on the night of November 26. Most concerns, and the potential for fraud and tampering, are about the actas which were not scanned or electronically transmitted from polling stations on November 26.

The OAS and EU recommended that the TSE verify the 5,174 actas which were not transmitted the night of the election (recounting the votes of the actas presenting inconsistencies). Marco Ramiro Lobo, the ‘critical member’ of the TSE, also endorsed these requests. The TSE acceded to this special request, verifying 4,753 actas. The OAS had recommended that the TSE’s actas be compared to those of the Alliance, but the Alliance did not provide its own copies. The opposition, which had initially (on Dec. 1) asked for such a revision, now asked for a full revision of all 18,100 actas – or, if not, a  ‘second round’ (even if they don’t legally exist in Honduras) between JOH and Nasralla under international observation. This exceptional revision process began on December 8, with the constant presence of domestic and international observers. The OAS’ second report (Dec. 17) reported a certain number of irregularities in the revision/recount process and ‘disparate procedures’ in the recounting of votes. Marco Ramiro Lobo regretted that the revision was not accompanied by a revision of the polling stations’ record (cuadernos de votación) – which indicated the number of people who voted in each precinct – and comparing them to the number of ballots. In an interview with BBC Mundo, the alternate magistrate supported the Alliance’s demand to recount all 18,000+ actas – but recognized that the TSE would not and could not take this decision. Without such a recount, he claimed that the results would be ‘surely dubious’.

The revision process of the 4,753 actas officially ended on December 10. In this revision process, the National Party lost 1,178 votes and the Alliance gained 829 votes – in other words, very few changes compared to the initially reported results, and certainly not enough to overturn the result of the election as reported by the TSE.

Going through the legal process (under pressure for international observers), the Alliance formally challenged the result of the presidential election, but without expecting much to come from it (given that it has no faith in the country’s judicial system or the TSE). The Liberals also legally challenged the presidential but also congressional and municipal elections. At the same time, Nasralla asked that the election be cancelled entirely. He provided a ‘short scientific explanation’ of the ‘fraud’. On December 12, the Alliance provided the OAS and EU missions with the necessary evidence supporting its claims of fraud.

Was there fraud?

On December 17, the TSE officially proclaimed the results of all three elections, declaring Juan Orlando Hernández as the winner of the presidential election. The TSE had until December 26 to officially declare the results. The OAS and EU both released statements on December 17. The EU’s statement made no official comments on the validity of the results declared, but its statement was generally read as an endorsement of the TSE’s position. It said that the recount of the 5,000 actas was “undertaken in conditions of full transparency and in the presence of national and international observers” and noted that “despite numerous invitations from the TSE, neither of the two parties which had denounced irregularities attended the recounts and verifications, nor did they come to compare their copies of results forms with the TSE originals”. The EU mission also noted that the Liberals’ and Alliance’s appeals were not “accompanied by a significant number of results forms, which would have served to demonstrate to the Honduran public what the alleged divergences were between the forms in the parties’ possession, and those published on the TSE website”. With regards to the evidence submitted by the Alliance to the EU on December 12 – a digital file containing their copies of 14,363 actas out of 18,129 precincts – the EU mission’s cross-check between a large random sample of the Alliance’s results to the originals published online by the TSE “concluded that there was virtually no difference between the two sets of results forms”. By way of conclusion, the EU said that it will “continue to analyse any appeal which may be submitted in response to the publication of results”.

The OAS’ second report, released on December 17, is far more critical of the TSE than the EU’s statement. Some of its comments have been noted above. It also conducted a partial audit of the TSE’s system, and while I can’t effectively summarize its technical findings, my uneducated impression of them is that there were significant problems and irregularities in the configuration of this system. The TSE’s treatment of the November 29 system failure did not respect international best practices and the actions to reestablish the IT infrastructure were not appropriate (did not preserve evidence or restrict access to another affected server). The OAS stated that the sequential processing of the results – from the scan at the precinct to its final divulgation – was altered in a significant number of cases (actas transported, stored and later transmitted). It could not, however, conclude that the system had been maliciously tampered with.

The OAS reiterated its concerns from its preliminary Dec. 4 report, which included several criticisms and concerns about irregularities, errors and problems before, during and after the election – partisan bias of the TSE, trafficking in credentials, illegal use of exit polls, confusions about polling hours, delay in transmission of initial results, the system failures after the election, management of actas in the INFOP without protocols and so forth. This preliminary report had concluded that the OAS had no certainty about the results, and made six recommendations including the revision of the 5,000 actas. In the TSE’s official proclamation of results, the body considered that they had followed all six recommendations. The OAS’ second report made positive comments about the TSE’s decision to allow the revision of the 5,000 actas, and, like the EU, observed no major differences between the 3 parties’ actas and the official ones ‘in the quasi-totality of cases’ – but it also said that there are certain cases with ‘inexplicable discrepancies’ between the parties’ actas and the official ones. The ‘bombshell’ comes in the penultimate paragraph of the OAS’ 13-page report: “the mission considers that it has observed an electoral process of low quality and therefore cannot affirm that the doubts about it are clarified”.

This well-informed blog post on the processing of an acta provides some suggestions about how the actas could have been adulterated, trafficked, tampered with or otherwsie modified. Actas scanned at the polling stations are scanned a second time in Tegucigalpa when the physical boxes arrive. There were pictures of a truck backing up at an hotel in the capital appearing to show some of these boxes, raising concerns about actas being scanned outside the INFOP. The second round of scans at the INFOP “are clearly done using different procedures with a different way of getting in to the system”. It is certainly possible that the second scans of certain actas done at the INFOP differed from the originals. The opposition on Twitter posted several images of actas showing differences between theirs and the ones posted on the TSE website.

JOH has claimed that the ‘swing’ between the initially reported results on Monday morning (at 57% reporting) showing Nasralla ahead by 5% and the final results was because pro-Alliance urban areas reported first, while Nationalist rural areas reported later, reversing Nasralla’s lead.


Nationalist and Alliance vote share by precincts vs. cumulative votes counted, showing 68% ‘turning point’ (source: I. Nooruddin analysis for the OAS)

Dr. Irfan Nooruddin of Georgetown University conducted an analysis of the results reported by the TSE for the OAS. He found that while the “dramatic vote swing experienced is possibly the result of Alianza favoring areas reporting results earlier and being counted sooner”, this assumes that there is no difference in the accuracy of early-reporting and late-reporting precincts. However, his analysis suggested that “there is something unusual in the pattern of the late reporting polling stations” – in every single department, the Alliance’s advantage increased and then collapsed. For this to be true, this would mean that, in every single department, Nationalist precincts reported later and reversed Nasralla’s lead. Of even greater concern, Dr. Nooruddin’s analysis found that “there is a marked break point with roughly 68% of votes counted in polling level station turnout rates and concomitant vote shares for the Partido Nacional and the opposition Alliance“. The final 32% of precincts which reported had substantially higher support for JOH, substantially lower support for Nasralla and higher turnout. He wrote: “for this to be plausible, we’d have to believe not only that late-reporting polling stations favored the incumbent but that that they did so by overwhelming margins unlike the polling stations that reported even a few minutes earlier in the evening.” In addition, turnout in the first 68% of precincts was 56%, but turnout jumped to 63% in the final 32%. He conducted a final analysis only of precincts in La Paz department, which voted for JOH. In La Paz, the 68% mark is key as well: turnout jumped from 68% to 73%, Nationalist votes increased from 44% to 56% and Alliance votes collapsed from 32% to 16%. Dr. Nooruddin found that this 68% mark also holds in other departments, like Cortés, which voted for Nasralla. Dr. Nooruddin’s ‘bombshell’ is in the final line: on the basis of his analysis, he rejects “the proposition that the National Party won the election legitimately.”



Vote ‘swings’ between Nov. 28 and Dec. 6 counts by municipality (source: Economist)

The Economist also did its own analysis, looking at municipal results. It found that, in basically every single municipality, JOH’s vote share increased and Nasralla’s decreased between Nov. 28 and Dec. 6 in the count. This challenges JOH’s argument that rural areas reported later and gave him his big win. The Economist‘s analysed 2013 census data (% of houses with dirt floor, correlated with rural households) and “found no relationship between how rural a municipality was and how sharply its vote shifted towards Mr Hernández.”

On the basis of the OAS mission’s second report, the OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said that the OAS cannot give assurance regarding the outcome of the elections, reiterating that “the electoral process was characterized by irregularities and deficiencies, with very low technical quality and lacking integrity”. While calling for political dialogue and rejecting all forms of violence, Almagro said that “the only possible way for the victor to be the people of Honduras is a new call for general elections, within the framework of the strictest respect for the rule of law, with the guarantees of a TSE that enjoys the technical capacity and confidence of both the citizens and political parties”. He appointed former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga and former Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom as OAS special representatives to carry out the necessary work to organize a new electoral process.

Other results

Because of the post-election crisis, the results of the two other elections have been overlooked. It is unclear whether they too are potentially fraudulent – the Liberals seem to think so as they have challenged them, but the Alliance hasn’t said much if anything about them. I think it should also be pointed out (and it hasn’t) that, between Nov. 27 and the final results, congressional and municipal results – unlike presidential results – did not ‘swing’ much. Although the TSE reported these two elections in terms of seats won (congressmen and mayors), the same trends did not change from the beginning – about 58-61 seats for the National Party, and over half of mayors for the National Party. I am unsure about whether this may ‘prove’ (or not) potential irregularities in the presidential results. It should be pointed out, however, that the congressional and municipal counts were initially much slower – on November 27, only 20% or so of congressional and municipal actas had been counted, against 57% of presidential ones.

On the final results, the National Party has won 61 seats in Congress – a 13 seat gain compared to the 2013 election – bringing it to 47.8% of seats, only four seats short of an absolute majority. The support of the minor parties like PDCH (1), APH (4) and PAC (1) will undoubtedly give the Nationalists a comfortable working majority in the new Congress. Notably, this new Congress will elect the members of the TSE in 2019.

For those wondering, Nasralla’s young wife Iroshka Elvir – a PINU candidate in Francisco Morazán – lost badly, getting only 61,637 marcas (‘marks’, or preferential votes).

The Nationalists also won over half of municipalities in the country, electing 173 (58%) mayors against 89 for the Liberals and only 31 for Libre. The National Party held the two largest cities in the country, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. In Distrito Central (Tegucigalpa and Comayagüela), incumbent Nationalist mayor Nasry Asfura – a construction businessman of Palestinian origin – was reelected to a second term in a landslide, winning 77% of the vote against 11.9% for Libre. First elected in 2014, Asfura is known as papi a la orden for enriching his own construction company with public infrastructure contracts. He is, shockingly enough, a very big fan of infrastructure projects. In San Pedro Sula, Nationalist mayor Armando Calidonio was reelected to a second term with 33.3% against 23.7% for Libre and 20.7% for the Liberals. Calidonio is the son of former colonel Armando Calidonio, a member of the National Investigative Unit in the 1970s who was named in a list of military officers accused of collaborating with drug trafficker Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros in the kidnapping and murder of the Ferrari siblings, Matta Ballesteros’ first criminal allies and business partners. Armando Calidonio junior was undersecretary for security (2002-2005) and security secretary (2005-2006), and again as undersecretary for security (2010-2011); he was also elected to Congress in 2010.

In Yoro (departmental capital of Yoro dept.), Diana Urbina Soto (National) was elected mayor with 58.5% (17.3% for Libre and 17.2% for the Liberals). Diana Urbina Soto, a congresswoman, is the sister of former mayor Arnaldo Urbina Soto, first elected in 2009 and reelected in 2013, before being arrested in 2014 and recently sentenced to 36 years in jail for money laundering. The Urbina Soto family, the subject of a recent InsightCrime investigation, is a political-criminal clan involved in drug trafficking (allied with the Cachiros), illegal logging and land appropriation among other things. Diana’s brother Carlos Fernando Urbina Soto is considered the criminal ‘leader’ of the clan and is still at large, and two of other brothers – Miguel Ángel and Mario – were arrested in the same police raid in 2014, but later found not guilty and released.

Given the strong chance that the official results of the presidential election are at least in part fraudulent, a serious analysis of the electoral geography and voting patterns loses much of its value. According to the TSE’s official results, Nasralla won six departments against 12 for JOH. Geographically, Nasralla won the northern and Caribbean departments (except for remote and predominantly indigenous Gracias a Dios) while JOH won the inland (and Pacific) south. Nasralla’s best department was Cortés, which includes the city of San Pedro Sula. He won 55% in the department and 55.6% in the city. JOH won Francisco Morazán department, which includes Distrito Central (Tegucigalpa): he won 44.4% against 37.4% for Nasralla in the department and narrowly carried the capital with 43.8% against 40.5% for the opposition Alliance’s candidate. JOH’s best department was his native department of Lempira, where he won 59.3% of the vote against 30.9% for Nasralla. The Alliance challenged the validity of the turnout statistics for Lempira, La Paz and Intibucá departments – three Nationalist strongholds (with large indigenous populations) reporting 76.5%, 70.1% and 68.9% turnout respectively. The OAS’ second report found that these high turnouts were consistent with high turnouts in these same three departments in prior elections, although Dr. Nooruddin’s analysis (see above) found that turnout in La Paz department increased ‘suddenly’ after the 68% reporting ‘turning point’ from 68% to 73%.

According to the US Library of Congress’ 1995 Honduras: A Country Study, southern departments were historically National strongholds while the Liberals were strong in the more developed northern and Caribbean departments (as well as the unique insular department of Islas de la Bahía – Roatán) although the Liberals had their rural strongholds too.

Traditionally, the PNH has had a stronger constituency in rural areas and in the less developed and southern agricultural departments, whereas the PLH has been traditionally stronger in the urban areas and in the more developed northern departments, although the party has had some rural strongholds. In a study of five Honduran elections from 1957 to 1981, James Morris observes that the PLH had a strong base of support in the five departments that made up the so-called central zone of the country–Atlántida, Cortés, Francisco Morazán, El Paraíso, and Yoro. The PNH had strong support in the more rural and isolated departments of Copán, Lempira, Intibucá, and Gracias a Dios, and the southern agricultural departments of Valle and Choluteca.

Francisco Morazán and El Paraíso departments, described as Liberal regions in the text above, voted for JOH. The other departments mentioned in the above blurb voted ‘the same way’ in 2017 – treating the Alliance as a partial successor to the Liberal Party.

What next?

Unsurprisingly, Nasralla and the Alliance have furiously retweeted Almagro’s statement and endorsed his calls for new elections. Equally as unsurprising, JOH has rejected the OAS’ calls, with one of his aides accusing the OAS of trying to steal the election for Nasralla. At the same time, JOH has tried to appear magnanimous in victory and issued calls for broad political dialogue. Trying to appear ‘above the fray’ – as the responsible adult versus the rioting teenagers on the streets – has been JOH’s strategy from the beginning, although that image took a hit with his declaration of the state of emergency on December 1. Nasralla, who returned from a 72 hour trip to Washington D.C. on December 19, has said that he is more than willing to participate in JOH’s grand political dialogue. It is questionable whether JOH’s calls for dialogues are sincere or merely political posturing. While making these calls, he also explicitly branded all demonstrations – without any exception – to be violent. It is also questionable whether these political dialogues, if they do take place, will be just as futile as the talks which took place between Mel Zelaya and the de facto government after the 2009 coup – breaking down, almost inevitably, because of a fundamental disagreement on the key question – which in this case may be ‘new elections’. These talks, if they do take place, may also be part of a strategy by JOH to divide the Alliance and break its unity. Although all dismissed by the interested parties, there have already been claims and signs of disagreements within the Alliance – primarily between the candidate (Nasralla) and the coordinator (Mel Zelaya), with the latter appearing more intransigent.

The political-electoral crisis in Honduras has brought major international attention to Honduras, on a scale comparable to the 2009 coup. This new Honduran crisis has, like in 2009, been of significant interest to certain US lawmakers and politically-engaged North Americans. Commentators have noted the difference in the US’ official responses to recent political events and elections in Venezuela and Honduras. The US, like much of the international community (and most ‘non-left-wing’ Latin American governments, like Mexico and Colombia), does not recognize the Venezuelan national constituent assembly ‘elected’ in a controversial electoral process over the summer, which was boycotted by the opposition. Of course, the US government has imposed new sanctions on top Venezuelan officials, including the country’s new vice president. The results of the Venezuelan regional elections in October, in which Nicolás Maduro’s ruling party claimed victory – unexpectedly – in the vast majority of states, have also been disputed. The Venezuelan opposition largely boycotted municipal elections in December, a boycott which led President Maduro to announce that the parties which boycotted may be banned from running in the 2018 presidential elections in Venezuela. In contrast to its response to events in Venezuela, the United States has hardly been critical of the Honduran government and the elections there. The US chargé d’affaires, Heide Fulton, tweeted after the elections that the process seemed to be orderly and calm. On November 29, a spokesperson at the US State Department urged calm and patience and that the US “looks forward to working with the democratically elected leaders of Honduras”. Afterwards, the US embassy largely endorsed the EU and OAS’ preliminary recommendations. It later said that it was pleased with the TSE’s special scrutiny and supported the international observers’ work. The State Department, in a statement on December 18, took notice of the TSE’s proclamation of results but made little substantive comments beyond that (except no violence etc. etc.). Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump has – to my knowledge – made no comment about these elections. Members of Congress, mostly Democrats (but also Florida Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), have been more vocal – criticizing the TSE for its delay in providing results. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) called the Honduran election an ‘illegal election’, while Representative Norma Torres (D-CA) called on the State Department to withhold aid until the crisis is resolved. Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have endorsed the OAS’ calls for a new election, as have Democrats in the Senate including Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Tim Kaine (D-VA).

Given the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, particularly on Latin America – with a renewed focus on the militarized war on drugs (where JOH has proven to be a key US ally in Central America), it is a near-certainty that the Trump administration will recognize – tacitly or openly – JOH’s reelection, and provide diplomatic support to his weakened position. Lo and behold, Honduras was one of 8 countries besides the US which voted against the UN motion on December 21 condemning Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem (even if Honduras recognized Palestine in 2011). Besides the US, JOH is likely to continue to count on the support of the military – in fact, given the police’s ‘dubious loyalty’ in the post-election crisis, a weakened (and illegitimate?) JOH may further shore up the military’s role and status in his government, increasing its power and influence over key sectors of the state in return for political support – a return to the setup of the first years of ‘constitutional democracy’ after 1982.

For quite some time now, it appears as if the Alliance is unsure of what its own end game is. During the vote counting and election certification process, it changed its demands several times. Its demands for a new election, even if endorsed by the OAS, still seem unrealistic as long as JOH retains control of the situation and public order in the country. As speculated above, JOH’s calls for a grand political dialogue may be a political trick by his administration to seek and divide the Alliance, or at least to drag the issue on for several months until it eventually loses steam (and loses the interest of potential allies outside the country). Nasralla may become Honduras’ version of 2006 Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador – claiming he won the election (with a more substantive claim than AMLO) and proclaiming himself as the legitimate president… but the official winner of the election being sworn in regardless and serving out a full term (and the rival’s claims to being the legitimate president gradually losing clout).

Beyond the disputed outcome of the election and what may come next, Honduras’ 2017 election shows another example of the consolidation of ‘competitive authoritarianism’ in Latin America, greatly damaging the legitimacy and credibility of elections as a mechanism for democratic political action and change. It also offers a textbook example of why presidential reelection remains such a controversial issue everywhere in Latin America – with recent moves to remove/modify term limits (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, a failed attempt in Paraguay) and moves to restore term limits (Colombia, Ecuador). Presidential reelection in Latin America, particularly in ‘hybrid regimes’ like Honduras, carries the real risk of an entrenched autocratic incumbent seeking to prolong his hold on power through whatever means, including electoral fraud – in addition to weakening traditional checks and balances.

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.

Costa Rica 2014

Presidential and legislative elections were held in Costa Rica on February 2, 2014. The President is elected to a four-year term, not immediately renewable. A presidential candidate must win 40% of the vote in the first round to win, if no candidates wins over 40%, the top candidates go to a second round (on April 6 in this election). The unicameral legislature, the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa) is composed of 57 members elected by proportional representation in each of the seven provinces (the number of seats allocated to each province is based on the provincial populations). Elected concurrently to the President, members of the Legislative Assembly serve four-year terms and are ineligible for immediate reelection.

In legislative elections, party lists are closed and seats are distributed proportionally using a quotient and sub-quotient method (no threshold). It is explained in further detailed here.

Background: Costa Rica’s unique democracy and the two-party system

Costa Rica stands out from the rest of Central America. Whereas in most Central American countries, the second half of the twentieth century was marked by fledgling oligarchic democracies, popular challenges to oligarchic elites and – in every country except Honduras – long and bloody civil wars which ended only in the early 1990s, Costa Rica has been a unique democratic success story. It has been the only Latin American country which has consistently been rated as a functioning democracy since 1950, it is the only Latin American country which has been rated as ‘free’ by Freedom House every year since 1973, it had the second freest press in the Americas after Jamaica in 2013 (according to Reporters Without Borders) – even freer than Canada or the US and generally ranks as one of the most democratic countries in Latin America. As a result of democratic stability, Costa Rica also ranks far ahead of its Central American neighbors (except, in some cases, Panama) on socioeconomic rankings such as the Human Development Index (HDI), poverty and literacy.

Costa Rica has long been relatively remote from the rest of Central America, sparsely populated from the outset. It never developed a large black or Indian subservient class, a wealthy landed elite or a powerful oligarchy. Coffee cultivation began on modest, family farms – creating a fairly large agrarian middle sector and urban merchant class, without creating a landless peasantry. The United Fruit (UFCO) established banana plantations on the east coast and it became the country’s main export.

After independence and until the 1940s, liberals dominated the political system, ruling in tandem with the local elites in a traditional oligarchic system. However, politics were generally quite peaceful; the 1889 election saw the peaceful transfer of power from one liberal faction to another, constitutional principles were adhered to and only a single military dictatorship (1917-1919) disturbed the political order. Some presidents were progressive, in the sense that they supported the development of public education and adopted some welfare policies. It was an imperfect democracy, still largely dominated by a small, closed circle of political elites.

In 1940, Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia was elected president with the backing of the incumbent moderate liberal president, León Cortés Castro. The outgoing President had likely seen Calderón as a pliable novice politician; however, Calderón turned out to be an astute politician, who broke with the dominant ideology of classical liberalism by supporting significant welfare policies, influenced by the Catholic Church’s social teachings and Christian democracy, whereas past liberals had supported laissez-faire capitalism and been rather anticlerical. Calderón, in a bizarre alliance with the Archbishop of San José and Manuel Mora Valverde, the pragmatic leader of the Communist Party, passed a number of progressive social reforms known as the Garantías Sociales (social guarantees). These included the creation of the University of Costa Rica, the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (a universal healthcare system for all residents paid for by employer and employee contributions) and the promulgation of a labour code (minimum wage, eight-hour workweek, vacations, right to strike, employee protections etc). Calderón’s policies were popular, but also aroused significant opposition from conservative politicians and the coffee/banana elites. During World War II, Calderón’s persecution of local Germans and Italians in the name of the fight against fascism were criticized.

In 1944, Calderón’s National Republican Party (PRN) allied with Manuel Mora’s communist Popular Vanguard (PVP), and the caldero-comunista alliance’s candidate was elected, defeating former President León Cortés, who had broken with his successor and led the conservative opposition. Political conflict increased, with an undeterred opposition clashing with the president and communist allies. Matters came to a head in 1948, when Calderón, backed by the Communists, ran for a second nonconsecutive term. Aligned against him were three opposition parties: the Democratic Party, the party of former President León Cortés (who died in 1946), the conservative and vehemently anticommunist Partido Unión Nacional led by Otilio Ulate Blanco and the centre-left Social Democratic Party, led by José Figueres Ferrer, an hitherto unknown figure who had denounced Calderón in a radio broadcast in 1942. The three parties united behind the conservative Otilio Ulate Blanco.

Calderón lost the election, but Calderón and the incumbent president refused to accept the new electoral commission’s certification and called on the outgoing legislature, dominated by the caldero-comunistas, to review the result. In March 1948, the legislature voted to nullify the election results on the grounds of alleged irregularities. José Figueres Ferrer assembled a diverse coalition of opponents in a Army of National Liberation; including his ragtag anti-dictatorial Caribbean Legion, conservatives, former fascist sympathizers, oligarchs and the United States. Figueres led an armed rising beginning on March 12, leading to a short civil war which ended on April 24 with the surrender of the government forces and the communists. Communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde had previously agreed to surrender in exchange for guarantees that Figueres would not seek retribution against the communists and would not repeal the garantías sociales. Within days, the communists, Calderón and the outgoing president surrendered and handed power to a transitional junta led by Figueres. He soon broke his promise to the communists and banned the PVP, dissolved the communist union and persecuted the communists. Mora and Calderón both went into exile. Around 2,000 people died in the short civil war.

A transitional junta (Junta Fundadora de la Segunda República), led by Figueres, assumed power. In May 1948, Figueres and the winner of the election, Ulate, agreed that Figueres’ junta would govern for 18 months before handing power over to Ulate. During this time, a Constituent Assembly would be elected to draft a new constitution – which remains in place to this day. Figueres’ junta did not dismantle Calderón’s progressive reforms and in fact built on them: women’s suffrage, creation of a public electricity and telecommunications company, levied a wealth tax on bank profits, nationalized the banks, eliminated racial segregation (the small Afro-Costa Rican minority had faced segregation and discriminatory policies in the past) and – most famously – abolished the military. The junta defeated, in December 1948, a first attempt by Calderón, allied with Nicaraguan dictator Antonio Somoza, to invade the country and overthrow the government. In April 1949, another rebellion, this time led by a conservative minister in the junta, was defeated.

Ulate became President in November 1949, and, while ideologically conservative, did not change Figueres’ reforms – but he did allow private banks to compete against the nationalized banks. In 1951, Figueres founded his own party, the National Liberation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional, PLN) and in 1953, Figueres was elected president, easily defeating Fernando Castro Cervantes, one of his erstwhile conservative colleagues in 1948. Calderonismo and the communists remained illegal; in 1955, Calderón, against with Somoza’s support, unsuccessfully attempted to invade the country and overthrow the government. Figueres increased expenditures on education and housing, increased income taxes on the wealthy and negotiated a new contract with UFCO in which the Costa Rican share of profits increased from 10% to 30%.

The ruling PLN suffered a split ahead of the 1958 elections, with Figueres’ finance minister, Jorge Rossi Chavarría creating his own party after losing the primary to Francisco José Orlich Bolmarcich. In the election, the split of the liberacionista family allowed the conservative candidate, Mario Echandi Jiménez, who had the support of the calderonistas, to win the presidency on a plurality (46%) of the vote. The new president, however, had trouble implementing his agenda of small government and reductions in public spending; in the legislature, Echandi’s party, the PUN, had only 10 seats against 20 for the PLN and 11 for Calderón’s PRN. The main achievement, therefore, of Echandi’s presidency, was national reconciliation: Calderón and his supporters reintegrated the system, and calderonismo effectively became the more conservative rival of liberacionismo (or figuerismo).

In 1962, PLN candidate Francisco José Orlich Bolmarcich was elected president, with 50% against 35% for Calderón and only 13.5% for former president Otilio Ulate Blanco, the oficialista (governing party) candidate. In a regional context marked by the Cuban Revolution, all three major parties – the PLN, PRN and PUN – traded accusations of being communist, the PLN’s social democratic (but anticommunist) ideology being dangerously communist for the right while the PLN played on Calderón’s former ties with the communists. Chico Orlich continued Figueres’ traditional policies: progressive social democratic domestic policies (he nationalized and redistributed unused land of the UFCO) and staunch anticommunist (pro-American) policies internationally.

Politics make strange bedfellows. In 1966, Calderón’s PRN joined forces with his former enemy Ulate’s PUN in a conservative coalition (Unificación Nacional, UN) to defeat the PLN’s candidate, Daniel Oduber. The UN’s candidate, José Joaquín Trejos Fernández, criticized the PLN’s statist and social democratic policies; advocating instead for economic liberalism. In a Cold War context, the PLN was likely hurt by the endorsement of leftist leader Enrique Obregón and communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde’s call to vote against Trejos. In a close race, the PUN candidate won with 50% against 49% for Oduber, but the PLN retained a majority in the legislature. Unlike Echandi, Trejos proved fairly successful in implementing his liberal agenda: he reduced government spending, created a sales tax and controversially granted a bauxite mining concession to ALCOA.

In 1970, former President José Figueres Ferrer, endorsed by his PLN, went up against former President Mario Echandi, nominated by the governing UN after a difficult and tortuous internal process marked by clashes between Ulate’s PUN and Calderón’s PRN. Given the domination of ex-presidents in the political system, a constitutional amendment in 1969 put a complete ban on reelection in all circumstances, but this amendment was not retroactive. Figueres was elected, with 54% against 41% for Echandi and the PLN expanded its majority in the legislature. Figueres did not intend for much controversy in his administration, but in 1972, he was accused of corruption for letting an American fraudster fleeing prosecution in the US reside in Costa Rica and refusing US demands for his extradition. Otherwise, Figueres maintained moderately social democratic policies at home (but, to the dismay of the PLN’s left, maintained the ALCOA concession) and softened the anticommunism somewhat – restrictions on leftist parties loosened, he established diplomatic relations with Moscow.

The 1974 election broke with the trend of anti-incumbency and the two-party system. The PLN remained relatively united behind its candidate, 1966 candidate Daniel Oduber, but a dissident (and left-leaning) faction led by PLN deputy (and Figueres’ rival in the 1970 PLN primaries) Rodrigo Carazo created the Partido Renovación Democrática (PRD) and ran for president himself. The right was increasingly torn apart; the UN ultimately nominated Fernando Trejos, the cousin of former president Trejos. But his own cousin, José Joaquín Trejos, endorsed Carazo while former president Echandi backed Jorge González Martén, an independent right-winger. Attempts to unite the anti-liberacionista opposition proved unsuccessful, and with that, the PLN won with a plurality of 43% against 30% for the UN, 11% for Martén and 9% for Carazo. Former communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde, who had been allowed to return home and form his own party, the Socialist Action Party, won 2% of the vote.

Oduber established diplomatic relations with other communist countries, legalized the communists, raised the banana export tax and threatened the UFCO with expropriation if they opposed the tax. The brewing conflict in Nicaragua began troubling Oduber’s administration, and would come to place major strains on the country during the full-scale civil war in Nicaragua. Politically, the PLN’s back-to-back victories in 1970 and 1974 impelled all the opposition parties, except the Marxist left, to form a common front against the PLN in 1978 – the Coalición Unidad (Unity Coalition). The coalition was made up of former presidents José Joaquín Trejos and Mario Echandi; Carazo’s PRD; Martén’s PNI; the calderonistas, now led by Calderón’s son Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (Calderón died in 1970) and a small Christian Democratic Party. Rodrigo Carazo, the PLN dissident, won the primaries with the support of the Christian democrats and Trejos, defeating a right-wing businessman backed by the calderonistas, Echandi and Martén. Calderón Fournier endorsed Carazo after his candidate was defeated in the primaries, but Martén – backed by Echandi – broke with the coalition. The PLN nominated Luis Alberto Monge, a unity candidate who had the support of the bulk of the PLN establishment of the time. Carazo won with 50.5% against 43.8% and the coalition won a plurality of seats in the legislature.

Carazo’s administration faced crisis at home and abroad. Costa Rica had become embroiled in border incidents with Nicaragua; up until 1979, San José provided support for any groups opposing Somoza’s authoritarian regime, an old enemy of Costa Rica. After Somoza was routed in 1979, Costa Rica generally sided with the US against the Sandinistas, and paid a heavy price for the conflict in Nicaragua with an influx of Nicaraguan refugees and Contra rebels ensconcing themselves in Costa Rica. Domestically, Costa Rica was hit hard by the global economic crisis of the late 1970s which caused coffee prices to fall. The government, unable to get the legislature to pass tax hikes, resorted to borrowing and the country ran up a foreign debt of $4 billion. The IMF and the government reached agreement on an assistance package, in exchange for austerity measures, liberalization of the economy (removing price controls, reducing public sector subsidies) and a devaluation of the currency. Carazo failed to comply with the IMF’s demands, leading the IMF to suspend its loan agreement and withdraw from the country.

By the time of the 1982 election, the governing coalition was highly unpopular. Calderón Fournier won the coalition’s low turnout primaries against a candidate backed by President Carazo. In the general election, however, he was no match for the PLN’s Luis Alberto Monge, who was elected in a landslide – 58.8% against 33.6% for Calderón Fournier, 3.8% for former president Echandi and 3.3% for the candidate of the communist Pueblo Unido party. In the Legislative Assembly, the PLN won 33 out of 57 seats.

Monge stabilized the country and Costa Rican democracy suffered perhaps its toughest test. He reopened negotiations with the IMF, in which San José accepted the IMF’s previous conditions plus one – the privatization of several deficit-ridden public enterprises. Compliance with the IMF’s stringent conditions placed great strains on the population and the PLN: the increase in utility prices led to protests, and the government was forced to concede a wage increase to public servants. A lot of his efforts paid off. Relations with Nicaragua worsened, as San José aligned itself with Washington, in exchange for American aid and investment in Costa Rica.

In 1983, the parties of the opposition – Calderón Fournier’s PRC, former president Trejos’ Popular Union (PUP), the Christian democrats and former president Carazo’s PRD – merged into one, creating the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, PUSC). In the 1986 elections, the PUSC backed Calderón Fournier for a second shot at the presidency. In the PLN, a new faction emerged, around Óscar Arias, which opposed the old factions and the old caudillos of the PLN – President Monge and former presidents Figueres and Oduber. Despite little establishment support in the PLN, Óscar Arias won the primaries against a figuerista candidate handily. His campaign, a plea for peace (under the campaign slogan paz para mi gente), was widely seen as a not-so-subtle criticism of President Monge’s militarist policy in the Nicaraguan conflict. Óscar Arias was elected president by a comfortable margin, 52.3% to 45.8% for the PUSC’s candidate.

A two-party system was consolidated, between a vaguely centre-left but largely moderate PLN and a social Christian PUSC, a more enthusiastic supporter of economic liberalism. In Costa Rican terms, the PUSC was closely associated with calderonismo, a term which gradually lost ideological content but is akin to European Christian democracy.

Óscar Arias initiated a peace process with his Central American neighbors, culminating in the Esquipulas accords. The Costa Rican-faciliated peace deal called on the war-torn nations to initiate a cease-fire, engage in dialogue with opposition movements, prevent the use of their territory for aggression against other state and cease aid to irregular forces. The 1987 agreement also called for free elections and democratization in all nations. In good part, it was not enough to fully end the civil wars raging, but it had a major effect in pushing forward the later peace deals which did end the civil conflicts. For his efforts in bringing peace to his regime, Óscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Domestically, however, Óscar Arias was accused of being a strong supporter of neoliberal policies: for example, he tried to privatize the electricity company, weakened the state monopoly on telecommunication and allowed for the private generation of electricity.

Arismo declined after the end of Óscar Arias’ term in office, with the acrimonious 1989 PLN primary opposing Carlos Manuel Castillo, backed by former presidents José Figueres and Daniel Oduber, and Monge’s nephew, Rolando Araya Monge. Carlos Manuel Castillo emerged victorious. The PUSC’s primaries were similarly acrimonious. Two-time presidential candidate Calderón Fournier originally declined to run again and backed a liberal businessman, Manuel Ángel Rodríguez, in his stead. However, with low polling numbers for any non-Calderón candidate, Calderón Fournier threw his hat back into the race, with the backing of the PUSC’s predominantly calderonista caucus and leadership. Calderón Fournier defeated Manuel Ángel Rodríguez in the primary by a landslide. In the 1990 general election, Calderón Fournier (PUSC) narrowly defeated the PLN candidate, 46.2% to 41.9%. Calderón Fournier’s administration continued the liberal economic policies of the last two (PLN) governments – he reduced tariff barriers, joined the GATT (WTO).

The 1993 PLN primaries were a family affair: it opposed José Maria Figueres Olsen, the son of the former president; Rolando Araya Monge, the nephew of the former president; and Margarita Penón Góngora, the wife of former president Óscar Arias. José Maria Figueres emerged as the winner. In the 1994 election, he went up against Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (PUSC). After a dirty campaign, in which the PLN branded the PUSC’s candidate as a cold and distant neoliberal businessman while the PLN’s candidate was painted as an autocrat and militarist, Figueres Olsen won by a narrow margin – 49.6% to 47.7%.

Figueres Olsen continued the general shift towards liberal economic policies, ending the checking account monopoly held by state owned banks since 1948 and reformed the teachers’ pension fund, causing a long teachers strike. For the left of the PLN, Figueres Olsen and Óscar Arias’ presidencies are seen as betrayals of liberacionista values and right-wards shift in the party. The 1998 election and its outcome would increase resentment at the two-party system, increasingly stale and corrupt. In a context of an unpopular government, the PLN’s supporters nominated a relative outsider, José Miguel Corrales Bolaños, as its candidate (Corrales had already run in the PLN’s 1993 primaries, and had been noted for virulent personal attacks on Figueres Olsen) against Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, who came out strengthened from the 1994 election and had consolidated the liberal and calderonista wings of the PUSC. Miguel Ángel Rodríguez was narrowly victorious, with 46.9% against 44.4% for Corrales. Smaller parties on the left and right managed to win seven seats in the legislature, managing to reduce the combined PLN and PUSC caucuses in the legislature to 50 out of 57 seats (the two parties had 53 out of 57 seats in the 1994 legislature). Yet, by and large, the PLN and PUSC’s dominance of the system remained unchallenged.

The fall of the two-party system and the new party system

That would change with Miguel Ángel Rodríguez’s presidency, which effectively killed the two-party system (derided by critics as ‘PLUSC’). Rodríguez strongly supported neoliberal policies which ran into a wall of significant opposition from the population. He managed to reform the pension system to open it to private participation and granted a concession to a private firm to operate the main port on the Pacific, but his attempts to privatize the telecommunications company were blocked by unions and major protests. With the outgoing president so unpopular, the PUSC’s supporters turned to an outsider in the primaries – Abel Pacheco, a populist TV personality and one-term PUSC deputy, who won 76% of the vote against Rodolfo Méndez Mata, the candidate of former president Calderón Fournier. The PLN was in no better shape than the PUSC, however: the shift towards neoliberalism had been badly taken by a good section of the party, led by the arayistas – the leftist and more traditionally socialist wing led by Rolando Araya Monge, former president Luis Alberto Monge and the mayor of San José, Johnny Araya. Rolando Araya won the PLN primaries in 2001, defeating Corrales.

The 2002 election saw the emergence of a party which would go on to fully kill the PLN-PUSC hegemony. The Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana, PAC), a centre-left anti-establishment party founded by former members of the PLN and PUSC and independent civil society activists. The PAC nominated Ottón Solís, a former cabinet minister under Óscar Arias and later one-term PLN deputy between 1994 and 1998, as its presidential candidate. In the first round of voting, Ottón Solís placed a very strong third with 26.2% against 31.1% for Araya and 38.6% for Pacheco. For the first time in the post-1948 republic, no candidate obtained 40% to win on the first round and a second round was organized two months later. In the concurrent legislative elections, the PAC won 22% and 14 seats, establishing it as a strong third party against the much weakened PLN and PUSC – the latter with 19 seats (-8 seats) and the former with 17 seats (-6 seats). The PAC wasn’t the only party to profit from the PLN and PUSC’ loses: on the right, the Libertarian Movement (Movimiento Libertario, ML) won 9% of the vote and 6 seats in the legislative elections.

In the second round in April 2002, the populist Abel Pacheco, running a campaign heavy on personality and low on ideology, was elected in a landslide, taking 58% against 42% for Araya. The first even back-to-back defeat for the PLN threw the liberacionistas into a frenzy, while the PUSC’ victory would turn out to the equivalent of the Titanic’s stern towering out of the water before plunging under.

Pacheco’s own administration was not particularly remarkable in a positive or negative way (although he supported the US war in Iraq, despite Costa Rica lacking an army), but the PUSC was killed by major corruption scandals involving former presidents Calderón Fournier and Ángel Rodríguez. Roughly around the system, former PLN president José Maria Figueres Olsen was embroiled in a separate corruption scandal which further weakened the PLN. Former president Calderón Fournier was accused of corruption and influence peddling in a case related to the acquisition of medical equipment for the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social through a Finnish loan. In 2008, he was sentenced to five years in prison, a sentence reduced to three years in jail in 2011 (the Costa Rican law apparently allows those sentenced to three years or less to escape formal imprisonment). Other members of the PUSC were also accused of having received bribes from a Finnish medical equipment firm; the Finnish loan had been speedily approved by PUSC legislators and the loan conditions effectively made sure that Finnish company would be the favourite for the bids. President Rodríguez was accused of receiving bribes in three separate cases: over $1 million from the Taiwanese government (perhaps to press Costa Rica to maintain its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan; Costa Rica eventually recognized the PR China in 2007), £1.2 million from a British reinsurance firm in exchange for a contract with the state insurance monopoly and $800,000 in bribes from Alcatel in exchange for a contract. Rodríguez was put on trial in Costa Rica in the Alcatel case, but in 2012 the lower court’s sentence was dismissed because of prosecutor misconduct. Alcatel paid $10 million in settlements to Costa Rica. Rodríguez had been named Secretary-General of the OAS in June 2004 but resigned in November 2004 to face these corruption charges. Former PLN president Figueres Olsen was also accused of receiving $900,000 from Alcatel for consultancy work after his presidency. No charges were laid.

The 2006 elections marked a realigning moment in Costa Rican politics. Firstly, the rules of the game had been altered, in 2003, by the Supreme Court’s decison to strike down the 1969 amendment and allow for presidential reelection after a two term hiatus. Former President Óscar Arias has lobbied extensively since he left office for an amendment to allow presidential reelection, but this was firmly opposed by Arias’ rivals within the PLN – the arayista faction. Luis Alberto Monge called the court’s decision a ‘judicial coup d’état’. This allowed Óscar Arias to make a long-expected comeback as the PLN’s presidential candidate in the 2006 election.

The PUSC nominated Ricardo Toledo, a close supporter of outgoing President Abel Pacheco, but the PUSC was deeply discredited by the scandals involving its two former presidents and Pacheco’s unpopular administration. Instead, the PLN’s main competition came from the PAC, and, to a much lesser extent, the Libertarian Movement (ML). The PAC nominated, for a second time, Ottón Solís while the ML nominated, for the second time, its leader Otto Guevara. One of the issues which polarized the election was the free trade agreement with the US – CAFTA. Arias and Guevara supported CAFTA, but PAC candidate Ottón Solís opposed CAFTA, arguing that it would increase poverty by displacing farmers and workers. Solís vowed to renegotiate CAFTA if he won. Otto Guevara, the candidate of the Libertarian Movement, had moderated the ML’s more radical libertarian positions and moved towards more liberal positions. For example, the ML accepted state participation in education, healthcare, infrastructure and other areas, Guevara accepted public financing for his campaign and the past calls for dismantling government subsidies were dropped. The ML shifted its focus to denunciations of corruption and political cronyism exemplified by the ‘PLUSC’ system; however, it still supported CAFTA and advocated for individual liberties.

The election was extremely close, with Arias winning by a margin barely over 1%. Arias won 42.3% of the vote against 41.1% for Solís. Otto Guevara placed third with 8.8%, matching the ML’s legislative vote from 2002. The PUSC suffered an historic collapse: Toledo placed fourth, with only 3.7% of the vote. In the legislative election, the PLN took 25 seats to the PAC’s 17; the ML held its 6 seats while the PUSC collapsed from 19 to 5 seats in the legislature.

The two-party system was dead. One element of it, the PLN, remained standing but it was not immune from severe criticism of its own corruption and complacency. The other element of it, the PUSC, was killed off. The root of the two-party system’s collapse was one of the elements behind Costa Rica’s unique democratic stability: there was little antagonism between the PLN and PUSC, who agreed to peacefully alternate in power and to share the spoils of power. Senior civil service positions were split between the two and the two parties often worked together on major issues. This had the effect of breeding significant corruption and cronyism, blurred ideological distinctions between liberacionismo and calderonismo and an ideological convergence around economic liberalism. The decay of the two-party system allowed for new political actors to emerge, many of them stemming (indirectly and partially) from the PLN and PUSC. On the left, the PAC denounced corruption and, with its economic policies, challenged the neoliberal policies adopted by PLN and PUSC governments. On the right, the ML denounced corruption (and Guevara popularized the ‘PLUSC’ barb against the party system) and was a clearer advocate for liberal policies than the PUSC (which remained too closely wedded to the ideological vagueness of calderonismo for many liberal intellectuals).

The CAFTA issue remained a contentious issue during Arias’ second term. Eventually, it was taken to a referendum in October 2007. The PAC, PUSC, small parties on the left, trade unions, social movements, the arayista wing of the PLN (Rolando Araya) and former presidents Carazo, Luis Alberto Monge and Calderón Fournier all supported a NO vote. President Arias’ administration, the PLN, the ML and the PUSC’s legislative caucus supported a YES vote. In a tight contest, the YES won, with 51.6% against 48.4% for the NO. Otherwise, Arias’ administration continued the liberal policies of the past. Costa Rica was able to escape the 2009 recession quickly, its economy grew by 5% in 2010, the highest of any Central American country except Panama.

Óscar Arias was one of the few presidents to be succeeded by the candidate of his choice. First Vice President Laura Chinchilla, endorsed by the President and arismo (Arias’ faction in the PLN), defeated the mayor of San José, Johnny Araya in a close primary battle. Araya, the nephew of former President Monge and the brother of Rolando Araya, was the arayista candidate – from the party’s left, more supportive of traditional socialism and in opposition to CAFTA (although Araya’s brother and uncle have tended to be the most vocal on those matters). Araya lost to Chinchilla, 41.6% to 55.5%. While Araya endorsed Chinchilla, Rolando Araya and the former president both endorsed PAC candidate Ottón Solís. The 2010 election held little suspense. Chinchilla won handily, with 46.9% against 25.1% for Solís and 20.9% for Guevara. Luis Fishman Zonzinski, the PUSC’s candidate after former president Calderón Fournier was forced by his trials to drop out, won only 3.9%.

In the legislative elections, the PLN won 24 seats against 11 for the PAC (a net loss for both), while the ML gained 3 (holding 9 total) and the PUSC gained one (holding 6 total). With the backing of the small Accessibility with Exclusion Party (Partido Accesibilidad sin Exclusión, PASE, a conservative party for disabled persons’ rights), National Restoration (Restauración Nacional, a small Evangelical party on the right) and Costa Rican Renovation (Renovación Costarricense, another conservative Evangelical party), the PLN has a majority in the legislature. Originally, the PAC, ML, PUSC and PASE formed an opposition bloc which held a majority in the legislature, but PASE defected to the government in a move which smacked of a corrupt bargain.

Chinchilla’s presidency has been unremarkable, but also very unpopular. A wide poll of approval ratings for Latin American leaders done by a Mexican polling firm found that Chinchilla was the most unpopular of all her Latin American colleagues, with only 12% approval. Other Costa Rican pollsters have confirmed her government’s unpopularity. On the surface, there is little which appears as cause for such deep unpopularity: the economy grew by 4-5% between 2010 and 2012, although it slowed to growth of ‘only’ 3.5% in 2013 and is projected to grow by 3.8% in 2014. A favourable investment climate for foreign investment, tourism and strong exports have helped the economy along. The country has been spared the huge increase in violence (often drug-related) which has afflicted Honduras and El Salvador (but also, at a less extreme rate, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize); there was, however, a net increase in the homicide rate from 8/100,000 in 2006 to 11.3 in 2010. But it fell to 10 in 2011 and Chinchilla’s government has generally been recognized as being successful at curbing crime and violence.

In 2010, Chinchilla faced a border dispute with Nicaragua over a small island in a lagoon region. Nicaragua justified its claim using Google Maps, but it was more serious than that: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent troops to occupy the contested island and was seen as drumming up nationalist sentiment over the remote island to shore up his reelection. Chinchilla’s handling of the affair was criticized as naive by her predecessor, Arias. The crisis calmed down and was temporarily resolved in 2011-2013.

Although the Costa Rican economy has been performing well, there is mounting concern about a growing debt and deficit. In September 2013, Moody’s put the country on negative outlook because of widening budget deficits, a rising debt burden and failure to pass fiscal legislation. The country’s deficit has increased to about 4-5% of GDP, because of rapid increase in government spending since 2008 while government revenue has not kept up, and the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio has grown from 24.8% in 2008 to 36.7% in 2013. In 2012, the Supreme Court found the government’s tax plan – which included scrapping the sales tax for a higher VAT and a 15% withholding tax on new companies in the free trade zones – was unconstitutional, forcing Chinchilla to settle for a far less ambitious plan.

This has led some politicians and economists to talk of a ‘fiscal crisis’, and regardless of whether there’s a crisis or not, the government’s economic policies have failed to please its critics to either the left or right. The right claims that the crisis is due to excessive government spending and mismanagement and that increasing taxes would not resolve the matter. The left downplays the importance of the ‘fiscal crisis’, instead emphasizing the country’s rising social inequality and proposing a progressive tax reform. According to the left-wing Frente Amplio‘s 2014 manifesto, Costa Rica’s Gini index has increased from 0.358 in 1988 to to 0.518 in 2012 and, citing the World Bank, claims that Costa Rica is one of only three Latin American countries which has failed to reduce inequality or poverty in 10 years.

The government has also faced scandals. The Minister of Finance resigned in 2012 after the newspaper La Nación reported that he had not paid property taxes, the Minister of Transportation resigned over corruption in a road project and the President faced questions about her use of a private jet to fly to Peru. During her first two years in office, 13 cabinet ministers resigned for various reasons, undermining confidence in Chinchilla’s administration.


The PLN’s nomination was ultimately uncontested.  The contest began in 2012, and originally the field included five candidates: the mayor of San José Johnny Araya; Óscar Arias’ brother and former Minister of the Presidency Rodrigo Arias; former President José Maria Figueres Olsen; Antonio Álvarez Desanti and Fernando Berrocal Soto. Johnny Araya, who has been mayor of the capital since 1998, was the runaway favourite and his overwhelming advantage in the polls – including over his main rival, Rodrigo Arias – forced all his competitors out of the race by January 2013.

Although Araya hails from the PLN’s left – considered the main left-wing opposition to the PLN’s right, incarnated by arismo – his campaign did not stray much from what has been PLN policy in the past years/decades: rather bland centrism, although with some negative references to neoliberalism and language which could be interpreted as critical of Chinchilla and Arias’ administrations. Araya’s manifesto focuses on bread-and-butter issues such as job creation (especially for certain sectors), infrastructure projects, social security and education but also addresses government reforms, especially for local government. Araya talked of replacing the 13% sales tax with a higher VAT, likely set at 14-15%.

Given the unpopularity of Chinchilla’s government and the PLN brand, Araya did his best to distance himself from the unpopular government. At the outset, he even briefly toyed around with the idea of dropping the PLN’s traditional green from his campaign propaganda in favour of blue and red (colours of the flag but also the PUSC). In his campaign ads, Araya ran solely on his record as mayor of San José while not making any mention of Chinchilla or Óscar Arias. In December 2013, former President José María Figueres Olsen joined Araya’s campaign team – but former President Arias and his brother, Rodrigo,

The main party of the opposition, the PAC, had a contested primary in July 2013. Ottón Solís, the PAC’s most famous figure and three-time presidential candidate, announced that he would not run. Luis Guillermo Solís, a former secretary-general of the PLN who joined the PAC in 2008, narrowly won the primary with 35.5% against 35% for his closest rival.

The PAC’s plan highlighted three priorities: fighting corruption, promoting economic growth through a more equitable distribution of the wealth and reducing inequalities (eliminating extreme poverty). Luis Guillermo Solís considers himself a social democrat, and his manifesto reflects that orientation with its relatively moderate centre-leftist language.

To fight corruption, the PAC’s platform proposed to guarantee access to information, strengthening state institutions to make them effective and efficient in the fight against corruption and improving transparency in the hiring process for public servants. Solís’ manifesto talked of promoting economic growth through a development bank providing differentiated loans to small businesses and certain sectors (women, youth), reducing interest rates, reducing electricity rates, defending the ‘interests of national production’ with ‘effective control of free trade treaties’, promoting small businesses and cooperatives, promoting public investment in infrastructure projects generating jobs and greater competitiveness and helping the youth through training, grants and internships. Although Solís opposed CAFTA, he does not see a renegotiation of the treaty as being possible today. His proposals on reducing poverty were vaguer, but included planks such as new schools in poor areas, enforcing the minimum wage law and ensuring beneficiaries of conditional subsidies fulfill the requirements.

Solís’ more detailed platform also listed ‘ten commitments’: developing and improving transportation infrastructure, strengthening healthcare and pensions, safeguarding national agricultural production (food safety and sovereignty), guaranteeing quality academic and technical education (spending 8% of the GDP on education), ‘environmental management compatible with human development’ (stricter land use laws, environmental oversight, protecting water, cost-effective and clean public transit, exploring clean energy), promoting effective public security, promoting culture and sports, defending and respecting human rights, responsible administration of public funds (more progressive taxation, a VAT) and finally measures for women’s rights.

The Libertarian Movement (ML) nominated Otto Guevara, the party’s leader and main figure. With the party’s moderation in recent years, moving away from more radical libertarian planks, it may more accurately be described as a right-wing liberal party – it is a member of the Liberal International, whatever that means. Guevara’s manifesto talked of eliminating unnecessary regulations hindering job creation, facilitating access to financing and capital for job creators, free trade, breaking state monopolies (in certain sectors, notably allowing private electricity generation), defending property rights (‘one of the most fundamental human rights’), attracting foreign investment (using the current zonas francas) and improving infrastructure.

Economically, the ML has familiar rhetoric: controlling inflation, no new taxes (the ML’s manifesto say they ‘impoverish persons and are a confiscation of money from those who produce it’, it wants to keep taxes as low as possible) and reducing public spending (stop the growth of the public sector, eliminate privileges, ban strikes in essential services, reducing duplication, ‘tertiarize’ non-essential services). It supports replacing the current PAYGO pension system with a capitalization system. In a debate, Guevara confirmed supports a flat, 15%, corporate tax (currently progressive between 10% and 30% based on the companies’ revenues). Left-wing candidate José María Villalta correctly pointed out that his tax plan would increase taxes on small businesses.

On the whole, the ML’s philosophy of the state is that of the estado subsidiario (subsidiary state), providing the essential services and guidance and helping those who can’t help themselves (with the objective of promoting self-help). On the issue of poverty, the ML is critical of asistencialismo (which it says breeds clientelism and dependency) and proposes instead to review existing social programs to eliminate waste, and coordinating them with the private sector and NGOs/charities. The ML also emphasizes tough stances against corruption and more transparency.

In a bid to attract former PUSC supporters, the ML candidate took very socially conservative on major moral/ethical issues (moreso than the other candidates): declaring himself resolutely pro-life, opposing same-sex marriage or civil unions and against the legalization of marijuana. Guevara also stated that his party has adopted Christian principles and the social doctrine of the Church, in addition to liberalism.

The PUSC held a primary in May 2013, in which the calderonista candidate, Rodolfo Hernández emerged victorious over the liberal/social Christian candidate Rodolfo Piza, 77 to 23, but Hernández dropped out of the race in October 2013 and Piza replaced him. Hernández, in a letter to supporters explaining his withdrawal, blamed betrayals and intrigues against him in the PUSC and lamented the state of politics. If early polls placed Hernández on a strong footing against Araya, Piza never polled over 6%. His platform showed a Christian democratic orientation: humanism, ethics and morality, social development and democracy.

Of particular interest in the campaign has been the success of José María Villalta, the candidate (and sole legislator) for the main leftist party, the Frente Amplio. Since the 1948 civil war, the left – understood as the ideologically Marxist or socialist left – has always been weak, hardly polling over 3-5% of the vote (although historically the top distant rival to the PLN and the right). The left has been hurt by its illegality (until the 1970s), weak organization, infighting, numerous splits, the polarization of politics until 2002-2006, the PLN’s ideological flexibility and – after 2002 – the rise of the PAC as a viable centre-left alternative. The Frente Amplio was founded in 2004, notably by members of the former Fuerza Democrática, the main left-wing party in the 1990s. The party defines itself as socialist, progressive, patriotic, feminist, democratic, ethical and Latin American; it has cheered on the election of leftist leaders in Latin America – from the ‘radicals’ of the Chávez/Morales/Correa variety to moderates such as Lula/Tabaré Vázquez; and it is a member of the Foro de São Paolo.

Villalta’s manifesto was very critical of neoliberalism – which his party claims is responsible for the increase in inequality and the weakening of the welfare state. The platform focused on reducing inequalities and poverty, ‘saving’ and strengthening social security (the CCSS), public education, infrastructure, popular participation in governance, fighting corruption, a dignified livelihood, protecting the environment and food security and sovereignty (among others). In detail, he promised to improve workers’ rights, promote local small-medium businesses, limit increases in the cost of living, a progressive taxation system to expand the tax base and raise taxes on the wealthiest and opposing privatization. He received press abroad for his promise to renegotiate CAFTA and his opposition to any new free trade deals, a position shared with other candidates including Solís (PAC) but not Araya (PLN) or Guevara (ML). Villalta’s tax plan would increase the corporate tax rate on the biggest businesses to 35-40% (they currently stand at 30% for companies earning more than $183,000), supports a VAT (but progressive and limited at the current sales tax rate of 13%). He also proposed reducing tax deductions for companies and raise the salaries of low-level public sector employees.

Villalta has called concerns about the ‘fiscal crisis’ to be alarmist, arguing that it has been blown out of proportion by neoliberal economists.

The PLN was at the forefront of a negative campaign against Villalta (worried by his strong polling numbers), accusing him of sympathy with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega and of being a communist seeking to implement authoritarian policies. The PLN candidate, Araya, presented himself as the safe centrist option against the dangerous ‘extremes’ of Villalta (on the ‘far-left’) and Guevara (on the ‘far-right). But attacks on Villalta were not confined to the PLN: Guevara proved equally as virulent in debates against him, and private businesses (including Avon and Subway) circulated materials calling on its employees not to vote for Villalta. Ottón Solís, the PAC’s former presidential candidate and PAC candidate for the legislature, came to Villalta’s defense and said that it was wrong to attack him and brand him as a chavista. Villalta decried the ‘dirty campaigns’ as means for the PLN to distract attention from the economic crisis, but Villalta was carefgul to erase references to his more radical past. While he openly declared himself a communist in the past and praised Chávez, in the campaign he stated that his links to Chávez were limited to shared membership with the PSUV in the Foro de São Paolo and he declared himself as the heir to Manuel Mora’s moderate and pragmatic local brand of communism (comunismo a la tica).

In the 1970s, alongside Johnny Araya, Villalta was a member of the far-left revolutionary Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo (whose leader was none other than Johnny and Rolando Araya’s brother).

The other candidates were disabled rights advocate Óscar Andrés López Arias for the PASE (he already ran in 2010), José Manuel Echandi Meza, the nephew of former President Mario Echandi (1958-1962), for his Partido Avance Nacional; perennial conservative candidate Walter Muñoz Céspedes for the Partido Integración Nacional; Sergio Mena Díaz for the socially liberal Partido Nueva Generación; 1998 PLN presidential candidate José Miguel Corrales Bolaños for the Partido Patria Nueva; Evangelical pastor and deputy Justo Orozco Álvarez for Renovación Costarricense; Evangelical pastor and deputy Carlos Luis Avendaño Calvo for the Partido Restauración Nacional; and Héctor Monestel Herrera for the Trotskyist Workers’ Party.


Turnout was 68.25%, down slightly from 69.12% in the 2010 election. The preliminary results reported on election night, with 89% of precincts counted, were:


Luis Guillermo Solís (PAC) 30.95%
Johnny Araya (PLN) 29.59%
José María Villalta (FA) 17.14%
Otto Guevara (ML) 11.19%
Rodolfo Piza (PUSC) 5.97%
José Miguel Corrales (PPN) 1.5%
Carlos Avendaño (PREN) 1.35%
Justo Orozco (PRC) 0.8%
Óscar López (PASE) 0.53%
Sergio Mena (PNG) 0.29%
Héctor Monestel (PT) 0.25%
José Manuel Echandi (PAN) 0.22%
Walter Muñoz (PIN) 0.22%

Legislative Assembly

PLN 25.52% (-11.64%) winning 18 seats (-6)
PAC 23.82% (+6.14%) winning 14 seats (+3)
FA 13.08% (+9.42%) winning 9 seats (+8)
PUSC 10.01% (+1.96%) winning 8 seats (+2)
ML 7.92% (-6.56%) winning 3 seats (-6)
PREN 4.11% (+2.49%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PRC 3.97% (+0.18%) winning 2 seats (+1)
PASE 3.95% (-5.22%) winning 1 seat (-3)
PPN 2.07% (+2.07%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PNG 1.25% (+1.25%) winning 0 seats (nc)
ADC 1.15% (+1.15%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Others 3.15% (-1.24%) winning 0 seats (nc)

The Costa Rican election went somewhat unnoticed on February 2, when most media attention abroad focused on the Salvadoran election, because of El Salvador’s more confrontational ideological politics and its tumultuous political history in contrast to Costa Rica’s consensual politics in a stable democratic country. However, it was by far the most interesting of the two Central American battles on that day.

The election took place in a context of record levels of political apathy and discontent. Identification with political parties has declined to record lows, especially with younger voters; there is major dissatisfaction with the political leadership’s performance and behaviour (poor records on issues such as jobs, growth, infrastructure and inequality; corruption); and an increasingly large number of voters have become politically apathetic. Turnout was 81% in the 1994 election, and fell to a record low of 65.2% in 2006. At the outset of the campaign, few voters appeared captivated by the election and there was concern about turnout. However, the campaign proved quite heated and the closely disputed race drew voters to the polls. Turnout was down less than one point from 2010.

One of the main aspects of the collapse of the two-party system in Costa Rica is increasingly electoral volatility and an ever more fickle electorate. Party loyalty is of some, but ultimately little, value. In the last poll of the campaign, in the field from January 20 to 27, 43.9% of voters were undecided or did not intend to vote. When the campaign began late last summer, about 55% of voters were undecided. PLN candidate Johnny Araya, by pure value of name recognition, held a wide lead over his lesser-known rivals in the early polling in August-October 2013 but he still was polling only in the low 20s. In November 2013, left-wing candidate José María Villalta surged into contention as a close second (even first, in two polls) behind Araya – with right-wing candidate Otto Guevara not very far behind. Villalta’s surge was built on an anti-establishment (and anti-neoliberal) message which attacked the traditional political leadership of the country for its numerous failures. Villalta built a strong base on social media and with young voters, and became a refuge for voters fed up with the political system. But voters remained fickle. Anti-PLN voters whose top goal was to dislodge the PLN oscillated between Villalta the leftist and Guevara the ‘libertarian’; anti-communist voters whose aim was to keep Villalta ‘the communist’ from winning power, hesitated between Araya and Guevara.

However, the negative campaigns by the PLN and ML against Villalta had a clear effect on voting intentions. In a socially conservative, politically moderate country, talk of Villalta’s radicalism and fears of his ties to unpopular leftist regimes in Nicaragua and Venezuela uneased many. In this highly volatile situation, another candidate, hitherto lagging behind in the polls, gained the ‘big mo’ and surged into contention: Luis Guillermo Solís, the PAC candidate. Despite representing the country’s second largest party, Solís struggled throughout most of the campaign, suffering from low name recognition. However, Solís made a name for himself in the many debates and on social media. In the last poll (Jan 20-27), Solís placed third with 11.6% (up from 9.5% earlier in January and 4% at the start of the race) – Araya and Villalta remained first, with 17.4% and 14.4% respectively, but were on a downwards trend. Guevara, who was polling a strong third and considered a possible contender for a runoff spot until the very end, collapsed to fourth and 7.3% in the last poll. However, the huge number of undecideds made the outcome unpredictable.

The outcome was indeed rather surprising. Solís actually placed first with nearly 31% of the vote: a remarkable feat for a candidate who had been polling single digits until the final weeks and who was not considered as one of the top three candidates, and a feat which really underlines the country’s electoral volatility. Araya, the only candidate who did not move much during the campaign – because he has a solid, but small, base of about 25-30% of voters who remain loyal liberacionistas – placed second, with 29.6%, a significant blow. Villalta, the left’s favourite, saw his fickle support evaporate (somewhat) on election day and won only 17.1%. It is still a solid result for the FA, which had until then been a very minor force in Costa Rican politics, but comes out of the 2014 election with a much-expanded legislative presence and a promising future. Yet, the anti-Villalta campaign by conservative/centrist politicians and businessmen had its impact; Villalta kept a large base considering the FA’s lack of existing grassroots, but other voters likely strategically voted for Solís, a ‘safer’ (and more moderate) progressive candidate and late anti-PLN standard bearer. In fourth place, Otto Guevara and the ML had a surprisingly bad result: Guevara won only 11.2% (down from about 21% in 2010), while the ML’s legislative caucus shrank from 9 to 3 seats – falling behind the PUSC. The PUSC itself had a better run, recovering two seats in the legislature, but the PUSC isn’t any closer to regaining its spot as the PLN’s main rival.

This election is fairly historic on a number of points. For only the second time in the country’s history, a second round is required (on April 6) because no candidate won over 40% of the vote. The last time a runoff was necessary was in 2002, a watershed election which marked the first blow to bipartidismo in Costa Rica: in that election, Araya’s brother, Rolando, placed second behind the PUSC candidate but failed to get much of the PAC’s support and was trounced in the runoff by the PUSC’s Abel Pacheco. It is the first time that the first-placed candidate is not from a traditional party: that is to say, from neither the liberacionista tradition (PLN) or the calderonista tradition (PUSC). Finally, with the FA’s support, it is the left’s best result in the country’s history.

The PLN had a tough election. To begin with, it is attempting to do what no party has ever done in post-1948 Costa Rica: win a third consecutive term in office. More importantly, the PLN’s image has been hurt by President Chinchilla’s unpopular and overall unsuccessful administration – even if Araya did all he could to distance himself from her, admit that the PLN had lost its social democratic essence and promised change and a more ‘social’ orientation. Araya, who comes from a faction of the PLN which has been the arch-rival to Óscar Arias (and Chinchilla, although she is faction-less today), criticized his own party’s past record. But, in good part, his promises of change and a more responsive PLN administration failed to convince voters. He admitted as much himself on election night, when he recognized that Chinchilla’s record had hurt the PLN and said that ‘undoubtedly’, the PLN had not given ‘sufficiently clear signals’ that it wanted to make up for past failings and sought ‘responsible change’.

Araya will face a difficult runoff. Polls show that only 30% of voters want a third term for the PLN, and Araya’s result seems to mean that he likely won those three in ten but little more. Like his brother in 2002, Araya could lose the runoff by a wide margin. Solís is in a position to reap the support of voters who voted for Villalta, Guevara, Piza and other candidates in the first round. While some of those candidates’ more ideological voters might choose not to vote, many will likely opt for the candidate of ‘change’ over that of liberacionista continuity. In terms of formal alliances between the PAC and its rivals, we should probably not expect anything formal. José María Villalta, on election night, said that the runoff opposed two right-wing parties – but, significantly, he distinguished them (without explicitly saying which was which) as the ‘right who steals’ and the ‘right which doesn’t steal’. Some interpreted that as meaning that he was willing to entertain at least an informal deal with the PAC, but others took his statement as a sign of potential difficulties in any PAC-FA deal. As far as Solís is concerned, he has said that his only alliance is with Costa Rica. Neither Villalta or Guevara have signaled any clear willingness to enter into a formal alliance with the PAC (or the PLN obviously).

In an interview with the Spanish daily El País, Solís clearly laid out the reality of the situation: “now there is no other alternative than the PAC or Araya” and “it is continuity […] versus change. It is the continuation of the current economic model versus the reactivation of the internal market. It is ethics against a party which promotes corruption.” We can expect that Solís will be hammering this simple and clear message all the way to April 6: it is change, or continuity with the unpopular PLN. Araya’s message will likely consist of continue promises for change and a better PLN, combined with a focus on him being a ‘safe choice’. On election night, the PLN candidate said that the country was not ready for experiments, improvisation or proposals without teams to go along with them. He also called on the PLN’s supporters to unite behind him, alongside those who wanted to defend the institutions (la institucionalidad), economic competitiveness and more solidarity.

Regardless of who wins, they will need to work with a very divided congress. The PLN remains the largest party in the new legislature, but it holds only 18 seats, or 31.6% of all seats. It lost 6 seats from the outgoing congress, and this year’s total is only one seat above the PLN’s historic low from 2002 (17 seats). The PAC won 14 seats, a good result but not the party’s best result (it won 17 seats in 2006). The main winner was the FA, which came out significantly strengthened: from one seat in the last congress, the left-wing party will now hold 9 seats – again, the left’s strongest presence in its history. The ML was decimated, losing 6 of its 9 seats – ending up with three seats, one of which is held by the ML’s leader Otto Guevara. The PUSC, as noted above, recovered somewhat and will now hold 8 seats. Minor parties will now hold five seats: three to the two Evangelical parties, with the PRC doubling its representation. The PASE, the venal socially conservative (anti-gay) disabled rights party, lost all but one of its seats. The Christian Democratic Alliance, a small local party from Cartago, won one seat.

Results of the first round of the Costa Rican presidential election by district (own map)

Results of the first round of the Costa Rican presidential election by district (own map)

The map of the presidential results by district (the third-level administrative division) show a clear division between urban and rural – taken at the provincial level, a coastal and inland divide. Solís won the provinces of San José, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela while Araya won the coastal provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas (on the Pacific coast) and Limón (on the Caribbean coast). In Puntarenas, the PAC placed fourth (14.1%) – the PLN (34.4%) was followed by the FA (23.1%) and ML (14.7%); likewise, in Limón, the PAC was fourth (14.9%) behind the PLN (29%), FA (22.2%) and ML (18%). Guanacaste was the PLN’s best province, giving 41% to the white and green party against 19% for the FA and 14.8% for the PAC. The PLN placed second in all inland provinces won by the PAC; its worst showing was 25.7% in Heredia, where Solís won 38.9%. A more accurate depiction of the results is painted at the more micro level of the cantons and districts.

In the inland provinces, Solís won on account of his very strong numbers in the urban areas. Taken as a whole, the PAC dominated the Valle Central (Central Valley), Costa Rica’s main urban conglomeration, which includes the capital of San José and the cities of Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia. Araya, despite having been mayor of San José between 1998 and 2013, lost the canton of San José – 29.5% to 35.2%. He did even worse in cantons surrounding San José, indicating he might have received a small boost in the capital. The Valle Central is Costa Rica’s most urban, developed and affluent region. Poverty is lower and HDI values are higher in cantons in the central valley. In the canton of Santo Domingo (Heredia), which has the highest HDI in the country, Solís won 43.4%; in the canton of Montes de Oca (San José), which has the third highest HDI in the country, Solís won 46%. On the other hand, the coastal regions of the country – more rural and agricultural – are poorer. The PLN and the PUSC have been stronger in those coastal provinces, likely because patronage networks are easier to maintain there. In those provinces, I would gather that the ML’s strong showing can be explained by it winning former PUSC voters. However, José María Villalta likely won strong support with poorer rural voters as well.

Unfortunately obscured by the Salvadoran election, Costa Rica’s election proved considerably more interesting (subjectively). Although its impact on regional politics may be lesser, the 2014 Costa Rican election will likely prove rather historic – just like 2002 and 2006.

Czech Republic 2013

Legislative elections were held in the Czech Republic on October 25-26, 2013. All 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (Poslanecká sněmovna), the lower house of the Czech Parliament (Parlamentu České republiky), were up for reelection. All members are elected to serve four-year terms by closed party-list proportional representation (d’Hondt, 5% national threshold for single parties, higher for coalitions) in fourteen multi-member constituencies corresponding to the Czech Republic’s 14 administrative regions (including Prague).

The Chamber of Deputies is, by far, the most powerful house in the country’s bicameral legislature. The Senate (Senát), which is composed of 81 senators elected to six-year terms (single-member constituencies, two round system), renewed by thirds every other year, is a toothless body. It can only delay the passage of legislation, because the lower house can override any veto with an absolute majority (101 deputies). As such, control of the Senate is rather irrelevant; the main opposition party has had an absolute majority on its own since 2010.

The Czech paradox: Parliamentary or semi-presidential?

The Czech Republic is, in theory, a parliamentary republic with the President confined to a more symbolic, less political role – while still holding some significant constitutional powers in his own right. For example, the President can veto legislation (which can be overriden with an absolute majority of the lower house), appoint judges, dissolve the Chamber of Deputies under certain conditions and appoint the Prime Minister; on other matters, the President may only exercise his authority with the consent of the Prime Minister.

However, in practice, the President is a rather powerful figure in Czech politics. Governments have tended to be weak or led by weaker men, while the presidency has attracted three powerful figures who all managed to assume a more prominent role in daily politics than the constitution would let us suppose. The first President, Václav Havel (1993-2003) commanded a good deal of moral authority because of his prestige as a leading dissident under communist rule. His successor, Václav Klaus (2003-2013), was outspoken and controversial, famous for his Eurosceptic views and skepticism of man-made climate change. Since a constitutional reform in 2012, the Czech President, previously elected by a convoluted process by both houses of Parliament, is now elected directly by the people. The direct election of the President confers greater legitimacy and authority to the presidency, given that the President may now claim to hold his mandate and legitimacy directly from voters.

Former Social Democratic Prime Minister Miloš Zeman, a brash and sharp-elbowed old politico, won the first direct presidential election in January 2013. Zeman, reputed to be something of an autocrat who dislikes parliamentary democracy, clearly envisions a much stronger presidency which directly intervenes in the working of the parliamentary government. As such, Zeman has been at the heart of the political crisis which led to the early dissolution of Parliament.

Background: Czech political history since 1990

Running somewhat counter to the recent trends seen in other ex-Eastern Bloc states (Poland, Bulgaria, some Baltic states, Hungary etc) pointing towards greater political and partisan stability, the Czech Republic’s political system has grown more unstable in the past few years.

The broad based pro-democracy Civic Forum, which had led the Czech Republic towards liberal democracy, split up as soon as it had lost its raison-d’être. The conservative and free market wing of the movement, led by Václav Klaus, created the Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana, ODS), which became – by the 1992 elections – the leading right-wing party in the country (and the largest party altogether). Václav Klaus served as Prime Minister between 1992 and 1998, governing in coalition with smaller centre-right parties. Similar to other right-wing governments in former communist states across the region, Klaus’ government focused on structural reforms, including privatization of state enterprises, and the development of strong ties with western Europe and the United States. His government fell due to financial scandals and an economic downturn, and the ODS lost the 1998 and 2002 elections to the Social Democrats.

The Czech Social Democratic Party (Česká strana sociálně demokratická, ČSSD), which re-emerged following the fall of communism, was originally founded within the Austrian socialist party in 1878 and became an independent party in 1893. The ČSSD was a member of the five-party coalition which governed Czechoslovakia during the First Republic. Its cooperation with bourgeois parties led to a painful split in 1921 and the creation of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, who won over 10% in the 1925, 1929 and 1935 elections (placing ahead of the ČSSD in 1925). It was reborn after the fall of communism and established itself as the main centre-left force in 1996 (26.4%, vs. 29.6% for the ODS). Unlike most social democratic parties in Eastern Europe, the Czech Social Democrats are not descended from the ruling communist party from the Cold War years.

The ČSSD, led by Miloš Zeman, won the 1998 elections. Lacking an absolute majority or potential coalition partners, Miloš Zeman formed a minority government and signed an “Opposition Agreement” (opoziční smlouva) with ODS leader Václav Klaus. The ODS recognized Zeman’s right to form a government and pledged not to introduce confidence motions against the government (effectively giving it confidence and supply); in return, the government would consult the ODS on major policy initiatives and ODS politicians would be named to public offices – Klaus became speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. The opposition agreement shocked voters after a bitter campaign between both major parties, and soon met organized opposition from other parties, intellectuals and students. Both parties agreed to change the electoral law to make it more favourable to larger parties and a close ally of Klaus, Jiří Hodač, was named to head the public broadcaster, ČT. Employees of the TV network, supported by President Havel and a movement of intellectuals and students, protested against the nomination.

The opposition agreement marked an important moment in Czech political culture: it is often identified as the date when the political elite, from the ODS and ČSSD, agreed to share the spoils, betraying the voters, and when high-level corruption and collusion between big business and politicians was firmly entrenched in the political system. Corruption is an endemic issue in Czech politics, one which every successive government has struggled to deal with.

Zeman’s government laid the groundwork for the Czech Republic’s accession to the EU and NATO (2004 and 1999 respectively), but otherwise his tenure was largely unremarkable and the opposition agreement had a deleterious effect on the ČSSD in midterm senatorial and regional elections in 2000. In the 2002 elections, both the ODS and ČSSD saw their share of the vote fall somewhat, benefiting the Communists and a centrist coalition. This time, the ČSSD formed a coalition with two centrist/centre-right parties. Zeman was replaced as Prime Minister by Vladimír Špidla, whose two-year tenure was marked by coalition dissensions and attempts to reduce the country’s growing public debt. The ČSSD was crushed in the 2004 European elections, winning only single digits, and Špidla resigned.

His successor, Stanislav Gross, remained in office for less than a year before he was forced to resign following a financial scandal. He was replaced by Jiří Paroubek, who led the party into the June 2006 elections. From the lows of 2004-2005, Paroubek, helped by strong economic growth, managed to significantly improve the ČSSD’s support. The 2006 campaign was extremely acrimonious and dirty; Paroubek ran a scare campaign warning of the destruction of social services and a threat to democracy equivalent to February 1948 (the Communist coup) if the ODS won, while ODS leader Mirek Topolánek attacked the ČSSD on corruption scandals and refused to shake his opponent’s hands in the debate, saying he did not respect it. It even came to blows – an ODS adviser to the President, Miroslav Macek, slapped the ČSSD health minister, David Rath in the face because Rath had said that Macek had married his wife for the money.

In this polarized context, both the ODS and ČSSD performed well in the 2006 election – both parties increased their vote share from 2002, the ODS gaining some 11 points and winning 35.4%, the ČSSD gaining about 2 points and winning 32.3%. The net result was deadlock: the ODS and its potential allies – the centre-right and the Greens – held exactly 100 seats, the ČSSD and the Communists held the other 100 seats. The ČSSD would not work with the Communists, so ODS leader Mirek Topolánek was the favourite to become Prime Minister, but the process lasted over six months, until January 2007. He attempted to recreate an ‘opposition agreement’ with Paroubek but failed to do so. He was appointed to form a government in September 2006, and formed a minority government composed of the ODS and independents. In October, however, the Chamber refused confidence, 99 votes to 96. In January 2007, Klaus reluctantly agreed to appoint Topolánek as Prime Minister, this time with a coalition made up of the ODS, the centre-right (KDU-ČSL) and the Greens. Topolánek was able to receive the confidence of the Chamber, with two rogue ČSSD members leaving the Chamber and another abstaining, allowing Topolánek to win 100-97, with one abstention.

Topolánek’s main achievement during his term in office was a major fiscal reform. His government, as the ODS had promised in the campaign, scrapped the progressive income tax (12% to 32% rates) and introduced a 15% flat tax on personal incomes. This major public finance reform also gradually reduced the corporate tax rate from 24% to 19%, increased personal tax credits, increased the reduced rate of VAT from 5% to 9%, introduced environmental taxation, reduced social security benefits and introduced user fees in healthcare. Topolánek was also a strong supporter of the US missile defense system, and was fairly critical of the EU.

His government fell on a confidence vote in March 2009, with two ODS rebels and two Green dissidents joining the left-wing parties in voting against Topolánek’s cabinet, which fell 101 votes to 96. This opened a political crisis, compounded by the fact the the country was presiding the EU for six months. There was talk of snap elections in the fall of 2009, but the ODS and ČSSD, along with the Greens and KDU-ČSL, agreed to a transitional cabinet led by the head of the statistical office, Jan Fischer. Fischer’s technocratic cabinet included ministers nominated by the two major parties and the Greens.

Elections were finally held in May 2010 proved disastrous for both the ODS and ČSSD. The ODS’ campaign was severely disturbed when its top candidate, Topolánek, was forced to resign in April 2010 after an interview he gave to a gay magazine in which he said that gays and Jews lacked moral character (but the Jews more so), accused the churches of brainwashing people and berated ČSSD voters. This was not the first controversy for Topolánek, a fairly brash character: in the spring of 2009, photos showing up sunbathing naked at Silvio Berlusconi’s Sardinian villa were seized and in the summer of 2009 he held shady meetings with Czech lobbyists and industrialists in Tuscany. Topolánek was replaced by Petr Nečas, the vice-chairman of the ODS who had served as deputy Prime Minister in Topolánek’s governments. The opposition ČSSD (still led by Paroubek), had performed very well in the 2008 regional and senatorial elections, but they ran a terrible campaign. Paroubek boycotted two newspapers and three magazines which he accused of inciting hatred by its ties to right-wing parties. The right’s campaign on fiscal responsibility and reducing indebtedness struck a chord, as did fears that the country was “the next Greece”.

The ČSSD and ODS saw their support collapse, winning 22.1% and 20.2% respectively. The main winners this time were new parties, which ate into the ODS (and ČSSD)’s support. TOP 09 and Public Affairs (VV), two new centre-right parties, won 16.7% and 10.9% respectively. Commanding a right-wing majority, Petr Nečas was able to form a cabinet rather quickly, with the support of TOP 09 and VV. On strict party lines, he won confidence with 118 votes to 82.

The other forces

Until 2010, the other relevant parties included the Communists and a plethora of parties on the centre-right.

The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy, KSČM) is another Czech oddity in the former Eastern Bloc. No non-Soviet former Eastern Bloc state has retained a strong, electorally viable unreconstructed communist parties. In other countries, the majority of the former communist party went on to form the basis of contemporary centre-left parties and one-time communist party members joined parties all across the board. This has also been the case in the Czech Republic: a number of older politicians on both the left and right began their careers in the KSČ or its ‘allied parties’. The KSČ split in 1989, with the Czech branch being refounded in March 1990 as the KSČM (the Slovak Communist Party effectively died out). Czech Communists, broadly conservative, aimed at perpetuating the traditional party identity rather than redefining themselves as some kind of new, plural left.

The KSČM remains an ‘unreconstructed’ communist party which has not moved towards democratic socialism or eurocommunism. In the first years, anti-revionists managed to overwhelm moderates/’revisionists’ who favoured an evolution to democratic socialism. The new leadership was anti-revisionist, but not completely Stalinist – they did criticize the “inadequacies” of the pre-1989 regime, and did not advocate for a return to the pre-1989 regime (unlike a small handful of hardliners). Yet, for most of the 1990s, the KSČM was very much a pariah, systematically excluded from decision-making and political activities by the other parties.

The KSČM, much to the chagrin of the other parties, did not die out with the fall of communism. Instead, it has remained a strong force, with the most stable electorate of any Czech party. Since 1990, its supports has floated between 10% and 20%; it has never won less than 10% of the vote in a parliamentary election and usually wins between 11% and 14% of the vote, with a peak at 18.5% in 2002. In the 2012 regional elections, the KSČM placed second with 20.3% and topped the poll in two regions.

The ČSSD, in the 1995 Bohumíně resolution, stated that it would not cooperate with ‘extremist’ parties, including the KSČM. Since then, the ČSSD’s attitude towards the KSČM has shifted. Presidents Václav Havel and Václav Klaus both refused to appoint any Prime Minister and government which would be supported by the Communists; for example in 2004, Klaus demanded that Stanislav Gross submit a list of 101 non-Communist MPs who would back his government before appointing him.

In 2005, KSČM leader Miroslav Grebeníček was replaced by Vojtěch Filip, the party’s current leader. Filip has continued to adhere by the traditional party line, but his election was seen as an attempt to sanitize the party’s image and a greater openness to working with the ČSSD. Successive ČSSD leaders have refused to form a national governing coalition with the KSČM, but the party is more willing to accept the potential of forming a minority government with Communist support. Former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek (2005-2006), repeatedly stated that he would not form a coalition with the Communists but his government was able to pass laws with Communist support. At the regional level, the ČSSD rules in coalition with the KSČM in 10 out of 13 regions; the KSČM even holds a regional presidency since 2012.

Although the ‘cordon sanitaire’ of sorts which isolated the KSČM is slowly being broken, the party remains very controversial. Although there is, in practice, nothing very revolutionary about a party whose average members’ age is 70, they retain a tendency to say fairly inconvenient things – nostalgia for “the good old days” (pre-1989) or sending condolences to North Korea on Kim Jong-Il’s death. Their youth organization was banned between 2006 and 2010 for advocating a violent revolution, and there have been repeated calls to ban the KSČM. Public opinion remains, in majority, hostile towards the party and there is a strong anti-communist movement.

In between the ODS and the ČSSD, a number of political parties have tried to form some kind of centrist/centre-right alternative to the two major parties and play the role of kingmakers.

The most successful of such parties, historically, has been the Christian Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People’s Party (Křesťanská a demokratická unie – Československá strana lidová, KDU-ČSL), which is a continuation of the ČSL, a clerical Catholic party which existed during the interwar years. In that period, the party, as the representative of the predominantly Moravian ‘clerical Catholic’ camp in Czechoslovak politics, was a member of almost every government coalition. It was allowed to operate after World War II, but after 1948 the Communists turned the ČSL into a puppet party, member of their ‘National Front’; but many members opposed communist rule. With two exceptions, the KDU-ČSL’s support since 1990 has ranged between 6% and 8%, providing them with a small but important caucus in Parliament. Between 1992 and 1997, the party supported ODS Prime Minister Václav Klaus.

Following the opposition agreement in 1998, the KDU-ČSL teamed up with three other parties, all of them on the centre-right, to form an anti-opposition agreement coalition, styled the Čtyřkoalice (Quad or Coalition of Four). The Čtyřkoalice also included the Civic Democratic Assembly (ODA), which left in 2002, and the liberal Freedom Union (ODS dissidents)/Democratic Union – who merged in 2001. The Čtyřkoalice enjoyed brief success; they won the 2000 senatorial elections (16/27 seats; giving them a majority of seats overall!) and placed second in the 2000 regional elections with 22.9%. But the ODA feuded with other parties and eventually disappeared, and the coalition itself dissolved. In the 2002 legislative elections, the centrist coalition of the KDU-ČSL and the US-DEU (Freedom Union-Democratic Union) won 14.2% of the vote.

The KDU-ČSL and US-DEU governed in coalition with the ČSSD until 2005, but the relation was uneasy. The KDU-ČSL forced Stanislav Gross to resign after the financial scandal, and Paroubek often turned to the Communists for parliamentary backing for his laws. Indeed, in 2003, Miroslav Kalousek, on the right of the party, became leader of the KDU-ČSL and did not hide his preference for participation in a right-wing coalition. Which is what they did after the 2006 election – the KDU-ČSL joined Topolánek’s ill-fated cabinet. The experience badly hurt the KDU-ČSL: Kalousek stepped down as party leader in 2006, his successor was forced to step down in 2009 following a number of scandals and the party’s leftward shift under Cyril Svoboda after 2009 was controversial.

In June 2009, Kalousek left the party and founded TOP 09 (Tradice, Odpovědnost, Prosperita 09), which attracted dissidents from the KDU-ČSL and ODS. Because Kalousek is a fairly unpopular and slimy politician implicated in numerous scandals, TOP 09 has made everybody believe that it is actually led by Karel Schwarzenberg, a colourful and popular prince, who had been elected to the Senate in 2004 and was nominated by the Greens as foreign minister in Topolánek’s second cabinet (2007-2009). TOP 09, boosted by Schwarzenberg and alliances with local groupings, won 16.7% in the 2010 election and became the second largest member of Petr Nečas’ cabinet, with Schwarzenberg returning as foreign minister and Kalousek serving as finance minister. Ideologically, TOP 09 is pro-European – unlike the ODS – but shares the ODS’ very right-wing views on economic and fiscal questions. TOP 09 seeks to reduce the size of government, cuts regulations, balance the budget and promote private enterprise.

Karel Schwarzenberg remains the party’s most popular public figure. He ran in the 2013 presidential election, placing second and losing the runoff to Zeman with 45.2% of the vote.

In the meantime, the KDU-ČSL performed disastrously in the 2010 election, winning 4.4% and losing all seats. The party, however, regrouped and returned to its normal levels of support in 2010 and 2012.

The 2010 election also saw the rise of Public Affairs (Věci veřejné, VV), an anti-corruption platform which emerged, beginning in 2001, from Prague local politics. In 2009, VV recruited popular investigative journalist Radek John as its leader, and his popularity – combined with growing anti-establishment sentiments and dissatisfaction with the political system – allowed VV to come out from nowhere to win about 11% of the vote in the 2010 election. At the time, little was known about what VV was, who it was and what it stood for.

2010-2013: the destruction of the party system

Petr Nečas’ government agenda included fiscal responsibility, the fight against corruption and rule of law. It basically failed on all three counts, especially the last two.

The government, to reduce the deficit and public debt, quickly introduced very unpopular austerity policies which included spending cuts, cutting public investments and tax increases.

The government adopted a major overdue pension reform in late 2012, which came into force in January 2013, which created a three-pillar system in which individuals may redirect 3% of their contribution, which in the past went into the state fund, into private pension funds. Opting to do so would increase an employee’s wage deductions by 2%, from 6.5% to 8.5%, and participants would not be able to change their minds later. The existing third pillar, which were voluntary privately-managed (with state contribution) supplementary schemes, will continue to exist but no longer accept participants. In parallel, a new type of third pillar voluntary supplementary fund with state contribution will be created. It was a tough reform to pass, meeting opposition from the left but also hostility from President Klaus.

The government faced a backbench revolt in November 2012 from its intentions to increase the VAT by 1%, increasing the base rate from 20% to 21% and the reduced rate from 14% to 15%. The government also modified the flat tax by adding a 22% tax rate on high incomes. The effect of the government’s austerity policies has been negative for the economy. While the country’s debt is under control and the deficit is hovering over or under the EU’s 3% limit (3.3% in 2011, 4.4% in 2012, 2.9% in 2013; down from 5.8% in 2009); austerity has decreased public demand and led to a double-dip recession: the GDP shrunk by 4.7% in 2009, and while it grew by +1.9% in 2011, the country was in recession in 2012 (-1.3%) and will likely be in recession again in 2013 (-0.4%).

The government was forced to backtrack on a controversial reform of post-secondary education in 2012. Originally, the government had sought to introduce tuition fees (up to 20,000 CZK), reduce student power in university decision-making and strengthen private sector stakeholders in governance of post-secondary institutions. There were student protests in 2011, and in June 2012 a new higher education minister, Petr Fiala, shelved the plans to engage in dialogue.

The government also dealt with the contentious issue of church restitution – compensating churches for the loss of lands and real property seized by the communist regime and financial compensations. Under the law passed in November 2012, the state will return land, real estate and legal property to churches, religious communities and legal persons – valued at 75 billion CZK. Privately-owned land or state-owned land used for military purposes or as national parks will not be returned. In addition, churches will receive a total of 59 billion CZK in financial compensation, 47.2 billion CZK of which will go to the Catholic Church. The bill was criticized by the opposition and VV, and faced constitutional challenges.

Besides presenting itself as a government of fiscal responsibility, the incoming government also promised to crack down on corruption. Nečas was originally known as ‘Mr. Clean’, and VV leader Radek John was named Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the fight against corruption.

Little was known of VV when it performed well in the 2010 elections, but it soon turned out that the whole ‘anti-corruption’ image was a sham and that the party reeked of corruption. The party – and the government – faced its first crisis in April 2011, when a number of VV MPs admitted, after the magazine Respekt had leaked details, that they had received substantial bribes from VV’s unofficial leader and transport minister Vit Bárta, in exchange for their loyalty and silence. Bárta resigned from cabinet a few days later and Nečas shuffled his cabinet, with Radek John stepping down as interior minister to focus solely on the ‘anti-corruption’ portfolio. In May, John resigned from cabinet, citing disagreements with Nečas.

VV’s troubles did not end there. In the spring of 2011, again, questions were raised about the source of the party’s financing – with suspicions of money laundering, illegal money and proceeds from the sale of shares. Again in April 2011, the newspaper Mladá fronta DNES published documents from 2008 in which Vit Bárta, who was then the owner of a shady security comapny (ABL), detailed his plans to use VV as a front to advance the economic interests of the company – basically put, a political party as part of a broader for-profit business plan. Other VV leaders were also tied to private businesses.

Later in 2011, education minister Josef Dobeš (VV) appointed controversial political activist Ladislav Bátora, suspected of ties to anti-Semitic and neo-fascist organizations, to a senior position in the ministry of education. The appointment met strong opposition from academics, but also disturbed members of the ODS and TOP 09. Karel Schwarzenberg and Bátora got into an heated shouting match, which created another crisis in cabinet. Bátora was forced to resign in October 2011.

In the fall of 2011, two cabinet ministers were forced to resign as a result of corruption scandals. The Minister of Industry and Trade, Martin Kocourek (ODS), resigned in November 2011 after he was unable to explain the origin of 16 million CZK in his mother’s bank account. In December 2011, the Minister of Culture, Jiří Besser (STAN/TOP 09) resigned after failing to declare that he owned an apartment in Florida and that a close associate had been sentenced for corruption.

In April 2012, Vit Bárta was sentenced by a Prague district court to 18 months imprisonment for bribery (later overturned on appeal). Despite his sentencing, however, Bárta announced that he would remain in Parliament and continue his political career. This led to an internal crisis in VV, with Karolína Peake, the Deputy Prime Minister, left the party along with two other cabinet ministers and four other VV MPs. Peake founded a new party, LIDEM (LIDEM – liberální demokraté), which remained in the government. The Prime Minister asked for a vote of confidence at the end of the month, which he carried with a much reduced majority of 105 MPs against 93. In January 2013, LIDEM came close to leaving the coalition after Nečas fired Peake from her defense portfolio, but it soon abandoned those plans.

In June 2012, Nečas dismissed the Minister of Justice, Jiří Pospíšil (ODS). Many speculated that the real reason behind Pospíšil’s sacking was that he intended to appoint the tough anti-corruption lawyer Lenka Bradáčová as chief public prosecutor in Prague (she was later appointed anyways).

Other corruption scandals involving members of the governing parties also hurt the government’s image. In the October 2012 regional and senatorial elections, worn down by the economy and its terrible record on corruption, the ODS suffered monumental loses – winning only 12.3% of the vote in the regional elections and losing no less than 10 seats in the Senate.

All of these scandals, however, were little in comparison to the massive scandal which brought down the Prime Minister and the government, leading to a political crisis.

The political crisis

On June 13, 2013, police raided the government offices and arrested nine people, eight of whom were charged. Those arrested included Jana Nagyová, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff and alleged mistress, the former and current heads of the Military Intelligence Service, three former ODS MPs and a former deputy minister. Nagyová was held on two separate counts.

In the first case, Nagyová is accussed of asking military intelligence to spy on three civilians, including Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ then-wife Radka Nečasová, for ‘purely private’ reasons. Nagyová was, according to prosecutors, hoping to convince Nečas to divorce his wife, whom she suspected of having an affair.

In the second case, she is accussed of bribing three former ODS MPs (Ivan Fuksa, Marek Šnajdr and Petr Tluchoř) with lucrative posts in public offices in exchange for their resignation (and replacement by loyal foot soldiers) to save the government in the confidence vote on the VAT hike last fall. The government managed to survive the vote with the resignation of these three MPs (two of the other six backbench rebels backed down, and one quit the party). Petr Nečas was involved in the deal-making.

The whole police op and cases are quite bizarre. Many expressed their surprise at the organization of the police raid, notably asking why the authorities had finally cracked down on corruption which has been around for decades. On the second case, political horse-trading of this kind is hardly unheard of in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere), and Nečas originally defended himself by saying that it was just the usual political deal-making.

The raid was part of a broader investigation which aimed to pin down powerful businessmen and lobbyists suspected of scheming to gain control of state-owned firms. Police seized millions of dollars in cash and ten kgs of gold during the raid.

Public tolerance for corruption is increasingly low, and politicians are feeling voters’ pressures. Nečas’ governments did take a few baby steps towards fixing some of the most egregerious issues in the political system, notably removing life-long immunity from criminal prosecution for all MPs, who nevertheless enjoy immunity while in office.

Petr Nečas originally indicated that he would try to weather the scandal and remain in office, but by June 16, he was forced to announce his resignation. Since then, Nečas married Nagyová in September – perhaps because the law prevents courts from forcing spouses to testify against one another.

In stepped President Miloš Zeman. The news of Nečas’ resignation was welcomed by the president, who had even promised his voters that he would topple Nečas’ government. With Nečas out of the picture, the power of appointing a new Prime Minister fell into the President’s hands. The President has no constitutional obligation to appoint a Prime Minister on the basis of parties or parliament’s recommendation until two of his nominees have been rejected by Parliament. However, in practice, past Presidents have followed the advice of party leaders in choosing Prime Ministers.

The ODS, TOP 09 and LIDEM recommended that Zeman appoint the ODS president of the Chamber of Deputies, Miroslava Němcová. Němcová had the backing of the three former coalition partners and the ODS claimed that it had a list of 101 MPs who would support her in a vote of confidence. The opposition ČSSD, KSČM and VV wanted to dissolve Parliament and hold snap elections. Zeman had his own ideas.

On June 25, Zeman appointed Jiří Rusnok, an economist who had served as a finance minister when Zeman was Prime Minister and who, like Zeman, had quit the ČSSD. Rusnok’s cabinet consisted of independents and close allies of the President. Rusnok/Zeman’s pick for the finance ministry was none other than Jan Fischer, who had run (and lost) in the presidential election earlier this year and had endorsed Zeman in the runoff at the last minute. Fischer had been unable to repay his campaign expenditures, until he received 5.3 million CZK from businessmen before his nomination.

It was clear fairly early that Rusnok was unlikely to receive the support of the Chamber, but it was all part of an ingenious plan by Zeman to increase his political influence. After his nominee is rejected by the Chamber, the President has the appoint a second candidate; but he is under no obligation to do so within a set timeframe. In the meantime, the outgoing cabinet continues to govern on a day-to-day basis as a caretaker government. For example, Zeman was able to use his new presidential cabinet to clear diplomatic appointments which had been blocked by Schwarzenberg beforehand. He named Livia Klausová, the wife of former President Klaus (who endorsed Zeman), as ambassador to Slovakia and Vladimír Remek, Czechoslovakia’s only astronaut and KSČM MEP as ambassador to Russia. Rusnok’s government also dismissed 60 senior bureaucrats from office.

Zeman’s move infuriated the right-wing parties, who were able to defeat Rusnok’s government in the Chamber on August 7. Rusnok’s government received the support of 93 MPs (ČSSD, KSČM, VV), while 100 voted against it (ODS, TOP 09, LIDEM). On August 20, 140 MPs (ČSSD, KSČM, TOP 09, VV) voted in favour of dissolving the Chamber of Deputies, more than the three-fifths majority required by the constitution to dissolve the lower house. The ODS did not participate in the vote. Zeman was unfavourable to the organization of snap elections, preferring to hold them alongside next year’s European elections in May 2014.

Parties and issues: the old timers

The ČSSD led the polls – often by huge margins – for basically the duration of the legislature’s term, and was the runaway favourite to win the elections; and probably with a strong result – above its 2010 result – and in a strong position to form a minority government with the KSČM’s support.

The past three years, however, have not been without hitches for the ČSSD. Former Prime Minister and ČSSD leader Jiří Paroubek resigned following the 2010 election but in November 2011 he left the party and created his own party, LEV 21-National Socialists (LEV 21 – Národní socialisté). The name ‘national socialist’ in Czech politics refers to the nationalist socialist tradition of the First Republic, it has nothing to do with Nazism (but the use of the term never stops to amuse foreign observers!). The Czech national socialist movement was a patriotic and Czech nationalist splitoff from the socialist/labour movement, influenced by the local Hussite tradition. It was supported largely by intellectuals (Edvard Beneš), civil servants and the lower middle-class. Paroubek’s movement never gained steam, however, and LEV 21 did terribly in the 2012 elections.

Since 2010, the ČSSD has been led by Bohuslav Sobotka, who was finance minister between 2002 and 2006.

In May 2012, the ČSSD faced a far more serious problem when David Rath, a former health minister (who got slapped) and then-governor of Central Bohemia, was arrested for accepting bribes and taking kickbacks. The ČSSD’ support in polls collapsed and the party won only a Pyrrhic victory in the 2012 elections, winning 23.6% – down 12.3% from the 2008 regional elections (a ČSSD landslide).

Like in 2010, the ČSSD’s platform was fairly left-wing. It promised to reinstate the progressive income tax, raise taxes on high incomes (top tax rate at 38%), increasing corporate taxes (from 19% to 21%; 30% for banks, energy companies and phone operators), a 40% increase in the minimum wage (from 8,500 CZK to 12,000 CZK [€480]), increasing social benefits (sick day benefits, benefits for second and third child), repealing the pension reform, guarantee access to healthcare for all, lower the prices paid for prescription drugs and improve education. It also pledged to renegotiate the church restitution agreement, to reduce the amount paid.

That platform, however, was overshadowed by a very public civil war raging inside the party, a conflict sowed by Zeman. Party leader Bohuslav Sobotka, 2013 presidential candidate Jiří Dienstbier Jr and Lubomír Zaorálek are from the party’s liberal wing (supportive of environmental protection, civil liberties), which is also the anti-Zeman wing. The ČSSD’s deputy leader, Michal Hašek (who is also governor of South Moravia) or former labour minister Zdeněk Škromach represent a conservative and pro-Zeman wing. Sobotka has faced strong internal opposition, and he is backed by only a thin majority of his party – at the party congress in March, Sobotka was reelected with only 85 out of 151 votes (56%). During the campaign, some regional delegates unsuccessfully tried to topple Sobotka. In early September, some ČSSD members – including the mayor of Ostrava, the third largest city, protested their exclusion from the list of candidates.

The ODS entered the campaign in an even worse shape: the party is facing a huge internal crisis and popular support for the party is at an all-time low. The ODS’ 12.3% in the 2012 regional elections was not, as I thought back then, the bottom for them: after Nečas’ resignation, the party’s support collapsed below 10%. The ODS was discredited in voters eyes because of the poor economic record, the corruption scandal, the clientelism within the party and internal turmoil. Some members wanted former President Václav Klaus to return, while some of Klaus’ supporters founded a party in the hope of attracting him as their leader (he did not run). With Nečas facing trial, the ODS is now led by interim leader Martin Kuba and vice-chair Miroslava Němcová.

TOP 09’s support declined consistently between 2010 and 2012, and it won only 6.6% in the 2012 regional elections. However, the party received a major boost in the polls with Schwarzenberg’s presidential candidacy (and his strong first round result), briefly throwing them back up over 15%. TOP 09 also benefited from the ODS’ collapse to take leadership of the right (surpassed the ODS in polls). The party ran a strongly anti-Zeman campaign, arguing that they were the only party who defended the parliamentary system and would stand up to Zeman and the threat of authoritarianism. Kalousek argued that Zeman wants to establish an autocratic regime. On other issues, TOP 09’s platform was pro-European – it wants Prague to ratify the European Fiscal Compact, which the Czech Republic did not ratify in 2012. The party also wants to limit the budget deficit to 0.5% of GDP.

As always, Schwarzenberg was the public leader and mascot of TOP 09 in this campaign. TOP 09 has been trying to promote him with young voters, beginning with the “punk Karel” image during the presidential campaign, and now with other pretty shameless bids to build up up their mascot’s image with younger voters.

The KSČM has been performing well in polls since 2011, polling in the 15-20% range. As noted above, the Communists placed second overall in the October 2012 regional elections, with over 20% of the vote, and the KSČM formed regional governing coalitions with the ČSSD in 10 of 13 regions. While the party remains committed, on paper, to the creation of a socialist state, the party’s platform was nothing too crazy: anti-corruption, quality education, job creation, a 14,000 CZK minimum wage, a gradual return to pre-2007 VAT rates (19%/5%), a progressive income and corporate tax, a referendum on church restitution, a minimum pension, public health insurance and sustainable development. Its more contentious policies remain on foreign policy: the Communists want to withdraw from NATO and mention abolishing NATO as a long-term goal; they are also anti-EU.

As a result of their exclusion from governance, the KSČM has not been in power and as a result it hasn’t been involved in any major corruption scandals. As such, the KSČM can claim, with some credibility, to be a ‘clean hands’ party and benefits from the governing parties’ involvement in corruption scandals.

The KDU-ČSL, which lost all its seats in 2010, performed slightly better in elections in 2010 and 2012. The party’s leader is Pavel Bělobrádek, a fairly young guy who has never served in Parliament in the past. Its platform mostly consisted of pablum such as strengthening the economy, job creation, increasing child benefits, fiscal responsibility, ‘zero tolerance’ for corruption and opposing the privatization of healthcare.

SPOZ campaign poster: “I give my vote to Zeman. And you?” (source:

The Party of Civic Rights-Zemanovci (Strana Práv Občanů – Zemanovci, SPOZ) is President Zeman’s party, which he founded when he left the ČSSD in 2009. SPOZ won 4.3% of the votes in 2010, coming very close to winning seats in Palriament. It has basically functioned as personal vehicle for Zeman, although the party’s support is much lower than Zeman’s personal support as the presidential election revealed. Zeman, ironically, made a pledge not to interfere in party politics when he was elected earlier this year, but Zeman still controls the party although he naturally didn’t run in this election.

Three ministers from Rusnok’s cabinet ran for the SPOZ, as did the controversial lobbyist and Zeman’s close associate Miroslav Šlouf.

Of lesser relevance is the Green Party (Strana zelených, SZ), founded in 1989 and which enjoyed brief electoral success in 2006 when it won 6 seats. The Czech Greens have tended to be more liberal and centrist/centre-right than most other European green parties: while their positions on environmental issues are seen as left-wing in the country, they have more right-wing positions on other issues (reducing the tax burden and labour costs, deregulation of rents, user fees in healthcare). After all, the Greens governed in coalition with the right between 2006 and 2009.

After their success in 2006, the Greens found themselves, once again, torn apart by internal conflict between their right and left wings. This led to their defeat in 2010, when the Greens won only 2.4% of the vote. Now led by Ondřej Liška, the Greens have shifted to the left with more anti-nuclear rhetoric or opposition to austerity. Former Green leader and former environment minister Martin Bursík left SZ earlier this year and founded his own green liberal party.

The newcomers

One of the factors which has changed the Czech party system in recent years has been the rapid emergence of new political parties, most of them vaguely populist and anti-corruption movements centered around a charismatic figure. VV filled that role in 2010. In this election, there were two new major populist movements: ANO 2011 and Úsvit.

ANO 2011 – ‘Ano’ meaning yes but also standing as an abbreviation for “Action of dissatisfied citizens” – was founded in 2012 by Andrej Babiš, a Czech businessman of Slovak origin who is also the second richest man in the Czech Republic.

Andrej Babiš, who was born in Bratislava (Slovakia) in 1954, worked for a foreign trade company owned by the Communist Party in Morocco during the communist regime before becoming the managing director of Agrofert in 1993. Agrofert is one of the largest companies in the Czech Republic (its assets are valued at 96.2 billion CZK, it employs some 28,000 employees and owns 1.6% of all agricultural land in the country. It is a major holding company which controls various agricultural , food processing and chemical companies. Babiš himself has a net worth of $2 billion.

Babiš claims he started his party when he “got angry” and bought newspaper ads to mobilize people against corruption and government mismanagement. Originally claiming he only wanted to sponsor ANO at first, he later took control of the party himself and promptly expelled rebels who later claimed Babiš was behaving like a dictator and running the party as his personal business project. Since then, Babiš has apparently been more careful at accepting members and candidates (promoting celebrities).

ANO campaign poster: “We are not politicians, we work” with Andrej Babiš and journalist Martin Komárek (source:

In June 2013, Agrofert bought MAFRA, the largest Czech media group which owns two popular daily newspapers (Mladá fronta DNESLidové noviny), three TV stations and two radio stations. Babiš’ expansion into the media led to concerns that he was becoming the “Czech Silvio Berlusconi”. There are some similarities with Silvio Berlusconi, particularly Berlusconi’s entrance into politics in 1993-1994. Like Berlusconi, Babiš has come into politics from a lucrative career in business and based his political appeal on a right-wing populist rejection of the established party system and its corrupt ways (although both are certainly corrupt themselves). Unlike Berlusconi, however, Babiš lacked a media empire and control of the airwaves.

Late in the campaign, two archived documents from the Slovak Institute of National Remembrance surfaced and alleged that Babiš was a collaborator and later an agent in the communist secret police (StB). On October 18, a Slovak newspaper published a document apparently corroborating Babiš’ secret police ties. Miroslav Kalousek (TOP 09) called Babiš a communist informer, while Babiš has flatly denied all accussations saying he never signed an agent contract in Bratislava in 1982 and has sued the Slovak Institute of National Remembrance. In any case, what is certain is that Babiš was a member of the KSČ before 1989 – membership in the party was necessary to be part of the management of a state-owned company

Not much is known about ANO’s stances on the issues. It is anti-corruption, anti-establishment and most of its campaign has either been based on rejection of politicians or the idea that the Czech Republic should be run like a business. As such, it is a fairly right-wing party. Its platform also claims that the state is not “a good manager” and fails at providing services. Its other planks are rather vague: employing more graduates, seniors and disabled persons; fighting tax evasion; transparency; reforming government procurement and bidding; reducing the VAT; investments in infrastructure and simple rules for investors and business. Its anti-corruption proposal seem fairly straightforward on paper: abolishing parliamentary immunity and forcing elected officials to electronically publish their assets when they take office.

Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy (Úsvit přímé demokracie Tomia Okamury), often referred to as Úsvit, is the other new populist party. Úsvit was founded in 2013 by Tomio Okamura, a Czech-Japanese businessman/entrepreneur and senator.

Okamura, who is 41, was born in Japan to a Japanese father and a Czech (Moravian) mother and moved to Czechoslovakia when he was six, although he worked for nine years of his youth in Japan. Okamura made his money in the hospitality/travel industry, notably serving as vice-president of the Czech association of travel agencies. He also served as director of a major travel agency in Prague and owned shares in various hospitality or travel businesses. Okamura is something of an eccentric and idiosyncratic businessman; some of his past ventures have included a travel agency for stuffed animals and a clothing store selling fashion for Czech women who wanted to dress like young Japanese schoolgirls. Okamura also developed a strong presence in the media, as a spokesman for the travel industry, a co-author of two books (one of which was a best seller) and as a star on the Czech version of Dragon’s Den.

Okamura entered politics last year, when he ran for Senate as an independent candidate in Zlín. He won 30.3% in the first round and easily defeated a ČSSD candidate in the runoff with 66% of the vote. Around the same time, he announced a presidential candidacy and submitted over 61,000 signatures from citizens (50,000 were required to run), but was disqualified when only 35.7k signatures were cleared – the court determined that a lot of his signatures were fictitious. His countless appeals and melodramatic protests were unsuccessful. In May 2013, he created his own party.

Okamura’s ideology is even vaguer than ANO. He has praised communism and socialism, but others have also called his movement “proto-fascist”. As the party’s names indicates, the party’s main issue is the promotion of direct democracy and a radical change in the political system. The party’s platform calls for the use of referenda and initiatives along the Swiss model; the direct election of deputies (presumably FPTP), mayors and governors; the possibility to recall elected officials and a presidential system. His economic and fiscal proposals are clearly right-wing: a ‘cost-effective public sector’, reducing the VAT, a moratorium on tax changes for 3 years, supporting entrepreneurs and business owners to create jobs, opposition to affirmative action/positive discrimination and balanced budgets. Úsvit takes a very tough line against “a layer of people who do not like to work, do not know the words obligation and responsibility and terrorize neighborhoods with crime”. It blames the social system for supporting these people while ‘bullying’ and ‘humiliating’ “law-abiding citizens who find themselves in need”. As such, it wants to limit social benefits to these responsible people who lead a “decent life” and “raise their children properly”. The movement is also critical of the EU and immigration.

Okamura ran into some trouble over the summer when he said that the ‘gypsies’ should be “democratically” sent to India (the ‘land of their ancestors’) to create their own state, like Israel. He couched this controversial statement in the language of the right to self-determination. He also said, in that same interviews, that the Roma are to blame if they face discrimination and racism, it is primarily their own fault. Groups representing the Roma people have called Okamura racist and far-right/neo-fascist.

Naturally, Úsvit is – on paper – very much anti-corruption and the platform is filled with populist outrage over corrupt politicians, corruption and mismanagement. That stuff rings a bit hollow, however, when you consider that VV, now led by the arch-corrupt Vit Bárta, allied with Okamura. Vit Bárta was Úsvit’s top candidate in Plzeň region.

Úsvit is a very wide coalition: besides the remnants of VV, it also includes ODS and other parties’ dissidents, anti-government demonstrators and the regionalist Moravané (Moravians). Okamura, who is of Moravian descent, has proclaimed his Moravian identity a few times and played up his Moravian cultural roots (by wearing Moravian folk costumes, for example).


Turnout was 59.48%, down from 62.6% in 2010. This is the lowest turnout in a legislative election since 2002, when turnout had crashed to only 58% from 74% in 1998. This is fairly significant: the 2002 election was another high point of anti-system sentiments four years after the ‘opposition agreement’ and the first signs that politics were turning into a dirty, corrupt game limited to a closed circle of political elites and their friends and financiers in big business and lobbying firms. Turnout increased in the 2006 election (64.5%), a more polarized contest with a clear-cut division between Paroubek’s ČSSD and the ODS, but it fell to 62.6% in the last election.

Turnout has been even lower in recent ‘lower stakes’ election at the regional level or for the Senate: turnout in the 2012 regional elections was 36.9%, down from 40% in 2008.

ČSSD 20.45% (-1.63%) winning 50 seats (-6)
ANO 2011 18.65% (+18.65%) winning 47 seats (+47)
KSČM 14.91% (+3.64%) winning 33 seats (+7)
TOP 09 11.99% (-4.71%) winning 26 seats (-15)
ODS 7.72% (-12.5%) winning 16 seats (-37)
Úsvit 6.88% (+6.88%) winning 14 seats (+14)
KDU-ČSL 6.78% (+2.39%) winning 14 seats (+14)
Greens 3.19% (+0.73%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Pirates 2.66% (+1.86%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Party of Free Citizens 2.46% (+1.74%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SPOZ 1.51% (-2.82%) winning 0 seats (nc)
DSSS 0.86% (-0.24%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 1.81% (-3.3%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Czech Republic 2013 - Parl

The Czech elections reflected, far and above anything else, voters’ deep-seated dissatisfaction (and outright anger) with with the political system, which is associated with corruption, mismanagement and a poor economy. While the ČSSD won the most votes, their result was unexpectedly terrible – very much a Pyrrhic victory for them, the second in a row after the 2010 election. Instead, the main winners of this election were new populist parties – and the main losers were the two old parties, the ČSSD and especially the ODS.

Czech politics are in a long-term crisis. Since 2002, almost every Prime Minister from either of the major parties have had their own corruption scandals. A number of senior politicians in all the major parties have also been involved in corruption scandal. It is common knowledge that politicians have close relations with businessmen and lobbyists (if they are not businessmen themselves), and that they more often than not govern to please these powerful interests who return the favour by providing their campaigns and parties with hefty financial support. Politicians and corrupt senior bureaucrats are said to take their share of money from the bidding in government contracts. Voters, to put it simply, no longer trust the established political parties and the politicians. This is not a recent development, but the past three years have very much reinforced these sentiments: widespread corruption at the highest levels, corrupt politicians in the public spotlight all topped off with an economic crisis, unpopular austerity and cuts to social programs.

The ČSSD has more or less managed to lose two elections in which they had been the runaway favourites for a long period of time beforehand. In 2010, the ČSSD did poorly (22% of the vote) and was unable to form a centre-left government despite having won large victories over the centre-right in the 2008 regional elections. This year, the ČSSD had a sizable lead in polls dating back to early 2011 and even during the campaign, the ČSSD was generally between 24% and 28% in the (notoriously unreliable) polls. At any rate, the ČSSD expected to win somewhere close to 70 or so seats, which would allow it to form a minority government with KSČM support – a sentiment which was shared by most observers at the time. Even during the campaign, even if the ČSSD and KSČM saw their support fall during the course of the campaign, a ČSSD minority government was still seen as the most likely outcome. After the fact, the ČSSD and KSČM won only 83 seats (101 required for a majority), due entirely to the ČSSD’s terrible result.

The ČSSD ran a poor campaign in which its internal squabbles overshadowed its platform or any appeal it might have had as the main alternative to the right. The publicized internal crisis in the party reinforced widespread perceptions that party politicians are self-serving and self-interested committed to their personal well-being and comfort rather than the national interest. The ČSSD was also a victim of the political mood, which is disdainful of the established major parties and totally fed up with the political system. The ČSSD has also been hurt by corruption, even if it has been in opposition nationally since 2006, and few voters likely associate ČSSD with major change or renewal.

The ČSSD and ODS, which have dominated Czech politics for almost two decades, won only 28.17% of the vote together. In 2010, by no means a good year for either parties, they had still won 42.3%. In 2006, a polarized contest, they won over two-thirds of the vote to themselves. These numbers, again, speak for themselves. The total collapse of the two traditional parties reflects record-high dissatisfaction with the political system and the old parties.

Most upheaval, however, took place on the right. The main winners were new right-wing populist parties: Andrej Babiš’ ANO 2011 placed second with a remarkable 18.7% of the vote, while Tomio Okamura’s Úsvit managed a respectable 6.9%, just a bit below the showing of the hitherto dominant right-wing party, ODS. Together, these two new populist parties on the right won 25.53%, which is more than the combined sum of TOP 09 and ODS (19.71%) or that of the ‘winning’ party (ČSSD with 20.5%).

ODS campaign poster: “Vote for the right” in Twitterverse (source:

The ODS was the major loser of this election. To put its defeat into context and to emphasize what this all means: only seven years ago, the ODS won 35% of the vote and although it won a paltry 20% in 2010, it nevertheless retained its dominance of the Czech right. The party had the bad luck of being the ones who got caught with their paws in the cookie jar (a lot of parties often put their paws in the cookie jar, of course) when everybody was watching. The ODS, however, was hardly in better shape before the Nagyová scandal destroyed the party. In the regional elections a year ago, they won only 12% of the vote and the ODS’ no-name candidate won like 2% of the vote in the presidential election in January. Prior to the scandal, the ODS had already been hit by other corruption scandals and it was closely tied to Petr Nečas’ unpopular government – seen as ineffective on corruption issues and behind unpopular austerity measures and the bad economy. The Nagyová scandal not only ruined whatever reputation it still had left, but also left the party without much leadership. The ODS’ low-key campaign in this election consisted of running away from its brand. Its main billboard ads, for example, consisted of a horrible Twitter slogan: “#Volím_pravici” (vote for the right), including, yes, the hashtags and underscore. The billboards didn’t even include the ODS’ logo, although they did include the Twitter logo!

TOP 09 had somewhat better luck. Although it too saw its support decline fairly significantly since the last election, winning only 12% of the vote compared to 16.7% in 2010. However, the party has managed to establish itself as the main ‘traditional’ party on the right, ahead of the ODS. The party was likely held in large part thanks to Karel Schwarzenberg’s personal popularity and the publicity his presidential campaign, even if ultimately unsuccessful, attracted for the party – especially with younger voters.

ANO 2011, the main winner of this election, owes its success to widespread disillusionment with the political class, a well-financed and well-run campaign and a generic, vague anti-corruption platform of the same kind which had carried VV to relative success in the last election. After all, in large part ANO 2011 ran on the idea that they were not politicians – but businessmen, journalists and other celebrities or regular citizens – who “worked” and could do a better job running the country than the politicians. Apparently, the concerns over Babiš’ behaviour during communist rule or his very vague platform largely copied from other parties with the addition of generic anti-corruption and anti-tax stances, did not rattle its potential supporters much.

Voters expressed that they are fed up with politics, corruption and the poor economy. Czech sculptor David Černý conveyed his country’s visceral anger towards the political class when he installed a large purple sculpture of a hand pointing the middle finger on a barge in the Vltava River in Prague overlooking the presidential residence, the Prague Castle.

The KSČM did fairly well, although perhaps not as well as it might have expected. It did not break its 2002 record (18.5% of the vote) or its 2012 regional result (20%). The party, which is an attractive protest option for some voters on the left who are not repelled by the party’s baggage, likely gained some votes from dissatisfied left-wing voters. There isn’t much to say about the KSČM in the end: foreign observers always tend to express shock at KSČM successes at the polls or over-dramatize its meaning, when in the end this is a party which has done similarly well in the past (2000, 2002, 2004) and which can be counted on to perform well whenever the ČSSD is unpopular or discredited (2000/2002: opposition agreement, 2004: unpopular ČSSD government in power, 2012: ČSSD’s weak performance in opposition and recently hurt by David Rath’s corruption scandal). Its success in this election owes to similar factors. Some media reports noted that the KSČM had been somewhat successful in attracting younger voters to the fold; voters so burnt out by the corruption and the decrepit political class that they were willing to give the KSČM a chance.

Higher turnout than in the 2012 regional elections, in which the Communists had done very well, may also explain the party’s weaker result in this election. The party has an old, stable, motivated and loyal base of supporters who increase the party’s share of the vote in lower-turnout elections (such as regional elections). Indeed, the KSČM won far more votes in this election (741,044) than in 2012 (538,953) although less than in 2002.

The KDU-ČSL, not noticed by many, managed to reenter the Chamber some three years after it lost all its seats in a disastrous election. The party likely picked up some former ODS voters. While the party is not very strong, the KDU-ČSL – like the Communists – have managed to survive because they have strong infrastructure at the grassroots level; the party, like the Communists, have a very large number of members (although, again, a lot of them are old and inactive in party activities) and it has retained a strong electoral base at all levels of government in Moravia.

One surprise in this election was SPOZ’ poor performance. President Zeman’s personality appreciation machine not only failed to enter Parliament, it won significantly less votes than it had in 2010 (4.3%). After Zeman’s election earlier this year, SPOZ’ support in the polls increased, often over the 5% threshold, and many predicted that they would have a good chance of winning seats in this election. As such, this is a surprising rebuke for President Zeman, who will not have the luxury of having his own personal vehicle represented in Parliament.

Hlavu vzhůru, a list endorsed by former President Václav Klaus, won only 0.42% of the vote. The neo-Nazi and anti-Roma Workers’ Party (DSSS) did poorly, winning only 0.9% of the vote (they had won 1.1% in 2010).

Electoral geography

Here is an excellent map of the results down the very micro municipal (district in Prague) level, with the ability to generate individual maps for the major parties and compare to results of past elections since 1996.

Czech Republic 2013 - Parl mun

Results of the Czech elections by municipality

What is quite striking, although not necessarily all that surprising, is the extent to which ANO 2011’s support patterns coincides with the traditional geographic base of the right (ODS, ODS+TOP 09 in 2010) in the past elections. With one, however, significant exception: ANO 2011 performed relatively poorly in Prague, the traditional bastion of the right. It won 16.5% of the vote in the national capital, below its national average. Within the city, the party’s support was lowest in the wealthier districts of the city centre: 11.8% in Prague-1, the prestigious Medieval old town. TOP 09 topped the poll in Prague with 23% of the vote, by far its best result. It did best in the city’s most affluent districts.

This link provides correlation graphs between the parties in Prague, as well as a great map of results by precincts in the city. TOP 09 and ANO, as well as the Greens and ANO, showed a fairly marked negative correlation in Prague. ANO did best, glancing at precinct results, in outlying neighborhoods and in some neighborhoods with densely packed communist-era apartment blocks.

Karel Schwarzenberg helped out the party in Prague (and the country in general). Standing as TOP 09’s top candidate in Prague, Schwarzenberg won 37,794 preference votes, or 28% of all ballots cast for TOP 09 in the city. Miroslav Kalousek, in contrast, won only 10,246 preference votes as the top candidate in Central Bohemia.

On the other hand, the party also performed well in North Bohemia (not generally a right-wing stronghold): its top two regional results were 21.3% in Karlovy Vary Region and Ústí nad Labem/Ústecký Region. North Bohemia is a traditional industrial area (mining) which has the highest unemployment rates in the region and a “newer” population – most residents settled in the region after 1945, following the expulsion of Sudeten Germans. It has provided a political base for the far-right in the past, and it remains one of the KSČM’s strongest regions (already in 1946, the KSČ had performed best in the former Sudetenland, especially North Bohemia).

ANO 2011 was likely boosted by its alliance with Severočeš (North, a local party which holds two seats in the Senate and won 12% in the 2012 regional elections in Ústí nad Labem. Allied with ANO 2011 in Ústí nad Labem region, elected two of its candidates to the Chamber.

There seems to be a fairly solid (albeit not perfect) correlation between strong support for ANO 2011 and towns where Agrofert owns a company. One particular result piqued my interest: ANO 2011 won 32% of the vote (which is huge) in Lovosice (Ústí nad Labem), which apparently has a major agricultural fertilizers industry – and Agrofert owns two companies in that city. A blog post on looked at the links between ANO’s results and Agrofert companies. In a lot of smaller towns in which Agrofert is the main employer, ANO did very well: Valašské Meziříčí, 26%; Chropyně, 23%; Napajedla, 27%; Přerov, 24%; Hlinsko, 24%; Kostelec, 30%; Hustopeče, 22%. Ihned found that out of 40 towns with Agrofert companies, ANO placed first or second in all but four of them. In Průhonice, a town located just outside of Prague in which Babiš has invested a lot of money, ANO won 31% of the vote. The article cited above mentioned how locals said that they appreciated Babiš because he provided jobs, offered job security and took good care of his employees.

That being said, ANO 2011’s support seems to have been fairly evenly distributed: its support ranged from 16% to 21.5% in all fourteen regions.

The excellent Datablog on the Ihned website did some basic vote transfer analysis. It shows that most of ANO’s supporters had backed right-wingers in 2010: 22.6% voted ODS, 19.2% voted VV and 18.9% voted TOP 09. About 23% had not voted in 2010, and 11.2% had backed other parties. However, very few of ANO’s voters came over from the left: only 4.3% from the ČSSD and 0.7% from KSČM. The ČSSD largely lost votes to the Communists (15.1% of the KSČM’s 2013 voters had voted ČSSD in 2010) or Okamura’s Úsvit (12.2% of his voters had backed the ČSSD in 2010).

Úsvit voters mostly came from VV (27.7%) or other parties (24.8%, including the KDU-ČSL). 15% came from the ODS, but only 5.8% came from TOP 09.

The ODS lost a lot of votes to TOP 09: about a third of TOP 09’s supporters in this election had voted for the ODS in 2010 (about 189,600 voters). Therefore, TOP 09 lost a lot of voters to ANO (about 175,150) and other parties (about 122,000 votes) but gained a lot from the ODS.

The KSČM also did best in Ústí nad Labem region (20.3%). The party’s map is rather similar to the map of the pre-1945 German population in the Czech Republic (Sudetenland), with the exception of Liberec. Following World War II, the Czechoslovak government controversially expelled the German population from the Sudetenland, and these territories were extensively resettled with Czechs or Slovaks. In North Bohemia, many of these new settlers came to work in the region’s mines and heavy industry. Territories which were resettled after World War II have long been Communist strongholds: in the 1946 election, the last semi-free election before communist rule, the Communist Party’s support was closely correlated to the former Sudetenland and areas of pre-war German population. Resettlement, of course, meant major social upheaval and the construction of a new, completely different social structure than in the past. Settlers must also have felt some kind of indebtedness for newly acquired property, and certainly were very hostile to subsequent German demands for reparations, compensations or right of return. The KSČ and today the KSČM have taken strongly nationalist and anti-German stances. Earlier this year, for example, the KSČM strongly condemned a speech given by then-Prime Minister Petr Nečas in Munich in which he expressed regret for the wrongs caused by the population transfers.


% vote for the KDU-CSL in northern Moravia and Moravian Silesia, and former borders of the German Sudetenland (source:

This blog post, in Czech, looked at the results in the former German Sudetenland. The KSČM won 18.2% of the vote in the former Sudetenland, compared to 14.2% in the rest of the country. Protest parties also did better in the former Sudetenland: ANO also did about 2% better, Úsvit won 7.9% (6.7% in the rest of the country); TOP 09, ODS and especially the KDU-ČSL all did worse in the Sudetenland. TOP 09 won 9.6% in the former German territories, but took 12.5% in the rest of the country. TOP 09’s results across the country seem to reflect an affluent, well-educated and economically successful population (notably small-business owners and entrepreneurs); therefore it is unsurprising that TOP 09 would perform poorly in the former Sudetenland, which is poorer than the rest of the country. TOP 09 also did poorly in the industrialized mining basin of Moravian Silesia.

The KDU-ČSL won 4% in the former German territories, but won 7.4% in the rest of the country. The KDU-ČSL’s significantly lower results in the former Sudetenland is striking in the Olomouc Region, as the aforementioned blog article found: looking at the map of the KDU-ČSL’s result in the Rýmařov and Bruntál regions of northern Moravia/Silesia. As the map to the left shows, the party’s results are significantly lower in towns which were largely German until 1945. In this same region (Nízký Jeseník), economically depressed and resettled after 1945, the KSČM did very well in a lot of small villages.

In North Bohemia, the KSČM’s best results came not from the largest industrial cities or even the major mining centres, but rather from small towns and rural areas. In other regions where the KSČM did well, the patterns appear to be rather similar: the KSČM didn’t do extremely well in more populous towns, but they did very well in smaller towns and rural areas. I would suppose that these rural areas have an older population (hence the higher propensity to support the KSČM) and political traditions might still play a role.

The above blog article also emphasized the role of comparative economic deprivation in strong KSČM results. One region where this certainly appears to be true is Liberec Region. It is something of a right-wing stronghold: TOP 09 did quite well in the region, winning 15.2% of the vote – to be fair, TOP 09’s strength might have a lot to do with its alliance with a local party, Mayors for Liberec Region (SLK) which actually won the 2012 regional elections. Nevertheless, the region has tended to be economically stronger than other Sudetenland regions, which are more deprived (high unemployment, social tensions due to a high Roma population in North Bohemia, poor economy). Liberec and Jablonec are large urban areas (which is generally favourable, on balance, to the right-wing parties in the Czech Republic), and the Communists only won about 11% of the vote in both of those cities. However, in the same region, the KSČM did very well in the area around Frýdlant (Frýdlantská pahorkatina/Jizera mountains), an economically depressed region with high unemployment. The Communists won 18.3% in Frýdlant itself and did even better in small towns, winning upwards of 25-30%.

A basic analysis comparing various demographic indicators to the election results found some interesting results, although correlation does not equal causation. In municipalities with high unemployment, the KSČM won 21.5% of the vote, placing a strong second behind the ČSSD (23.3%). TOP 09 (6.4%) and the ODS (4.9%) performed worse in areas with high unemployment, while Úsvit did better (8.2%). In areas with low unemployment (Prague area, major urban areas in Central Bohemia, Plzeň, České Budějovice, Hradec Králové), TOP 09 won the most votes with 19.9%, against 17.7% for ANO, 16.3% for the ČSSD and only 10.8% for the Communists (basically tied with the ODS, which won 10.7%). In towns with low population density, the Communists won 20.6% of the vote, only a few points behind the Social Democrats (21.4%). TOP 09 and the ODS, again, did significantly worse in these less populous villages. From these indicators, one party whose vote share varied little was ANO: it did not do significantly better or worse in any kind of town by these selected indicators. Like a protest party, drawing from everywhere?

By far, the ČSSD’s best region was Moravia-Silesia (26.4%) and the party won 31.8% of the vote in Karviná district – a major coal mining basin. Outside the solidly leftist mining basin of Czech Silesia and solidly right-wing Prague, the ČSSD’s support was fairly homogeneously spread throughout the country. It did more poorly in Liberec region (16.9%) and Central Bohemia (18.4%).

The KDU-ČSL’s support is heavily concentrated in Moravia, winning over 10% of the vote in Vysočina, South Moravia and Zlín regions. Moravia, poorer, more rural and more clerical than Bohemia, has long been a stronghold of ‘Catholic clerical’ parties – the ČSL’s support during the First Republic was largely Moravian, the KSČ did poorly in Moravia in the 1946 election (and the ČSL did well) and the KDU-ČSL, after 1990, managed to retain a lot of that rural, Catholic Moravian support. As noted above, the KDU-ČSL did very poorly in the former German territories. This likely means that, after 1990, the KDU-ČSL did well where it inherited a strong interwar ČSL tradition. In German areas, voters in the interwar years had backed German parties and Czech parties like the ČSL (among others) had little footing if any.

Úsvit’s support was quite evenly distributed as well: outside of Prague (only 3.2%) and Zlín (10.2%), its support in other regions varied between 5.5% and 8%. VV leader Vit Bárta was unable to win reelection standing as Úsvit’s top candidate in the Plzeň region; however, VV members won three seats standing on Úsvit’s lists.


This election has not ended the political crisis in the Czech Republic. Far from it, it has only prolonged it further. The ČSSD had been expecting (and was expected) to win some 65-70 seats, which would have allowed it to form a minority government with KSČM support. Instead, the ČSSD won only fifty seats, and a ČSSD-KSČM government would have only 83 seats.

One party has upset all these plans: ANO 2011. The party’s major success at the polls means that their support is very much crucial to any future government. However, Babiš isn’t too hot on the idea of participating in a coalition government. Before the election, he repeatedly said that his movement would help pass “good laws” in opposition rather than being in government, and he more or less reiterated that on the day following the election. He had ruled out working in government with either ODS or TOP 09, seeing those parties as bywords for corruption. There are also significant tensions between Babiš’ new party and the ‘old parties’ of the right, especially TOP 09. Therefore, we can rule out a coalition of right-wing parties (ANO, TOP 09, ODS, KDU-ČSL), which would had only a tenuous 103 seat majority anyhow.

ANO’s results and its impact on the election result means that Babiš’ earlier hopes to remain out of government and to be a ‘constructive opposition’ are unsustainable.

Babiš’ relations with the ČSSD do not seem all that good; the ČSSD (unwisely) dismissed ANO as a commercial party and Babiš has cited significant policy differences with the centre-left, notably on taxation. After the election, Babiš prided himself in saying that he had contributed to the defeat of the left. However, the policy differences do not seem too big to overcome: both parties pledged to reduce the VAT, scrap the healthcare user fees or introduce new anti-corruption measures. Perhaps the most likely government which could be formed now is a ČSSD-led government with the participation or external support of ANO and the KDU-ČSL. Such a coalition would hold 111 seats, which would still make for an extremely unstable government.

For the time being, the situation is further complicated by the nasty infighting within the ČSSD. ČSSD voters contributed to the internal crisis in the party: party leader Sobotka and his pro-Zeman rival Michal Hašek both ran on the party’s list in the South Moravia region. Michal Hašek won more preferential votes than Sobotka, raking in some 25,531 preference votes against 22,175 preference votes for the incumbent ČSSD chairman. After the election, the crisis within the party has worsened. A day after the election (and after having met with Zeman), rebels led by Michal Hašek voted to exclude Sobotoka from the negotiating team and called on him to resign, outraging Sobotka and his allies who spoke of a ‘putsch’ and refused to resign. Since then, Hašek’s pro-Zeman negotiating team fell apart and a new team, led by Sobotka, was established on Wednesday last week. However, Sobotka’s negotiating team is only making courtesy contacts with other parties; the real negotiations will start after the ČSSD’s executive resolves the leadership question on November 10.

Hašek has the backing of about 22 ČSSD MPs, against 18 for the incumbent leader and ten sitting on the fence. The nasty infighting in the largest party further complicates government formation and creates the threat that the country’s last remaining ‘credible’ governing party could fall apart.

The situation is further complicated by President Miloš Zeman, the wildcard in all this – and very much a crucial player. Zeman is responsible for nominating a Prime Minister, although the constitution imposes no time limits for the nomination of a Prime Minister and Zeman is probably in no hurry to make his decision before the ČSSD’s crisis has been resolved. In the meantime, Zeman’s presidential cabinet (Rusnok) will remain in place as a caretaker government, giving Zeman a hand in the day-to-day ruling of the country.

Normally, the President would nominate the leader of the largest party (or the leader of the party which could assemble a coalition) to the office of Prime Minister and that would be that. However, it’s clear that Zeman isn’t a normal President. He has already indicated that he may not choose to nominate the leader of the largest party (Sobotka); instead, Zeman said that he would name a ‘representative’ from the party which won the most votes. Zeman has already intervened in the post-election crisis. On Saturday October 26, the ČSSD rebels led by Hašek met with Zeman. In an interview he gave on Sunday October 27, Zeman said that Sobotka should resign because of the ČSSD’s poor showing. It is quite clear that Zeman would like to nominate somebody like Hašek as Prime Minister. It would provide him with a friendlier government, which he could hope to influence.

Regardless of what government is patched together on these numbers, what seems rather certain is that the next government will be very unstable. It will be hard to get a stable government when it is dependent on the backing of ANO 2011, a brand new populist party whose ideology is uncertain and whose capacity to survive after an election is also quite uncertain (see the example of VV’s rapid collapse). Karel Schwarzenberg and ODS leader Miroslava Němcová have both already stated that they think that there will be new elections, within one or two years according to Schwarzenberg. Zeman has said that he opposes new elections, and called on politicians – including himself – to take their responsibilities and ensure the formation of a stable government. However, an unstable government, especially if it is led by the pro-Zeman wing of the ČSSD, would likely be very weak in the face of the increasingly powerful presidency. As such, the upcoming political instability only strengthens Zeman. Therefore, even if Zeman’s horse in the race (SPOZ) did very poorly, he can still be considered as one of the major winners of this election.

How will Czech politics, currently in a state of flux, evolve in the coming years? Will the ČSSD and ODS, the two old major parties which both did terribly in this election, reinvent themselves in a way which is more appealing to an electorate which is fed up with the old party system and corruption? Will the ODS ever be able to regain its dominance of the right, having been upset not only by TOP 09 but also ANO in this election? What will become of the two new populist parties which emerged in this election? Few are predicting a long future for Úsvit, an unstable and fractious party made up of diverse elements and with an appeal resting on very vague nations of ‘direct democracy’ and nationalistic sentiments. Most expect Okamura’s party to collapse within a few years. However, what will become of Babiš’ ANO? Will the party, especially if it is compelled to enter government, go the way of VV and collapse in scandal and dissension within a few years? ANO’s appeal might very well wear off, and the party’s relatively vague ideology could come back to haunt it. On the other hand, ANO seems like it is built on a more solid footing than VV was; Babiš appears to be a stronger, more determined leader who is committed to building a party organization and hopes to entrench his party as a major party in the new, unpredictable game of Czech politics. In short, could Babiš actually become the Czech Berlusconi; the charismatic tycoon who builds his own party (around himself), leads it to success at the polls and weathers tougher times to become a mainstay in his country’s political system.

The Czech Republic may very well have lived a realigning election, which marks the fall of the relatively stable and straightforward (left-right) party system which had predominated between 1996 and 2010 (2010 could be seen as a ‘transition’ election to a new party system) and the rise of a new party system, one in which new populist parties led by tycoons or other charismatic figures (less closely tied to traditional ideologies) compete with the remaining ‘older’ ideological parties (and also one in which a president is intent on imposing his own stamp on the political system).

Germany 2013

Federal elections were held in Germany on September 22, 2013. All members of the Bundestag were up for reelection. Federal legislative power in Germany is shared between two legislative assemblies – of which the Bundestag is the most important and the only one which is directly elected – but it is not considered a bicameral parliament. A de facto upper house, the Bundesrat, serves as a legislative body representing Germany’s 16 Länder (federal states) which must approve any law affecting policy areas in which the Länder have concurrent powers as per the Basic Law. Their suspensive veto on other pieces of legislation can be overriden by the Bundestag.

Be warned: this post is extremely long, but divided by section headers – so that you can read what you want.

Germany’s electoral system

The Bundestag is made up of at least 598 members, elected for a four-year term by mixed-member proportional representation (MMP). 299 members are elected in single-member constituencies (wahlkreise), while the remaining seats (variable number) are list mandates elected by proportional representation (Saint-Laguë). The number of wahlkreise varies from state to state based on the state’s voting-age (18+) population, with the city-state of Bremen having two wahlkreise and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) having a hefty 64 districts.

German voters have two votes. The first vote (erststimme) is for an individual candidate in their single-member district; the winning candidate in each district is the candidate receiving the most votes (FPTP). Every single candidate who wins a district mandate is entitled to a seat – this may seem obvious for those used to FPTP systems, but the workings of MMP in Germany makes that point fairly important and relevant.

The second vote (zweitstimme) is for a state-wide closed party list. Only parties receiving over 5% of the vote nationwide (although there are no national lists) or who have won at least three district mandates qualify for list mandates. For example, in 1994, the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) won 4.4% of the vote, but because it won three districts, it managed to elect a 30-member caucus. All regular seats are distributed proportionally at the state level. However, if a party has won more seats (through district mandates) than it is entitled to (i.e. party x wins 8 district seats, but its second votes only entitle it to 6 seats), it is entitled to keep those seats – this creates an ‘overhang’. Overhang seats expand the size of the Bundestag, in the last election (2009), there were 24 overhang seats, expanding the legislature’s size to 622 members.

Until this election, disproportionality in the results due to overhang seats was not compensated. In 2008, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the electoral system was unconstitutional because the overhang seats could, in theory, create a ‘negative vote weight’ (losing seats due to more votes, such as in 2009) and gave legislators three years to fix the issue.  A new electoral reform was approved earlier this year, which will compensate overhang seats by distributing additional leveling seats so that each party gets at least its minimum seat number when proportionally distributing the federal vote. This can, of course, expand the size of the Bundestag – potentially up to 700 or 800 seats. As a result of this election, there will now be 630 members of the Bundestag.

The seat distribution process is notoriously complicated and I can’t pretend to understand much of it. This link, in German, should explain the full details for those particularly interested by the electoral system and the changes carried out since the last election.

Germany’s party system and the party platforms

Post-war Germany’s political and partisan system has been marked by remarkable stability, which is of course a sharp contrast with the fragmented and unstable party-political landscape of the Weimar Republic but also with a good number of other Western European countries which experienced significant institutional, political and/or partisan changes since 1945 (most notably Italy, France, Belgium or the Netherlands). Between 1961 and 1983, West Germany had a two-and-a-half party system, with two large parties – the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) – with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), as a smaller third party, playing kingmaker and forming a governing coalition with either the CDU/CSU (1961-1966) or the SPD (1969-1982). The emergence of the Greens in the 1983 federal election, followed by the gradual growth of the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS)/The Left (Die Linke) following German reunification in 1990 have altered this system. That being said, since 1990 (or later, arguably), the party system has stabilized again around the two major parties, now joined by three smaller parties – with two of them (the FDP and the Greens) being potential coalition partners. The progressive trend, however, has been the weakening of the two main parties – in the 2009 federal election, the CDU/CSU won its worst result since the first election (1949, an early ‘transitional election’ towards the post-1961 2.5 party system) and the SPD won its worst result in the entire post-war era. In contrast, all three ‘third parties’ won their best results ever.

The Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union, CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union, CSU) form the Union (or CDU/CSU). The CDU was founded in 1945, with the intention of acting as a pan-confessional big-tent centre-right party – a goal which it has achieved. In large part, the CDU was built on the ruins of the powerful pre-war Zentrum (or Centre Party), a centrist/centre-right party which had represented German Catholics during the the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic. The CDU’s founder and first leader, Konrad Adenauer (Chancellor of Germany between 1949 and 1963), was a prominent Centre Party politician during the Weimar Republic. Although Adenauer, a Rhineland Catholic, was hostile towards Protestant ‘Prussianism’, he was eager to create a broad anti-communist right-wing party which would break through confessional boundaries and integrate those Protestant conservatives who had fallen prey to National Socialism in the 1930s to the new democratic system. In this sense, while the CDU could be construed as the Zentrum‘s successor party, its base has been far less exclusively Catholic than the Centre Party. In addition to Centre Party politicians, the nascent CDU also integrated politicians from predominantly Protestant liberal (DDP, DVP) and conservative (DNVP) parties from the Weimar era. More controversially, a number of Nazi Party members or collaborators (including Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, 1966-1969; Hans Globke etc) joined the CDU after the war.

Results of German federal elections, 1949-2009 (source: Wikipedia)

The CDU governed West Germany continuously between the first post-war election (1949) and 1969, with Konrad Adenauer serving as Germany’s first post-war Chancellor for nearly fifteen years between 1949 and 1963. Under this period, the CDU established itself as the sole conservative party, eventually killing off (by 1961, at the latest) other small right-wing parties (either regional or national in scope) such as the German Party (DP, based in Lower Saxony), a party for Heimatvertriebene (post-war German refugees/expellees from eastern Europe) or the remnants of the old Zentrum. Under Adenauer and his successors, the CDU strongly defended European/Western integration (alliance with the United States, NATO membership in 1955, German rearmament) and opposed reunification if it meant German neutrality or giving in to Moscow’s conditions. Domestically, this was also an era of rapid economic growth (Wirtschaftswunder). The CDU, under Adenauer and his finance minister/eventual successor Ludwig Erhard, promoted the ‘social market economy’ – capitalism with social policies (collective bargaining, social insurance, pensions etc). The CDU lost power to a SPD-FDP coalition led by SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt following the 1969 election, and only returned to power in 1982, when the FDP withdrew from its coalition with the SPD and allied with the CDU, allowing CDU leader Helmut Kohl to become Chancellor, an office he held until 1998. The most marking moment of Kohl’s sixteen years in power was German reunification in 1990.

The CDU was defeated in the 1998 federal elections and remained in opposition to a SPD-Green (rot-grüne) government until 2005. Following Kohl’s defeat in 1998, he was succeeded by Wolfgang Schäuble, viewed as Kohl’s preferred successor. However, a major party financing scandal in 2000, which implicated Kohl and other prominent CDU leaders, forced Schäuble to resign in February 2000. He was replaced, in April 2000, by Angela Merkel, an East German (Protestant, furthermore, in a largely Catholic party) who was originally seen as Kohl’s protege. Merkel had turned against her former mentor during the party financing scandal.

Angela Merkel was the CDU/CSU’s Chancellor-candidate in the 2005 federal election, facing off against incumbent SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The CDU, fresh from a landmark victory in a state election in NRW, a SPD stronghold, was due to defeat Schröder’s worn-out and unpopular government by a large margin. However, a poorly run campaign and a fairly unpopular economic agenda (calls for deregulation, increasing the VAT, floating the idea of a flat tax) significantly eroded the Union’s lead in poll and the CDU/CSU won by a hair: a 1% edge over the SPD in the second votes, and a four-seat plurality (226 vs 222). Angela Merkel became Chancellor, but at the helm of a ‘Grand Coalition’ with the SPD, the second such coalition since Kurt Georg Kiesinger’s cabinet (1966-1969).

Domestically, the Grand Coalition’s record was fairly moderate – in contrast with Merkel’s quasi-Thatcherian platform during the election. The VAT was increased to fund infrastructure development, the income tax was largely left untouched (no flat tax, no hikes for higher income groups, a court-enforced tax cut for lower earners), Keynesian-style deficit spending during the early economic crisis (2008-2009), introducing legal minimum wages in some industries (Germany has no universal minimum wage, some industries have legal minimum wages, the courts often set de-facto minimum wages and some are set through collective bargaining) and healthcare reforms going in the SPD’s direction (raising income threshold to opt-out of the mandatory public system, abolishing the privileges of most private insurers etc) rather than the CDU/CSU’s (who had campaigned on a platform of uniform insurance payments).

Although the CDU/CSU lost support in 2009 (33.8%), Merkel was able to form a new coalition, this time with the CDU/CSU’s preferred coalition partner, the free-market liberal FDP, a ‘black-yellow’ coalition (schwarz-gelb).

Abroad, Merkel, with the Eurozone debt crisis, has gained an image as a tough and inflexible advocate of austerity policies, debt/deficit reduction in Europe’s most heavily indebted countries (Greece, Italy, Spain etc), enforcing strict fiscal rules in the EU (the European Fiscal Compact) and steadfast opposition to the idea of ‘Eurobonds’. Germany has been at the forefront, furthermore, of negotiations related to bailout packages for Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus. As a result, Merkel has become perhaps the most important European head of government – though also one of the most divisive/polarizing. In countries such as Greece and Italy, Merkel and Germany have become associated with harsh and unpopular externally-imposed austerity policies. In Germany, however, her Euro crisis policy is generally quite popular. There is significant domestic hostility to the idea of German taxpayers ‘bailing out’ countries such as Greece or Italy, but by and large, voters side with her government’s “tough line” (austerity) over other (‘pro-growth’ or Keynesian) approaches, traditionally advocated by southern European countries or France.

A large part of Merkel’s personal popularity stems from the solid health of the German economy, which is escaping Europe’s economic doldrums fairly well. Unemployment dropped almost without interruption between 2010 and 2012, from 8% to around 5.5%; rich southern states (Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg) basically have ‘full employment’. In 2012, for the first time in five years, the federal government posted a small budget surplus (0.2% of GDP). Germany has escaped recession since 2009, although growth fell from around 4% in 2010 to only 0.9% in 2012 – but growth projections remain fairly healthy. Some analysts worry that Germany’s current economic climate is not sustainable in the long term and warn that certain reforms must be undertaken if Germany’s economic health is to remain so strong in the next years. For example, Germany has a very low birthrate and skills shortage is a particularly big issue. The OECD has said that Germany will need to recruit 5.4 million qualified immigrants between now and 2025, and in August the government published a list of skilled job positions to recruit non-EU foreign labour. With the economic crisis, Germany has already welcomed thousands of southern European immigrants, particularly younger and educated citizens, fleeing huge levels of youth unemployment in Spain, Italy, Greece and so forth.

In contrast with its European neighbours, still facing uncertain growth prospects and struggling with high unemployment/debt/deficit, Germans are particularly optimistic and upbeat about their country’s economic future. A majority of respondents in polls feel that Germany’s economy is on the ‘right track’ and large percentages are satisfied about their personal economic condition.

Germany’s strong economic conditions are a result of structural factors (strong export market in Asia for German cars, machinery and equipment; specific demographic factors; Germany’s geographic location etc) and, Merkel’s critics point out, economic reforms undertaken by the red-green cabinet before 2005 (labour market reforms with Agenda 2010, cuts in welfare/unemployment benefits with Hartz IV). Regardless, in the eyes of most voters, Merkel (and, by extension, her party) have come to stand for economic stability and growth in chaotic and uncertain times; a steady and reliable hand at the helm.

Voters, however, are increasingly concerned about social justice. Low unemployment hides the fact that many Germans – up to a quarter of the labour force – hold low-paid, insecure and part-time jobs, called ‘mini-jobs’ or McJobs. The lack of a universal minimum wage in Germany adds to this situation.

CDU campaign poster: ‘Chancellor for Germany’ (source: Le

The CDU/CSU’s campaign this year was very much of a ‘presidential’ campaign, heavily reliant on the image of their popular leader, Angela Merkel, who, with approvals above 70%, is much more popular than her party (as shown, for example, by the CDU’s mediocre results in some state elections recently). The CDU’s main campaign poster featured Merkel, often with the tagline ‘Kanzlerin für Deutschland‘ (Chancellor for Germany); small placards waved around at rallies simply read ‘Angie’ and the CDU popularized Merkel’s signature hand gesture, the Merkel-Raute or diamond-shaped hand gesture. Merkel, furthermore, has become known in Germany as mutti or mother. Critics contend that the CDU ran an empty campaign of platitudes and focused entirely on the personality of their leader, which might be true, but that’s also a proven way of winning elections.

While Merkel is seen as a tough and unflappable leader outside Germany for role in the Eurozone crisis, in Germany she has a reputation for legendary fence-sitting and pragmatism. Merkel has often been perceived as lacking any ideological direction of her own, instead she has run things on the basis of shifting her policies and adapting herself to what was popular. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, which reopened Germany’s very contentious nuclear energy debate, Merkel made a monumental U-turn and announced that Germany would shut down all nuclear reactors by 2022. Just a year before, her government had overturned a red-green decision to shut all reactors down by 2022. Strongly anti-nuclear public opinion, which threatened the CDU’s standings in crucial state elections in 2011, strongly pushed Merkel to do a 180 on the issue. Since then, Merkel and the CDU have promoted renewable energy, which is off to a tough start. A government renewable energy surcharge, which will increase electricity bills by about 20%, is unpopular (see this article in Der Spiegel for more on Germany’s energy transformation).

Many analysts noted how the CDU/CSU’s platform effectively blurred major policy differences between the Union parties and their main rival, the SPD. The parties do differ on the issues, but the differences are fairly minimal. The CDU rejects a universal minimum wage, saying it would hinder Germany’s economic competitiveness. Instead, they want negotiable minimum wages, set by unions and employers. The CDU and SPD agree on issues such as the retirement age (67), introducing a gender quota to increase women’s presence in management positions (just disagreeing on the quota itself), freezing rent, equalizing the pay of temporary employees with that of permanent employees, developing renewable energy, expanding internet access, more daycare places, supporting families with children (slight disagreement over policies, tax credits and so forth), a European financial transactions tax and EU banking supervision by the ECB.

One of the main differences between the CDU and the SPD is that the CDU’s platform explicitly rejected any tax increases, unlike the SPD and the Greens which proposed increasing the tax rate for the top income bracket. The CDU claimed that the red-greens’ tax hike would be a burden on families and businesses. On fiscal policy, the CDU takes a more conservative tone. It wishes to start paying off Germany’s debt (81% of GDP) and not create any more debt after 2015. On European fiscal policy, the CDU’s platform reiterated the black-yellow coalition’s agenda over the past years – no Eurobonds (the CDU says each state should be liable for its own debt), strict application of the EU Fiscal Compact with penalties for transgressors and help conditional to adoption of structural reforms. Merkel criticized Schröder’s government for allowing Greece to join the Eurozone. The CDU continues to strongly support European integration, which has remained a key element of the party’s policy since 1949. However, the CDU opposes EU membership for Turkey.

In Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union, CSU) is the local version of the CDU. The CSU is a separate party from the CDU, but they have always formed a single fraction in the Bundestag (the ‘Union’) and they do not run candidates against one another. The CSU’s origins are often traced back to the Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), a regionalist conservative party during the Weimar Republic which dominated Bavarian politics (though it never did match the level of total hegemony later set by the CSU) and was something of a Bavarian Zentrum (during the Kaiserreich, there was also a separate Catholic/Centre party in Bavaria). However, the BVP was in numerous aspects different from the CSU: it was significantly more conservative than the CSU, oftentimes bordering on reactionary. Between 1920 and 1921, under Minister-President Gustav von Kahr (although he was not a member of the BVP), Bavaria became something of a conservative/far-right ‘rogue state’ within the tumultuous nascent republic; in 1923, von Kahr was involved in the preparations of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, although his designs were different than the NSDAP’s. Additionally, relations between the BVP and the Zentrum were more uncertain than CDU-CSU relations – the BVP, far more to the right than the Centre, rarely sat in governments with the Centre and in the 1925 presidential election the BVP endorsed right-winger Paul von Hindenburg in the second ballot over Wilhelm Marx, the Centre Party candidate backed by the democratic parties of the ‘Weimar Coalition’. Finally, the CSU which was born in 1945, came to represent a far larger segment of the Bavarian electorate than the exclusively Catholic and fairly bourgeois BVP – the CSU was joined by Protestants, former supporters of the pan-German right (DNVP) and a Bavarian farmers’ party (BBB).

The CSU represents a certain Bavarian conservative particularism/regionalism, which has been clearly visible in German politics ever since German unification – the state has always been, by far, the one state where regionalist (at times even separatist) feelings ran the highest. The conservative and predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria has long resented Prussian/Protestant domination, and almost always fought for federalism and devolution for Bavaria.

Relations between the CDU and CSU have almost always been good, with the exception of a brief period of discord in 1976 and the early 1980s between CSU leader Franz Josef Strauß and CDU leader Helmut Kohl. Two CSU leaders have been the Union’s ‘Chancellor-candidates’ – Strauss in 1980, and Edmund Stoiber in 2002. Both lost, partially as a result of their difficulty breaking through – as Bavarian Catholics – with Protestant voters in Northern Germany.

The CSU has achieved an extraordinary level of political domination in Bavaria. The party has governed the state since 1946, except for 1954-1957, and it won an absolute majority in the Bavarian Landtag between 1962 and 2008. In its first years, the CSU successfully crushed the Bayernpartei (BP), a conservative and originally separatist party which was represented in the Landtag between 1950 and 1966 and had won 20% of the vote in Bavaria in the 1949 federal election. Unlike the BVP, the CSU was successfully able to break through confessional boundaries and develop a more significant appeal to Protestant voters in Franconia.

The CSU is generally seen as being more conservative than the CDU, particularly on moral (social) issues such as same-sex marriage. On economic issues, however, the CSU retains a bit of its interventionist and Keynesian leanings from early days. The CSU is pro-EU, but it is slightly more skeptical of European integration than the CDU is.

The Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) is the only major party in modern-day Germany which survived the two world wars and the different regimes which have ruled Germany since unification. The SPD was founded in 1875 (and adopted its current name in 1890) by the merger of two socialist parties, both founded in the 1860s. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws in the late nineteenth century (1878-1890) proved unable to check the rise of the SPD, which, by World War I, had become one of the strongest and largest socialist parties in Europe. In 1912 – the last elections under the Kaiserreich – the SPD won 35% of the vote and, despite an unfavourable electoral system, emerged as the largest single party with 110 seats.

Until 1959, the SPD constantly juggled with its ideological direction (revolutionary Marxism vs reformist/revisionist social democracy) and the difficulty of reconciling fairly ‘tough’ Marxist rhetoric with a very moderate, pragmatic and reformist realpolitik – especially after 1918. The SPD, one of Europe’s most important social democratic parties throughout its history, has been on the forefront of the gradual evolution of the European left from revolutionary Marxism to reformist social democracy. The father of Marxist ‘revisionism’ and evolutionary socialism was Eduard Bernstein, was an early and prominent member of the SPD (who, ironically, quit the party to join a more leftist splinter, the USPD).

Despite continuing to play with Marxist rhetoric and identifying as a working-class party, in practice the SPD moderated rapidly, becoming a pragmatic and reformist (rather than doctrinaire revolutionary) party. In 1914, the SPD voted in favour of war credits and the SPD’s leadership and a majority of its caucus supported the German war effort in World War I until the last years of the war; although enthusiasm dissipated quickly and internal dissent increased significantly. In July 1917, for example, the SPD voted in favour of a Reichstag Peace Resolution, alongside the Zentrum and the left-liberals. The SPD’s moderate and fairly pro-war course under the moderate leadership of Friedrich Ebert finally led to a split in party ranks in 1917, with anti-war pacifists and the party’s Marxist left-wing (Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxembourg of the Spartakusbund, which became the Communist Party – KPD – in 1918) founding the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD).

Following the armistice, the November Revolution and and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication in November 1918, (majority-)SPD leader Friedrich Ebert became Chancellor, forming a leftist provisional government composed of the SPD and USPD. This government enacted several major social, economic and labour reforms. However, the two parties quickly split paths over the tumultuous revolutionary situation in Germany. The SPD turned against the revolution, fearing radicalization and the collapse of the state, and made its peace with the strongly anti-revolutionary military High Command. In January 1919, Ebert and SPD defense minister Gustav Noske turned to the right-wing/anti-communist paramilitary Freikorps to put down the Spartacist Uprising; a decision which continues to spark controversy to this day and was a major factor in the irreconcilability of the SPD and KPD.

After the elections to the National Assembly in January 1919, the SPD allied with the Zentrum and left-liberal German Democratic Party (DDP), forming the Weimar Coalition – a coalition of democratic parties (as opposed to the anti-regime USPD or right-wing DNVP) favouring a pragmatic and moderate political course. The SPD thus became an integral part of most Weimar Republic governments – Ebert served as Reich President from 1919 till 1925, and the SPD participated in several cabinets until 1930. However, its association with the Weimar Republic weakened the party, which never came close to regaining its 1919 heights in popular support (37.9%). On the right, the SPD was seen as the main culprit in the popular ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth/the “November criminals”, while the KPD saw the SPD as ‘social-fascists’ or ‘social-traitors’ for their 1918-1919 actions.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazis on the right and the KPD on the left and the collapse of German parliamentary democracy after 1930, the SPD’s popular support declined significantly (from 29.8% in 1928 to 20.4% in Nov. 1932) and it was absent from the three ‘presidential cabinets’ which ruled between 1930 and January 1933 (although it was forced to tolerate Brüning’s cabinet and the SPD voted for President Hindenburg over Adolf Hitler in the 1932 presidential runoff ballot). The left’s ability to resist the Nazi threat was significantly hindered by the deep-seated mutual hostility between the SPD and KPD, which were unable to form an anti-Nazi bloc (though even if they did, an alliance between the democratic and reformist SPD and the Stalinist KPD would hardly have been coherent).

The SPD was the only party whose members were able to vote against Hitler’s Enabling Act in 1933, and it was subsequently banned by the Nazi regime and its members persecuted by the Nazis.

After the war, the West German SPD was led by Kurt Schumacher, a concentration camp inmate. In the Soviet occupation zone, the SPD was forcibly merged with the KPD to form the SED, East Germany’s ruling party. During the early years of the Federal Republic, the SPD pursued a fairly leftist agenda, for example supporting the nationalization of all industries. It was critical of Adenauer on European/NATO integration and German rearmament; the SPD was much more interested than the CDU in reunification, and it saw German neutrality outside NATO and the nascent European superstructures as the best way to reunify the country. In sharp contrast, Adenauer’s policies firmly aligned West Germany with the Western bloc and western Europe, while being considerably less concerned by the increasingly unrealistic idea of reunification. Although the SPD was strongly anti-communist, in the eyes of many voters, the SPD’s leftist and neutralist policies were somewhat indifferenciable from East German state socialism.

Germany’s post-war economic boom, the SPD’s narrow appeal as a left-wing arbeiterpartei (workers’ party – a class party), the strong appeal of anti-communism (and general hostility to anything too leftist which such an ideology traditionally entails) and the loss of historical SPD strongholds (notably Saxony, Thuringia or Berlin) to the Soviet zone meant that the SPD was no match to the CDU/CSU in the early years of the Federal Republic. It won 29% in 1949 and 1953, and 32% in 1957. In the 1957 election, the CDU won an absolute majority on its own.

1959 was a watershed year for German social democracy and even for social democracy as a whole. The SPD, feeling the need to reinvent itself after three electoral loses in a row, adopted the Bad Godesberg Program. In this platform, the SPD abandoned all references to Marxism and declared itself a volkspartei (people’s party) instead of the arbeiterpartei it had been since its creation. Ideologically, Bad Godesberg marked the SPD’s official acceptance of the free market economy, although calling for Keynesian economic policies and state intervention in the economy. Once again, the SPD was at the forefront of the social democratic movement in dropping all references to Marxism and officially making its peace with capitalism – other European social democratic parties, although significantly moderated and non-revolutionary in practice by that point, would have ‘their’ Bad Godesberg ‘moment’ only years later.

In the 1961 and 1965 elections, the SPD made significant gains – reaching 32% and 39% of the vote respectively. In 1966, the SPD entered government (for the first time since 1928), as junior partner in a Grand Coalition with CDU Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger. The SPD’s participation in government led to more Keynesian economic policies. In the 1969 election, the SPD won 43% of the vote, and it formed a red-yellow (social liberal) coalition with the FDP. Willy Brandt, the leader of the SPD since 1964, became Chancellor. Following the Guillaume affair (a GDR spy in his cabinet), Brandt resigned and was succeeded by Helmut Schmidt, who remained Chancellor until the FDP broke off the social liberal coalition in 1982.

Brandt’s chancellorship was, at home, marked by an expansion of the German welfare state, several major societal reforms (legalization of homosexuality). Economic policies during the SPD-FDP governments where, however, very moderate (to the disappointment of many on the left). Brandt’s foreign policy – the Ostpolitik – has become one of the more famous aspects of his time in office. The Ostpolitik was period of detente and normalization of relations with East Germany and the Soviet Union, with the two Germanies mutually recognizing one another, de facto. In the Moscow and Warsaw Treaties, the West German government recognized Germany’s post-war eastern border with Poland at the Oder-Neisse Line. The Ostpolitik was extremely controversial and matters such as the Basic Treaty with the GDR or the recognition of the Oder-Neisse Line raised much opposition from the CDU/CSU as well as post-war German refugees from Eastern Europe. In 1972, for example, Brandt was nearly removed from office by a confidence vote which would have given the chancellorship to the CDU, but narrowly survived by two votes – it later turned out that the Stasi had bribed two CDU members to save Brandt.

Schmidt’s government, less famous although longer than Brandt’s, was in a more difficult context: economic turmoil (oil crises), domestic terrorism with the Red Army Faction and tensions (both at home at abroad) related to the NATO Double-Track decision. The SPD, which won a record-high 46% of the vote in 1972, saw its support ebb in the next two elections. The social liberal coalition won reelection in 1976 and 1980, but in 1982, with the FDP moving from social liberalism to neoliberalism, it broke up the coalition and formed a black-yellow coalition with the CDU’s Helmut Kohl. The SPD considered the FDP’s decision a betrayal and an act of grubby political opportunism.

Internal divisions and other troubles, and later the short-lived windfalls of German reunification in 1990 meant that the SPD went through a long period of poor results and opposition (federally) throughout the rest of the 1980s and early 1990s. The emergence of the Greens reduced the SPD’s support throughout this period, but the SPD found a new governing partner in the Greens – the first red-green coalition at a state level was formed in Hesse in 1985. The SPD found more success at the state level: Johannes Rau, later President of Germany, served as Minister-President of NRW between 1978 and 1998 (often with an absolute majority), Hesse (governed continuously by the SPD between 1946 and 1987) or Oskar Lafontaine, Minister-President of Saarland between 1985 and 1998.

The SPD was able to regain power in the 1998 election, with Helmut Kohl’s long-time CDU/CSU government being worn down by a poor economy and the shine of reunification seriously starting to wear off. The SPD, with the popular Minister-President of Lower Saxony, Gerhard Schröder, as its chancellor candidate, won 41% of the vote against 35% for the Union parties. Like in his home state of Lower Saxony (which he had governed since 1990), Schröder formed a red-green federal coalition with the Greens. In the 2002 elections, the SPD-Green coalition was reelected by a tiny margin.

Although Schröder’s government introduced a number of more left-wing progressive policies (phasing out nuclear power, green taxation, funding for renewable energies, civil unions, naturalization law liberalization, increased child and housing allowances, improved parental leave scheme and restoring full wage replacement for sick pay), his government – both at home and abroad – remains closely associated with economically liberal policies such as Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV. In 2000, the government passed a major tax reform which significantly lowered both income taxes across the board (the lowest tax rate was cut from 26% to 15%, and the top tax rate from 53% to 42%), reduce corporate taxation and increased the basic allowance.

To counter high unemployment and stagnant economic growth, Schröder’s second cabinet introduced Agenda 2010, a series of policies intended to reform the labour market and social security, in the form of substantial cuts to unemployment benefits.

Although Agenda 2010 included a number of reforms in education, healthcare, vocational training, pensions and economy (notably reducing wage costs and employment protection), it has been closely associated with labour market reform. Labour market reform came in the form of the Hartz reforms (Hartz I-IV) between 2003 and 2004, formulated on the basis of recommendations from a 2002 commission – the Hartz commission.

Hartz IV (the last but most significant and controversial of the reforms) merged long-term unemployment benefits and social assistance into Arbeitslosengeld II, effectively leaving those dependent on such payments worse off (as of 2013, the standard rate for an individual is €382 plus the cost of ‘adequate housing’ and health insurance). Following the reforms, full employment benefits (Arbeitslosengeld I) were paid out for 12 months instead of 32 months previously. Following that period, it is replaced by the much lower Arbeitslosengeld II (widely known as Hartz IV) benefits. Hartz IV also introduced sanctions (benefits cuts) for those who did not accept job offers below their skill levels.

Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV’s wide-reaching reforms of the German labour market and welfare state were in line with liberal economic reforms similar to those promoted by right-wing leaders such as Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. Unsurprisingly, Agenda 2010 created significant unrest within the SPD, to the point that Schröder threatened to resign if his party did not back his reforms. Already in 1999, Schröder’s finance minister and SPD rival, former Saarland Minister-President Oskar Lafontaine, resigned from government and the Bundestag, citing disagreements with Schröder’s economic policies. The Hartz reforms were met by large protests, opposition from unions (traditionally close to the SPD) and even led to a 2005 split in SPD ranks, with leftist dissidents participating in the creation of WASG (Labour and Social Justice Electoral Alternative).

The SPD’s electorate responded unfavourably to Schröder’s reforms, and the SPD suffered an historic drubbing in the 2004 European elections (only 21.7% of the vote) and, in 2005, the SPD lost the state elections in the old Social Democratic stronghold of NRW to the CDU-FDP. The SPD’s defeat in NRW led Schröder to call snap elections. However, because of Angela Merkel’s poor campaign and Schröder’s political acumen, the SPD only barely lost the 2005 federal elections.

After talks for other coalition options failed, the SPD formed a Grand Coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU, with SPD secretary-general Franz Müntefering becoming labour minister and vice-chancellor (until 2007). The SPD’s troubles did not stop with its defeat in the 2005 elections. It did very poorly in the 2009 European elections, and a few months later it won a record low 23% of the vote in the 2009 federal elections. The SPD was unable to campaign on its significant achievements in influencing policy and tempering the CDU/CSU’s more right-wing policies while in the Grand Coalition; it bled votes to all sides (non-voters, Greens and the Linke being the top beneficiaries) as a result of strong voter discontent with Agenda 2010/Hartz IV.

SPD campaign poster: ‘It’s the WE that counts’ (source:

The SPD’s chancellor-candidate this year was Peer Steinbrück, a former Minister-President of NRW (2002-2005) and the Grand Coalition’s finance minister (2005-2009). Steinbrück was chosen by the SPD as their chancellor-candidate because of his rather moderate positions on economic/fiscal policy, as well as his ‘straight-talking’ style. However, Steinbrück quickly turned out to be a liability for the party, in good part because he seems to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. He made a number of gaffes, perhaps blown out of proportions by an hostile media, but certainly not things which politicians should say: his most famous gaffes include comments on Merkel’s “women bonus”, lamenting the low salary of the German Chancellor, saying that Merkel’s attitude towards the EU/Eurocrisis was influenced by her GDR/Ossie upbringing and most famously, his “two clowns” comments following the February 2013 Italian elections.

The SPD was been torn between a desire to continue appealing to the centre as Schröder successfully did in 1998 and 2002 and an urge to move back towards the left following left-wing backlash to Agenda 2010/Hartz IV after 2004. The SPD’s platform this year was quite left-wing – emblematic of the SPD’s post-Schröder swing to the left, the party being pushed to left as Merkel successfuly adopts SPD planks and a general shift of all parties (except the FDP) to more leftist positions since 2009 and especially 2005 (see Der Spiegel).

The SPD emphasized social justice heavily in its platform. The party’s landmark proposal was creating a universal minimum wage, set at €8.50. It also proposed to increase taxes on those earning over €100,000 from 42% to 49%. Other economic and social proposals included a full pension at age 63 (instead of 67) for those who have contributed for 45 years or more, creating a minimum ‘solidarity pension’ of €850, replacing Germany’s two-tiered multi-payer healthcare system with single-payer universal healthcare, more places in daycare and schools, fighting tax evasion and allowing double citizenship (currently strictly limited).

The SPD, along with every other party (FDP included) clashes with the CDU/CSU on the issue of the Betreuungsgeld (child care benefit), a monthly payment of €150 to parents with children between 1 and 3 who do not place their children in a daycare (Kindertagesstätte or Kita). The measure is strongly supported by the Bavarian CSU, and by extension the CDU although some CDU members are more reticent. Critics argue that the Betreuungsgeld will encourage mothers to stay at home to take care of their young children, which would weigh heavily on the labour market and Germany’s workforce shortage. Some SPD leaders, such as NRW Minister-President Hannelore Kraft, would like to make Kita mandatory (mandatory schooling only begins at age 6 in Germany). SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel says that the money should be spent on daycare, where there are not enough spaces. Others also criticize the Betreuungsgeld for the traditionalist, conservative ‘stay-at-home mom’ image it promotes. Conservatives, however, feel that parents should be free to choose where to send their children to school and many on the right see mandatory public daycare as socialism.

On European policies, the SPD platform criticized austerity and Angela Merkel’s hardline approach in the Eurozone crisis. It supports Eurobonds and a more ‘pro-growth’ orientation (while still supporting ‘fiscal consolidation’). It supports stricter regulation of financial institutions and banks, a European ratings agency and coordination of fiscal and economic policies in the Eurozone. It wants to create a European monetary fund from the European Stability Mechanism.

The SPD has struggled to motivate and mobilize voters with its campaign. Merkel, as noted above, adopted a number of SPD proposals as her own; as one observer put it, the CDU’s platform was that of the SPD’s without the tax increases. The SPD failed to present itself as a solid alternative to a very popular Chancellor.

In contrast with the CDU’s very presidential and personalist campaign, the SPD campaign was the complete opposition: its chancellor-candidate was notoriously absent from most campaign lit, and the SPD’s slogan was Das WIR Entscheidet (It’s the WE that counts) – hardly an embrace of its candidate!

The Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP) is a liberal party, founded in 1948, which has a long history of playing kingmaker in German politics.

The FDP was formed after the war in continuation of Germany’s (predominantly Protestant) liberal tradition. The party represented a novel attempt to reconcile the two historic traditions of German liberalism – left-liberalism (social liberalism) associated with Weimar’s German Democratic Party (DDP) and national-liberalism or right-liberalism, a more conservative liberal tradition with historic ties to Protestant industrialists and embodied by the Kaiserreich’s National Liberal Party or Weimar’s German People’s Party (DVP). Throughout its history, the FDP has oscillated between left-liberalism and right-liberalism; today, the FDP is firmly in the right-liberal camp.

The FDP won 12% of the vote in the 1949 federal elections. Its support has, with some exceptions at both extremes, ranged from a low of 6% to highs of 10%. Between 1961 and 1983, the FDP was the only party other than the Union and the SPD to be represented in the Bundestag. Given that neither of the two major parties won an absolute majority in that era, the FDP was the all-important kingmaker which made and broke governments. It governed with the CDU between 1949 and 1966, with the SPD between 1969 and 1982 and with the CDU between 1982 and 1998.

In its early years, the FDP acted as centre-right secular party for Protestant voters; contrasting itself to the CDU by its secularism, mild anti-clericalism and opposition to religious schools (it was also more economically liberal than the CDU).

In 1982, the FDP broke up its social liberal coalition with the SPD, citing policy differences and divisions within the SPD over the NATO Double-Track. The FDP had also begun shifting to the right, under the influence of Otto Graf Lambsdorff, the FDP economics minister who drafted a policy paper promoting neoliberal economic ideas. The decision was controversial inside and outside the party, with the FDP’s support falling from 10.6% to 7% in the 1983 election. From that point forward, the FDP became a pro-business right-liberal party. Social liberal coalitions became increasingly rare at the state level (the last one was in Rhineland-Palatinate, between 1994 and 2006) and the FDP’s preference was clearly for black-yellow (schwarz-gelb) coalitions. When the CDU and FDP hold a majority to themselves, a schwarz-gelb coalition is almost always a certainty (just like a rot-grüne coalition is a certainty when the SPD and Greens hold a majority).

The FDP went through tough times between 1994 and 1999: it failed to reach the 5% threshold in a series of state elections between 1994 and 2000, it fell below 5% in the 1999 European elections and it barely survived the 5% threshold federally in the 1998 elections (6.2%).

Under Guido Westerwelle’s more populist but still clearly right-liberal leadership, FDP support increased in the 2002, 2005 and especially 2009 elections. In the 2009 elections, the FDP won 14.6% – an historic high – on a platform calling for lower taxes. The FDP profited from right-wing unease with the fairly moderate record of the CDU-led government between 2005 and 2009. After the 2009 election, with the CDU/CSU and FDP holding an absolute majority (unlike in 2005), they formed a schwarz-gelb coalition.

A black-yellow coalition was seen as being more in touch with Merkel’s preferences and easier to manage. The coalition turned out to be a disaster for the FDP, which was widely seen as ineffective and incompetent as governing partners and their image as an exclusive club for special interests and high earners was reinforced by certain boneheaded moves by FDP leaders. Merkel, the master politician, steamrolled the FDP.

The FDP’s main campaign promise in 2009 had been to lower taxes. Despite having been in government for four years, it was unable to do so. In fact, while in government, the FDP was even forced to agree to things such as raising the public health insurance premiums by 0.5% after having run a 2009 campaign on the slogan “more net from gross [income]”.

The FDP’s decline began in January 2010 with the “hotel affair”, when it was revealed that the FDP received a huge €1.1 million donation from August Baron von Finck, who owns the Mövenpick hotel group; his company later benefited from a major reduction in the VAT on hotel bills, one of the black-yellow government’s first decisions. The “hotel affair” reinforced widely-held stereotypes of the FDP as an exclusive party for special interests and lobbyists. On the same line, the FDP (which held the health ministry) was also criticized by the red-greens for failing to liberalize the pharmacy sector (which would reduce the costs of pharmaceutical distribution), given that self-employed pharmacists are a solidly FDP electorate.

The FDP’s support in opinion polling federally quickly collapsed below 5%. The FDP was thrown out of the state legislatures in Berlin, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and Saxony-Anhalt in the most recent state elections. It was, however, able to survive in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW, Hamburg and Lower Saxony; mostly through popular local leaders who ran away from the federal leadership and often contradicting the FDP’s federal policy direction (for example, the Schleswig-Holstein FDP ran on a platform of shutting down dangerous nuclear reactors).

It was also helped by “loan votes”, where CDU-leaning voters ‘loan’ their second vote (PR) to the FDP to allow the FDP to surpass the threshold (and give the CDU a coalition partner). The Lower Saxony state election earlier this year was the most extreme example of the old “loan vote” phenomenon in German politics – widely thought to have little luck of winning over 5%, the state FDP increased its support to 9.9% – exit polling showed that a huge majority of FDP ‘voters’ in that election were ‘loaned voters’.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle was replaced as FDP leader and Vice-Chancellor by the younger and initially more popular Philipp Rösler. This leadership shuffle amounted to little, as Rösler became just as unpopular as Westerwelle had been. The FDP’s chancellor-candidate was Rainer Brüderle, the chairman of the FDP’s parliamentary group and, prior to that, minister of economics and technology between 2009 and 2011. In January 2013, Brüderle was accused of sexism by a journalist who alleged that he had made advances on her.

The FDP’s platform hit the party’s traditional core themes: lower debt, sound currency, lower taxes, civil rights and support for small businesses. Like the CDU, it opposes a universal minimum wage, tax increases and Eurobonds/debt pooling. It goes further than the CDU on taxation, calling for tax cuts when possible, reducing the fiscal drag (‘disguised progression’), reducing the energy tax (to reduce electricity costs) and simplifying tax laws. It also wishes to allow the solidarity tax (Solidaritätszuschlag), a tax which covers the costs of German reunification, to expire in 2019 (Merkel has proposed extending it). However, the FDP’s tax proposals likely ring a bit hollow after four years in government. It seemed to focus a lot of its campaign on attacking the three left-wing parties (SPD, Greens, Linke) for wanting to increase taxes, run up government spending and turn Europe into a “debt union”.

On social issues, the FDP supports less government intervention. In this campaign, the party proposed to lump Hartz IV benefits, basic security, social assistance, housing benefits and child benefits into a single ‘citizen’s income’. It differs from the CDU on the issue of the Betreuungsgeld, mentioned above. In healthcare, the FDP supports the current healthcare system and wants to allow for more competition.

The FDP’s platform emphasized the importance of cutting government debt and securing the currency. It wants to have a balanced budget in 2015, start repaying the debt in 2016, cutting red tape and limiting public sector growth to economic growth.

The FDP has always attached strong importance to civil rights and individual liberties. Its image as the party defending individual rights took a hit in 1995, when it agreed to wiretapping (Großer Lauschangriff, or eavesdropping). Many left-liberal voters have abandoned the party for the Greens, who place more emphasis on such issues than the modern FDP. The FDP’s platform opposed data retention and protecting data privacy, but in government it was fairly mum during the PRISM scandal and after revelations that the German military knew of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program.

The FDP still finds common ground with the left on issues such as same-sex marriage (the CDU is the only party which still opposes same-sex marriage, although a court decision earlier this year forced the government to grant homosexual couples the same benefits and rights as heterosexual couples), dual citizenship and opposition to data retention without cause.

The FDP supports European integration (although it wanted a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty), but it has a small national-liberal minority which is more Eurosceptic.

The Left (Die Linke) is a democratic socialist party founded in 2007 by the merger of the East German Left Party.PDS (Linkspartei.PDS) and the West German WASG (a group of SPD dissidents). Die Linke is widely associated with the former East Germany (where the vast majority of its support is) and, for some, with the former communist regime of the GDR.

The  Left Party.PDS, known as the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) until 2005, was the successor party of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the governing party of the GDR between 1949 and 1989. The October-November 1989 mass protests against the East German regime led the SED Politburo to dismiss longtime strongman Erich Honecker, empowering a new generation of reformist politicians in the SED including Hans Modrow and Gregor Gysi. In late 1989 and early 1990, the SED gave up its monopoly on power, abandoned Marxism-Leninism and allowed for the first and only free elections in East Germany in March 1990. The SED, renamed the PDS in February 1990 under Gysi’s leadership, was soundly defeated in the East German elections in 1990, winning only 16% of the vote against some 48% for the pro-reunification Alliance for Germany, led by the CDU.

Following German reunification, the PDS retained a strong presence in East Germany – particularly in low-income areas of East Berlin, where the PDS was able to win direct seats beginning in 1990. The PDS’ strength increased following the 1990 reunification election, when it won only 11% of the vote in the East. With the shine of reunification wearing off, the PDS was able to successfully appeal to older East German voters who felt that they were on the losing side of reunification (total economic collapse and deindustrialization, high unemployment, poverty, low development) or who harboured Ostalgie for the former GDR. To this day, the former East Germany remains significantly poorer than the West, with the highest unemployment figures (still over 10% today in some rural parts of the east) found in the ex-GDR. The PDS won 20% of the vote in the ex-GDR in 1994, 21.6% in 1998, 17% in 2002 (the SPD lost votes in the West, but gained in the East in that election – perhaps due to the Bavarian Stoiber having poor appeal to easterners) and 25% in 2005. In West Germany, however, the PDS won only 1% of the vote prior to 2005.

The PDS was below the 5% national threshold in 1990 and 1994, but because it won direct seats, it was able to qualify for list seats. In 2002, however, the PDS won only two direct seats, less than the three required to qualify for list seats, so it was returned to the Bundestag with only two seats.

The Left Party.PDS ran a common list with the WASG, a West German group of SPD dissidents and leftists including former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine. Their 2005 campaign was strong, with the popular and charismatic Gysi and Lafontaine sharing the spotlight. The party ended up with 8.7% of the vote and 54 seats. Not only did it do exceptionally well in the East, it also had a mini-breakthrough in the West, taking nearly 5% of the West German vote, mostly in Lafontaine’s home state of Saarland (18.5%).

The Left Party.PDS and WASG merged to form Die Linke in 2007, and the party enjoyed an upswing in West Germany: between 2007 and 2009, Die Linke entered the state legislatures of Bremen, Lower Saxony, Hesse, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland (where it won 21% with Lafontaine as the top candidate). In the 2009 federal election, Die Linke won a record high 11.9% of the vote, including 28.5% in the East and 8.3% in the West. The party benefited from the SPD’s unpopularity, a strong leftist protest against SPD policies such as Hartz IV (especially in the East) and opposition to German participation in the war in Afghanistan.

Die Linke is a controversial and polarizing party. Its most virulent opponents often style it as ‘the SED’ or the ‘Stasi Party’, references to its connections to the former communist dictatorship in East Germany and the suspected/proven participation of some of its members, including former PDS leader Lothar Bisky, in the Stasi, East Germany’s infamous secret police. The party includes more extremist and radical factions who have a tendency to say things which embarrasses the moderate leadership: praising the GDR or praise for communist/leftist leaders around the world, such as Fidel Castro. Some members of the party remain under observation by the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, the federal agency for the protection of the constitution (which observes or bans extremist parties on the far-right and far-left). That being said, only a minority of the party’s leaders/MPs were members of the SED prior to reunification. Besides, a lot of the ex-SED/PDS members tend to be comparatively moderate and pragmatic.

Die Linke causes headaches for the SPD and the Greens, who have not yet resolved themselves to accept Die Linke as a governing partner either at the federal level or the state level in West Germany. In East Germany, where ex-SED/PDS members tend to be more pragmatic and moderate than West Germany’s more radical and dogmatic ex-SPD/leftist members, coalitions with Die Linke are more palatable to the SPD and the Greens.

The PDS supported a SPD/Green government in Saxony-Anhalt between 1994 and 2002 without participating in it; SPD-led coalitions with Die Linke’s external support are called the Magdeburg Model, and the Magdeburg Model was successfully repeated in Berlin (2001-2002) and NRW (2010-2012). However, after the Hessian state elections in 2008 which gave a theoretical red-red-green coalition a majority, the SPD’s Andrea Ypsilanti was unable to form a SPD/Green minority government with Die Linke’s support, after four SPD MPs defected and led to snap elections in January 2009 (which saw an SPD collapse and black-yellow majority).

Die Linke currently governs in coalition with the SPD in the state of Brandenburg since 2009 and red-red (SPD-Die Linke) coalitions were in power in Berlin between 2002 and 2011 and in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania between 1998 and 2006.

To date, no red-red-green coalition has been formed at the state level. There were negotiations for such a coalition in Thuringia in 2009, but the SPD finally opted for a Grand Coalition with the CDU, being opposed to Die Linke (as the largest left-wing party) holding the state premiership. In Saarland, that same year, the Greens preferred to support a CDU-FDP government (forming a so-called Jamaica Coalition) rather than a SPD government dependent on Die Linke’s support. In West Germany, the SPD is still fairly allergic to the red-red-green option, partly because of lingering bad blood between Die Linke’s ex-SPD members (first and foremost Lafontaine) and the more dogmatic positions of the party’s western leadership.

Die Linke went through internal divisions following the 2009 election, mostly boiling down to a conflict between the party’s pragmatic ex-PDS eastern members and more dogmatic western members. In 2012, a party congress resulted in the division of the party’s co-presidential positions between these two wings: the young eastern and pragmatic Katja Kipping alongside the and more leftist westerner Bernd Riexinger (close to Lafontaine). The 2009-2013 period has been, therefore, a fairly tough period for the party in terms of electoral support. Die Linke lost its western footholds in Schleswig-Holstein (2012), NRW (2012) and Lower Saxony (2013); it suffered loses in the 2011 state elections in Saarland and was unable to enter the Landtag in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in 2011.

Die Linke presented itself in this election as “100% social”. Its main socioeconomic proposals included a €10 minimum wage (to be increased to €12 in 2017), a €1,050 minimum pension, increasing Hartz-IV benefits to €500 (and later replaced by a €1,050 guaranteed minimum income), abolishing ein Euro jobs (15-30 hour jobs paid about €1/hour, while still receiving Hartz-IV benefits) and other temporary contracts, reducing working hours to 30 hours per week on full pay, lowering the retirement age from 67 to 65 and introduction of single-payer universal healthcare.

On taxation, Die Linke proposed to increase the basic allowance to €9,300, linear progression up to €65,000 and increasing taxes on those earning over €65,000 from 42% to 53%. It wants to create a ‘wealth tax’ of 75% for incomes over €1 million. Additional revenues from taxation would be used to fund higher social benefits and to increase spending in education, healthcare and subsidized housing (the party also supports a ceiling on rents).

The party is the most Eurosceptic of the parties represented in the Bundestag, having opposed the Lisbon Treaty, the European Stabilization Mechanism and the Fiscal Compact. Nevertheless, the party supports EU membership and the official line is in favour of the Euro, although Oskar Lafontaine recently said that the Euro should be ditched entirely. In the Eurozone crisis, Die Linke supports Eurobonds, an exceptional pan-European levy on properties worth over €1 million and introducing a tax on financial transactions.

Die Linke is famous for pacifist and anti-militarist positions. It wants to withdraw from NATO, a major point of disagreement with the SPD and the Greens and certainly a major roadblock to a federal red-red-green coalition. The party opposed the war in Afghanistan, intervention in Syria, ban weapons exports and wishes to recall the German army (Bundeswehr) from all foreign engagements. The party’s hostility to Israeli actions in Palestine and controversial statements by some leaders, interpreted as anti-Semitic, have caused controversy and forced the party to officially announce that it supported Israel’s right to exist. The public pronouncements of some of the party’s leaders praising Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez also sparked controversy and negative media attention for the party.

Die Linke has fairly ‘green’ positions on environmental issues, more so than the SPD and similar to the Greens. It opposes fracking, CO2 capture-and-storage, the construction of more coal-fired power plants and took an anti-nuclear stance in the past.

Alliance ’90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), widely known as the Greens or Grünen (singular: Grüne), are Germany’s green party. Founded in 1979, it is one of the oldest green parties and because it has consistently maintained significant levels of popular support (unlike more flash-in-the-pan green parties in Italy or France), the German Greens are also one of the most famous green parties in Europe and the world.

The Greens were founded in 1979 by environmentalists and pacifists, united by opposition to pollution, nuclear power, NATO military action and certain aspects of the industrialized society. The early German Greens attracted a wide range of members, from left to right. After the party’s right-wing split in 1982 to create the Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP), the Greens became a more left-wing party. The party was the logical conclusion of the growth of new social movements after the May ’68 student protests and, in Germany, the development of an extra-parliamentary left-wing opposition critical of the SPD ever since it entered a Grand Coalition with the CDU in 1966. Student movements, academics and other left-wing activists were particularly critical of the SPD on matters such as the perceived failure of denazification, the adoption of the emergency acts (1968), the ‘radicals decree’ (Radikalenerlass) which made ‘loyalty’ to the Basic Law a prerequisite for public sector employment (a decree effectively aimed at banning communists from the public sector), the SPD’s acceptance of NATO and the SPD’s support for the NATO Double-Track decision. In fact, a number of extra-parliamentary left-wing activists who had joined the communist ‘K-Groups’ after 1968 went on to join the Greens: most famously, incumbent Baden-Württemberg Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann and 2009/2013 Green chancellor-candidate Jürgen Trittin.

The Greens won their first seat in a state legislature in Bremen in 1979, but they failed to enter the Bundestag in their first federal electoral participation in 1980, taking only 1.5%. In 1983, in the wake of debate over the NATO Double-Track and the installation of IRBMs and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in West Germany, the Greens won 5.6% and entered the Bundestag with 27 seats. In the 1987 election, following the Chernobyl disaster and awareness of acid rain and pollution, the Greens increased their support to 8.3% and 42 seats. At the state level, the Greens entered the first red-green coalition with the SPD in Hesse in 1985, marking a victory for Green moderates (realos) over the radical ecosocialists and ‘deep greens’ (fundis) who opposed government participation.

In the 1990 federal election, the West German Greens allied with the East German Alliance ’90 (Bündnis 90), an alliance of three civil rights associations in the GDR. Federally, the two groups won 5.1% – in the East, Alliance 90 won 6% while the West German Greens fell below the 5% threshold and lost all seats. However, a special derogation in the electoral law in 1990 applied the 5% threshold separately in the two Germanies, so the East Germans won 8 seats in the Bundestag. Alliance 90 and the Greens merged in 1993 and the Greens regained lost support in 1994 (7.3%).

The Greens lost votes in the 1998 election (6.7%) but, for the first time, they entered federal government in coalition with the SPD. Green leader Joschka Fischer became Vice-Chancellor and foreign minister, and Schröder’s government included two other Green cabinet ministers. The Greens had by that point participated in red-green coalitions with the SPD in Berlin, Lower Saxony (with Schröder and Trittin), Hesse, Saxony-Anhalt, NRW, Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg.

Government participation moderated the Greens’ positions, transforming the Greens into a New Left movement of young radicals, students and activists into a pragmatic, reformist and centre-left party. For example, the Greens effectively abandoned their earlier pacifist and anti-militarist sentiments, accepting NATO and approving German military intervention in Kosovo (1999) and Afghanistan (2001), although the issue created major strains within the party. In Schröder’s second term, the Greens were compelled to acquiesce to Schröder’s welfare and labour reforms. Green achievements while in government include the phase-out of nuclear energy (2000), promotion of renewable energies and the legalization of civil unions (2001).

In 2005, the Greens lost some votes (from 8.6% to 8.1%). Between the 2005 election and 2013, the Greens raked up electoral successes. It won a record high 16% in Bremen in 2007, leading to the first red-green election since Schröder’s defeat in 2005. In the 2009 federal elections, the Greens won their best federal electoral result to date, taking 10.7% of the vote and 68 seats. Green support surged following the 2009 election, polling over 20% in late 2010. In 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the anti-nuclear movement in Germany grew in strength and the Greens achieved their most remarkable result ever in the Baden-Württemberg state elections, winning 24% of the vote and surpassing the SPD. BaWü Green leader Winfried Kretschmann formed the first ‘green-red’ coalition with the SPD as a junior partner. In 2012, the Greens won the mayoralty in Stuttgart (BaWü). The Greens were able to enter the Landtag of every single German state during this period, even in East German states where Green support is the lowest.

Green support peaked at over 25% federally following the BaWü state elections, but their support fell sharply afterwards and the Greens suffered from the ephemeral Pirate surge in German politics following the Berlin state elections in September 2011. The Greens had hoped to replicate the BaWü election in Berlin, a Green stronghold, but a poor campaign by their top candidate and the Pirate surge led to a disappointing result for the Greens.

The Greens held the first nationwide primary to determine their two chancellor-candidates in October 2012. Similarly to the Green Party’s leadership, the chancellor-candidate spots are split between one man and one woman. Jürgen Trittin, the former federal minister for the environment and the co-leader of the Greens Bundestag caucus won 71.9% of the vote. More surprising was the race between three women for the second spot: Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the deputy speaker of the Bundestag, won 47.3%, defeating Renate Künast, the co-leader of the caucus and a former federal minister (38.6%) and Claudia Roth, the co-chairwoman of the party (26.2%). Trittin is considered on the party’s left, while Göring-Eckardt is considered on the party’s right.

While the Greens almost always, when possible, form red-green coalitions with the SPD, there have been two recent exceptions. In 2008, the Greens formed the first black-green coalition with the CDU in Hamburg, largely due to the liberal image of CDU mayor Ole von Beust. In 2009, the Saarland Greens, unwilling to accept a SPD government tolerated by Die Linke, supported a CDU-FDP coalition (a so-called Jamaica Coalition). The Saarland Jamaica coalition collapsed in 2011 and the Greens suffered loses in the snap election. Angela Merkel recently said that her party’s relationship with the Greens had improved significantly since 2005, raising more questions about a black-green coalition.

The perception on the left that the Greens would happily accept a black-green coalition with the CDU apparently worried the Green leadership significantly, and their platform in this election was fairly leftist – and also placing greater emphasis on social and economic questions instead of the Greens’ pet issue (the environment and energy). Trittin also excluded the possibility of a black-green coalition.

Their economic and tax proposals were quite similar to the SPD. The Greens proposed increasing the basic allowance to €8,712, and increasing taxes on higher incomes (45% for income over €60,000 and 49% for incomes over €80,000). Like the two other left-wing parties, the Greens support a wealth tax, beginning with a 1% levy on incomes over €1 million. Like the SPD, the Greens support a €8.50 universal minimum wage, a minimum pension of €850 (while maintaining the retirement age at 67) and single-payer universal healthcare. The Greens’ platform also talked about increasing Hartz-IV benefits to €420/month. They share similar positions to the SPD on issues such as child care/daycare, the Betreuungsgeld and controlling rent increases.

On environmental issues, the landmark Green proposal was to have 100% of power from renewable sources by 2030 (and, by 2040, transport and heating). The Greens also proposed to introduce fuel consumption limits on vehicles, extending the truck toll and introducing a speed limit on Germany’s famous autobahn.Merkel’s 180 on nuclear power in 2011, however, cut the grass from under their feet. Additionally, the Greens have suffered from the unpopular and messy energy policies, some of which is rooted in red-green legislation from the Schröder era. During the campaign, the Greens were unwilling or unable to exploit unpopular and costly infrastructure projects – notably Stuttgart 21 (a controversial project to rebuild the railway network in and around Stuttgart, dogged by huge cost overruns) and the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (due in late 2011, it will now be open only in 2014 and the costs are much higher than originally predicted). The SPD, along with the CDU, is supportive of such major infrastructure projects; the Greens were probably unwilling to endanger their relationship with the SPD over the issue.

The Greens ran into controversy with their proposal for ‘veggie-days’ – meat-free days in public cafeterias, an issue which was spun out of proportion (and misinterpreted) to paint the Greens as intolerant radicals who want to ‘force’ their views on others and tell others how to live their lives. However, the German agriculture ministry (held by the CSU) already supports and funds ‘veggie-days’.

Since the 1990s, the Greens have claimed the mantle of civil rights/individual liberties for themselves, at the expense of the FDP. The rise of the Pirate Party in 2011 endangered their ‘hold’ on that issue, but the Pirates have since petered out and the Greens have more or less reestablished their advantage on the issue. The party wants to loosen anti-terror laws, abolish the military counterintelligence, stop the use of undercover agents by the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, opposes video surveillance in public spaces and is opposed to data retention. The FDP still shares similar positions, but the Greens are seen as more credible on such issues. However, during the campaign, the Greens were not extremely vocal about the NSA PRISM scandal, again because of their ties to the SPD (which is more supportive of surveillance).

The Greens are pro-European and share similar positions to the SPD on those questions, including the Eurozone crisis.

The Greens were haunted this year by their former ties (in the late 1970s and early 1980s) to the pedophile movement. Old controversies were reopened after Franco-German Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who said in a 1975 autobiography that he had sexually intimate relations with children while working in a Frankfurt kindergarten, was due to receive a major prize. Old documents from the early days of the Green movement were unearthed, hurting the Greens. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the nascent Green party included members (rallied in the Arbeitsgemeinschaft “Schwule, Päderasten und Transsexuelle”) who supported the decriminalization of non-violent and non-incestual sexual relations between adults and minors. It is clear that the early Greens supported and were supported by pedophile activists. This was a result of the late 1960s counter-cultural generation, who wanted to free society from the shackles of sexual repression – in good ways (women’s sexual autonomy, LGBT liberation) but also bad ways (legalizing pedophilia). The pro-pedophilia section of the Greens quit the party in 1987, and today’s Green leaders have all vigorously denounced past pedophile ties to the party, and the party is paying a hefty sum for a study into pedophile activists’ involvement in the party. Cohn-Bendit has repeatedly said that his book passage was meant as a fictional provocation.

A few days before the election, it was revealed that Jürgen Trittin – the Green top candidate – had signed a 1981 platform which supported the decriminalization of sex between adults and minors. Trittin admitted responsibility and said that he regretted his mistake. However, the Greens’ opponents played on the scandal – the CSU called on Trittin to withdraw from his position as top candidate. Many feel that the Greens were unfairly targeted by a smear campaign playing on controversies from nearly 30 years ago, on a subject which was already public knowledge beforehand and which the Greens have since denounced. However, it’s obviously very tough for anybody to do adequate damage control on an issue as damning as pedophilia.

The newcomer of this election, which received significant media attention, was the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), a right-wing eurosceptic party founded in February 2013.

Germany has lacked a strong and viable Eurosceptic party on the centre/right. Die Linke is Eurosceptic, but its criticism of the EU is not its top issue – the party is associated with left-wing economic policies and carries around baggage as an East German ex-communist party which makes it tough for it to appeal to a wide coalition of anti-European voters. On the right, both the CDU/CSU and FDP are pro-European although the CSU and FDP include some Euro-critical minorities. The far-right parties, notably the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), are usually associated with issues such as immigration and their association with neo-Nazism and/or right-wing extremism means that they have no chance of becoming respected and viable Eurosceptic parties. Despite this lack of political options, there is a fairly substantial minority of voters (25-30% or so) who are Eurosceptic.

The AfD was founded largely by former CDU members, led by economist Bernd Lucke. Lucke argued that the Euro was unsustainable, and said that the currency should be scrapped. Economically troubled southern European countries should abandon the Euro while northern European countries including Germany and Austria could form a smaller Eurozone in the north.

The main theme in the AfD’s campaign was opposition to the Euro – the southern European countries withdrawing, the other countries either readopting their former national currencies or creating smaller monetary unions. It also supports cutting off aid to Eurozone countries who have not made ‘efforts’ to sanitize their public finances. While the AfD is not against German membership in the EU, it advocates for a “Europe of sovereign states” and generally has European policies similar to those of the British Conservative Party.

On economic issues, the AfD is conservative: no minimum wage, simplification of the tax law and debt reduction. It is critical of Angela Merkel’s energy transition project. The AfD claims it is not anti-immigration and wishes to promote skilled immigration, praising the Canadian model. However, some on the left have accused the AfD of pandering to xenophobic or nationalist sentiments.

The Pirate Party (Piratenpartei) experienced a short-lived surge in popular support after the Berlin state elections in September 2011, in which the Pirates won 8.9% and 15 seats. The party’s support surged over 5%, and peaked at over 10%, in polls nationally. The Pirates entered the state parliaments in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and NRW in 2012. However, the Pirates saw their support collapse in late 2012, falling back under the 5% threshold and remaining there ever since. After an initial wave of support, Pirate support fell as a result of controversies, small scandals, public scrutiny into the party and a perception of the party as a single-issue party with no positions on major issues. The Pirates have a left-libertarian platform, centered around their pet themes of copyright reform, internet freedom. individual liberties and government transparency. The Pirates also support free public transit, re-nationalizing the water, gas and electricity networks, 15 students per class, the voting age at 14 and an unconditional basic income for all.


Turnout was 71.5%, up 0.8% from the 2009 federal election.  The results presented below use the second vote (Zweitstimmen) – the most important vote – for the percentage figures.

CDU/CSU 41.5% (+7.8%) winning 311 seats (+72) incl. 235 district, 76 list
SPD 25.7% (+2.7%) winning 192 seats (+46) incl. 59 district, 133 list
Die Linke 8.6% (-3.3%) winning 64 seats (-12) incl. 4 district, 60 list
Greens 8.4% (-2.3%) winning 63 seats (-5) incl. 1 district, 62 list
FDP 4.8% (-9.8%) winning 0 seats (-93)
AfD 4.7% (+4.7%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Pirates 2.2% (+0.2%) winning 0 seats (±0)
NPD 1.3% (-0.2%) winning 0 seats (±0)
FW 1% (+1%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Others 1.7% (+0.2%) winning 0 seats (±0)

Germany 2013

The German federal elections were a major triumph for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party, the CDU/CSU Union. Together, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, won 41.5% of the vote – the party’s best result since the 1990 reunification election in which the Union won 44% of the vote. Furthermore, with 311 seats, the CDU/CSU fell only five seats short of winning an absolute majority on their own – something which no German party has done since Konrad Adenauer won an absolute majority in 1957.

The triumph is first and foremost a triumph for Merkel herself, rather than her party. The CDU’s campaign was centered on Merkel and her perceived leadership abilities, contrasting them with that of her main rival, the SPD’s Peer Steinbrück.

If you read the description of the parties and their campaigns above, it should hardly be surprising that Merkel was reelected in a landslide. The German economy has performed well – remarkably well if you consider the poor economies of many of its neighbours and other EU nations – since 2009, with a major decrease in unemployment since 2010 and fairly solid economic growth. Critics either point out that Merkel was only reaping the benefits of the major policy changes enacted by her SPD predecessor or emphasize that Germany’s robust economy is undermined by the large number of underemployed people, low-paying ‘mini-jobs’ and increased wealth inequalities. However, fairly or unfairly, the widespread perception in Germany is that Merkel is a strong and capable leader who has been a steady hand in turbulent waters, who has successfully protected Germany from European economic turmoils. The CDU’s campaign posters drove this idea home: Merkel’s face with the words ‘stability’/’security’/’continuity’.

The exit polls (I am using Infratest dimap, not FG Wahlen) confirm these observations. In a head-to-head ‘direct vote’, Merkel would have defeated Steinbrück 58% to 34%. Merkel has a 71% approval rating – Steinbrück’s approval is 44%, lower than both CSU leader Horst Seehofer and Linke bigwing Gregor Gysi’s approval ratings.

Angela Merkel is an able politician, whose main strength has been her ability to adopt (almost wholesale) the popular policies of other parties (mainly the SPD) to fit with public opinion. In doing so, she was able to deny both the SPD and the Greens issues around which they could have motivated voters (on certain aspects of economic policy or nuclear energy). It also forced the SPD, which had picked a fairly right-leaning candidate, to tack further left to differentiate itself from the CDU and prevent bleeding to Die Linke or the Greens. The SPD, burdened with an unpopular and poor top candidate in Peer Steinbrück, was never able to present itself as a concrete alternative to Merkel or convince voters that it could manage the economy and the Eurocrisis better than Merkel.

She handily defeated Steinbrück on almost all personality traits. 70%, against only 22% for Steinbrück , saw her as the ‘strongest leader’. 57% saw her as most competent, 57% as the most sympathetic and 53% as the most credible. Only on the question of ‘awareness of problems’ did she lose to Steinbrück, 40 to 41. On the top two most important issues of the campaign – the Eurocrisis and the economy, Merkel trounced Steinbrück: 52% (against 25% for her rival) saw her as the best candidate on the Eurocrisis, and 43% (against 38%) saw her as strongest on the economy. Steinbrück retained the SPD’s traditional edge on social issues, 51% to 33%.

When asked whether their top motivator in voting for the Union or SPD was the top candidate, the party’s political platform or both, the results are very stark. 46% of CDU/CSU voters said Angela Merkel was their (sole) top motivator in voting the way they did, 45% said both Merkel and the CDU/CSU’s platform were important. Only 8% of SPD voters said Peer Steinbrück was their (sole) top motivator in voting SPD, against 55% who said the SPD’s platform was their top motivator and 32% who said both the candidate and platform were important. In line with their campaigns, the CDU’s vote included a very strong personalist element for Angela Merkel, while the SPD’s vote was a loyal SPD/left-wing vote driven by the party’s platform and not its candidate.

Angela Merkel is far more popular than her party. The federal government’s approval rating was 51% – much lower than Merkel’s approvals, but still the strongest approval rating for a government in an election since at least 1998. Voters, however, were not particularly pleased with a black-yellow government: only 37% of voters said the CDU/CSU-FDP should continue to govern and only 41% said a black-yellow coalition was good for the country. In contrast, a large majority (57%) said a Grand Coalition would be good for Germany.

The CDU/CSU was seen as the most competent party on the major issues – on the economy, a full 58% said the Union was the most competent, up 11% since 2009. 51% said the party was also the most competent on jobs, up 14% from 2009. As in 2009, only 22% of voters said the SPD was the most competent party on economic issues – it is absolutely imperative that the SPD regain lost ground on that issue if it wishes to win the next election. 46% of voters said the CDU/CSU was the most competent on the Eurocrisis, against 20% for the SPD.

What is more, despite a campaign heavily focused on social justice, only 43% of voters (down 1% from 2009) said the SPD was the most competent party on that issue, against 24% for the Union (which gained 5 points on that issue since 2009). The SPD had a 3-point edge over the CDU on family policies, and a 20-point advantage on salaries.

However, the exit polling found that voters agreed with the SPD/left’s positions on major issues such as the universal minimum wage (83% agree according to FG Wahlen, and Infratest dimap says 74% of CDU voters and 61% of FDP voters also want a universal minimum wage), increasing the top tax rate (56% agree) or state intervention for affordable housing (86% agree). The SPD was unable to exploit the fairly leftist tint of the voters this year, who largely agreed with the SPD’s core platform planks.

The other main result of this election was the FDP’s collapse and elimination from the Bundestag. The FDP, which had been represented in every Bundestag since the first federal election in 1949 and had won a record high 14.6% in 2009, was wiped out. It lost nearly 10% of its 2009 support. It is the second largest collapse for a single party from one election to the next since the SPD’s 2005-2009 collapse. The FDP, the CDU’s coalition partner since 2009, won only 4.8% of the vote, falling below the 5% threshold for list seats. The FDP has not won a direct seat since 1990 (and before that since 1957), and it had no chance of winning any direct seats in 2013, so it could not qualify for seats by winning at least three district mandates.

The FDP’s defeat is a major event in German politics, given that the party had been represented in the Bundestag since 1949. Four years after winning its best result ever, what went wrong for the FDP? If you read my profile of the parties above, I pointed out a few of the factors which had hurt the FDP’s standing in the polls since 2009: its inability to cut taxes (despite being in government) after promising to do so in 2009, the ‘hotel affair’ which reinforced negative stereotypes of the FDP and the party’s general ineffectiveness if not outright incompetence in the federal government. Only 12% of voters said they were satisfied with the FDP’s performance in government – compared to 57% who were satisfied with the CDU’s performance. In 2009, 51% of voters had said they would find it good if the FDP were in government; only 28% of voters still held that view this year.

The ARD exit poll asked 2009 FDP voters who did not vote FDP voters this year for their views on the FDP. 90% of them said that the FDP had promised a lot but hardly delivered anything, 82% said that their former party cared too much for specific interest groups and 74% said that in the last four years, the FDP had not moved anything. The wider electorate largely agreed with these statements. The FDP had been seen, in 2009, as particularly competent on fiscal policy (19% of 2009 voters said the FDP was the most competent on fiscal policy) and economic policy (14%). This year, only 6% of voters rated the FDP as the most competent party on fiscal policies and even less voters – 3% – said the FDP was the best on economic policy. 36% of voters this year rated the CDU/CSU as the most competent on fiscal policies, up 8% from 2013.

The FDP’s most visible leaders – Philipp Rösler and Rainer Brüderle – both had very low approval ratings: 17% and 27% respectively. Former FDP leader and outgoing foreign minister Guido Westerwelle had a 48% approval ratings, much higher than where it was when he was FDP leader, but that’s only because the foreign ministry is a generally non-controversial position and the minister is almost always well perceived.

Many believed that although the FDP was undeniably in dire straits, it would manage to eek out a save-face (and save-seat) performance and win over 5% of the vote. Despite predictions of doom, the FDP had managed to perform strongly in the most recent state elections in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW, Hamburg and most spectacularly Lower Saxony earlier this year. In Lower Saxony, there was a huge ‘loan vote’ effect which depressed the CDU vote considerably and allowed the FDP to not only save its seat but also increase its overall vote share out of the blue. The CDU leader in Lower Saxony, former Minister-President David McAllister, had endorsed the loan vote strategy in a bid to save his black-yellow government. Although the strong loan vote effect in Lower Saxony does not explain the black-yellow state government’s defeat, as was originally assumed, there was some sort of backlash against such loan vote deals after the election. Merkel and the federal CDU leadership did not, as far as I know, publicly endorse a loan vote strategy to save the FDP and she kept things to a minimum by saying that she would regret it if the FDP did not pass the threshold.

Yet, even in the absence of official directions from the top, many thought that – as in past elections – enough CDU voters would give their second vote to the FDP to allow the FDP to win over 5%. That was not the case. There were many loan votes from CDU voters to the FDP, but not enough to save the FDP. The ARD exit polling showed that a full 47% of FDP voters said that they had voted tactically for the party, against a mere 50% who said the FDP was their preferred party. This is the highest share of tactical voters for any of the five parties, by far (the party with the second largest number of tactical voters, Die Linke, had only 19% tactical voters…). 63% of FDP voters voted CDU on the first vote – although this is not entirely unusual (in 2009, the FDP won only 9% of the first vote against nearly 15% of the second vote).

In the exit polling, 51% of German voters said that the FDP was no longer needed. This strikes at a core issue in the FDP’s collapse and its future – the party has lost its raison-d’être in the eyes of many voters. In the past two decades or so, the FDP’s niche had been lower taxes. Having been utterly unable to deliver on the one issue which defined it and which attracted so many voters in 2009, the FDP lost all credibility and effectively a good chunk of its raison-d’être. The FDP effectively dropped/lost the issue of civil rights/individual liberties to the Greens (and now, the Pirates) in the 1990s after approving wiretaps and voting against civil unions, there is now a serious risk that the FDP has lost the taxation/small government/economic liberalism issue to the CDU.

Basically, social liberal and left-liberal voters have their party in the Greens and/or Pirates; there is little reason why right-liberals or ‘business liberals’ cannot vote for the CDU which is similar to the FDP on most issues and, right now, far more credible.

It must further be pointed out that the FDP’s electorate is rather fickle – there is a lot of overlap between the CDU and the FDP in terms of electorates; certainly much more overlap than there is between the SPD and the Greens (similar ideologically, but far more dissimilar electorally). A fickle electorate which overlaps with that of a larger party can be both good and bad. When the CDU is unpopular with right-wing voters, as in 2009, the FDP comes in and wins those votes (at limited cost, in the end, to the CDU); when the CDU is popular and/or the FDP is unpopular, the CDU easily gobbles up those FDP votes (this is obviously what happened in 2013).

Will the FDP survive this electoral annihilation? As aforementioned, with the FDP having lost its niche, there is little reason why the FDP’s traditional electorate cannot become more or less reliable CDU voters. The emergence of the AfD also hurts the FDP, which had in the past likely appealed to ‘national-liberal’ anti-EU voters and wonkish libertarian types. There are many good reasons to believe that the FDP could die off. However, I would be careful about writing the FDP’s obituary just yet.

Firstly, the next government will likely be a Grand Coalition led by the CDU, which means that there will be at least a small shift to the left in government policies compared to the black-yellow government (but not much, considering how black-yellow proved surprisingly moderate for a right-wing coalition). The FDP could be in a position to appeal to any CDU voters disappointed by their party’s performance in government. The FDP would have had a much tougher time doing so if the CDU/CSU had won an absolute majority on their own.

Secondly, in some recent state elections, the FDP showed that it was able to overcome unfavourable national trends because of popular local leadership, local CDU troubles or more appealing platforms. In fact, the next leader of the FDP is likely to be Christian Lindner, a popular 34-year old who led the FDP in the 2012 state elections in NRW – an election in which the FDP increased its support by nearly 2% to 8.6%.

The SPD did, on the whole, poorly, although it improved on its disastrous 2009 result by nearly 3 points. Yet, with less than 26%, this is still the SDP’s second worst result since the Second World War (2009 being the worst). In good part, this was a result brought upon by Merkel’s spectacular popularity, Steinbrück’s unpopularity, internal divisions in the SPD (unease and doubts about Steinbrück’s candidacy), Merkel’s ability to ‘poach’ major issues from the SPD and a poor campaign. Steinbrück was undeniably a net liability to the SPD, as evidenced (for example) by the party’s rather clunky slogan (It’s the WE that counts). Initially chosen because of his moderate views and straight-talker style, both of those backfired against him: the CDU just moved in on the centre and nullified Steinbrück’s centrist positions – and forced Steinbrück and the SPD to adopt more left-wing positions; Steinbrück became associated with gaffes and foot-in-mouth disease, rather than being seen as some down-to-earth straight-talker.

To be sure, the SPD also faces demographic issues – an aging electorate, loss of support with working-class voters and so forth – but this result, like 2009, is mostly the product of unfavourable circumstances rather than some kind of heavy, irreversible trend (although the trend since reunification has been a general weakening of both major parties).

The SPD’s loses since 2005 are reversible (to a certain extent; the SPD isn’t on track to win 40% of the vote anytime soon) if the party manages to get its act together and find itself a credible alternative to Merkel. Hannelore Kraft, the popular Minister-President of NRW, is oft-cited as the frontrunner for the SPD’s candidacy in the next federal election in 2017. She did not run this year because it would still have been an uphill battle for her against Merkel. However, 2017 should be more favourable to the SPD: Merkel might not seek a fourth term, and the CDU’s popularity might have eroded some over four years.

The Greens were the other major losers of this election. They lost 2% of their 2009 vote share, winning 8.4% – basically what they won in 2002 and 2005. In historical perspective, this isn’t a bad result – it shows that the Greens have solidified a solid 7-9% base of support nationally, which is good news for them given the traditional fickleness of Green support in other countries (see: France and Italy!). However, since 2009, the Greens were on an upswing and basically went from one success to another, first and foremost among them being their remarkable triumph in the BaWü state elections in 2011. Although the Greens had since fallen from their post-BaWü heights in 2011, they stabilized at 12-15% support nationally between early 2012 and mid-August 2013. Starting in mid-August 2013, Green support in polls collapsed below their 2009 result (10.7%), most of those lost potential voters switching to the SPD or Die Linke. What went wrong?

Most agree that the Greens led a very poor campaign, further complicated by the pedophilia case. Seeking to solidify their left-wing credentials, the Greens chose to focus their campaign on unfamiliar socioeconomic issues rather than nice environmental/energy issues. In doing so, they emulated the SPD too much for their own good. They lost a bit of what could set them apart from the SPD, and became associated with the SPD/Steinbrück. The exit polls showed that this emphasis shift was unsuccessful, the Greens were still identified by voters as being most competent on environmental policies (56%) or affordable energy (27%). Voters who liked the Greens’ platform might as well vote SPD, those who found it insufficiently leftist could vote for Die Linke. Because of their close ties to the SPD, the Greens were unable or unwilling to exploit lucrative issues such as unpopular infrastructure projects (Stuttgart 21, approved in a local referendum in 2012 but opinion has shifted against it again; Berlin-Brandenburg Airport; etc), the NSA PRISM scandal or energy reform.

In election dynamics, a 1998-2005 red-green coalition was still a possibility in the spring; by election day, the alternative coalition options were a Grand Coalition or red-red-green. Those favouring a Grand Coalition would be best to vote SPD to strengthen the SPD against the CDU; those supporting red-red-green would likely support Die Linke to shore up a strong leftist counter-power to the hegemonic SPD. A black-green coalition was killed by the Green leadership before the election.

As first noted in the 2011 Berlin state elections, the Greens are having trouble to renew their leadership. The Green electorate has aged since the 1980s, becoming more balanced and middle-aged rather than disproportionately early 20s youths. The top Green leaders are all fairly old – Trittin is 59, Claudia Roth and Renate Künast are close to 50 and Winfried Kretschmann is 65. Katrin Göring-Eckhard, 47, is younger, but despite being co-candidate, she was sidelined in the media by Trittin. Rebellious, dissatisfied and apathetic young voters are more likely to see the Pirates or fringe/protest parties as more attractive options to vent their frustration at Germany’s stale political system than the Greens.

The ARD exit polling offers further insights into the Greens’ problem. 68% of respondents said that the Greens scared off voters with their tax plan, 59% said that they lost sight of their voters’ interests during the campaign and 50% felt that the Greens want to dictate to people how to live their lives (see ‘veggie-day’). This confirms that the Greens had trouble properly framing their tax plan, being unable to avoid the inevitable negativity associated with ‘tax increases’, even if studies showed that the Greens’ tax plan would have led to tax cuts for 90% of the voters.

Although many say that the Greens made a mistake by focusing on social justice in their campaign, others feel that a traditional campaign focused on environmental issues might not necessarily have been any more successful. Nuclear energy is no longer a mobilizing issue (unlike in 2009-2011) because of Merkel’s phase-out. Similarly, because of rising energy costs partly due to the government’s renewable energy policy, there has been something of a backlash against Green policies on energy issues.

The Greens also struggled to effectively mitigate the effects of the pedophilia accusations and downplay the ‘veggie-day’ “scandal”, although it is likely that those who were scared by ‘veggie-days’ or really up in arms about the pedophilia case don’t vote Green anyway.

Die Linke lost votes compared to their very strong 2009 showing, ending up with 8.6% of the vote, basically what they won in 2005. Considering that Die Linke went through a difficult trough in the last four years, which resulted in them losing almost all of their recent footholds in West Germany, this is a pretty good showing for the party. Certainly, from Gregor Gysi’s speech on election night (gloating about Die Linke ranking third), they seem – in public at least – pretty pleased with their performance.

A certain decline after their exceptional 2009 result was to be expected. The political and economic context in 2009 was far more prone to protest votes – a more pessimistic view of the economy, higher unemployment and a Grand Coalition in which the SPD’s performance was not perceived all that well by voters. Die Linke had done well in 2009 partly because they won a lot of ex-SPD protest voters in both Germanies, a left-wing protest vote against the SPD’s Hartz-IV/Agenda 2010 reforms and German participation in the war in Afghanistan. Neither of those were hot issues this year, although social justice and decent wages were still at the top of most voters’ agenda (particularly on the left).

In East Germany, the AfD, and to a lesser extent the Pirates and the far-right (NPD) provided alternative outlets for protest voters (East German voters are less ideological than West Germans, and Die Linke’s Ostalgie vote is not necessarily an ideological vote of attachment to socialism/communism).

Again in East Germany, Die Linke does face a demographic problem. Not only are old voters, who remember pre-reunification society and are more likely to harbour nostalgia for the former GDR, gradually dying away; the former GDR is changing. Unemployment has declined since 2010 as a result of job creation but also out-migration (the East’s population is declining by about 1%/year), and major East German cities are increasingly affluent as they become more attractive poles for economic and social development.

Die Linke has also suffered from fairly public internal divisions, mainly between the pragmatic easterners and the dogmatic westerners. They also have difficulty escaping the view that they’re a protest party which is against a lot of things but unclear about what they want. In the ARD exit poll, 72% of voters agreed with the statement that Die Linke’s policies were unrealistic and costly.

The exit polls also reveal another interesting tidbit about Die Linke’s electorate. In 2009, 60% of Die Linke’s voters said their vote expressed dissatisfaction against only 39% who said it expressed conviction (positiveness). This year, 51% of Die Linke’s voters described their vote as one of conviction against 43% who said it was a vote of dissatisfaction.

Die Linke won 22.6% of the vote in East Germany, down nearly 6% from their strong 2009 result. In West Germany vote, Die Linke’s vote fell from 8.3% to 5.6% (-2.7%). While Die Linke started from a much lower base in West Germany and therefore lost less heavily, 5.6% is a fairly good result for Die Linke. Compared to the 2005 election, when Die Linke won basically the same percentage federally, it has lost votes in the East (-2.7%) while gaining votes in the West (+0.7%). Similarly, in West Berlin, Die Linke’s vote has increased from 7.2% to 10.8% since 2005 while falling 0.5% in East Berlin. While Die Linke might gradually be losing its edge as a regional protest party/receptacle for post-GDR Ostalgie in the former GDR, it is slowly (but with much difficulty) building up a small but not insignificant base of support as a left-of-the-left party in West Germany.

AfD, the newcomers on the scene, took 4.7%, a strong result for a party which did not even exist a year ago. While polling shows that a majority of Germans feel that the Euro has been a net positive for Germany, there is a significant minority of public opinion which is anti-Euro and an even larger portion of the electorate (probably a majority) which opposes “German taxpayer-funded” bailouts for Greece and other troubled economies. There is demand for a party like the AfD, filing a void which no party has been able to fill. Until the AfD’s creation, this demand was not met by offer (besides the far-right and Die Linke, but as mentioned above, neither of them could fill the void).

AfD’s support increased late in the campaign, likely a backlash to CDU finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble saying, a few days before the election, that Greece would need another bailout in 2014.

ARD exit polling confirms that AfD was largely a protest party. 57% of their voters said their vote expressed dissatisfaction, by far the the highest of the six largest parties.

AfD has strong potential for growth in the future. While it will not be represented in the Bundestag, which makes it tougher for their views to be heard, its first election was a success and it has gained a profile as a potential choice for German voters opposed to the Euros or critical of the CDU’s European and Eurocrisis policies. It could potentially become an attractive option for right-wing voters dissatisfied with Merkel or the CDU/CSU in general; something which would be bad news for the FDP as they try to rebuild themselves after 2013. Nevertheless, the AfD is probably nowhere near becoming a serious alternative or potential governing party. Both the CDU and FDP leaderships have ruled out coalitions with the AfD, although some CDU and FDP members had more positive comments about the AfD at its birth. In the ARD exit polls, 56% of respondents said that the AfD was not a serious party.

The Pirates had a very disappointing election, basically winning what they won in 2009. After the 2011 Berlin Pirate-wave and the Pirate-momentum which swept through a few German states in early-to-mid 2012, it’s really back to square one for the Pirates. Their brief period in the limelight, were young voters saw them as an attractive protest option, are gone. The Pirates, most significantly, totally failed to capitalize on the NSA PRISM scandal and its German repercussions. They were hurt by the perception that they had no platform other than internet freedom (which is false, although their positions on a lot of important issues are vague or fluffy), internal divisions and other controversies. For the wider public, they have failed to outgrow their stereotypes as young nerdy males who watch My Little Pony. In the exit poll, 73% of voters said the Pirates were not a serious party.

The far-right/neo-Nazi NPD lost a bit of their support, winning 1.3% of the vote. The better economic situation as well as very negative media coverage of the far-right with the trial of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) Nazi terrorist group likely explains the NPD’s poor result. It remains a small and largely irrelevant protest party for the most economically deprived voters in rural and remote East Germany.

Vote transfer analysis

Die Zeit has an awesome graphic detailing vote transfers from the 2009 election, based on ARD exit poll data (and a 2005-2009 transfer analysis, with the same graphics, here).

The CDU held 78% (11.44 million) of their 2009 voters. It lost few voters to other parties, the largest loses being 710,000 votes (4.8% of the 2009 vote) lost to the SPD; otherwise they lost 290,000 votes to AfD, 350,000 votes to the FDP (!), 140,000 to the Greens, 110,000 to Die Linke and 180,000 to other parties. 390,000 (or 2.7%) of the CDU’s 2009 voters did not turn out this year – and over one million (7.2%) of their voters are said to have died since 2009!


Vote transfer analysis (source: ARD,

These minor loses were more than compensated by substantial gains from the FDP and non-voters, as well as a few SPD voters. The FDP lost 2.46 million (38.9%) of their 2009 votes to the CDU/CSU, which is less than what they held from 2009 (1.44 million voters, or 22.8% of the FDP’s 2009 electorate, voted FDP again in 2013). 1.52 million voters, who made up 8.1% of the non-voters in 2009, voted CDU/CSU – likely right-wing voters who had not voted in 2009, dissatisfied with the Grand Coalition or Merkel’s performance. The CDU/CSU this year also gained about 920,000 SPD voters from 2009, or 9.2% of the SPD’s 2009 electorate. 12% of 2009 Green voters (560,000) voted CDU/CSU this year; the Greens’ tax planks might have really hurt them with these “black-green” voters who are likely rather wealthy. They also gained 380,000 votes from other parties, 230,000 from Die Linke and 560,000 of their voters this year were first time voters.

The ARD exit poll showed that 30% of first time voters voted CDU/CSU, 24% voted SPD, 12% voted Green, 7% voted Die Linke and 4% voted FDP. The Pirates likely received a significant chunk of first time voters.

The SPD held 67.3% of their 2009 voters, about 6.72 million votes. As noted above, 9% of their 2009 voters voted CDU/CSU this year; 3.1% (310,000) voted Die Linke, 440,000 (4.4%) voted Green, 510,000 (5.1%) did not vote and 680,000 (6.8%) of their 2009 voters are said to have died in the past four years. The SPD gained 710,000 votes from the CDU, 990,000 votes from the Greens, 680,000 from Die Linke, 580,000 from the FDP and 200,000 from other parties. In good part, the SPD’s gains came from 2009 Green and Linke voters, some of those likely protest votes against the 2009 SPD. The SPD also recovered 870,000 votes from voters who had not voted in 2009 (4.6% of the overall 09 non-voters) and 470,000 first time voters.

As noted above, the FDP held only 23% (or 1.44 million) of their 2009 votes: 39% went CDU/CSU, 9.2% voted SPD, 8.9% did not vote altogether, 6.8% voted AfD, 5.1% died, about 3% went for the Greens or others and 1.7% voted Die Linke (I want to meet these people). According to ARD, the FDP somehow won votes from people who hadn’t voted FDP in 2009: 350,000 from the CDU/CSU, 100,000 from non-voters, 50,000 from the SPD and so forth (20,000 Linke voters apparently voted FDP this year).

Die Linke held only 49.3% (2.55 million) of their 2009 votes. They lost 13.2% to the SPD, 10.8% to abstention, 6.6% (340,000) to AfD, 5.4% to others (Pirates or NPD, mostly), 5.2% (270,000) died and 4.6% voted Green. These were partially compensated by some gains from the SPD (310,000 votes or 3.1% of the SPD’s 2009 vote), 200,000 from the Greens and 240,000 from non-voters.

The Greens held 47.6% (2.2 million) of their 2009 voters. It bled a significant amount of voters to the SPD (21% of its 2009 vote) and the CDU/CSU (12.1%). They also suffered some loses to abstention (5.2%, 240,000), Die Linke (4.3%), the underworld of death (3.3%) and other parties (3.7%).

Where did the AfD’s voters come from? The largest numerical proportions came from the FDP (430,000), other parties (410,000), Die Linke (340,000), the CDU/CSU (290,000) and non-voters (210,000). Not many of their votes came from the SPD or the Greens. Nothing too surprising in these numbers. The AfD peeled off a lot of unhappy right-wing voters from the FDP, who lost trust in the FDP but perhaps disliked Merkel for her fence-sitting reputation or her Eurocrisis bailout policies. It also appealed to protest voters who had voted for other parties (probably the NPD) or Die Linke in 2009, most of those voters being in East Germany.

Finally, 77.4% of those who had not voted in 2009 (14.56 million) did not do so either this year. This reflects a solid core of apathetic voters who do not care about politics and/or voting (or are totally fed up with politics), and who never vote in elections. Non-voters who did vote in 2013 had not voted in 2009 largely because of dissatisfaction with their usual party. Unsurprisingly, 1.14 million first time voters (38.8%) did not vote this year.

Exit poll voter demographics

The ARD exit polls asked some basic sociodemographic questions, which are fairly interesting.

There was a gender gap in the CDU/CSU’s vote, with 37% of men but 44% of women voting for Merkel’s party. This is, I believe, a bigger gender gap than in past elections (the CDU did 5% better with women in 09). Obviously, it is in good part explained away by Angela Merkel herself. However – without any data to back me up here – it is possible that German women are a few points to the right of their male counterpart, because women (especially Catholics) have historically tended to be more religious than males. That being, everybody over-analyses gender gaps. None of the other parties showed a strong gender gap; the SPD, Linke and FDP did better with males (by 2 and 1 point respectively), the Greens did one point better with women.

Unemployed voters split their votes three ways: 26% for the SPD, 24% for the CDU/CSU and 23% for Die Linke. These numbers obviously betray the fact that unemployment is disproportionately East German.

Workers (arbeiter) voted 35% CDU/CSU, 27% SPD, 13% Linke and 4% Green. The SPD likely used to poll much stronger with blue-collar workers in the past, the erosion of working-class support for the SPD is one of the party’s main demographic problems.

The CDU/CSU performed best with pensioners (49%), self-employed workers (49%), civil servants (45%) and white-collar employees (39%). It performed worst with unemployed voters (24%).

The SPD performed best with pensioners (28%), blue-collar workers (27%), civil servants (27%), white-collar employees (26%) and unemployed voters (26%). Unsurprisingly, it only won 14% support with self-employed workers, a core conservative constituency in practically any country.

Die Linke, besides a 23% result with unemployed voters, won 13% with blue-collar workers, 8% with pensioners and 8% with white-collar employees. It won 6% with self-employed workers, better than one might expect – this might reflect the fairly non-ideological nature of its Ostalgie vote in the GDR. It did very poorly with civil servants (4%)

The Greens did best with civil servants (12%), self-employed workers (11%) and white-collar employees (11%). It won 8% with unemployed voters. It did significantly worse with blue-collar workers (4%) and pensioners (4%), which reflects low support for the Greens with senior citizens and lower-income, less educated blue-collar working-class voters.

The FDP, unsurprisingly, did best with self-employed workers (10%), and performed roughly on par with its national result with other categories, doing worse with blue-collar workers (3%) and civil servants (3%).

The AfD’s support was socially balanced, doing best with blue-collar workers (6%), white-collar employees (5%) and self-employed workers (5%).

The Pirates did best with the unemployed (5%) and blue-collar workers (4%). Although there is overlap between the Greens and the Pirates in that they both tend to do well with younger voters in bohemian urban cores, the 2011 Berlin elections also showed that the Pirates appealed to economically deprived, lower-income younger voters – a demographic which the Greens do not do as well with.

The CDU/CSU did much better with older voters than younger voters. It won 54% with those aged 70 and over and 45% with those over 60. Its support with middle-aged voters, between 25 and 59, was slightly below average (37-40%) while it did significantly worst with the youngest cohort, the 18-24s, winning only 30% of their vote. The SPD’s vote was slightly more balanced throughout the age groups, although they too did best with older voters: 29% with those 60-69, 28% with those over 70 and 27% with those between 45 and 59. It won 22-24% with younger voters.

The Greens have a younger electorate, although unlike the Pirates, they do not disproportionately better with the youngest crowd (18-24). The Green electorate has aged since the 1980s, the Greens now poll just as well with young adults and middle-aged voters: 11% with those 18-24, but also 11% with those between 35 and 44, and 10% with those 25 to 34 and 45 to 59. Unsurprisingly, the Greens do poorly with older voters: 3% with those over 70, 6% with those 60-69. The AfD also attracted younger voters, winning 6% with those between 18 and 44, 5% with voters 45-59, 4% with those over 60 and 3% with those over 70.

Die Linke’s support is fairly balanced, winning between 8 and 10% with all voters below 70, and 6% with those over 70. FDP support was also balanced, between 4 and 5%.

The city of Frankfurt, in 24 precincts (out of 365), broke down the votes cast by age and gender. The results largely conform to the exit polling shown above. Unsurprisingly, older voters (although it dropped off some with voters over 70) showed the highest turnout: only 57.5% of voters aged 18-24 turned out, down 3.6% from 2009. 75.2% of voters aged over 60 turned out, up 1.7% since 2009. Turnout increased with age, with all voters over 35 having extremely similar turnout numbers (75%). Turnout decreased from 2009 with younger voters, including those 35 to 44. Might this also explain the Greens’ poor results? Both men and women turned out in similar numbers.

The sample in question voted 32% CDU, 27% SPD, 15% Green, 10% Linke, 6% FDP and 5% AfD – very close to city-wide average.

The Frankfurt sample confirmed a gender gap in the CDU’s vote, with the women voting 34.9% for the CDU and men only 29.1% for the party. The SPD showed no gender gap whatsoever, but other parties did show small gender gaps. The FDP did better with men (6.8%) than women (4.7%), as did Die Linke (11% vs. 9.1%). The Greens, unsurprisingly, did better with women (16.9%) than men (13.7%). The AfD, unsurprisingly, did significantly better with men (6.8%) than with women (3.5%), which is again not all that surprising considering that right-populist protest parties tend to do better with males. Most of those who voted for other parties, largely the Pirates, were men (5.2%, 3.5% for women).

The age breakdown is very interesting. The CDU did best with older voters (50.4% with those 70+, 34.1% with those 60-69); they were below their city-wide average with all other age groups, and did worse (only 20.9%) with voters 18 to 24. The SPD vote, however, showed little correlation with age: 30.6% with those 18-24, 29.8% with those over 60 and in between that for the other age groups – although strong Green support with those 35 to 44 depresses the SPD vote there to 23.6%. The FDP did best with voters between 25 and 44 (7%) and those over 70 (6.3%), not so well with other age groups. The Greens show an interesting pattern: Green support is at its highest (20.1%) with those aged 35 to 44. If graphed, Green support would create a nice reverse parabolic curve: consistently increased as voters under 35 get older (17.7% with those 18-24, 18.4% 25-34) and dropping off after 45 (18.5% 45-59, 11.6% 60-69, 3.6% 70+). Die Linke did best with the youngest voters (13.6%) but also those 45-59 (12.4%), and worse with the oldest voters and those 35 to 44 (8.5%). The AfD drew the most support from middle-aged voters – 6% with those 35-44, 5.6% with those 45 to 59. Other parties (read, mostly: Pirates) did best with those 18 to 24 (10%) and their support declined consistently with age. Nothing too shocking: the Pirates have the youngest electorate of all parties.

There was a steep drop off in the Green vote with voters 18 to 24 since 2009 in Frankfurt: down 5.2%, the steepest decline (with voters below 60, the Green vote fell by 3-4% and did not change with those over 60).

Electoral geography

The differences between the two Germanies remain visible politically, especially when it comes to the SPD and Die Linke. In West Germany, the CDU/CSU won 42.2% (+7.6%), the SPD 27.4% (+3.3%), the Greens 9.1% (-2.4%), Die Linke 5.6% (-2.7%), the FDP 5.2% (-10.2%) and the AfD 4.7%. Turnout was 72.5% (+0.3%). In East Germany, the CDU took 38.4% (+8.6%), Die Linke 22.6% (-5.9%), the SPD 18% (+0.1%), the AfD 5.8%, the Greens 5.2% (-1.6%), the NPD 2.8% (-0.3%) and the FDP collapsed to 2.6% (-8%). Turnout was 67.6% (+2.9%).

% second votes for the CDU/CSU by wahlkreise, shading in 5% increments from <35% to >50% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

% second votes for the CDU/CSU by wahlkreise, shading in 5% increments from <35% to >50% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

The CDU and CSU did best, as usual in Catholic regions. Although the CDU/CSU is a pan-confessional party (currently led by an East German Protestant) which enjoys far more support with Protestant and non-religious voters than the Zentrum had in the past, the CDU/CSU remain at their core Catholic parties which have almost always been led by Catholics (as far as I know, almost all previous CDU leaders were Catholic) and have a disproportionately Catholic membership (53% of CDU/CSU members in 2012 were Catholic, against 31% of the German population). The CDU/CSU, as in the past, performed noticeably better in Catholic than in Protestant areas. The CDU’s best constituency was Cloppenburg-Vechta (63%), a heavily Catholic rural area in the Oldenburg Münsterland. In Bavaria, although the divide between Catholic areas and Protestant areas in Franconia is blurred (unlike during the Weimar Republic), the CSU still wins its best result in rural, clerical Catholic Altbayern (Old Bavaria), which includes Upper and Lower Bavaria and Upper Palatinate. It also polls strongly in Catholic Lower Franconia. The CDU polled over 50% of the votes in other Catholic areas including Fulda (Hesse), Emsland (Lower Saxony), the Sauerland (NRW), the Münsterland (NRW), the Eifel (NRW/Rhineland-Palatinate) and Catholic regions of Baden and Württemberg. The CDU’s results are also markedly higher than in surrounding areas in the Catholic enclave of the Eichsfeld (Thuringia), the only district in the former GDR which does not have a non religious majority. In the district which includes the Eichsfeld, the CDU won 44.8% – its best result in Thuringia (the CDU won 53.6% in Landkreis Eichsfeld).

It is worth reiterating that while the confessional divide remains an important determinant of vote choice in West Germany and Catholicism a strong predictor of higher support for the CDU, the CDU – unlike the Zentrum – is not an exclusively Catholic party – 38% of its members are Protestant, and the party polls strongly in rural Protestant areas. The FDP’s collapse in those areas since 2009 has further boosted the CDU’s voteshare, while Merkel has somewhat reduced the intensity of the religious cleavage because of her Ossie roots and Protestant faith (certainly, the confessional divide was much stronger in 2002, when the Bavarian Catholic Stoiber was the Union’s chancellor-candidate). The CDU polled over 40% in much of rural northern Lower Saxony, outside the SPD strongholds of East Frisia and southern Lower Saxony, as well as rural and suburban Schleswig-Holstein. In both of these regions, an historically large proportion of Heimatvertriebene – post-WWII German refugees from lost eastern territories – has contributed to the CDU’s strength. The CDU inherited those voters in the late 1950s and early 1960s after ephemeral right-wing (and largely Protestant) parties such as the DP or the GB/BHE (Gesamtdeutscher Block/Bund der Heimatvertriebenen und Entrechteten) folded and their voters flowed to the CDU, although some passed through the far-right NPD which was strong in rural Protestant Lower Saxony in the 1960s and 1970s. Hesse and Bavaria also had large population of post-war eastern refugees. The impact of these voters should not over overstated, especially in 2013, but I do think that it does help explain some voting patterns.

The CDU/CSU performed better in rural areas than in urban or even suburban areas, but the urban-rural divide is not as stark as in certain countries (the US). In urban and suburban areas, the CDU/CSU polled quite well in affluent urban neighborhoods or affluent suburbs. The FDP’s collapse in those areas significantly increased the CDU’s vote share quite consequentially, for example from 33.9% to 46.9% in Böblingen (BaWü), where the FDP had won 21% of the vote in 2009. The CDU/CSU also won 46.9% in München-Land (Bavaria), 51.5% in Starnberg (Bavaria), 43.8% in Main-Taunus (Hesse – although the CDU vote did not increase by a lot – it was 37% in 2009) and so forth.

Voting patterns in East Germany are far less ideological, and owe far more to personality or the relative strength/organization of the respective parties in each state in the years following reunification. Years of Nazi and later communist dictatorial rule effectively killed off pre-war political traditions and party organization, and communist rule destroyed organized religious in the East, so the confessional divide – a major voting determinant in the West – is not a factor outside the Eichsfeld region.

For historical comparison: the 1912 Reichstag election (source:

Saxony is perhaps the best example. Before Hitler took power in 1933, Saxony – and parts of what is today Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt – had been socialist/communist strongholds. Saxony was where the SPD first found support, and by 1912 Saxony was known as ‘Red Saxony’ or the ‘Red Kingdom’ because almost all of its seats in the Reichstag were held by the SPD. The KPD and SPD were strong in Saxony and Thuringia in the interwar years, although the Nazis obtained very strong results in parts of Saxony (notably the Vogtland and Erzgebirge) in the 1930s. Leftist support in Saxony was strongest in the heavily unionized cities (Leipzig and Dresden) and in a diverse web of smaller industrial towns (mining, but largely textile) in the Vogtland and Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains). Saxony developed its own leftist subculture, in which the SPD was not only a political organization but also a social organization, especially in the cities, running its own de facto welfare state and playing a key part in social and cultural life. While very marked social antagonisms and a vociferously anti-socialist bourgeoisie contributed to leftist strength in Red Saxony, socialist support in the region also expressed local opposition to Prussian hegemony. While the SPD enjoyed strong support through a remarkable organization in Leipzig or Dresden (and central Saxony), its support was more fragile in places such as the Vogtland and Erzgebirge; hence, the Nazis were able to poll very well in the depression years (Saxony hit extremely hard) in those places where the SPD’s organization was less solid. Whatever socialist tradition survived the Nazi years was crushed by over four decades of communist rule.

Following reunification, Saxon politics came to be thoroughly dominated by the state CDU, under the leadership of Kurt Biedenkopf, the very popular Minister-President of the state between 1990 and 2002. The CDU won absolute majorities in three state elections in the 1990s, it only lost its absolute majority in 2004. Today, Saxony is the last state in Germany still ruled by a black-yellow coalition. In contrast, the state SPD – ironically if you keep in mind its history – is extremely weak, and the state Die Linke does not seem particularly vibrant either. While the CDU tradition might also owe to Saxon opposition to the GDR, which was perceived by many as a ‘Prussian’ state, it seems that a lot of the state’s CDU tradition is due to its complete dominance of state politics since reunification. Interestingly, the CDU polled rather poorly federally in Saxony in 1998, 2002 and 2005; since the last election, the CDU’s result in federal elections have caught up with its strong results in state elections (still 40% in the 2009 state election). This year, the CDU won 42.6% (+8%) to Die Linke’s 20% (down 4.5%) and the SPD’s 14.6% (stagnant). Unsurprisingly, the CDU’s support is lower in the major cities (Leipzig, Dresden and Chemnitz) and very strong (over 45%) in rural Middle Saxony, the Erzgebirge or Sächsische Schweiz.

The CDU also polled very well in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which is Angela Merkel’s home state (she holds a direct seat in the northeast corner of the state). It won 42.5% of the vote, up nearly 10 points from 33% in 2009. Die Linke’s vote fell from 29% to 21.5% and the SPD won 17.8%. Certainly, a lot of this strong support is a personal/favourite daughter vote for Merkel, given that the CDU has not achieved a ‘Saxony’ level of dominance in state politics since reunification (in fact, it is currently the junior partner in a Grand Coalition led by the SPD). Merkel has been ‘good’ for her state, in the form of showering goodies on her home turf or promoting the state. For example, her government has been a big promoter of wind energy as part of its renewable energy push, and wind energy has become a major employer in the state.

In the East, one of the CDU’s most remarkable performances came from the state of Brandenburg. The CDU, which had placed third in the state in 2009 (with 23.6%) increased its support by over 10 points to 34.8%, while Die Linke’s vote fell from 28.5% to 22.4% and the SPD vote, countercyclical to the rest of the country, also fell (by 2% to 23.1%). While Saxony has been a CDU stronghold since reunification, Brandenburg has been a SPD/Linke stronghold since reunification. The SPD has held the state premiership since 1990, with Manfred Stolpe as Minister-President between 1990 and 2002. The state CDU has been weak, polling only 20% in the last state election – held on the same day as the 2009 federal election. The CDU’s weakness in 2009 might have been due to the state election being held on the same day, and the state SPD/Linke appear stronger at the state than federal level, but the CDU’s support was even lower in the state in 2005. The CDU’s strong performance this year might instead be due to the potential unpopularity of the state red-red government (which just changed premiers) or perhaps booming suburban growth around Berlin.

% second votes for the SPD by wahlkreise, shading in 5% increments from <18% to >33% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

% second votes for the SPD by wahlkreise, shading in 5% increments from <18% to >33% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

The SPD‘s core strongholds are urban, industrial and historically working-class areas (in West Germany). Given the wide margin between first and second, the overall results map (showing the largest party) has the SPD reduced to its core strongholds: the mining basin of the Ruhr, which remains one of the most economically deprived areas in West Germany; poor, Protestant and oftentimes old industrial regions such as northern Hesse, southern Lower Saxony, Lippe (NRW) and East Frisia; and working-class cities (or parts thereof) such as Bremen and Hamburg.

The SPD’s strongest constituency was Gelsenkirchen (44%), an impoverished (and ethnically diverse) former coal mining centre and depressed post-industrial city in the Ruhr conurbation. The SPD won over 40% of the second vote in other similar constituencies in the Ruhr: 43.9% in Herne-Bochum II (right next door to Gelsenkirchen), 43% in Duisburg II (the poorest northern half of Duisburg, a depressed industrial city known for its iron works and huge inland harbour), 41.3% in Oberhausen-Wessel III (another old coal mining area), 41.7% in Essen II (the most working-class neighborhoods of Essen, an industrial city formerly dominated by steel, iron works and mining)40.9% in Dortmund II (the poorest parts of Dortmund, an old coal and steel city).

The SPD’s strongest result outside the Ruhr was Aurich-Emden, an East Frisian constituency where the SPD took 43.8% of the vote. The city of Emden is a significant industrial harbour, shipbuilding centre and the site of a Volkswagen plant; East Frisia as a whole is a traditionally poor, underdeveloped and heavily Protestant area with limited industry outside urban areas. The SPD also did well (36.3%) in the other Frisian constituency, Friesland-Wilhelmshaven-Wittmund.

In the same state, the southern Lower Saxony – notably Hanover, Peine, Salzgitter and Wolfsburg – is another major SPD stronghold. This region, heavily Protestant, includes a number of major industrial cities. The SPD won 39.3% in Salzgitter-Wolfenbüttel (Salzgitter is a former iron ore mining community, which currently has a large steel plant), 36.1% in Gifhorn-Peine, doing best in Peine (a city also known for its steel industry), and 38% in Goslar-Northeim-Osterode. Overall, this is a fairly industrialized region, with a patchwork of smaller and larger industrial centres. It is rather poor as well, although Wolfsburg – Volkswagen’s HQs – has low unemployment (about 5%) because of Volkswagen.

Northern Hesse, around Kassel, is another SPD stronghold. It is not unlike southern Lower Saxony or NRW, but the area’s Social Democratic tradition is both more recent than the Ruhr’s and owes less to an industrial proletariat (although Kassel was a major industrial centre in the past, and Borken was the centre of a large mining area). The SPD won 34% in Kassel, 36.9% in Werra-Meiβner-Herseld-Rotenburg, 36.5% in Schwalm-Eder and 36% in Waldeck.

In NRW, the SPD is also relatively strong in the Protestant regions of Lippe, Herford, Bielefeld and the Siegerland. All of these regions are historically industrial, with textile and cigar making in Lippe and northeastern NRW and iron/steel works in the Siegerland.

The only two states won by the SPD this year were the traditional SPD strongholds of Bremen and Hamburg, two major industrial cities in northern Germany which have been fairly solid SPD strongholds for years. In Hamburg, the SPD performed best, unsurprisingly, in the most traditionally working-class neighborhoods of the city. In Bremen, the SPD’s best results were in the industrial and low-income city of Bremerhaven and lower-income blue-collar areas located outside the posh centre of the city of Bremen proper.

As is usual, the SPD did poorly in southern Germany, running up against a wall in Catholic regions – the SPD’s difficulty to breakthrough in Catholic regions, even more blue-collar areas, dates back to the party’s origins in the pre-1914 era, when the SPD did very poorly with Catholic voters and won most of its support from Protestant (even if in name only) voters. Today, the SPD also suffers from stiff competition from the Greens in many university towns in Bavaria and BaWü. In Bavaria, the remnants of a strong SPD tradition in the Protestant regions of Franconia (Hof, Erlengen, Fürth, Coburg and Nuremberg). Most of these have a strong industrial history (Hof’s textile industry, Erlangen with Siemens etc), and a fairly strong socialist history. The SPD won 28.5% in Nuremerg-South, 27.8% in Coburg and 26.7% in Hof. In BaWü, the SPD’s best result was, naturally, Mannheim (27.5%), a fairly important industrial city. The SPD also performed strongly in industrial and Protestant towns in Rhineland-Palatinate: 32.7% in Kaiserslautern, 29.8% in Worms and 29.5% in Ludwigshafen/Frankenthal.

The SPD did strongly in the Saarland, an industrial and old mining basin, increasing its vote share from 24.7% to 31%, likely benefiting from an 11% fall in Die Linke’s vote from the 2009 election.

The SPD still performs poorly in East Germany, except for Brandenburg (yet even there it only won 23% of the vote). In aging and socioeconomically depressed areas outside major Eastern cities, the SPD still has a very weak infrastructure and Die Linke rakes up whatever ideologically left-wing vote might exist. The SPD’s best Eastern results come from the cities: around 18.5% in Leipzing, 17.6% in Erfurt-Weimar, 20.9% in Magdeburg and a bit less than 15% in Dresden. The SPD’s worst result in Germany was 10.9% in remote Sächsische Schweiz (Saxony).

Not all of the SPD’s strongest regions have a longstanding (read: pre-1945) socialist history. While Hamburg, Bremen, Kiel and Lübeck were electing SPD members to the Reichstag in 1912, the SPD’s breakthrough in the Ruhr was slower because of difficulty in breaking through with Protestant and Catholic voters (Protestant workers in the Ruhr seem to have voted for the liberals until the 1890s) and the SPD’s support in what is today modern-day southern Lower Saxony was limited to the more industrial centres. Northern Hesse, the Saarland, the Siegerland, most of Lippe and most of East Frisia outside Emden were not SPD strongholds prior to 1945. Northern Hesse and the Siegerland were hotbeds of anti-Semitic Protestant politics in the Kaiserreich and northern Hesse was one of the Nazi’s strongest regions; the SPD achieved some success in Bielefeld but Lippe was never strongly leftist under the Kaiserreich or Weimar; finally, the SPD’s support in East Frisia was limited to Emden, its support in Aurich district was mediocre (and Nazi support was high: Hitler won the district in the 1932 presidential runoff ballot). In contrast, the SPD is notably weaker in Franconia, where it was quite strong in the late Kaiserreich and early Weimar Republic. Needless to say, almost nothing remains of the SPD’s pre-Nazi strongholds in the ex-GDR.

% second votes for Die Linke by wahlkreise, shading 28% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

% second votes for Die Linke by wahlkreise, shading <7%, <15%, <22%, <28%, >28% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

Die Linke‘s support is, obviously, disproportionately East German: its weakest showing in the ex-GDR is 17.1%, its strongest showing in the West (excluding West Berlin) is 11.7% in Saarbrücken. In the East, the party polled best in Thuringia (23.4%), Saxony-Anhalt (23.9%) and Brandenburg (22.4%); it was weakest in the CDU bastion of Saxony (20%) and Merkel’s home turf of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (21.5%). By far, however, its best Eastern results come from East Berlin – 29% in the parts of the German capital which were on the ‘other side’ of the Wall. East Berlin is also where Die Linke won its four district mandates, and where it has held at least one district seat since 1990. In 2009, Die Linke had managed to win a number of district seats outside East Berlin, but with the CDU’s success in the East, it lost them all and only held on to its four East Berlin seats.

Die Linke’s best second vote was result 34.6% in Berlin-Lichtenberg – a constituency with a large concentrations of Plattenbauten (prefabricated concrete slab state-housing from the GDR). It won 32.9% in neighboring Berlin-Marzahn-Hellersdorf (again, Marzahn has large Plattenbauten low-income housing estates) and 29.5% in Berlin-Treptow-Köpenick.

In general, Die Linke’s strongest results in East Germany tend to come from towns or areas which were developed as semi-new towns under the GDR, have large Plattenbauten estates or are otherwise influenced by ‘socialist architecture’. Die Linke performs very well, indeed, in ‘new towns’ which were built or more often extensively developed under communist rule: 26.7% in Hoyerswerda (Saxony, also a lignite mining area), 26.4% in Eisenhüttenstadt (Brandenburg), 30.3% in Suhl (Thuringia), 29.5% in Gera (Thuringia) and 25.8% in Neubrandenburg (MVP). Similarly, zooming down to a more micro level, Die Linke’s best precincts in, for example, Dresden came from the Plattenbauten neighborhoods of Gorlitz (over 25%) and Prohlis (up to 28.5%). Die Linke also polls quite well in industrial cities such as Rostock, MVP (24.8%) and economically depressed places such as Frankfurt an der Oder, Brandenburg (27.2%).

To be fair, looking over local-level results maps, Die Linke also polls well in some less urban areas: 26.8% in the Mansfeld-Südharz landkreise in Saxony-Anhalt, 25.6% in the Salzlandkreis and 24.7% in Stendal landkreise in the same state. These areas have high unemployment (which hasn’t changed much: decline has been due to continue depopulation) and old populations.

Die Linke’s results in the growing parts of East Germany were poor – first and foremost Berlin’s growing suburbs in Brandenburg (below 20% in a lot of suburban towns just outside Berlin) or the university town of Weimar in Thuringia (21.1%).

Die Linke’s support fell off in West Germany: although, as noted above, its percentage of the vote fell by less in the West than in the East, it held a larger percentage of its 2009 vote in the East. The most dramatic fall for Die Linke in the West came from Saarland, where the party’s fell from 21% to 10% (and even much below its 2005 result: 18.5%). The cause is a ‘reverse’ Lafontaine effect: the removal of Oskar Lafontaine’s favourite son vote in his home state, which was very strong in 2009 and even 2005. Lafontaine remains an eminence grise in the Linke, but he played a smaller role in the 2013 campaign than the 2005 or 2009 campaigns, where he co-led the party’s campaign.

Outside Saarland, the Linke’s best Western results came from urban areas and the Ruhr (I realize the Ruhr is extremely urban). It won about 7-9% in Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen, Bochum, Essen and Duisburg. Its other urban performances reveal strong support in both blue-collar places such as Mannheim (7.5%), Bremen II-Bremerhaven (10%) and Hamburg-Bergedorf-Harburg (8.4%); but also more hipster young support in gentrified bohemian areas: Sternschanze (24.4%), St. Pauli (23.8%) and Altona-Altstadt (18.8%) in Hamburg, or some of Berlin’s trendy/bohemian areas (Die Linke won a number of precincts in Neukölln, a mixed neighborhood in West Berlin with a large bohemian population in parts). However, in Hamburg, for example (but also, I believe Frankfurt and other Western cities), Die Linke polls quite well in poorer blue-collar areas too (where the Greens do not poll so well).

% second votes for the Greens by wahlkreise, shading in 3% increments from 16% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

% second votes for the Greens by wahlkreise, shading in 3% increments from <7% to >16% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

The Greens are, very unsurprisingly, a predominantly urban party. Its best result was pretty obviously Berlin-Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Prenzlauer Berg East constituency (20.8%), the hub of the Berlin counterculture and covering the capital’s most bohemian neighborhoods. The constituency is also famous for being the Greens’ first and to date only district seat – the very colourful Hans-Christian Ströbele won the seat for the Greens in 2002 and has been reelected ever since then. He won reelection this year with a 21.9% margin, down from 29% in 2009. The Greens’ list vote, however, took quite a tumble: from 27.4% to 20.8%, falling into third behind Die Linke and the SPD who both gained from 2009. The Greens also did well in Berlin-Mitte (16.7%) and Berlin-Tempelhof-Schöneberg (15.4%).

Outside Berlin, the next strongest Green performance was in Freiburg (19.8%, down from 22.8%) in BaWü. Freiburg is a major university city, and an old hotbed of Green support and anti-nuclear activism. The city has a Green mayor since 2002. The Greens receive strong support in other university towns across Germany: 14.8% in Tübingen (BaWü), 15% in Karlsruhe (BaWü), 14.8% in Heidelberg (BaWü), 14.2% in Darmstadt (Hesse), 12.2% in Göttingen (Lower Saxony), 13.7% in Bonn (NRW), 15.6% in Cologne-II (NRW), 15.2% in Münster (NRW) and 13.1% in Aachen (NRW). The Greens won 9.3% in Freising (Bavaria), but their result in the city of Freising – an old Green stronghold with an agricultural/technical college (and NIMBY opposition to Munich airport expansion) – is likely much stronger.

In urban areas, the Greens’ support is generally rather different from the SPD’s core bases of support – while the SPD polls better in blue-collar areas, neighborhoods with a large immigrant population or social housing precincts; the Greens naturally do better in the inner-cities – boroughs with a younger population, often at the core of the counterculture/student movement in the 1970s, oftentimes gentrified old working-class neighborhoods and cosmopolitan, lively areas with large LGBT, student, yuppie/aged ’70s hippies populations. They are not particularly affluent (and some areas retain pockets of deprivation), but gentrification has pushed property prices up significantly, In Frankfurt, the Greens won 23.7% in Nordend-Ost, 19.6% in Nordend-West and 18.9% in Bornheim. It won only 12.8%, for example, in the low-income Gallus borough. In Hamburg, the Greens won 27.1% in Sternschanze, 25% in Ottensen, 24.2% in Altona-Nord and 23% in St. Pauli – again, gentrified trendy/bohemian neighborhoods.

In Berlin, the Greens’ best neighborhoods are Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, Kreuzburg, parts of Neukölln (the trendy Reuterkiez, the Greens are not as strong in the low-income parts of Neukölln), and Schöneberg. Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Kreuzburg are multicultural, cosmopolitan and bohemian inner-city areas which have seen major gentrification since the fall of the Wall and they are Berlin’s most famous hip/countercultural/alternative neighborhoods. The Greens’ best state district (Abgeordnetenhauswahlkreise) was Friedrichshain-Kreuzburg II (29.7%) followed by Friedrichshain-Kreuzburg I (27.8%), Pankow 6 (26.8%), Neukölln 1 (25.7%) and Tempelhof-Schöneberg (25.3%).

The Greens won 17.5% in Stuttgart I, which includes the downtown core, the trendy spots and student neighborhoods of Stuttgart. Green co-leader Cem Özdemir won 27.5% of the first vote in the district, placing a distant second to the CDU (42%).

In Munich, the Greens’ best results came from – no surprise here again – Ludwigsvorstadt-Isarvorstadt and Schwanthalerhöhe (22.9%), an historically working-class and low income neighborhood which has gentrified considerably and is now the city’s top bohemian/alternative neighborhood.

One will notice the Green outcrop in northern Lower Saxony – 14.3% in Lüchow-Dannenberg-Lüneburg. Without knowing much about this district, I believe it is largely due to heavy Green support in the university town of Lüneburg but also fairly high Green votes in the countryside (Lüchow-Dannenberg county) due to anti-nuclear sentiments created by the proposed Gorleben nuclear waste dump.

The Greens are weak in rural areas and heavily industrialized areas such as the Ruhr (outside the city cores of places such as Dortmund); they have also had, outside BaWü, trouble breaking through in rural Catholic areas – notice the very low levels of support in Cloppenburg-Vechta or in the rural parts of Altbayern. Unsurprisingly, much of East Germany is a dead-zone for the Greens: an old population, very few students or other core Green voters outside the cities and a declining post-industrial economy. The Greens polled below 5% in every ex-GDR state outside East Berlin, a very disappointing result for the Greens who had managed to win seats in each Eastern state legislatures in the last state elections. Their best GDR result, outside East Berlin, was Leipzig II (11.2%, this district includes the young and trendy neighborhood of Südvorstadt, a Green stronghold), followed by Dresden II-Bautzen II (9.5%) and suburban Potsdam (9%). The Greens performed best in Eastern university towns: 11.6% in Jena (Thuringia), 11.1% in Weimar (Thuringia) and 7.8% in Halle (Saxony-Anhalt).

It is worth reiterating how disappointing these results all are for the Greens. Unlike in 2009, they did not top the poll in most of their traditional inner-city strongholds. The Green vote fell by about 7 points in Berlin-Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Prenzlauer Berg East, an extremely substantial loss which caused them to drop from first to third. They placed fourth in Berlin-Mitte, the other district where they had topped the second vote in 2009. In Frankfurt, the Greens did not place first in any of their top boroughs. In Hamburg, the Greens narrowly topped the poll only in Sternschanze. In Munich, the Greens fell from first to third in Ludwigsvorstadt-Isarvorstadt and Schwanthalerhöhe.

Even in the East, where growth in urban areas provides the Greens with long-term potential, the Green vote fell from 2009 – although by smaller amounts than it did in their western strongholds.

% second votes for the FDP by wahlkreise, shading in 1% increments from <5% to >8% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

% second votes for the FDP by wahlkreise, shading in 1% increments from <5% to >8% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

The FDP‘s map does not seem to have changed much from 2009, with the exception that the party’s results are way, way lower than they were four years ago. Contemporary FDP support close resembles the distribution of wealth, with the FDP’s strongholds being the most affluent regions of Germany while its worst regions – both urban and rural – tend to be poorer. German liberal parties have always attracted support from the secular Protestant middle-classes and the urban bourgeoisie/industrialists. However, little – if anything – is left of liberal traditions in rural Protestant regions.

The FDP’s best results came from affluent areas. The FDP’s best constituency was Düsseldorf II (NRW) with 9.2%, followed by Main-Taunus (Heese) at 8.6%. The FDP also did quite ‘well’ in München-Land (Bavaria) with 8.5%, Bonn (NRW) with 8.3%, Stuttgart II (BaWü) with 8.3% and Köln II (NRW) with 8.1%. I believe there may have been local ‘loan vote’ deals between the CDU and the FDP in some constituencies in NRW (Bonn, I think).

The aforementioned constituencies and other places where the FDP did ‘well’ in 2013 (and much, much better in 2009 obviously) all include affluent urban neighborhoods or suburban communities. Düsseldorf II includes some very affluent suburban neighborhoods in the north of the city, including Carlstadt (19% FDP – 27.5% in 2009), Niederkassel (15.5%, 30.7% in 2009), Oberkassel (18%) and Wittlaer (13.8%). Main-Taunus, located north of Frankfurt, includes some of the city’s most affluent suburbs in the Taunus hills. München-Land, similarly, covers affluent suburbs south of Munich (the FDP won 7.4% in Starnberg, a very affluent area surrounding Lake Starnberg south of Munich). Köln II includes the exclusive community of Hahnwald (23.5% FDP, over 40% in 2009!) and other affluent suburban neighborhoods such as Marienburg (17.2%) and Müngersdorf (13.7%). At the other extreme, in Cologne’s working-class and low-income neighborhoods such as Vingst and Kalk, the party barely won 3%.

Inside the cities themselves, FDP support is strongest in pricey affluent core neighborhoods. For example, the FDP won 15.6% in Westend-Süd and 12.5% in Westend-Nord, Frankfurt’s two most affluent core neighborhoods. In Munich, the FDP won 13.5% in Altstadt-Lehel, a similar downtown area with very high property prices and – as a result – a high-income population. It also won 10.8% in Bogenhausen, more socially diverse but with some very affluent areas (Herzogpark/Oberföhring) where the FDP won up to 22% in some precincts.

The states where the FDP won over 5% of the vote were BaWü (6.2%), Hesse (5.6%), Schleswig-Holstein (5.6%), Rhineland-Palatinate (5.5%), NRW (5.2%) and Bavaria (5.1%). Its worst states were all in East Germany, where overall the FDP’s results were hilariously bad – oftentimes in seventh or so place behind the AfD and the Nazis. Naturally, the FDP’s worst result was 1.6% in Berlin-Lichtenberg (East Berlin).

BaWü (more accurately Württemberg proper) has a long tradition of liberal support, it was a liberal stronghold under the Kaiserreich and liberals continued to poll well in Württemberg during Weimar. The FDP has inherited some of the DDP/DVP’s former Protestant strongholds in Württemberg (further boosted by the fact that BaWü is one of Germany’s most affluent states), including some less suburban areas. Interestingly, however, liberals enjoyed some more Catholic support in southern Germany (notably Baden and the Palatinate) during the Kaiserreich (because of an anti-clerical tradition and a more enlightened Catholic Church) – and the FDP still polls better in Catholic areas of Baden and Rhineland-Palatinate than in other Catholic areas, although both of these regions are also wealthy.

Schleswig-Holstein also has a longstanding liberal tradition, though the FDP’s support in that state seems largely the result of Hamburg suburbia and other local factors. The FDP vote might have held up better, comparatively, in Schleswig-Holstein and NRW this year because both state FDPs are led by relatively popular ‘maverick’-ish politicians.

% second votes for the AfD by wahlkreise, shading in 1% increments from <4% to >7% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

% second votes for the AfD by wahlkreise, shading in 1% increments from <4% to >7% (source: Wahlatlas 2013)

The AfD had interesting patterns of support, although not unusual if we treat the AfD’s electorate as a protest vote (which it largely is, certainly much moreso than any of the other parties’ electorates). As the vote transfer analysis showed, the AfD’s votes came largely from the FDP, Die Linke and other parties with the CDU/CSU and 2009 non-voters contributing a smaller but not insignificant share.

The AfD did best in East Germany, where it won over 6% in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg and over 5% in MVP (for some reason, the AfD only won 4% in Saxony-Anhalt). The party’s best constituency was Görlitz (Saxony) with 8.2% followed by the Sächsische Schweiz (7.9%). It also polled well in all of eastern Saxony outside of Dresden, the Erzgebirge and other similarly rural, poor and remote regions in MVP (the far east of the state) and Thuringia (outside the main urban areas). These low-income, economically depressed (very high unemployment) and remote regions often show strong support for other similar protest parties: Die Linke, of course, but also the NPD (the AfD’s map is very similar to the NPD in the East). Given Saxony-Anhalt’s low levels of AfD support and the relative ‘peripheral’/’borderlands’ support for the AfD in the other ex-GDR states, I am left wondering if those state’s foreign neighbors – Poland and the Czech Republic – might influence a nationalistic, Eurosceptic and perhaps xenophobic vote. Or is it due to local economic circumstances, naturally breeding discontent and making the AfD’s message attractive?

It might surprise some that the AfD, a right-leaning party, pulled so much support from Die Linke, the most far left of Germany’s major parties. In East Germany, however, Die Linke’s vote does not seem to be all that ideological. Their electorate – older, technocratic and probably educated (under the GDR) – does not seem particularly eager for radical change and appears, on the whole, more conservative and interested in short/medium-term improvements in their financial and social statuses.

In the West, the AfD’s support is a bit weird. There are some clear FDP patterns on the map – Hamburg’s suburbs (Harburg in Lower Saxony: 6%), Pforzheim in BaWü (7.2%), Main-Taunus in Hesse (6.9%), Munich’s suburbs (extended into Swabia). In northern Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, the AfD’s support is fairly close correlated to that of post-war German refugees; in other regions, the AfD’s support appears to be more rural and Protestant than Catholic. The AfD appears to have pulled an ideologically diverse electorate (with a lot from the FDP, though), concentrated in small towns and exurbs/suburbs. Not too unusual – lower middle-class outer suburban areas tend to be poorer and have strong feelings of alienation/dissatisfaction from politics and the major political parties.

In the cities, I haven’t done much analysis of the AfD’s support, but it seems to have drawn a socially diverse bunch of precincts: both affluent FDP strongholds and poorer, more left-wing (SPD/Linke, not Green). In Berlin, the AfD’s top 10 precincts were mostly in East Berlin and almost all of them – East or West – from fairly low-income areas (strong results in the Plattenbauten areas of East Berlin).

Pirate support was heavily skewed towards the inner-cities, oftentimes the same districts where the Greens did best. Their best result was 5.8% in Berlin-Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Prenzlauer Berg East; doing best in eastern Friedrichshain. They also won 4.7% in Berlin-Mitte and 4.1% in Berlin-Neukölln. Outside Berlin, their best results were Dresden II-Bautzen II (4.4%), Karlsruhe (4%) and Hamburg-Mitte (3.1%). Compared to the Greens, the Pirate electorate is younger and probably poorer as well.

The Berliner Morgenpost published a fantastic shaded, interactive map of the precinct results in Berlin. Naturally, the most striking thing about Berlin is the East-West division; in other words, how the Berlin Wall still influences voting patterns.

Results by precinct in Berlin (source: Berliner Morgenpost)

Results by precinct in Berlin (source: Berliner Morgenpost)

Die Linke’s best performances in Berlin – and in other East German cities (I looked at Leipzig and Dresden) – came from densely populated areas with high-rise Plattenbauten; for example the neighborhoods of Marzahn (the party’s best result, over 37%), Hellersdorf, Neu-Hohenschönhausen, Friedrichsfelde, Lichtenburg, parts of Pankow, western Friedrichshain, Mitte (that part which was in the GDR, in downtown East Berlin) and so forth. In East Berlin, Die Linke did not do as well in more suburban areas – with little high-rise apartment blocks and more single houses – notice the solid CDU area in Marzahn-Hellersdorf (Mahlsdorf, Kaulsdorf, Biesdorf), East Berlin’s most affluent suburban area, in the state district containing that area, Die Linke won only 24.6% (and the CDU won 35%). Similarly, the CDU did quite well in the more suburban parts of Pankow and Treptow-Köpenick.

The other exception is the extensively gentrified inner-city bohemian Green/Pirate strongholds of eastern Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg. The Greens lost a lot of precincts in eastern Friedrichshain, the most gentrified part of the neighborhood, but still won a good number of precincts in Prenzlauer Berg. Green support, unlike Die Linke, SPD, FDP and even CDU support ignores the Wall. Its inner-city strongholds are on both sides of the Wall. The Greens won a number of precincts in Kreuzberg, a very multicultural and countercultural neighborhood; the Greens did well both in the ethnically diverse and more economically deprived countercultural stronghold around Schlesisches Tor/SO36 and in more affluent areas further west. The Greens poll strongly in most other central core neighborhoods, including the fairly middle-class and white-collar yuppie Schöneberg/Friedenau (Schöneberg also has a large LGBT population) and Moabit, and ethnically diverse and economically deprived precincts in Wedding, Gesundbrunnen and Neukölln (some of the Greens’ best results came from the trendy and gentrifying Reuterkiez; Die Linke and the SPD picked up a lot of precincts in the lower-income parts of the socially troubled neighborhood).

SPD support, heavily West Berlin-based, forms a sort of C-shape around downtown Berlin (the CDU won the extremely expensive parts of the downtown core) – picking up some Green support in Neukölln, Kreuzberg, Tempelhof, Schöneberg, parts of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Moabit, Wedding and Gesundbrunnen. In other words, a mix of both Green strongholds and multicultural lower-income areas such as ‘Red Wedding’, Gesundbrunnen, and Charlottenburg North. Outside these areas, the SPD only managed to win a bunch of precincts, a lot in the working-class parts of Spandau – almost all covering densely populated precincts with high-rise apartments and/or social housing.

The CDU did best in all of the outlying, more suburban areas of West Berlin; with strongest results in the most affluent neighborhoods such as those facing the Grunewald.

Some other cities have interactive maps of their results at the precinct level; Dresden and Munich have particularly well-done apps which allow you to compare two maps, and it automatically generates a correlation graph and correlation coefficients/R2 stats for you. For example, in Munich, there’s a 0.61 correlation between the Green vote and the population aged 35-44; and a 0.55 correlation between the SPD vote and the population with a ‘migration background’ (immigrants).

Coalition formation

There are two potential coalitions on these results. The most likely coalition is a Grand Coalition between the CDU/CSU and SPD. Angela Merkel has little qualms with such an option, she didn’t suffer too much from the 2005-2009 Grand Coalition, she will have the upper hand over her potential junior partner in any new Grand Coalition and she is flexible enough as a leader to alter the more controversial parts of her platform to meet halfway with the SPD (although, with the CDU/CSU in such strong footing, the SPD will be doing much of the concessions). Talks between the CDU/CSU and SPD kicked off on October 4.

The CDU/CSU and SPD already agree on a number of policy items, including important topics such as foreign/European policy (even Eurozone policy, in the end…), retirement or housing. The main disagreements are on taxes, the minimum wage, healthcare and family policy. The CDU/CSU is opposed to any tax increases, despite earlier rumours that it might moderate its stance. Now, the SPD’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel, has made signs that he is ready to meet Merkel halfway on the issue, saying that tax increases are not an end in themselves. Merkel moved towards the SPD in announcing that investing in education/research, another SPD priority, would be a priority for the next Bundestag. The SPD might force Merkel to compromise on the minimum wage, which is something that she is probably willing to do.

However, the SPD is not as keen on the idea of a Grand Coalition. The last Grand Coalition was disastrous for the SPD, and they probably can’t help but wonder if Merkel will effectively do to the SPD what she did to the FDP (steamroll them). The SPD’s leadership, led by Sigmar Gabriel, seem pro-Grand Coalition, fearing for new elections if Merkel is unable to form a government (if she lacks SPD support). The SPD’s base, however, is lukewarm at best. Apparently, the SPD wants to consult its membership sometime in October or November. A recent ARD poll shows a majority of SPD members support a Grand Coalition.

Merkel could perhaps form a minority government composed only of the CDU/CSU, but this appears unlikely. Germany is not accustomed to minority governments, partly because of a lingering memory of the Weimar Republic’s unstable minority governments. However, Merkel could probably last a full term with a minority government, given that a Chancellor can only be removed by a vote of no-confidence if the opposition has agreed on its own alternative chancellor candidate (constructive motion of confidence). That being said, a minority government is uncharted waters and could potentially create an unstable political situation in which the three  opposition parties can ‘gang up’ and pass their own agenda and in which Merkel is left weakened. Merkel wants a strong government, so a minority government is unlikely.

The other option is a black-green coalition between Merkel and the Greens. Merkel seems to be the most interested in this option; the Greens appear fairly hostile although they have sat down with the CDU/CSU. The Bavarian CSU, finally, is opposed to a coalition with the Greens, both the Greens and CSU share mutual hatred for one another. The Greens demand more investments in education/research, a plan for renewable energy, a minimum wage and healthcare reform (single-payer). Given the Greens’ left-wing campaign and the CDU/CSU’s fairly anti-Green campaign (playing on the pedophilia scandal), such an option appears unlikely. Furthermore, the Greens’ four negotiators are due to be replaced (Trittin and co-leader Claudia Roth), so the Greens are going through a period of leadership change and renewal, therefore probably even less willing to be serious about a coalition.

Besides, the Greens know that their base would not easily accept a coalition with the CDU/CSU, and they would likely lose significant support in an election after a black-green coalition.

Theoretically, a red-red-green coalition has a majority of seats (but not of the vote). Yet, this option is not even being considered. First and foremost, a coalition which would remove Merkel from the chancellorship after her spectacular victory would be a PR disaster for the three parties, most particularly the SPD. Public opinion is opposed to a red-red-green coalition to begin with, forming on in these circumstances would be a recipe for unmitigated disaster. Even a ‘Magdeburg Model’ coalition with external Die Linke support would not work out and would be very unpopular. Second, neither the SPD or the Greens are ready for a red-red-green coalition at the federal level. Foreign policy differences (NATO, EU) between the SPD/Greens and Die Linke are a major obstacle; among other factors. The SPD is probably worried about what effects such a coalition could have on its support in West Germany.

Merkel talked to the SPD last week, she talked with the Greens on October 10 and she will be meeting with both SPD and Green leaders again next week (October 14 for the SPD, October 15 for the Greens). She should announce by the end of next week, certainly before the Bundestag reconvenes on October 22, with which party she intends to open formal talks to negotiate a coalition agreement.

Addendum: Bavarian and Hessian state elections 2013


State elections were held in Bavaria back on September 15, a week before the federal elections. The Bavarian Landtag (Bayerischer Landtag), which will now have 187 seats, is elected by MMP but using a peculiar electoral system different from the one used in federal and most state elections. 90 seats are single-member district seats, elected by FPTP. However, the proportional representation aspect of the vote (the second vote) is different in that there are no statewide lists, but rather seven regional lists (seven regional constituencies corresponding to Bavaria’s seven districts) and these lists are open lists – voters vote for the list candidate of their choice. However, voters may not vote for a candidate who stood in their district on their second vote.

The distribution of seats (5% threshold, Hare/Niemeyer method) is determined by the gesamtstimmen (total votes) – the sum of first and second votes. If a candidate from a party which won less than 5% of the votes in Bavaria wins the most votes in a district seat, he/she is not elected because their party won less than 5%, the runner-up from a party which won over 5% in elected in their stead.

Even those who know little about Germany probably know that Bavaria often stands out from the rest of Germany, as one of the states with the strongest local identity. Conservative, predominantly Catholic and historically rural, many (especially those on the left) view Bavaria as an austere, clerical and arch-conservative bulwark in Germany – sometimes known as the “little Texas”. Bavarians tend to be fiercely proud of their cultures and traditions, and might identify as ‘Bavarians’ first rather than Germans. Germans from other regions, particularly northern Germany, tend to stereotype Bavarians as ‘weird’ – wearing dirndl and lederhosen, speaking ‘funny’ (Bavarian language, Upper German dialects) or the Oktoberfest.

Bavarian politics certainly reflects Bavaria’s more unique place in Germany. It is a conservative stronghold like no other German state, and it is also often a strong advocate for federalism and states’ rights. Bavaria resisted German unification – it allied with Catholic Austria in the 1866 war against the Protestant hegemon of northern Germany, Prussia. After German unification, the Kingdom of Bavaria retained the right to maintain its own standing army, conduct its own foreign policy and other small advantages. Under the Weimar Republic, Bavarian politics were largely dominated by the conservative, Catholic and regionalist Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), a vocal advocate and fierce defender of federalism and states’ rights. Although Bavaria is closely associated with Nazism because of Munich and Nuremberg’s prominent place in Nazi lore and propaganda, Catholic Bavaria was one of the toughest nuts to crack for the Nazis in the 1930s. Much like the other Catholic regions of Germany (the Rhineland, for example), the Nazis did not poll as well in Catholic Bavaria when it came to national prominence after 1930; its Bavarian support was largely from Protestant voters in Middle and Upper Franconia – from voters who had supported pan-German conservative or liberal parties in the past (Kaiserreich Conservatives, the DNVP or the liberal parties).

Under the Federal Republic, Bavarian politics have been dominated by a single party, a feat which no other party has achieved in any other state except perhaps neighboring BaWü. The Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, has governed the state since 1946 (except for 1954-1957) and it held an absolute majority in the Bavarian Landtag between 1962 and 2008.

A number of factors explain the CSU’s remarkable endurance. First and foremost, its conservative and Bavarian regionalist orientation is a good fit for the Bavarian electorate, which, outside of major urban centres, is very conservative. The SPD has long struggled to break through with Catholic voters, and in many parts of rural Altbayern (the most solidly Catholic and clerical region of Bavaria), the SPD is often seen as a foreign creature (associated with ‘godless’ socialism and anti-clericalism). In contrast, the CSU has built a solid base with small business owners, farmers, retirees, post-war German refugees and rural/small town voters in general. The CSU also won significant blue-collar/working-class support, because of the state’s low rates of unionization. Unlike the BVP, which was very much the heir to the Bavarian Zentrum from pre-war days, the CSU has also been able to break the confessional divide which was a defining element in Bavarian politics for years.

Secondly, the CSU, through its relative independence from the CDU and its nature as a Bavaria-only party, has successfully been able to ‘lobby’ for Bavarian interests in Berlin, or when the CDU/CSU is in the opposition federally, defend Bavarian interests against the intrusive federal government.

Thirdly, by controlling the state apparatus consistently since 1957, the CSU has come to control patronage networks and it has made efficient use of such networks to build up its political support. The CSU has been involved in a number of scandals over its history, none of these scandals have really hurt the party’s standing.

Last but not least, Bavaria has become one of Germany’s wealthiest states, as a prominent and well-off centre for manufacturing, IT, tourism and other tertiary industries. Most of Bavaria has extremely low unemployment rates today.

The CSU won the first two post-war elections in 1946 with over 50% of the vote. In the 1950 election, however, CSU support fell to 27.4% – down nearly 25 points – because of the emergence of two new parties which ate into the CSU’s conservative base: the separatist Bavaria Party (BP), which won 18% of the vote (mostly from Catholic Lower Bavaria) and the refugees’ party (BHE-DG), which won 12% (Bavaria received a large number of German refugees from former German territory in the east). A very divided Landtag allowed the SPD, in 1954, to form a coalition with the BP, BHE-DG and FDP, excluding the CSU. The CSU regained lost support in the 1954 election (38% of the vote, BP down to 13%) and returned to government, in coalition with the BHE-DG and FDP, which remained the CSU’s junior allies until 1962. The BP gradually died off after it lost its seats in the Bundestag in 1953 and following the ‘casino scandal’ in 1959, it lost all seats in 1966 and became an irrelevant minor party thereafter. Between 1978 and 1988, Bavaria was ruled by the colourful and controversial Franz Josef Strauß.

After winning 62% of the vote in 1974, the CSU’s vote gradually declined to 52% by 1994-1998. In the 2003 election, however, the CSU, led by Edmund Stoiber (Minister-President between 1993 and 2007), the CSU won 61% of the vote and upgraded its absolute majority to a two-thirds majority, the first time in the history of the Federal Republic. Five years later, however, the CSU suffered one of its worst defeats in decades, tumbling down 17% to ‘only’ 43% and losing its absolute majority, which it had held without interruption since 1962. In 2007, Stoiber, facing internal turmoil, had stepped down and was replaced by Günther Beckstein, a poor and uncharismatic leader. The CSU lost a lot of their support to the FDP, which won 8% and went on to be the CSU’s junior ally in the first coalition government in Bavaria since 1966; but it also lost much votes to the Free Voters (Freie Wähler, FW), an association of community/local lists and independent candidates which are present throughout Germany but quite strong in Bavaria, especially in local elections. In 2008, the FW owed much of their success to Gabriele Pauli, a CSU leader who criticized the CSU establishment and shocked the mainstream by proposing that marriages be turned into renewable seven-year contracts.

Beckstein stepped down after the election ‘defeat’ and was replaced by the much more charismatic Horst Seehofer, who is Bavaria’s Minister-President today. Seehofer has conservative views on immigrant, energy policy and same-sex marriage (the CSU’s strong opposition to same-sex marriage is one of the main reasons why it is not yet legal in Germany).

The FW are more or less centrist or centre-right, with an eclectic mix of socially liberal policies, conservative policies or economically liberal policies. Its main concern, however, is increasing local autonomy, more funding for communities, strengthening direct democracy and oftentimes opposition to specific infrastructure or investment projects in a given community. Their platform positions were fairly similar to the CSU’s this year.

The SPD, whose support in state elections has declined from a high of 36% in 1966 to an all-time low of 18.6% in 2009, had a strong top candidate this year: Munich mayor Christian Ude (since 1993), a popular mayor who was reelected with two-thirds of the vote in the 2008 election.

Turnout was 63.7%, up 6 points from 2008. The results were:

CSU 47.7% (+4.3%) winning 101 seats (+9)
SPD 20.6% (+2%) winning 42 seats (+3)
FW 9% (-1.2%) winning 19 seats (-2)
Greens 8.6% (-0.8%) winning 18 seats (-1)
FDP 3.3% (-4.7%) winning 0 seats (-16)
Die Linke 2.1% (-2.2%) winning 0 seats (±0)
BP 2.1% (+1%) winning 0 seats (±0)
ÖDP 2% (±0%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Pirates 2% (+2%) winning 0 seats (±0)
REP 1% (-0.4%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Others 1.5% (+0.3%) winning 0 seats (±0)

Results of the 2013 Bavarian election by district (first vote constituency winner; source: Landeswahlleiter des Freistaates Bayern)

Unsurprisingly, Horst Seehofer’s CSU government, popular and buoyed by an exceptionally strong local economy, was handily reelected and regained the absolute majority it had lost in the 2008 election. The main things which played in the CSU’s favour, according to the exit poll (ARD), was a very strong economy (71% said Bavaria has done well in the past decade, 84% said the Bavarian economy was good, +16 on 2008), a strong candidate (Seehofer led Ude 55-36 in a direct matchup, 74% saw him as the strongest leader and 72% said he would best defend Bavarian interests) and perceived competence on economic issues (69% said they were the most competent on economic policy, vs. 13% for the SPD). The SPD dominated on its niche issues (wages, social policy).

65% of voters approved of the government, up 17% from 2008. As it did federally, the government’s popularity did not help the FDP – 78% of voters were unhappy with the FDP’s performance in government. Again, Bavarian voters said that they felt that the FDP had been unremarkable and pretty useless in government. The unpopularity of the federal FDP brand likely played a major role as well, in the absence of a local FDP leader like Christian Lindner (NRW) to boost their chances, and with the CSU not campaigning for any ‘loan votes’ in favour of the FDP.

The CSU regained support from voters who had backed the FDP in 2009 (120,000 2009 FDP voters voted CSU this year) and non-voters (320,000 2009 non-voters voted CSU in 2013), with minor gains (20,000 votes) from Die Linke and the Greens, and minor loses (20,000) votes to ‘other parties’ (for some boneheaded reason, these vote transfer analyses ignore the FW!). The FDP lost about 50,000 to all other parties combined. The SPD gained votes from non-voters (110,00 of them), the Greens (20,000) and Die Linke (40,000). I don’t like these figures much, in good part because ignoring the FW is stupid.

The CSU won 89 direct seats, the SPD won only a single district mandate – Munich-Milbertshofen, which they had also won in 2009. This district includes inter-war social housing, cooperative housing (Neuhausen), partially gentrified inner-city areas in Neuhausen, the trendy and gentrified bohemian district of Schwabing-West and post-war social housing projects in Milbertshofen-Am Hart. The SPD won 34% of the first votes against 32% for the CSU. The SPD came close in Munich-Schwabing, an inner-city district which includes both SPD/Green inner-city trendy/hip areas such as Isarvorstadt (a gentrified area which includes the gay neighborhood; a Green stronghold), Maxvorstadt (a large student/academic population due to the universities) but also the expensive posh inner-city residential area of Lehel, where the SPD is weak (but the Greens pretty strong). Vote splitting hurt the SPD and/or the Greens here; the CSU won only 31.6% of the first votes, against 29% for the SPD and 17.7% for the Greens (their candidate was their Bavarian top candidate). The SPD won a narrow plurality of the gesamtstimmen. The SPD won almost all of its best results in Munich. Not only is Munich an urban area which naturally votes to the left of its surroundings, the SPD received a clear ‘Ude effect’ in Munich and Upper Bavaria.

% change in the Bavarian Green vote since 2008 (source: Landeswahlleiter des Freistaates Bayern)

One of the main reasons the Greens lost votes is because they suffered the most from a the Ude-induced boost in SPD showings in Upper Bavaria – keep in mind that with Bavaria’s electoral systems, a voter could only vote for Ude (standing on the SPD list in Upper Bavaria) in Upper Bavaria; Ude was not on the ballot as a list candidate outside of that district. The map on the left shows the percentage change in the Green vote since the 2008 election: the Greens lost 3% of the gesamtstimmen in Upper Bavaria (and the SPD gained 2.8%…); they gained votes (albeit only marginally in a lot of cases) in the six other districts – most notably, the Greens gained further in Nuremberg and Augsburg. Their loses in Upper Bavaria were perhaps further explained by the loss of Sepp Daxenberger, a very popular Green leader and mayor in southeastern Bavaria who passed away in 2010.

The increase in the CSU vote since 2008 (map here) largely came from Catholic Altbayern, the CSU actually lost support in Protestant areas in Franconia, particularly in the Nuremberg/Fürth metro. 2008 CSU leader Beckstein was a Protestant from Nuremberg. In contrast, CSU gains were quite heavy around Ingolstadt and Neuburg-Schrobenhausen, Seehofer’s native town and his constituency. In the Munich metro area, the CSU also cashed in on the FDP’s major loses.

Here is an electoral atlas of the results. The CSU did best in rural Bavaria, particularly Catholic regions of Altbayern, most notably Seehofer’s home turf. The SPD’s best results came from Munich, but the party also did well in working-class Protestant areas in Franconia such as Hof (29.7%), Coburg (27.6%) or Wunsiedel-Kulmbach (28%); in addition to urban areas such as Nuremberg (30.7% in the city’s lower-income southern end), Regensburg, Augsburg and Würzburg. The Greens, outside of Munich, did best in Freising (18.9%), an old Green stronghold and university town; parts of Nuremberg (about 14%) or the university town of Würzburg (15.8%). The FW did best in rural ares, particularly conservative and Catholic Lower Bavaria, which was a stronghold for a farmers’ party during the Kaiserreich and much of Weimar, and also where the FW’s current leader is from (the FW vote share was higher than in 2013 in Lower Bavaria). The FDP did best in affluent areas, peaking at 9.1% in Starnberg.


State elections were held concurrently with the federal elections in Hesse on September 22. The 110 seats in the Landtag are elected by a MMP (closed lists) system very similar to that used federally and in most other states. 55 members are elected in single-member districts by FPTP, the rest (plus compensation for overhang) are elected by closed lists, seats distributed to parties winning over 5% of the vote using the Hare/Niemeyer system.

Hesse as a single political entity is a post-war creation. Prior to World War II, modern-day Hessian territory was divided between a handful of small states. In 1866, Prussia annexed Hesse-Kassel, Frankfurt and Nassau, forming the province of Hesse-Nassau. Hesse-Darmstadt retained its independence as the Grand Duchy of Hesse, most of its territory was located south of the Main river and included Rhenish Hesse (Mainz/Worms), which is currently part of the Rhineland-Palatinate. In 1946, the Americans created the state of Hesse from the bulk of Hesse-Darmstadt and the former Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau, as part of the dismemberment of Prussia.

Between 1946 and 1987, Hesse was governed by the SPD, which held an absolute majority between 1950 and 1954 and between 1962 and 1970. The SPD governed with the CDU between 1946 and 1950, with the GB-BHE between 1954 and 1966 and with the FDP between 1970 and 1982. Following an inconclusive election in 1982, a new election was held in 1983, which led to a SPD government with external Green support; and, in 1985, the first red-green government in Germany was formed – before collapsing two years later over disagreements on nuclear policy. The CDU won the 1987 elections, and formed a black-yellow coalition, which failed to win reelection in 1991. The SPD and the Greens won the 1991 and 1995 elections.

The 1999 election was fought over federal politics; CDU leader Roland Koch made opposition to the red-green federal government’s proposal to allow dual citizenship for foreign immigrants the top issue in his campaign. The CDU and the FDP won a bare majority of seats and Roland Koch, a prominent leader of the CDU’s right-wing, became Minister-President. He was reelected with an expanded majority in 2003, with the SPD’s vote share collapsing by some 10 points. However, by the time of the 2008 election, his government had lost in popularity and his tough campaign on immigration and crime – largely focused on foreign youth criminality, proved extremely controversial – Koch’s critics accused him of xenophobia and racism. The CDU lost 12% of the vote, and the black-yellow government lost its majority. However, with Die Linke entering the Landtag for the first time with 5.1% and 6 seats, the red-greens had no majority on their own and would require the support or participation of Die Linke to form government. Given Koch’s right-wing nature and the controversial red baiting in his campaign, a Grand Coalition proved impossible. SPD leader Andrea Ypsilanti tried to form a red-green government with Die Linke support – the Magdeburg Model – but failed on two attempts. After a year of political instability, a new election was held in 2009.

In the 2009 election, the SPD was badly hurt by the chaos which had followed the last election, and the SPD’s vote collapsed by 12 points to an all-time low of 23.7%. The CDU did not profit from the SPD’s troubles, winning roughly what it won a year prior. The Greens and the FDP registered the strongest gains, both gaining over 6 points – the FDP won 16.2% of the vote, the Greens won 13.7% of the vote. In any case, the black-yellow coalition regained an absolute majority and Koch returned as Minister-President. Koch stepped down in 2010, partly because of disagreements with Merkel. He was replaced by Volker Bouffier, a Koch ally who had served as his state minister of the interior.

Bouffier’s SPD opponent was Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, who had already been the SPD’s top candidate in the 2009 election.

Turnout was 73.2%, up 12.2% from the 2009 election. Tying the election to the federal election likely boosted turnout significantly.

CDU 38.3% (+1.1%) winning 47 seats (+1)
SPD 30.7% (+7%) winning 37 seats (+8)
Greens 11.1% (-2.6%) winning 14 seats (-3)
Die Linke 5.2% (-0.2%) winning 6 seats (±0)
FDP 5.0% (-11.2%) winning 6 seats (-14)
AfD 4.1% (+4.1%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Pirates 1.9% (+1.4%) winning 0 seats (±0)
FW 1.2% (-0.4%) winning 0 seats (±0)
NPD 1.1% (+0.2%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Others 1.3% (+0.5%) winning 0 seats (±0)

Der Spiegel has a map of the results here.

The Hessian elections ended inconclusively, as in 2008. The incumbent black-yellow government lost its absolute majority, while only a red-red-green/Magdeburg Model government can be formed by the left.

Exit polls confirm that voters were closely divided. In a direct vote for Minister-President, Bouffier held a two-point lead (44-42) over his SPD opponent, Schäfer-Gümbel. 51% of voters approved of the government, and 55% of respondents said a red-green coalition would be good for Hesse (but only 21% said the same for a red-red-green government). Asked which party should form the next government, 48% said the SPD against 47% who said the CDU. Although voters were optimistic about the economy (77% said the economy was good, up from 36% in the January 2009 election), and voters overwhelmingly sided with the CDU on economic issues (55% said the CDU was the most competent party on economic issues), the CDU was unable to translate that into additional support.

According to the vote transfer analysis, the CDU suffered fairly significant loses to the SPD (29,000 voters) and AfD (15,000), which were cancelled out by the influx of 75,000 votes from voters who had backed the FDP in 2009. The SPD’s gains came at the expense of the Greens (47,000 votes), the FDP (48,000), the CDU and Die Linke (18,000).

Compared to the federal election held at the same time, the CDU underperformed Merkel’s result by about 1%, while the SPD did about 2% better than in the federal election. The Greens did about 1% better in the state election, Die Linke about 1% worse, the FDP about 0.5% worse and the AfD did 1.5% worse (it won 5.6% in the federal election).

The FDP’s result was perhaps the only good thing of the night for them. Early exit polling and early preliminary results had shown them under the 5% threshold in the state election, in the end they managed to save their parliamentary caucus – winning 5.03% of the votes, 920 more votes than they needed.

Government formation will take a long time. There are a number of potential options which are all feasible, but all of them have serious challenges. A red-red-green government, or a Magdeburg Model government, is theoretically possible on these results and it seems to be considered as a serious possibility. However, after what happened in 2008 and the unpopularity of such an option in public opinion, it will be tough to form such a government. A Grand Coalition with the SPD and CDU is one of the likeliest options, but as 2008 showed, a Grand Coalition with the Hessian CDU (and its rather conservative leadership) is not less problematic than a red-red-green government. A black-green government seems to be on the table as well, and the federal CDU is, if rumours are to be trusted, prodding the Hessian CDU towards a coalition with the Greens, as some kind of experiment for a future federal-level black-green government. In Hesse, CDU-Green governments already exist at the local level. However, the Greens would likely agree to such a coalition if it was led by somebody other than Bouffier. If all of these options fail, then Hesse could face new elections, as in 2009. However, there is no deadline on government formation at the state level in Hesse (unlike federally), so these talks could very well draw out for months.


Angela Merkel was reelected to a third term, winning a very impressive result and falling only a few seats short of an absolute majority. Although this election is unlikely to lead to major or fundamental changes in German domestic, European and foreign policy in the next four years, these elections will have some political significance. The SPD remain weak, and with much work to do on their end if they are to regain power federally in 2017. The Greens weakened and facing problems of their own, a surprising and very disappointing result after a spectacular four years for the German Greens. Die Linke, despite falling from their 2009 heights, confirmed that they remain a major political force, mostly in the East but with some significant support in the West as well. In the long-term, with Die Linke shaping up to establish itself as a permanent force on the German left, the SPD and the Greens will be forced to make their peace with Die Linke and accept them as a coalition partner if they want form a left-wing coalition at the federal or even state level.

The FDP thrown out of the Bundestag for the first time in their history; an historic defeat for the FDP and the long liberal tradition it has embodied in the post-war era. Will the FDP be able to reemerge as a major player in federal politics, or will they die out and their remaining votes squeezed by parties such as the CDU or the AfD? The emergence of a new Eurosceptic force (AfD) in German politics, the first such party which seems to be credible enough and with sufficient potential support to become a major player in German politics. Will the AfD be a flash in the pan, similar to parties such as The Republicans in the early 1990s or the NPD in the mid-1960s; or will they be the force that is able to shake up Germany’ stable political/partisan system?

Angela Merkel, by 2017, will have been in power for 12 years. This is a long time, but not unusually long for CDU Chancellors – Kohl governed Germany for 16 years, Adenauer for 14 years. Undoubtedly, she will go down in history as one of Germany’s most significant and important Chancellors, and not only because of her key role in the Euro crisis. After 12 years in office, will Merkel seek a fourth term in office in 2017, and seek to match Kohl’s 16-year tenure at the helm of Germany? It is unclear as of now what Merkel intends to do, with many believing she will retire, others thinking she will be back for a fourth term.

The CDU seems to lack a clear ‘crown prince’ to succeed Merkel. Potential rivals/successors such as Christian Wulff or Roland Koch have already been pushed out, and other potential successors such as David McAllister or Norbert Röttgen, two former Minister-Presidents (Lower Saxony and NRW) failed to win reelection in their last state elections. The federal minister of labour and social affairs, Ursula von der Leyen, is a major contender for Merkel’s succession, but she might have fallen out of favor by criticizing the CDU’s family policies as too conservative. The young federal minister of family affairs, women and youth Kristina Schröder, is a rising star in the CDU but she has not made a major mark in her ministry after four years.

Thank you for reading this long post, either entirely or in parts. I apologize for the long time it took to write this up, but hopefully it was worth it. Stay tuned: Austria (Sept. 29) and Nova Scotia (Oct. 8) are next on the list, before major elections in the Czech Republic and Luxembourg later this month.

Ontario (Canada) by-elections 2013

Five provincial by-elections were held in Ontario (Canada) on August 1, 2013 in the ridings of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, London West, Ottawa South, Scarborough-Guildwood and Windsor-Tecumseh. These seats fell vacant between early February and late June 2013, after their incumbent MPPs – all five Liberals, including a former Premier and three other former provincial cabinet ministers – resigned their seats.

The timing of the by-elections raised a few eyebrows. Elections rarely fall during the heat of the summer months, so many thought that Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne deliberately scheduled by-elections in early August to ensure low turnout and so that voters don’t have too much time to read into the results of the by-election while they’re on vacation or prepping for vacation. Besides, August 1 fell on a Thursday right before a long weekend (the first Monday in August is Ontario’s provincial holiday).

Poll-by-poll maps of the 2011 provincial election results are available on the Blunt Objects blog or the Canadian Election Atlas blog. Interactive maps of the results of federal elections since 1997 to the polling station level are available on the awesome Canadian Federal Election Atlas. My riding profiles integrate the results of the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey, which replaced the mandatory long-form census. Results of the NHS are available on Stats Can’s website.


In October 2011, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s provincial Liberals won a third straight term in office; but unlike in 2003 and 2007, they fell short – by a single seat – of winning a majority government. Therefore, for the first time since gaining power in 2003, the Liberals have been forced to work with other parties to pass legislation.

Ontario’s economy has been struggling in the past few years, a far cry from the days where Canada’s most populous province was seen as the country’s economic/industrial powerhouse. Indeed, Ontario’s manufacturing-driven and export-oriented economy has been badly hurt by subdued domestic activity and declining demand from the US. Economic growth slowed to 1.5% in 2012 and is forecast to remain low in 2013, although growth could increase by 2014 if US growth accelerates. The provincial government has been forced to deal with, since 2008-2009, a very large deficit and ballooning public debt. The 2013-2014 deficit projection is $11.8 billion, up from a $9.8 billion deficit in 2012-2013; the province’s debt stands at 37.5% of GDP and should increase to 40% by 2015-2016. The size of Ontario’s debt and deficit has led some fiscally conservative economists to liken Ontario to California and Greece.

The Liberal government introduced a severe austerity-minded budget in 2012, including major cuts in government spending and services and a two-year pay freeze for public sector employees (including teachers and doctors). The opposition Progressive Conservatives (PCs), led by Tim Hudak, rejected the budget out of hand, claiming it did not do enough to curb “runaway spending” and debt. The Liberals were forced to reach a compromise with the centre-left New Democrats (NDP), led by Andrea Horwath. In April, the NDP agreed to prop up the government in return for the inclusion of a tax on high incomes, although in June the province seemed to be on the verge of an election when the NDP and the PCs started voting against key planks of the budget. McGuinty threatened to call an election until the NDP blinked and abstained on the final vote, allowing the Liberal government to survive its first supply vote.

The Liberal government’s decision to impose a two-year pay freeze on public employees was met by strong opposition from teachers and their unions. In September 2012, the Liberals – with PC support – passed the very controversial Bill 115 (‘Putting Students First Act’) which severely limited teachers’ right to strike and imposed the two-year pay freeze (along with less benefits). There were rolling one-day strikes by elementary school teachers throughout the province in early and mid-December. The government and the unions finally reached agreement shortly after the bill’s December 31 deadline, and Bill 115 was repealed in January 2013. However, elementary and high school teachers promised province-wide one-day walkouts until the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled the walkouts illegal.

To make things worse, McGuinty’s Liberals were constantly dogged by various high-profile scandals which have seriously undermined the government’s legitimacy and popularity. The Liberal government has faced various scandals since taking office in 2003, but after 2011, it was as if all the most crippling scandals came raining down. In December 2011, the government was drawn into the Ornge (the province’s air-ambulance service) scandal, after allegations of financial irregularities, cost overruns, huge salaries for managers and kickbacks. It was later shown that the McGuinty government had wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars in Ornge and had turned a blind eye to earlier reports of corruption.

However, the most damaging scandal has been the power plants scandal. In 2009, the Liberal government, which had closed down two polluting coal-powered power plants in southern Ontario approved the construction of two new natural gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga, two suburban communities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) – and also key electoral battlegrounds. However, the plants faced the opposition of local residents, which forced the Liberals to cancel the Oakville plant in October 2010. In September 2011, a month before the elections and facing a strong challenge – notably in Mississauga – from the Tories and the NDP, the Liberals cancelled the Mississauga power plant. The Oakville cancellation cost $40 million and the Mississauga cancellation cost $190 million. Today, the total cost for the cancellation of two plants – which includes the need to build two new plants to replace them – could be $600 million.

The Liberals were reelected in October 2011, and held seats in Mississauga and Oakville. In the summer of 2012, the emboldened PCs and New Democrats called on Liberal energy minister Chris Bentley to hand over all documents related to the gas plant cancellations, which he refused to do, until September 2012. In early October, Bentley was facing an opposition motion which would hold him in “contempt of Parliament” – a very serious and rare offence which might have meant jail time for him.

The power plant scandal was one of the major factors which led Premier McGuinty to announce his surprise resignation on October 15. However, at the same time, the outgoing Premier prorogued Parliament – effectively killing off the opposition’s contempt motion.

The Liberal leadership election on January 26, 2013 opposed six candidates – the top three being former MPP and cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello, incumbent cabinet minister Kathleen Wynne and former provincial cabinet minister and former federal Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy. Kathleen Wynne, considered as being on the left of the party, won on the third ballot at the convention, with 57% against 43% for Pupatello.

The Liberals, who had dropped to third place and oscillating in the low-to-mid 20s, saw their support increase considerably after Wynne’s election, shooting into second or first place and over 30% – in some cases over 35%. There were rumours – unfounded – that Wynne would seek a mandate of her own and take advantage of her honeymoon.

In May 2013, the NDP once again backed the Liberals’ 2013 budget, which included a few NDP-influenced goodies (15% cut in auto insurance, new funding for youth jobs etc) while continuing with the government’s stated intent to achieve a surplus in 2017-2018. Two of the NDP’s three post-budget demands were satisfied by the Liberals. The gas plant scandal has continued to hurt the Liberals, with recent revelations of Liberal cover-ups or attempts to intimidate the speaker. Wynne has been unable to shake off the perception that she is only a new face on the McGuinty Liberal government, rather than a clear break with McGuinty’s tainted legacy.


Etobicoke-Lakeshore (source: Elections Canada)

Etobicoke-Lakeshore covers the southern portion of the former city of Etobicoke in western Toronto. The riding, which borders Lake Ontario to the south and the Humber River to the east, includes neighborhoods such as Mimico, New Toronto, Long Branch, Alderwood, The Queensway or Eatonville.

The seat fell vacant in July when the Liberal incumbent, former education minister Laurel Broten resigned, apparently to move to Nova Scotia. Broten, who first won her seat in 2003, served as McGuinty’s Minister of Education between 2011 and 2013, and became closely associated with the government’s push against teacher’s unions over pay, benefits and Bill 115. She was shuffled to Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs after Wynne became Premier, but she resigned effective July 2.

Taken as a whole, Etobicoke-Lakeshore is a fairly middle-class and white-collar riding. It has a high percentage of residents with a university diploma or degree (33.5%), a high percentage of residents employed in managerial occupations or business/finance/administration (34%) and a fairly high median household income ($58,088 in 2005). Only 7.9% of the riding’s labour force is employed in manufacturing. Demographically, 23.8% of the riding’s inhabitants are visible minorities, a rather high proportion by provincial or national standards, but the lowest of all Toronto ridings. South Asians (4.6% of the population) form the largest single visible minority group. That being said, a significantly larger percentage of the riding’s residents are immigrants – 39.5% (27.7% of which immigrated after 2001).

Etobicoke-Lakeshore is home to one of the largest Eastern European populations in all of Canada: 21.7% of the riding’s residents are of Eastern European ancestry, most of them Polish (10% of the population) or Ukrainian (7.6%). As a result, it has a large Catholic (40.8%) and Eastern Orthodox (5.9%) population and a small but significant share of the population claim languages such as Polish or Ukrainian as their mother tongues.

In 2005, 60.1% of dwellings were owned.

At a more micro level, the riding present a diverse mix of neighborhoods. Traditionally, the communities lining the lake have been more industrial and working-class: Mimico, New Toronto or Long Branch (but especially the first two) – and to this day, these neighborhoods remain slightly less affluent and more lower middle-class/working-class in character. That being said, the coastal stretch of the riding has been changed by the construction of a large number of high-rise condo towers on the Humber Bay Shores, which has attracted some wealthier residents.

In contrast, the neighborhoods north of the Gardiner Expressway between Mimico Creek and the Humber River (The Kingsway, Lambton Hills etc) are upper middle-class, high-income and well educated. The Kingsway is one of Toronto’s most affluent neighborhoods.

Other neighborhoods such as Alderwood, Sunnylea, Norseman Heights and Eatonville are post-war middle-class suburban communities, with single family homes but also their share of apartments or condos along main arteries. Alderwood and Sunnylea have a particularly high Polish and/or Ukrainian population. These areas were identified as some of the last remaining ‘middle-income’ neighborhoods in a 2010 study about income polarization since 1970 in Toronto.

Islington-City Centre West, a densely populated neighborhood at the intersections of Bloor and Dundas streets (two of the city’s main avenues), includes a number of lower-income high-rise apartment buildings and has a fairly large visible minority population.

Finally, the riding includes large swathes of industrial land, including a large rail yard in New Toronto and a major industrial/business district north of the Gardiner Expressway.

Politically, all three parties have a history in the riding. What would become Etobicoke-Lakeshore flipped between the Liberals and the Conservatives until the 1940s, at which point the socialist CCF – and their successor, the NDP – became a major force, fighting with the Tories over the riding. The CCF/NDP’s strength was concentrated in the industrial and working-class areas of Mimico and New Toronto, while the northern half of the present-day riding was more reliably Conservative. Provincially, the NDP’s Patrick Lawlor held the seat between 1967 and 1981, the Tories gaining the seat when he retired. In 1985, the NDP’s Ruth Grier regained the seat from the PCs and held it until 1995, when Morley Kells, a Conservative, took the seat. Kells was defeated in 2003 by Liberal candidate Laurel Broten, who increased her majorities not only in 2007 but also in 2011 (when she won by 21.8%). In 2011, she won a third term with 51% against 29% for the PCs; the NDP took only 15.5%, the new suburban nature of the riding has made it progressively more hostile to the NDP.

Federally, the seat has a longer Liberal history. Most famously, it was former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s seat between 2006 and his surprise defeat at the hands of Conservative candidate Bernard Trottier in 2011. The Liberals, who had held the seat since 1993 with about 45-50% of the vote in every elections, fell to only 35.1% in 2011, against 40.4% for the Tories. The NDP increased its support to 20.3%.

In October 2011, Liberal incumbent Laurel Broten swept most of the riding, winning polls throughout the riding, in both the urban and lower-income south and the more suburban, middle-class north. The Conservatives won a few scattered polls throughout the riding, their strongest results coming from The Kingsway, a traditional Tory bastion. A few months prior in the federal elections, the Conservatives had won most of the polls, doing best in The Kingsway but also in Humber Bay Shores and swingy middle-class suburbs such as Eatonville, Alderwood, Sunnylea, The Queensway or Long Branch which had previously been more or less solidly Liberal. Ignatieff managed to keep a few lower-income polls red, notably in Islington, New Toronto and parts of Mimico. The NDP polled quite well in the southern half of the riding and other apartment-laden areas, but did poorly in the affluent neighborhoods.

The PCs recruited a very strong candidate, Toronto Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday. Holyday was the city of Etobicoke’s last mayor between 1994 and 1998, when it was amalgamated with other municipalities to form the single-tier city of Toronto. He has been a Toronto city councillor since 1998, although his current ward covers part of the riding of Etobicoke Centre, not Etobicoke-Lakeshore. In council, he had a reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative, but he seems to be respected across ideological lines for his honesty. Holyday is a close ally of Toronto’s bombastic (and embattled) conservative mayor, Rob Ford. Etobicoke as a whole, Ford’s stomping grounds, is a core part of the so-called ‘Ford Nation’. In the 2010 election, Rob Ford won over 55% in both wards covering Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and took well over 60% in middle-class suburbs such as Alderwood, Eatonville, Stonegate or The Queensway. Interestingly, Ford didn’t do as well (comparatively) in the most affluent and well-educated polls, even the solidly Conservative Kingsway (although he still won it comfortably).

There was some limited controversy about how Hudak more or less dumped the original PC candidate, a lesser known guy named Steve Ryan, in favour of his star candidate, Holyday. Officially, Ryan dropped out because of injuries sustained in a car accident.

The Liberals nominated Peter Milczyn, another Toronto city councillor whose ward covers the northern half of the riding. Like Holyday, Milczyn is a right-leaning councillor and is generally pro-Ford.

Although one might have expected that a race between two right-leaning candidates might have opened up some wiggle room on the left for the NDP, that wasn’t the case. The NDP nominated Pak-Cheong ‘P.C.’ Choo, a Malaysian-born Canadian and formed public school board trustee. The race quickly turned into a highly polarized and acrimonious contest between the PC’s Holyday and the Liberals’ Milczyn. Mayor Rob Ford publicly endorsed Holyday, and even ‘recommended’ that anti-Conservative/anti-Ford voters vote for the NDP rather than the Liberals.

The first polls, in the last week of June and then in the second week of July, showed the Liberals with a strong leader – a 25% point lead in June, reduced to a 6% lead in early July. Holyday’s candidacy was great news for the PCs, who shot into the lead in mid-July, leading the Liberals by as much as 7% according to a Forum Research poll on July 24. Two polls on July 30, however, showed a very close race: Forum had the PCs up by 4%, one ‘Campaign Research’ had them trailing by one.

Turnout was 38.6%, down from 50% in 2011:

Doug Holyday (PC) 46.94% (+17.4%)
Peter Milczyn (Liberal) 41.96% (-9.06%)
P.C. Choo (NDP) 7.82% (-7.63%)
Angela Salewsky (Green) 2.26% (-0.42%)
Hans Kunov (Libertarian) 0.45% (+0.06%)
Dan King (Special Needs) 0.45%
Kevin Clarke (People’s) 0.25%
Wayne Simmons (Freedom) 0.16% (-0.24%)

Tim Hudak’s Tories scored an impressive gain in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, turning a 22-point deficit in the last election into a comfortable 5-point victory over the Liberals. In 2011, Hudak’s PCs, widely seen as being too right-wing, did poorly throughout the city of Toronto – oftentimes doing worse than they had in 2007, under a less successful (but more moderate) leader. Therefore, Holyday’s victory, is a major coup for Hudak’s PCs – as we’ll see, probably their brightest spot on an otherwise mediocre night. This is the first time a provincial Tory has won a seat in Toronto proper since Mike Harris’ victory in the 1999 provincial election, and while Hudak could win the next election while still being shut out (or nearly shut out) of Toronto proper (he’d need to win big in Toronto’s suburbs, however), the ability to win a seat in Toronto is very good news for the PCs – and bad news for the Liberals, whose 2011 reelection was, in part, due to holding up very well in Toronto proper.

Of course, the PC gain does owe a lot to Doug Holyday. The Tories recruited a very strong star candidate in Holyday, a popular city councillor. With a lesser known, less prominent candidates, it is quite possible that the Liberals could have held the seat, although the PCs would likely have made some gains on their paltry 2011 showing.

Squeezed by two strong and polarizing candidates for the Liberals and the Tories, the NDP’s P.C. Choo did poorly, winning only 7.8% of the vote – a low point for the NDP, which last won in the single digits in the 2000 federal election and had managed to garner between 15% and 20% in most provincial elections since 1999. That being said, many Canadian by-elections – both federally and provincially – in recent years turned into polarized two-party contests with the third party, which might have managed a rather decent showing in the last general election, being totally squeezed by the two main parties and ending up with a poor vote share. In this sense, while the NDP’s result in Etobicoke-Lakeshore is disappointing for the party, it probably doesn’t have any longer-term consequences: the NDP didn’t put much effort into this race, and a higher-turnout general election will probably be less polarized between the top two parties.

London West

London West (source: Elections Canada)

London West, as you might have guessed again, covers the western end of the city of London in southwestern Ontario. The riding is divided in two by the Thames River; it includes neighborhoods such as Oakridge, Hyde Park, Byron, River Bend, Westmount, Southcrest, South London and Medway Heights.

The seat became vacant on February 14, 2013 when Liberal MPP Chris Bentley, (in)famous since the power plants scandal, resigned. Bentley was a McGuinty loyalist and sometimes seen as a potential successor. He held several high-profile portfolios during his ten years in government: labour (2003-2005), colleges and universities (2005-2007), Attorney General (2007-2011) and – of course – energy (2011-2013).

London West is the most suburban, affluent and white-collar riding of the city of London’s three core ridings. Its median household income, $56,859 in 2005, land it right smack in the middle of all Ontario ridings when ranked by that measure. 13.5% of residents in 2005 were low on income (before tax), again the lowest of London’s three ridings. It is not, however, the most educated riding of the three: London North Centre, which includes the University of Western Ontario, takes that honour; however, it is still quite educated: 28.1% have a university diploma or degree, and only 13.8% lack a high school diploma, the lowest out of the three ridings. Sales and services (24.6%) and business/finance/administration (15.7%) are the top two occupations; not all that surprising for a largely suburban and residential riding. However, it does stand out by the large percentage of the labour force employed in health (8.6%) and “occupations in education, law and social, community and government services” (15.1%) – both significantly above the provincial average. In terms of ‘industry’ (NAICS classifications), healthcare and social services (14.7%), retail trade (11.6%) and ‘educational services’ (10.9%) are the top three industries; again, on healthcare and education, London West’s percentages are significantly above the provincial average. These numbers likely reflect the presence of London’s general hospital in the riding and the proximity of Western U (I’m guessing university staff including profs, rather than students, are more likely to live in London West).

For a urban/suburban riding, London West has a small non-white population; only 15.1% are visible minorities, the leading such groups being Latin Americans (2.9% of the total population) and Arabs (2.4%). Therefore, the leading ancestries are European: English (32.1%), Scottish (22.3%), Irish (21.5%) but also ‘Canadian’ (25%).

In 2005, 62.2% of dwellings were owned and 37.8% were rented.

London West is a mixed urban and suburban riding, which includes both very recent suburban housing developments and urban neighborhoods which were first developed in the late nineteenth century as early suburbs of London. Located south of the Thames River opposite the city’s downtown, South London is very much a urban area, with old houses – ranging from smaller bungalows to some post-war constructions and larger (old) properties. On the north of the river, and just across downtown, the Blackfriars area is similarly urban, with a large student population.

Other neighborhoods, however, tend to be more suburban, although they tend to vary in terms of affluence. At the western end of the riding, River Bend, the Hunt Club part of Oakridge and other small neighborhoods on either side of the Thames are some of the most affluent areas in the city, with very large houses (of the ‘McMansion’ type). The Southcrest and Manor Park area, located south of the Thames, have more ‘urban’ demographics: less families, more renters and slightly lower incomes. Neighborhoods such as Westmount, Byron (both south of the river), Oakridge Acres, Medway Heights or White Hill (all north of the river) are typically suburban areas; more families, most houses being owned and single houses (although there quite a few small apartment blocks, row houses or community housing projects too) and more affordable property prices. A lot of areas have older properties, likely post-70s, but there has been rapid housing development in new cookie-cutter subdivisions in parts.

Politically, the western end of London has tended to be a closely disputed Liberal/Conservative marginal, and something of a bellwether (with an imperfect track record). The provincial Liberals have held the seat since 2003, but the federal Tories came within a hair of picking it up in 2006 and they have held it since 2008. At the provincial level, the seat was only created in 1999 when provincial ridings were lined up with federal ridings; prior to that, provincial ridings were divided north to south, cut by the Thames River. The PCs were generally strong in both ridings, Tory Premier John Robarts represented the area between 1951 and 1971. The Liberals gained London North, the more suburban of the two, in 1977 and held it until a 1988 by-election (the PCs then held that seat until its demise). They held London South between 1975 and 1977 and again between 1985 and 1990, when the NDP gained London South for a single term. The very right-wing Bob Wood, a ‘maverick’ social conservative within the Harris PC caucus, gained the seat in 1995 and was reelected in London West in 1999, although only by a tiny margin. Chris Bentley, a lawyer and former prof, gained the seat for the McGuinty Liberals in 2003, defeating Wood by nearly 21 points. He was reelected with a 28% majority in 2007 and defeated the PCs by a 16% margin in 2011. The NDP did quite well in October 2011, winning 21.7%.

Federally, the seat has voted with the national winner in every election except 1979 (when it reelected its Liberal MP) and 2006 (same story). London West was, however, always the top Tory target of the three urban ridings in London. In 2006, when Harper first won power, they lost it by only 2.2% to the incumbent Liberal MP, Sue Barnes. The Conservatives, with Ed Holder, gained it with a 3.7% majority over the Liberals. In the 2011 election, Holder had no problems holding his seat; he won by nearly 18 points, taking 44.5% to the Liberals’ 26.8% and the NDP’s 25.9% (a record high for the Dippers).

The October 2011 results map is largely a sea of red, with a good number of orange polls and a rather small number of blue polls. Indeed, Bentley, who won by 16 points, won polls throughout the riding, breaking the urban-suburban split which candidates (especially Liberals) need to breach in order to win. He did well in the urban South London and Blackfriars neighborhoods, but also just as well in suburban Westmount, Byron, Oakridge and – to a lesser extent – Southcrest and Medway. The PCs did best in River Bend and the Hunt Club part of Oakridge; basically, the PCs performed best in the McMansion neighborhoods and the very affluent ‘executive’ neighborhoods near golf courses – for example, the Tories took 55% in Riverbend Golf Community, a 50+ gated community/country club. The NDP won more polls than the PCs, and won a number of polls scattered throughout the riding. They won consistently solid numbers in the less affluent (bungalow-type housing) parts of urban South London, and in Manor Park. Outside those areas, the NDP’s best numbers came from apartment complexes, small row houses or community housing projects.

The 2011 federal election is a totally different picture: the Conservatives winning most of the polls, with the NDP winning almost all its polls in the ‘urban’ part of the riding – and also winning more polls than the Liberals, despite the Grits doing a tad better overall. The race for second shows a pretty stark urban-suburban divide: the NDP placed first or second in the eastern end of the riding (South London, Southcrest, parts of Westmount, Manor Park etc), the Liberals placed second in suburban neighborhoods such as Oakridge, most of Westmount and Byron. The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, did best in the very affluent neighborhoods, generally well in other suburban areas and poorly in South London. However, while the NDP showed to be strongest in urban parts of the riding, its performance in more suburban areas wasn’t all that bad (outside very affluent and solidly Tory polls): again, they tended to do best in suburban areas with apartment complexes, row houses or community housing projects but they also put up some solid numbers – second place even – in more traditionally suburban areas, even ‘cookie-cutter’ new subdivisions.

The provincial Liberal candidate in this race is the story of a star candidate turned awry. The Liberals were excited about having recruited Ken Coran, the former president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation – hey, look at us, the teachers’ unions don’t hate our guts any longer; it would also have made a good symbol for Wynne, breaking free from McGuinty’s anti-union drive in his final year in office. The problem was that the same Ken Coran, just last year, was angrily denouncing the Liberals for Bill 115 and endorsed the Ontario NDP in the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election. Coran’s “star candidacy” quickly turned into a disaster for the Liberals. The Tories nominated their 2011 candidate, Ali Chahbar, a lawyer. The NDP had a fairly prominent candidate as well: Peggy Sattler, a Thames Valley District School Board trustee. The Freedom Party, a small Randian libertarian party, nominated Al Gretzky, the uncle of Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzy and the federal Tories’ 2006 candidate.

The polls show how Coran’s candidacy turned into a disaster for the Liberals: from 30% in February, they collapsed to 15-19% on July 30. The PCs led all polls in the riding, from February until the end. Chahbar led the Grits by 4 (and the NDP by 6) in February, the NDP moved into second by early July, trailing the PCs by 7. They made substantial gains in the final stretch: Campaign (Jul 30) had the NDP down by 3, Forum (Jul 30) down by 2.

Turnout was 38.9%, down from 53% in 2011.

Peggy Sattler (NDP) 41.88% (+20.16%)
Ali Chahbar (PC) 32.74% (+3.26%)
Ken Coran (Liberal) 15.85% (-29.81%)
Al Gretzky (Freedom) 4.96% (+4.36%)
Gary Brown (Green) 4.25% (+1.84%)
Geoffrey Serbee (Libertarian) 0.31%

London West was probably – with Ottawa South – the most surprising result of the night. The NDP’s strong performance was to be expected, given that it was clear that with the Liberal collapse that the race had turned into a two-candidate battle between the NDP and the PCs. What was not expected, however, was the NDP defeating the Tories – thought of as the favourites – by 9 points. A bad result both for the PCs and the pollsters who had predicted a PC win.

Provincial polling in the last few months has been showing that the NDP has been on the upswing throughout southwestern Ontario; I’m not sure if this is due to any regional factors or if it’s something else. The NDP’s big win in the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election showed that, London West (and Windsor Tecumseh) confirmed that – meaning that the NDP gained three seats in SW Ontario since the last provincial election.

For the Tories, a rather disappointing result, especially considering that they were seen as the favourites. Their result, no matter how disappointing it is, doesn’t compare to the Liberals’ result: an unmitigated disaster. Coran’s “star candidacy” turned awry likely further aggravated matters for the Liberals, rather than helping them. By reading the polls, the Liberals had already conceded London West to the PCs or Dippers before polls even opened. Nevertheless, London West is an important swing riding, and one in which the Liberals have no business collapsing to an horrible third with barely 15% of the vote. If the Liberals win such results in ridings like London West outside the 416 and Ottawa, then they’ve lost the election and probably lost official opposition as well.

Ottawa South

Ottawa South (source: Elections Canada)

Ottawa South, as you might have guessed it, covers the southern end of the urbanized core of Ottawa. It includes neighborhoods such as Alta Vista, Riverview, Elmvale Acres, Hunt Club, Greenboro, South Keys, Heron Gate and Blossom Park. The riding also includes two of the main entry points into the city: the airport and the train station.

The seat became vacant on June 12 when former Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty resigned his seat a few months after he stepped down as Premier. McGuinty was Premier of Ontario between 2003 and 2013 and leader of the Ontario Liberal Party since 1996.

Ottawa South is a largely suburban constituency, with a large industrial park in the north of the district. The riding’s median household income in 2005, $60,667, places it in the upper half of Ontario ridings in terms of wealth (40th out 107). That being said, the riding still includes a few pockets of deprivation – the percentage of residents low on income before tax in 2005, 22%, is the 21st highest in the province. Like most of the Ottawa region, residents in this riding tend to be highly educated – 33.2% have a university diploma or degree, which probably places it in the top 20 Ontario ridings by that measure. This being the federal capital, the federal government remains a top employer in this riding like in neighboring ridings: 21.4% of the labour force were employed in public administration, making it – by far – the single largest industry. Furthermore, the NAICS ‘public administration’ category does not cover all fields in which public servants may be employed; so the overall percentage of federal government employees is higher. In contrast, the percentage of the labour force employed in manufacturing (2.7%) or construction (3.8%) is one of the lowest in the entire province.

Ottawa South has the highest visible minority populations outside the GTA – 36.3%. The largest minorities are blacks (10.2% of the total population) and Arabs (9.6%). The riding has the second largest Arab population in Canada, and the largest in Ontario. Most blacks are of African, not Caribbean descent. Indeed, Ottawa South has one of the largest – if not the largest – Somali communities in Canada, making up 3.1% of the total population (overall, 10.2% of the riding’s population claimed African origins). Most Arabs are Lebanese, with 6.3% of the riding’s residents in 2011 claiming Lebanese origins.

Most of Ottawa’s Francophone population lives in Ottawa-Vanier or Ottawa-Orleans. Ottawa South has a small Francophone community, with 12.2% of residents identifying French as their mother tongue. A much larger percentage – 30% – said their mother tongue was a non-official language (Arabic and Somali being, obviously, the top two non-official languages).

In 2005, 59.5% of dwellings were owned.

Ottawa South is, with some exceptions, a largely suburban riding; a mix of post-war suburbs and newer developments, further south. Alta Vista, in the centre-north of the riding, is an older leafy middle/upper middle-class suburban neighborhood with single houses. Located north of Alta Vista, Riverview is slightly less affluent, with some apartment complexes or social housing projects, as well as a larger visible minority population (in parts).

There are pockets of deprivation – mostly consisting of large apartment complexes or social housing projects – scattered throughout the riding. The Heron Gate area, which is nearly 80% non-white, is the poorest part of the riding. There are other low-income areas, notably the Hawthorne Meadows neighborhood located east of Urbandale and Elmvale Acres.

Hunt Club, Greenboro and South Keys are more recent suburban developments, located to the south of the riding and consisting of a mix of single houses or rowhouses. Hunt Club and Greenboro both have a rather large (45-50%) visible minority population, and while most dwellings are owned, it is generally a lower middle-class area.

At the provincial level, what is today included in the riding of Ottawa South was a reliably Conservative seat – the Tories held the seat without interruption between 1948 and 1987. Prior to 1926 (and for quite some time after that, at the federal level), Ottawa South – which was probably sparsely populated countryside back then – was included in Russell, a riding which included solidly Liberal Francophone areas in eastern present-day Ottawa. In the 1985 provincial election, PC MPP Claude Bennett saw his majority (over the Liberals) sharply reduced from 21% to only 4%. In the 1987 Liberal landslide and with Bennett’s retirement, Liberal candidate Dalton McGuinty Sr., a former University of Ottawa lecturer, won handily, with 51% to the PC’s 31%. McGuinty the elder only served a single term – he died of a heart attack in 1990. In the general election that year, his son, Dalton McGuinty Jr., held his father’s seat by a 20 point margin over the NDP and was the only freshman Liberal MPP to win in that ‘Dipperslide’ election. From that point on, McGuinty held on to his seat with similarly large – and remarkably stable – margins in every election. The Liberal vote has since oscillated between 45 and 50%; the PCs, save for 1999 when they managed 42%, generally in the low 30s and the NDP, very weak in the riding, in the high single digits/low double digits. In 2011, McGuinty was reelected with a barely reduced majority, taking 49% to the PC’s 33% – this despite some predictions that he could lose his seat.

At the federal level, the riding of Ottawa South was created in 1987, before the 1988 election. That year, John Manley, a Liberal lawyer, defeated incumbent PC MP Barry Turner (from Ottawa-Carleton), 51% to 35%. Manley went on to hold the seat until his retirement in 2004, winning each year by massive margins. Manley served as Minister of Industry, Minister of Foreign Affairs and even Deputy Prime Minister as one of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s top lieutenants. He was a candidate for the Liberal leadership in 2002 against Chrétien’s longtime rival Paul Martin, but seeing Martin’s inevitable win he dropped out and then retired from politics in 2004. David McGuinty, then-Premier Dalton McGuinty’s brother, holding the seat by a 9% margin over the Tories. In 2006, the Tories put some serious effort into the riding, nominating sponsorship scandal whistle-blower Alan Cutler. Sign of the riding’s remarkably static nature, the Tories only increased their vote share from 35% to 37%, while McGuinty improved his own vote share by a few decimals, winning reelection with a 6.7% majority. In the 2008 election, despite a sizable anti-Liberal swing that year, McGuinty increased his majority to a solid 16.5%, winning just short of 50% to the Tories’ 33%. In the 2011 federal election, McGuinty’s vote fell sharply, from 49.9% to 44%, but largely to the NDP’s benefits, who, with 18%, won their best ever result in Ottawa South. Counter cyclical to the rest of the country but in line with most Ottawa-area ridings, the Tory vote fell by one decimal point.

The Liberals tend to be strong throughout the riding, with the exception of the more exurban/rural southern end of the riding. The Liberals have tended to do best in Alta Vista, a middle-class neighborhood with a large portion of residents employed by the government or in health/education; the Grits have usually managed between 50 and 60% in most polls there. The Liberals also do similarly well in Elmvale Acres, Riverview, Billings Bridge, parts of Riverside Park and Hawthorne Meadows. When the NDP is weak, the Liberals may do tremendously well in Heron Gate, winning upwards of 60-65% of the vote; however, in elections like May 2011, the NDP can do well enough in Heron Gate – and other lower-income apartment complexes or social housing projects – to win a few polls or place a strong second. This was the case in May 2011, when the NDP won or placed a solid second (almost always behind the Liberals) in lower-income polls. In contrast, the NDP does poorly in suburban single house/row house-type neighborhoods, such as Alta Vista, Hunt Club or Greenboro.

The Liberals often do well (40-55%) in Hunt Club, Greenboro, and, to a lesser extent, South Keys. The PCs put up some respectable showings in these neighborhoods, as well as other neighborhoods such as Urbandale or Confederation Heights (or the condos overlooking the Rideau River in the north of the riding). In both the federal and provincial elections in 2011, the only neighborhood the Tories won was Blossom Park, at the far southern end of the riding, and more exurban in nature. The Tories also do very well in a the polls around Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, specifically military housing polls at CFB Uplands.

The Liberals nominated John Fraser, McGuinty’s constituency assistant for 14 years. There’s some significance in that pick, as the Liberals nominated somebody closely tied to McGuinty – and, by extension, his tainted legacy – and Fraser campaigned on his record as McGuinty’s aide (having built up, it seems, a solid reputation, as McGuinty’s local voice in the riding for so long). McGuinty still casts a long shadow over his former riding – in part because the McGuintys are a major ‘clan’ in the riding, with Dalton’s nine siblings; and while he probably isn’t all that popular even in his old riding, it is probably the one riding where voters might be a bit more generous with him than elsewhere. The PCs nominated a little-known defense contractor, Matt Young. The NDP, weak in the riding, nominated probably their strongest possible candidate: the vice-chair of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, Bronwyn Funiciello, whose zone covers Alta Vista Ward (as well as another ward, outside the riding).Everybody’s favourite candidate – and the definition of ‘perennial candidate’ – John Turmel, contested his 78th election since 1979 here.

The early polls out the gates showed a tight race between the Liberals and the PCs, with the latter leading by 3 in an early June poll but then trailing the Grits by 4 in early July. A poll in mid-July showed a statistical tie, with the PCs up 1. However, the Tories surged ahead in the last stretch of the campaign: Forum on July 24 had them up 14; the two July 30 polls showed the PCs up 7 (Campaign) or 16 (Forum); with the NDP low, at 12% and 9% respectively.

Turnout was 40.8%, the highest of all five by-elections, down from 51.2% in 2011:

John Fraser (Liberal) 42.34% (-6.51%)
Matt Young (PC) 38.67% (+5.24%)
Bronwyn Funiciello (NDP) 14.27% (+0.88%)
Taylor Howarth (Green) 3.14% (-0.09%)
Jean-Serge Brisson (Libertarian) 0.06% (+0.04%)
John Redins (Special Needs) 0.29% (-0.24%)
Daniel Post (Ind) 0.26%
David McGruer (Freedom) 0.24%
John Turmel (Paupers) 0.18%

In one of the night’s most surprising results, the Liberals managed to hold Ottawa South with a 3.6% majority. It was also one the worst performance, of all five ridings, by pollsters. The Liberals have to be happy that they held this seat; a loss would have been all the more difficult to swallow because losing McGuinty’s old riding would mark a harsh repudiation of McGuinty and his government in his own riding, and a very poor result for Premier Wynne’s new government. Additionally, Ottawa South is one of the eleven seats still held by the federal Liberals after the May 2011 shipwreck; the provincial Liberals – who are still a stronger machine than the federal Liberals – losing a seat which even their hapless federal counterparts held on to in May 2011 would be extremely bad news and make for some really bad symbolism.

The PCs did well, being able to break out of the low-30s trap they were stuck in since the 2003 Liberal landslide, and also performing better than the federal Tories did in the past four federal elections. Despite low name recognition, Tory candidate Matt Young was successful – but only incompletely so – in riding a wave of dissatisfaction with McGuinty/Liberal governance and the associated scandals.

The Liberals, under McGuinty, built up a very strong GOTV operation/machine in Ottawa South, and that’s probably what made the difference on election day and explains why the Liberals beat the polls. They were able to mobilize people who had voted Liberal in recent elections, and turn them out to the polls – something which, seemingly, the Liberals weren’t as successful in the other four ridings. The relatively high turnout – 40% – is probably the result of that relatively strong Liberal GOTV op.

The NDP will probably be disappointed by their performance. 14.3% isn’t bad – it’s on the upper end of their range in the riding – but it’s still lower than their federal record (18%) and they probably would have expected something better considering that they nominated their strongest possible candidate in Bronwyn Funiciello. Low turnout probably hurt them; turnout tends to be lower in those places, like Heron Gate, where the NDP does best.


Scarborough-Guildwood (source: Elections Canada)

Scarborough-Guildwood covers the south-central portion of Scarborough, a large former municipality in suburban western Toronto. The riding, named after and centered on the neighborhood of Guildwood, also includes West Hill, Scarborough Village, Woburn and Morningside.

The seat became vacant on June 27 when Liberal MPP Margarett Best resigned due to “undisclosed health reasons”. Of the five Liberal MPPs who stepped down in 2013, Best was the only one who wasn’t a member of ex-Premier Dalton McGuinty’s inner circle – she was elected for the first time in 2007, and she was only a minor cabinet minister as Minister of Health Promotion (2007-2011) and Minister of Consumer Services (2011-2013).

Scarborough-Guildwood, like most of the former municipality, is a suburban neighborhood; but not particularly affluent at that. The median household income in 2005, $47,963, made it the ninth poorest riding in Ontario. With nearly 30% of residents low on income before tax (in 2005), it was the fourth riding in Ontario in terms of low-income citizens. Education levels are significantly lower than in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, with 20.4% lacking a high school graduation certificate, although at the other end, 20.6% do have a university diploma or degree. Most of the riding’s labour force work in sales and services (26.1%) or in business/finance/administration (17.5%). Unemployment is quite high, it was 13.2% in the 2011 National Household Survey.

Like most of Scarborough, Scarborough-Guildwood is an extremely ethnically diverse riding. Nearly two-thirds of the riding’s residents (65.8%) are visible minorities, the largest visible minority groups being South Asians (30.6% of the overall population), blacks (14.7%) and Filipinos (7.4%). Nearly 20% of the riding’s population immigrated to Canada after 2001.

Most South Asians in Scarborough and this riding tend to be Tamils from Sri Lanka or India – 27.8% of residents claimed Tamil, Sri Lankan or East Indian ancestry; and 7.5% claimed Tamil as their mother tongue. Most blacks are from the Caribbean (Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago) or Guyana.

There doesn’t seem to be huge differences, either income-wise or demographically, between the various neighborhoods in the riding. The one exception might be Guildwood, which is more affluent and whiter than other parts of the riding, but not dramatically more so. Housing in the riding is split between apartment buildings (43% of dwellings) and single-detached homes (35.6%), about nine in ten of dwellings were built more than 20 years ago. In 2005, 55.6% of dwellings were owned.

There are several large apartment complexes, which tend to be poorer and more ethnically diverse, concentrated along the main thoroughfares – Lawrence Avenue, Markham Road, Eglinton Avenue, Kingston Road or the Mornelle Crescent area in Morningside.

The riding’s strong Liberal lean only dates back to the 1990s, at most. Provincially, the Liberals held the much more extensive riding which included all of present-day Scarborough-Guildwood between 1867 and 1905, but the Conservatives went on to hold the seat – with only three one-term interruptions, between 1905 and 1985. The CCF’s Agnes Macphail, who had been Canada’s first woman MP in 1921, won the riding of York East in 1943 and again in 1948. Liberal Timothy Reid won the seat from the PCs in 1967, but the Tories regained it in 1971 and held it until David Peterson’s Liberals formed government in 1985. Up until the 1970s, Scarborough was a largely white/English middle-class post-war suburban area, with small pockets of deprivation or immigration.

The NDP won the riding of Scarborough East in their 1990 landslide, although only narrowly over the Liberals. In 1995, PC candidate Steve Gilchrist handily won the seat, taking nearly 56% of the vote. Gilchrist, who was reelected with a reduced majority in 1999, briefly served as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in Mike Harris’ cabinet, and became most famous for spearheading the controversial forced amalgamation of Hamilton, Ottawa and Sudbury. Within a few months, he was forced to resign from cabinet following a scandal of some kind. He was defeated in a landslide by Liberal candidate Mary Anne Chambers in 2003, taking only 34% of the vote to the Liberals’ 51.5%. Chambers served only one term and was succeeded in 2007 by Margarett Best, who held the seat with a 14.5% majority in 2007 and an even larger 20% majority in 2011.

Federally, the riding of Scarborough-Guildwood (and before that, Scarborough East, about three-fifths of which were redistributed to create the current riding in 2003) has been held by the Liberals since 1993, and by Liberal MP John McKay since 1997. Prior to that, the seat was closely disputed between Liberals and Tories, with a small edge to the former. After 1993, rising immigration and the changing demographic character of Scarborough helped the Liberals, who came to dominate Scarborough-Guildwood and its neighbours with huge majorities – a 44% majority in 2000, and a still hefty 20% majority in 2008. The 2011 federal election marked a sea change in the riding’s politics: McKay was reelected with a tiny 1.8% (691 vote) margin over the Tories, taking 36.2% to 34.4% for the Tories and a solid 26.5% for the NDP.

The poll-by-poll results of the October 2011 provincial election do not show any clear-cut political divides within the riding: the Liberals won almost all polls, while the Tories’ few polls were scattered throughout the riding.

The May 2011 federal election shows a much closer race – and also a rather messy map, with ‘random’ patches of blue, red and orange scattered across the riding. That being said, some kind of patterns can be worked out. The Liberals and the NDP clearly dominated apartment polls, which are concentrated along the main roads or in large complexes in Morningside (near the UofT-Scarborough uni campus) or in the Woburn Park area. Most of the NDP’s polls, for examples, are either apartment buildings or polling stations covering large apartment complexes. In October 2011, the Liberals’ majorities were again higher in apartment polls.  Similarly, the Liberals did better in apartment polls or in neighborhoods – such as Golfdale Gardens, which was the only solidly Liberal cluster in the riding in May 2011 – where most houses are rented rather than owned. Apartment polls, as aforementioned, tend to be poorer and have a larger visible minority population. The Liberals also did well in single-house polls across the riding, specifically those with a large South Asian or black population. In contrast, Tory support is higher in more leafy, suburban and single-house neighborhoods, such as parts of West Hill, Morningside or Curran Hall.

That being said, the picture (from the federal election) remains all quite patchy. With a few isolated exceptions, neither the Tories nor the Liberals thoroughly dominated any one part of the riding, and the Liberals managed to win scattered polls in more affluent middle-class neighborhoods, including parts of Guildwood which are whiter (and, historically, more solidly Tory) and Scarborough Village, which is – in parts – a tad more affluent.

The Liberals nominated Mitzie Hunter, a community activist and the CEO of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance. Like the past two Liberal MPPs – Hunter was born in Jamaica and immigrated to Canada in her youth. The PCs nominated Ken Kirupa, a realtor and Sri Lankan immigrant. While both the Grits and the Tories went for locals with ethnic ties, the NDP nominated an ‘outsider’ star candidate – Adam Giambrone, the former Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, a former president of the federal NDP and a former Toronto city councillor (for Davenport) between 2003 and 2010. Giambrone was forced to drop out of the 2010 mayoral election after a sex scandal, which also cut short his career in municipal politics. His nomination in Scarborough-Guildwood was somewhat controversial, the local community activist he defeated threatened a legal challenge after alleging that 12 of the 32 who voted at the nomination meeting might not have been eligible to vote under NDP rules.

Polling throughout the short campaign showed a close race between the Liberals and the PCs, with the NDP a solid third. In the last two polls published – again on July 30 by Forum and Campaign – the Liberals by 7 and 5 points respectively, with the NDP at 27% and 24%.

Turnout was 36.2%, down from 47.7% in 2011.

Mitzie Hunter (Liberal) 35.83% (-13.10%)
Ken Kirupa (PC) 30.79% (+2.14%)
Adam Giambrone (NDP) 28.37% (+8.95%)
Nick Leeson (Green) 2.15% (+0.86%)
Jim Hamilton (Ind) 0.79%
Danish Ahmed (Special Needs) 0.75%
Heath Thomas (Libertarian) 0.48% (-0.8%)
Raphael Rosch (Family Coalition) 0.42%
Matthew Oliver (Freedom) 0.32% (-0.1%)
Bill Rawdah (People’s) 0.1%

Scarborough-Guildwood was seen as the Liberals’ best shot at holding on to one of their five seats up for grabs, and they did. The polls, for a change, were almost spot on – the Liberals held the seat by a 5% margin, which is obviously a much reduced majority compared to Best’s 20% majority in October 2011. Unlike in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, the main winner in Scarborough-Guildwood was the NDP, not the PCs. Adam Giambrone, a strong candidate for an increasingly popular party, won the NDP’s best result in any election – federal or provincial – since 1990. Giambrone finds his political career rehabilitated, and we should probably count on him to return as a top NDP candidate in a future provincial or federal election. Additionally, this result is more confirmation that the NDP is an increasingly powerful actor in Scarborough, something which we saw in 2011 (the NDP picked up heavily Tamil Scarborough-Rouge River by a wide margin with a Tamil candidate in May 2011, and came very close to upsetting the Liberals there again in October 2011 with another Tamil candidate). Traditionally fairly weak in Scarborough, particularly with historically Liberal visible minority voters, the NDP – at both levels – has made significant inroads, notably with South Asian voters.

While the Liberals can take comfort in that they held the seat and that the Tories’ showing was nothing spectacular, they should beware that the NDP has been confirmed as a serious threat to some of their seats in Scarborough, which was an impregnable Liberal fortress until 2011.


Windsor-Tecumseh (source: Elections Canada)

Windsor-Tecumseh basically covers the eastern half of the city of Windsor, as well as the entirety of the neighboring suburban town of Tecumseh. Within Windsor, the riding includes Walkerville, East Windsor, Riverside, Forest Glade and parts of Fontainebleau.

The seat became vacant on February 14 when incumbent Liberal MPP Dwight Duncan resigned his seat. Duncan, first elected to the Ontario legislature in 1995 and an unsuccesful candidate for the party’s leadership in 1996, served in several important cabinet positions in McGuinty’s cabinets: energy (2003-2005, 2006-2007) and finance (2005-2006, 2007-2013). Originally seen as a frontrunner for the Liberal leadership after McGuinty’s resignation, Duncan chose to retire from provincial politics after Wynne’s victory.

Windsor-Tecumseh is a mixed urban and suburban riding. The riding’s median household income in 2005 was $58,189, not particularly affluent but still not all that poor – additionally, only 13.4% of residents in 2005 were low income (before tax). I would, however, expect 2011 numbers (which come out on August 14) to show a significant drop in the median HH income in this riding; with the recession, income levels have dropped pretty sharply in Windsor.

Education levels are similarly average: 31.7% of Windsor-Tecumseh’s residents highest qualification is a high school diploma – it is one of the province’s top ridings in terms of residents with a HS diploma as their top qualification. 17.5% have no diploma, and, at the other end, 17.6% of residents have a university diploma or degree.

Windsor is a major industrial city, located across the border from Detroit. Like Detroit, Windsor’s economy has long been driven by the auto manufacturing industry (awful pun) – American car manufacturers such as Ford and Chrysler have manufactured cars or car parts across the border in Canada for decades now. The 1965 Auto Pact between the US and Canada, which removed tariffs on automobiles and automotive parts, was a major boon for Windsor’s auto industry, creating many new blue collar jobs as American manufacturers set up branch plants to produce generic car models or provide auto parts. Although job loses in the auto manufacturing sector, particularly in the recent recession, have hurt Windsor’s economy and given it a somewhat bad reputation elsewhere in the country as “Ontario’s armpit”, manufacturing remains the top industry in the city. In 2011, 17.5% of Windsor-Tecumseh’s labour force was employed in manufacturing, one of the highest percentages in Canada. In 2006, manufacturing was even more important – it employed 24.9% of the riding’s labour force. Other major industries in the riding include healthcare and social assistance (12.2%), retail trade (11%) and educational services (7.4%). The leading occupations, in 2011, were sales and services (26.4%), ‘trades, transport and equipment operators’ (13.3%), business/finance/administration (13.3%). Manufacturing and utilities occupations, which employed over 14% in 2006, employed only 9.6% in 2011.

The riding has a 13.2% visible minority population, the leading groups being blacks and Arabs. The city’s ethnolinguistic mix and background is rather interesting. The Windsor area has a large population with French ancestry; the French first settled the area in 1749 and the city’s French heritage is still perceptible in parts. 25.7% of the riding’s residents claimed French origins in 2011, although only 3.6% of the riding’s population is Francophone. ‘Canadian’ (25.6%), English (22.9%) and Irish (14.9%) were the next three leading ancestries in 2011.

There’s a fairly important split between the more ‘urban’ western end of the riding and the more suburban neighborhoods of Windsor as well as the town of Tecumseh. Walkerville, located just east of downtown Windsor (which is in Windsor West for electoral purposes), is an urban neighborhood and former ‘company town’ founded in 1890 by whisky distiller Hiram Walker. Ford opened its first factory there in 1904, and the Windsor engine plant is located just outside Walkerville, in East Windsor (and the Chrysler plant is nearby as well). Walkerville is an urban neighborhood, with a mix of old bungalows and larger houses in leafy streets. It has some pockets of deprivation and incomes are fairly low; . East Windsor, newer and more residential in nature, includes a large Ford plant. Most houses are bungalows, although there are large social housing projects in the area as well. Forest Glade, located in the southeast of the city of Windsor, is a post-war (1960s-1970s) planned community/suburb, largely lower middle/middle-class.

Riverside is a large post-war (1950s) neighborhood, which includes some of the most expensive homes in Windsor, concentrated along the waterfront (which also has condo towers now) or in leafy backstreets; although it also includes some less expensive bungalow-type suburban properties and a few social housing projects. East Riverside, on the outskirts of the city, is a very recent suburban development, of the cookie-cutter type.

Saint Clair Beach, at the eastern extremity of Windsor-Tecumseh, is the most affluent in the riding and certainly one of the most affluent in Essex County as a whole. It includes golf courses, a gated community and sprawling suburban houses.

The Windsor area, now an NDP stronghold federally, was traditionally disputed between the Liberals and the NDP, with an edge to the former – especially in federal elections. The area’s French Catholic heritage has given it a strong Liberal tradition, while the area’s industrial makeup and the strength of unions – notably the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) has given the NDP a strong base since the 1960s/1970s.

Provincially, like London West, the riding is a recent creation – it dates back to 1999, when Mike Harris compacted 130 provincial ridings into 103, which line up – with a few exceptions (in northern Ontario) with federal ridings. Before that, it was divided between Windsor-Riverside, which included the eastern end of the current riding centered around, I believe, Riverside and parts of Tecumseh; and Windsor-Walkerville, which included the western end of the current riding centered around Walkerville. Windsor-Riverside was held by the NDP without interruption between 1967 and 1999. Windsor-Walkerville, in contrast, was a Liberal stronghold: the Liberals held it continunously between 1959 and 1990 and Dwight Duncan regained it from the NDP in 1995. The 1999 election featured a fight between two incumbents: Dwight Duncan, the Liberal from Windsor-Walkerville; and Wayne Lessard, the NDP MPP from Windsor-Riverside (he had represented Windsor-Walkerville between 1990 and 1995 and returned to the legislature following a 1997 by-election in Windsor-Riverside). Duncan defeated Lessard 45% to 34%, and went on to win three more terms by comfortable margins. Duncan won by 26 in 2003 and by 25 in 2007. In 2011, he was reelected with a reduced 10 point majority, 42.9% to the NDP’s 32.8%. Duncan clearly built up a solid personal vote in the riding, winning voters which voted NDP federally since 2000/2004. The PCs have been irrelevant in the riding for decades now; the last time they placed second was in 1985 in both former ridings.

Federally, the NDP’s Joe Comartin, has held the riding since 2000. Having lost a 1999 by-election to the Liberals by only 91 votes, he returned to defeat the Liberals by 401 votes in the 2000 election, a bright spot in an otherwise bleak year for the NDP. Since then, the Liberal vote has collapsed – from 34% in 2004 to 13% in 2011. In this regards, the federal Tories have been much more successful at coalescing anti-NDP voters than their provincial counterparts. Comartin won by 16 points in 2011 and by an even wider 25 points in 2008, so the seat is an NDP fortress for the foreseeable future. However, the Tories did manage to poll an excellent 33.6% in 2011. However, the NDP’s success federally is more recent – until 1984, the seat was a Liberal stronghold. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s father, Paul Martin Sr, who was a prominent Liberal cabinet minister and leadership contender at one point, represented the area between 1935 and 1968 and the Liberals continued to hold the seat until 1984, when the NDP won it. The Liberals defeated the incumbent Dipper MP by 34 points in 1993 but held it by a much tighter 5.5% in 1997.

The October 2011 provincial election results showed an interesting geographic division between the Liberals and the NDP. The NDP won heavily in East Windsor, and also carried the poorer parts of Walkerville and Riverside, including social housing projects. The Liberals, who won the election by 10 points, won the bulk of Riverside and Forest Glade by varying margins, doing best in new subdivisions or the affluent parts on the waterfront. Similarly, the Liberals won the more upscale parts of Walkerville. The NDP’s worst results came from, you might have guessed, St. Clair Beach.

The 2011 federal election is, obviously, a rather different. Joe Comartin won the vast majority of polls in Windsor-Tecumseh, putting up huge margins in East Windsor and other traditional NDP strongholds, but basically doing well across the riding, including most of Riverside and Forest Glade. The Conservatives won by big margins in St. Clair Beach, but besides that they only won a few of the newer suburban subdivisions in East Riverside and a few waterfront polls scattered throughout Riverside. The 2000 federal election, however, has a geography very similar to that of the October 2011 vote.

The NDP went into this race as the favourites. They had, by far, the strongest candidate of the three parties: Percy Hatfield, a Windsor city councillor representing Ward 7, which East Riverside and Forest Glade, two neighborhoods where the NDP struggles in competitive races. The Liberal candidate was Jeewin Gill, apparently a businessman/’community leader’ married to a CAW member. In general, this seems to indicate that the Liberals conceded the race long ago. Without Dwight Duncan, the Liberals are at a major disadvantage against the NDP here. The only strong candidate the Liberals could have gotten was Sandra Pupatello, who held Windsor West between 1999 and 2011. But after losing the Liberal leadership, she said that she had no interest in seeking elected office again, despite Wynne’s urging. The PCs renominated their 2011 candidate Robert de Verteuil, an automotive consultant.

The polls confirmed that this was a NDP shoe-in. Although the Liberals were at 32%, 10 points behind the NDP, in a poll back in early February, when the race settled down with the three candidates in July, the NDP maintained a huge leader, over 50% and leading the PCs and/or Liberals by about 30 points. The last polls showed the PCs in second with between 22% and 28%, and the Liberals in third with 16% or 12%.

Turnout was 30.1%, down from 44.7% in 2011:

Percy Hatfield (NDP) 61.31% (+28.47%)
Robert de Verteuil (PC) 20.12% (-0.7%)
Jeewen Gill (Liberal) 11.94% (-30.89%)
Adam Wright (Green) 3.65% (+1.42%)
Dan Dominato (Libertarian) 1.55% (+0.28%)
Lee Watson (Family Coalition) 0.94%
Andrew Brannan (Freedom) 0.48%

Unsurprisingly, the NDP picked up Windsor-Tecumseh with a phenomenal 41% majority over the Tories. The NDP had been the overwhelming favourites to win, and the race was uninteresting compared to the other four, much closer, contests, but such a huge majority was even bigger than expected. The PCs did poorly, underperforming their polling numbers, and ending up roughly with the same paltry result they had gotten in October 2011. Finally, the Liberals were the biggest losers of the night – hell, they got even less than what the federal Liberals had won in May 2011! Obviously without Duncan (or Pupatello), the Liberals had little to no chance of holding this riding in a by-election anyway, but still, 12%?

While one might argue that the NDP might face a tougher fight to hold on to their big gains in Kitchener-Waterloo and London West, there’s no doubt that this seat will be established as an NDP stronghold for years and years to come – and there’s little doubt that the NDP will be able to pick up Windsor West, the last holdout of Windsor-area Liberal-ism in the next provincial election. The Liberals have, as far as I know, no ‘star candidate’ who could threaten the NDP here now.


The major winner of these five by-elections was the NDP, no question. The NDP not only won Windsor-Tecumseh, as widely expected, but also managed a surprise gain in London West (with a surprisingly large margin to boot). To cap it off, the NDP won a very strong third place in Scarborough-Guildwood, which confirms that they’re an ever-more important force in Scarborough, a direct threat to the provincial Liberals’ fledgling hegemony in that area.

Their main disappointments are Etobicoke-Lakeshore (Etobs for short) and Ottawa South. Etobs isn’t surprising – this is, as I mentioned above, another of those by-elections which turn into closely fought contests between the top two parties in that riding, effectively squeezing out whoever is the third party. A great example is the 2010 federal by-election in Vaughan: it became a hard fought battle between a Tory star candidate (who eventually won) and a fledgling Liberal Party trying hard to save a former Liberal stronghold. In the process, the NDP, weak in the riding, collapsed from 9.6% to 1.7% while the Tories and Liberals both won in the high 40s. In the 2011 federal election, when the Liberals just collapsed and the Conservatives won handily, the NDP vote jumped back up to 11.6%. Etobs was the same thing: two strong candidates fighting it out, with the NDP being irrelevant in all this.

Ottawa South is more disappointing. The NDP knew it never had a shot there and probably doesn’t have a shot unless they win a 1990-landslide all over again (and even then); but they ran their strongest possible candidate and they certainly would have expected that with a strong candidate they could come close/beat the 18% record set by the federal NDP in 2011. That wasn’t the case.

The NDP’s strong performance isn’t all that surprising. At a micro level, they ran strong candidates with fairly strong local ties (through local politics or school boards) in all ridings (except perhaps in Etobs). The Liberals’ unpopularity with teachers’ unions since 2011-2012 also guarantees the NDP a motivated base of supporters and activists throughout the province. Provincially, the NDP remains in a very favourable position. NDP leader Andrea Horwath has been the most popular of all three leaders for quite some time, coming off as a likable and pragmatic politician. That being said, she’s received criticism from various quarters for effectively propping up the Liberals two budgets in a row.

For the time being, however, the NDP are in a very strong position. They have a popular leader, an energized and motivated base and a lot of voters in the middle who like them best for the time being. The NDP can both claim to be a progressive alternative for dissatisfied left-Liberal voters, and “the lesser of three evils” to other voters. They can appear more pragmatic than the PCs because they didn’t reject the budgets out of hand and got some form of compromise with the Liberals on the budgets; they’re also not tainted by damaging scandals like the Liberals and not associated with a divisive former Premier (Mike Harris) like the PCs. The NDP will need a lot more to be able to win the next election, but the prospect of the NDP actually winning the election is now a very serious one.

The PCs had mixed results, and by failing to live up to expectations (created by inaccurate polling, to be fair), they’ve been identified by a lot of commentators as effective ‘losers’ in this string of by-elections. The PCs – who were seen as the favourites in three of the five seats – ended up winning only one of them, and a good case could be made that they only won that seat because they had a very strong candidate. The PCs ran weaker candidates in London West and Ottawa South, the other two ridings were they were thought of as favourites. They banked on the Liberal government’s unpopularity and voters’ disgust with Liberal governance and the Liberal scandals to ride a wave of opposition in those seats, notwithstanding their rather weak candidates with lower name recognition.

Nevertheless, the PCs can certainly be happy with their victory in Etobs. The PCs have been shut out of the city of Toronto (the 416) since the 2003 McGuinty landslide, and they did very poorly in most urban Toronto ridings in the 2011 election, suffering from a perception that Tim Hudak was too right-wing. With the same leader, they showed that they could still be competitive to the point of winning within the 416, and that can only be good news for them. It remains to be seen, however, if their win in Etobs is largely the result of a strong, local candidate or if the the PCs are truly on the upswing in the 416 (Scarborough-Guildwood results would, however, tend to disprove that idea).

Besides, even though the PCs did poorly and only increased their popular vote results by a few points at best outside of Etobs, they can argue (and they would be correct, in good part) that just gaining those ‘few points’ province-wide in the next provincial election would be enough for them to gain enough seats to form government. However, if the PCs are to be forming government, they would certainly need to win seats like London West across the province. These by-elections kind of show that they’re still unable to do that.

The PCs poor showing has led to a new round of leadership speculation about Tim Hudak. Hudak didn’t do a very good job in the 2011 election – he could have won that election, but largely through his own poorly-managed and orchestrated campaign, he lost although he did significantly improve on the Tories’ horrible 2003 and 2007 results. Those improvements allowed him to survive a leadership review in 2012 with 79% approval.

However, the poor by-election results has reopened rumblings. Many argue that these results, along with Kitchener-Waterloo/Vaughan in 2012 and the 2011 election, show that Hudak doesn’t have what it takes to win: he’s too conservative for some (too close to Mike Harris/the Common Sense Revolution and that controversial legacy), others say that, alas, he doesn’t have Harris’ political acumen and charisma. Indeed, it is true that Hudak has had trouble communicating his party’s message since 2011, and the election results show that. He doesn’t seem to be able to connect with voters. Even by continuously pounding on the Liberals for the corruption and perceived mismanagement/incompetence, he hasn’t been able to hit a chord with voters outside the Tory base.

Ten London-based PC members have apparently signed a petition asking for an amendment to party bylaws to allow for a leadership review this year; they claim that they’re supported by a few PC MPPs – Frank Klees and the very conservative ‘maverick’ Randy Hillier have openly supported those ‘grassroots’ efforts to force a leadership review. Both of them ran in the 2009 PC leadership convention against Hudak. Neither is openly hostile to Hudak’s leadership, but they argue that having an impromptu leadership review now would defuse tensions. Hudak has rejected all calls for a leadership review, spinning the by-election results by playing up the win in Etobs and downplaying the NDP’s upset over his party in London West as the result of ‘union muscle’. Hudak, despite some grassroots rumblings, does remain in a fairly solid position as leader. It’s very unlikely that he’ll be toppled by the malcontents within the PCs. He retains strong support within the PC caucus, and even from federal Tory MPs from the province (such as foreign minister John Baird).

It’s clear that the big losers are the Liberals. They can take solace in the fact that they won two instead of one or even zero of the five ridings up, and that the official opposition – the PCs – still fell flat on their faces, in large part. Indeed, the Liberals did manage to beat the extremely low expectations set for them. They held Ottawa South, hence escaping a very symbolic defeat in their longtime leaders’ home turf. They did fairly ‘well’ in both 416 ridings, although they lost one to the PCs.

Nevertheless, the Liberals remain the big losers of the by-elections. It’s a bad start for Kathleen Wynne’s government, showing that voters haven’t really warmed up to her after souring on McGuinty, and that voters haven’t dissociated her government from McGuinty’s government. They lost three ridings, and they placed extremely poor thirds in two of those ridings (even if they had won both of them by over 10 points in 2011). Basically, on these by-election results, we could assume that the Liberals are dropping like flies outside of Ottawa and the 416/GTA. If they place third with such horrible numbers throughout SW Ontario (and probably northern Ontario and most of central/eastern Ontario), especially in must-win ridings like London West, then they’ve almost certainly lost the next election and probably lost official opposition as well. To be fair, however, the Liberals wrote off Windsor-Tecumseh nearly from the get-go and they realized in July that their ‘star candidate’ Ken Coran was a shipwreck and they conceded that race too, throwing it all on the two 416 ridings and Ottawa South.

Furthermore, even if the Liberal results in Etobs and Scarborough were not bad, comparatively, they face a strong threat from both the PCs and NDP in their ‘Toronto fortress’. If the PCs can repeat their Etobs results elsewhere in the 416 (and 905), then they would pick up seats like York Centre, Willowdale, Etobs Centre or Eglinton-Lawrence. If the NDP can repeat their Scarborough-Guildwood performance, they could pick up seats like York South-Weston, Scarborough-Rouge River and Scarborough-Southwest. Even the Liberals’ so-called Toronto fortress is showing some pretty fatal cracks on these by-election numbers.

Part of this is of the Liberals’ own making. After all, they’re the ones in government – and they’ve been there for ten years, and even Liberal supporters are forced to admit that, especially since 2011, their party has had a big share of serious, damaging scandals and governance screw-ups. Wynne hasn’t been able to shift focus away from those scandals either. On the other hand, they’ve been also been dragged down by the knock-on effects of the recession and Ontario’s economic woes, and by inevitable voter fatigue after ten years in government.

The Liberals certainly face a huge uphill battle in the next election, which will probably be sometime in 2014. Winning a fourth term, which hasn’t been done since the bygone days of the Big Blue Machine, will be extremely tough. Scandals, economic woes, a strong sense that the Liberals have had too many screw-ups in government and voter fatigue will drag down the Liberals like never before. Even with a new face at the helm, it will hard to resist what is perhaps inevitable after ten years in power. That being said, the provincial Liberals are not in the same dire straits as their federal counterparts were in back in 2011. Dalton McGuinty was supposed to lose the 2011 election, and spring/summer polling in 2011 was particularly brutal for the Liberals. Yet, he defied the odds and won, although with a much reduced mandate.

Besides, by-elections are what they are – by-elections. Especially by-elections in early August. Low turnout creates different dynamics and forces than in regular general elections, where turnout is at least a bit higher (considering how low even general election turnout has been as of late). Those more likely to vote in by-elections often tend to be particularly worked up voters eager to vote with their middle fingers and send a mid-term message to the government of the day. While by-elections still remain good predictor of popular opinion between elections, they’re only imperfect guides.

For example, Pierre Trudeau’s federal Liberal government scheduled no less than fifteen by-elections on the same day in October 1978, a few months before the May 1979 federal election. His government being quite unpopular, the Liberals lost all but one of the seven constituencies out of those 15 which they held (and gained one, in Quebec). The PCs gained all but one of those seven lost seats. One might have thought that the Liberals would lose the 1979 federal election in a landslide. They lost, but it was close (thanks to a strong campaign and a weak PC leader); Joe Clark’s PCs only won a minority government, infamously ill-fated.

The table below shows the results of August 1st’ five by-elections – looking at raw votes, not percentages. Looking only at percentages in by-elections can be misleading because of significantly lower turnout.

Table 1: Results of the August 1, 2013 Ontario provincial by-elections by raw votes and turnout

byelections ON Aug 1 2013

This alternative look at the results allows us to nuance our conclusions a bit. The NDP are the clear winners here, given that they increased their raw vote in 3/5 ridings despite much lower turnout in all five ridings. In London West, for example, although turnout was 12.7k votes lower than in 2011, the NDP gained over 4,700 votes from their performance in the 2011 election.

The chart also shows that the Greens had a not a too-shabby night on the whole. They’re not a relevant force, and they didn’t seem to put much attention (or resources) on any of the five by-elections considering that none of these ridings (except perhaps London West) are promising for the Greens. They likely managed to gain a few hundred votes from 2011 Liberal voters. I’m not sure if the Ontario Greens have adopted the federal party and the BC Greens’ rather lucrative micro-targeting strategy which is, with FPTP, their best shot at winning seats (although not their best shot at maximizing their popular vote share throughout the province).

The chart also shows that the PCs did indeed have a mediocre night, at best. They only gained votes in one riding, Etobs. Elsewhere, even if their popular vote went up in three of those four ridings, they lost over 1,000 votes from their 2011 results. In London West, the PCs lost over 2,400 votes despite increasing their percentage by 3.3%. Therefore, with the exception of Etobs where PC star candidate Doug Holyday was likely able to directly win (‘switch over’) a good number of 2011 Liberal voters (this isn’t surprising – Etobs has more elastic voting patterns, and a lot of middle-class suburbanites switch their votes between Tories and Grits on a regular basis – after all, Rob Ford certainly won a good number of provincial Liberal voters in Etobs and elsewhere in the city in 2010!), the PCs most likely held on to their base in the other ridings. Of course, it’s impossible to prove this – it’s quite possible that a lot of 2011 PC voters stayed home, partially compensated by some Liberal malcontents voting PC, although I don’t think such behaviour was massive in these five by-elections.

We didn’t need this chart to tell us that the Liberals were the major losers. They bled a huge amount of votes in all five ridings, losing the least in the two seats they held and losing the most in London West and Windsor-Tecumseh. However, from this chart and comparing Liberal loses to gain/loses by the PCs/NDP and fall in turnout, we can come to a tentative conclusion that the Liberals lost not so much because their voters directly went to the PCs or NDP, but rather because they stayed home. The Liberals obviously lost some 2011 supporters to the PCs in Etobs and to the NDP in London West, Windsor-Tecumseh and Scarborough-Guildwood.

An unpopular party’s voters opting to stay home in a by-election or other off-year/mid-term election is not uniquely Canadian nor even remotely surprising. It is also slightly less fatal than an unpopular party’s voters opting to turn out for another party in a a by-election or off-year/mid-term ballot; they can always be re-motivated to show up when stakes are high in the regular election. They’re dissatisfied with their party of choice, but the other parties haven’t convinced them enough to ditch their old party for them instead, or they’re not ready (or dissatisfied enough) to ditch their former partisan home.

Again, correlation isn’t causation and I don’t want to firmly conclude that Liberal voters stayed home en masse and just didn’t vote for other parties. There’s no way for me to find out who exactly turned out and who didn’t, and who those ‘lost voters’ had voted for in 2011. Besides, five ridings isn’t close to being a scientifically valid sample. But, just for kicks, there’s a 0.92 correlation (very strong) between Liberal vote loses and fall in turnout from 2011.

Regardless, these mid-summer by-elections were exciting, interesting and still pretty relevant to Ontarian provincial politics. And congratulations for making it all the way through this post.

Iran 2013

The first round of presidential elections were held in Iran on June 14, 2013. The President of Iran (رئیس‌جمهور ایران) is elected by universal suffrage to a four-year term and is limited to serve two consecutive terms, but may run for a third nonconsecutive term even after having served two consecutive terms. The Iranian President is the highest directly-elected official in the country, but Iran is not a presidential republic and the President is hardly the highest authority in the country. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic.

Iran’s political system

The Islamic Republic is governed on the basis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of velayat-e faqih which holds that, in the absence of the Twelfth Imam of Shi’a Islam (the Mahdi, who disappeared and is believed to be in occultation), the state should be ruled by a ‘guardian jurist’. Article 5 of the Iranian constitution reads: “During the occultation of the Wali al-‘Asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the leadership of the Ummah devolve upon the just and pious person, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age, courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability.” In practice, this ‘just and pious person’ is the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini upon his death in 1989. The Supreme Leader of Iran is the real head of state.

The Supreme Leader appoints the leaders of the most powerful institutions in Iran: the commanders of the armed forces, the director of state radio and TV, the heads of the major religious foundations, the prayer leaders in city mosques, the members of national security council and the head of the judiciary. In addition, the Supreme Leader appoints six of the twelve members of the influential Guardian Council. Theoretically, the Supreme Leader is appointed by (and can be impeached by) and responsible to the Assembly of Experts, a directly-elected body of 86 clerics. However, the Assembly of Experts is subservient to the Supreme Leader, given that candidates for the  Assembly of Experts – alongside candidates for all other offices in Iran (the presidency, the Parliament) – must be vetted and approved by the Guardian Council.

The Guardian Council is made of up twelve members: six Islamic clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, and another six jurists elected by the Parliament (Majles) from candidates nominated by the chief of the judiciary (who is, in turn, nominated by the Supreme Leader). The Guardian Council has power as legislative, judicial and electoral authority. It must approve all bills passed by the Majles, it has the power to veto bills, it interprets the constitution and it vets all candidates for President, parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The unelected Expediency Council resolves disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council.

Simplified diagram of Iran’s political structure (source:

The Supreme Leader may also count on the full support of the Revolutionary Guards, a 125-thousand strong military unit (or militia) which is extremely powerful. It is a conservative bulwark against reformism and opposition to the regime, and has the power to block major initiatives and promote its own ultra-conservative agenda. The Revolutionary Guards have become very powerful under Ali Khamenei, who has needed to build a large network of powerful supporters to assert his legitimacy (as we shall see, he assumed power as Supreme Leader with fairly limited legitimacy in 1989). The Revolutionary Guards control a large share of the heavily state-controlled Iranian economy, the Revolutionary Guards hold important stakes in oil, petrochemicals, telecoms, agrifood, electronics, armaments and infrastructure. For example, the Guard’s business conglomerate – Khatam ol-Anbia – have a subcontractor which employs 25,000 and has worked in over 1800 infrastructure projects. The Revolutionary Guards also have a large intelligence operation, a foreign operations division which trains Iranian allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guards veterans now form the dominant elite in Iranian politics. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a former Guard, and most high-profile cabinet posts and a majority of seats in Parliament are now held by Guard veterans. Replacing the previously dominant clerical elites.

The power amassed by the Revolutionary Guards, especially after the regime’s brutal crackdown on post-election protests in 2009, has led some to claim that Iran has transformed from a theocracy to a military dictatorship.

The President is the second highest authority in the country after the Supreme Leader, and the Iranian presidency is not an irrelevant office – the President may not control the military, national security and foreign policy, but he does have some amount of influence over Tehran’s general orientation (even in matters of foreign policy) and has significant power over economic and domestic policies. The President appoints Vice Presidents, the cabinet (which is confirmed by the Majles), sits in the Supreme National Security Council (which notably deals with nuclear energy issues), declares war and states of emergency and serves a deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The constitution’s definition of the qualifications of the Presidents are open-ended and left to the interpretation of the Guardian Council: candidates must possess ‘administrative capacity and resourcefulness’, have ‘a good past record’, exhibit ‘trustworthiness and piety’ and hold ‘convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official madhhab (doctrine) of the country’. The constitution is vague on whether or not women may run for office, but the Guardian Council has ruled that only males can run for the presidency and it has never approved female candidates for the presidency.

The Guardian Council significantly reduces the field of presidential contenders from hundreds to a handful. It cuts out a lot of unknown quixotic candidates, any women candidates but has also – controversially – struck down some more notable candidates. This year, it confirmed only eight out of 686 candidates. While the Guardian Council has approved reformist candidates – even some critical of the regime’s direction – it is fairly clear that approved candidates are tolerated by the Supreme Leader.


The first President of Iran after the Shah was overthrown and the Islamic Republic established in 1979 was Abulhassan Banisadr (who assumed the presidency in February 1980), a non-cleric. Ayatollah Khomeini originally insisted that the presidency should be held by non-clerics. However, Banisadr soon fell out of favour with Ayatollah Khomeini and was promptly impeached after a bit over a year in office in June 1981. He is now an exiled dissident, living in France. Mohammad-Ali Rajai of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) was elected with 91% in July 1981, but he was assassinated after less than a month in office (in August 1981) by the opposition People’s Mujahedin of Iran.

The first Iranian president of any relevance was Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, who served as President under Ayatollah Khomeini between October 1981 and August 1989. Mir-Hossein Mousavi served as his Prime Minister. Ali Khamenei’s presidency was marked quasi-entirely by the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted between September 1980 and August 1988. Domestically, the early years after the Islamic Revolution were fairly tumultuous, with armed opposition and nonviolent protests against the new regime. Tehran responded with repression and terror: thousands of members of insurgent groups were killed (notably in 1988 with the mass executions of People’s Mujahedin of Iran prisoners), ethnic and religious minorities faced (and continue to face, in large part) persecution (or, at best, state-sanctioned discrimination or exclusion from politics) and the government imposed a strict (often restrictive) moral code based on sharia law – a major break, of course, with the Western-oriented secularism of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s autocratic rule. On the diplomatic scene, Iran was isolated from the major regional and world powers – relations with the United States, the former Shah’s top ally, had been dead since the 1979-1980 hostage crisis (although the US played to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, covertly provided Iran with weapons through Iran-Contra), the Soviet Union was hostile to the new religious fundamentalist power in Tehran (although it too played both sides against each other during the conflict) and the Sunni Gulf monarchies feared that Iran would revitalize domestic Islamist/Shi’a opposition (notably Saudi Arabia).

Presidents under Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule played a fairly subdued rule, in comparison to Presidents since the 1990s. Ayatollah Khomeini held the bulk of the powers, while the President and Prime Minister competed for the spoils. Khomeini died in June 1989 and was succeded by Ali Khamenei, even though he was only a mid-level Shi’a cleric (Hojatoleslam) rather than, as the constitution originally required, a marja’ (source of emulation – high-level cleric). Khamenei, however, was a loyal associate of the late Khomeini. In March 1989, Khomeini’s original designated heir, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri had been sidelined after a series of comments critical of the regime, particularly human rights abuses and Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. Montazeri challenged Khamenei’s legitimacy to be Supreme Leader, and became a vocal dissident until his death in 2009.

Khamenei was succeeded as President by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of Parliament since 1980. Rafsanjani, a theologian who hailed from an elite family, was a pragmatic conservative who focused his efforts on economic reconstruction after the Iran-Iraq war and escaping Iran’s international isolation. He liberalized the economy, measures which proved popular with the middle and upper-class elites of the new Islamic Republic, but which bypassed the poorer, rural population which grew to dislike Rafsanjani. Between 1990 and 1995, Iran suffered the effects of the second ‘wave’ of US economic sanctions which caused the Iranian Rial’s value to plunge by 80%. Under his presidency, political opponents and certain religious minorities continued to be persecuted. Throughout Rafsanjani’s administration, he feuded with ultraconservative elements of the regime, which, with the Supreme Leader’s backing, controlled several institutions (notably the Revolutionary Guards).

In the 1997 election, Mohammad Khatami, a darkhorse reformist cleric, defeated the conservative favourite in a landslide, taking over 70% of the vote by the first round. He was carried to victory by the urban middle-classes eager for reform, women, the youth (students) and ethnic/religious minorities. He was reelected to a second term in 2001, this time with 78%.

Khatami promised democratization, rule of law, more rights for women and minorities, easing strict moral laws and liberalizing the economy. Economically, where Iran’s president is the most powerful, Khatami pursued his predecessor’s liberalization policies, aimed at industrialization, promoting private sector growth, boosting investment and privatizing a wide array of state-owned companies (the Islamic Revolution was followed by a string of nationalizations). His policies were somewhat successful, but unemployment remained a major problem and economic recovery could only go so far with the economic sanctions against Iran. After 2001, the Bush administration in Washington continued to isolate Iran, despite Khatami’s reformist desires, labelling Iran as a member of the (in)famous “Axis of evil”. Domestically, many of his reformist efforts were undermined by the Supreme Leader and the conservative institutions. Rogue elements in the conservative-dominated security apparatus murdered a number of dissidents, part of a ‘serial murder of dissidents’ began in 1988. In 1999, paramilitary groups (Revolutionary Guard, Basij) crushed a large student uprising. The conservative judiciary closed a number of new reformist newspapers, many of which had flourished after Khatami’s election. The Parliament

After 2003, the conservatives were resurgent. There was a real backlash, fueled by disillusion with Khatami’s inability to advance his reformist agenda and his perceived inaction. The conservatives were able to mobilize public opinion by playing on issues such as national security or the nuclear program. However, to be sure, the conservatives were helped in their efforts by the Guardian Council. In the 2003 local elections and then the 2004 parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council banned thousands of candidates from standing, including incumbent reformist MPs and many other reformist candidates. Conservatives on better terms with the Supreme Leader won a wide majority in the Majlis.

The 2005 presidential election was one of the most disputed elections in Iranian history, and the only one which went to a second round ballot. In the first round, former President Rafsanjani won 21%, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the underdog conservative populist mayor of Tehran, squeaked through and placed second with 19.4%. The reformist vote was split between three candidates (Mehdi Karroubi with 17.2%, Mostafa Moeen with 13.9% and Mohsen Mehralizadeh with 4.4%). In the second round, Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani with 61.7% of the vote.

Ahmadinejad’s election marked a conservative reaction after two terms of reformist ‘rule’. But it also marked a victory for populism over the (clerical) elitism embodied by Khatami and Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad campaigned on an anti-corruption, anti-establishment populist conservative platform, which emphasized his ‘modest roots’. Indeed, unlike his predecessors, Ahmadinejad came from a working-class secular background, rather than from an elite or religious/clerical background. His father was a blacksmith and he was born in a small town 90km from Tehran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office do not require a lengthy explanation, considering how often Iran has made the news since 2005, often because of Ahmadinejad’s statements or actions. In general, his presidency has been marked by heightened tensions with the US and the west, a slide back into international isolation and pariah state status, a harsher enforcement of religious morality laws, a deterioration in human rights and womens’ rights, and a struggling economy (in part because of foreign sanctions).

On the foreign stage, Ahmadinejad gained notoriety for his vitriolic attacks on Israel or the United States or his various provocative acts (denying the Holocaust, the “wiping Israel off the map” comment – even if that comment was probably mistranslated) which have incensed public opinion in the west.

Like most Iranian politicians – even the reformists – Ahmadinejad is a vocal supporter of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Although the United States and Europe believe that Iran could be developing nuclear weapons, the Iranian authorities have consistently said that they have no intentions of developing nuclear weapons and that their nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Tehran has defended its “sovereign right” to develop such a program. Iran has had a nuclear program since the 1950s, when the United States actively cooperated with the Shah’s regime to aid the development of a peaceful nuclear program.

However, because Iran has tended to be less than forthcoming about its intentions and the details of its nuclear programs, there remains very strong (and legitimate) suspicions that it is lying and covertly developing nuclear weapons. Such suspicions have been fueled by continued revelations of concealed plants (uranium conversion and enrichment plants in central Iran). Western nations contend that Iran has violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (signed by the Shah in 1968) various times.

Ahmadinejad, as President, does not directly deal with the nuclear program, but he has some degree of influence. Under his administration, Tehran has kept a hardline on the nuclear program and it has slid its feet in quixotic negotiations with Western powers while continuing to develop its nuclear program in the background. His predecessor, Khatami, had been slightly more pragmatic and consensual on the issue. He had expressed support, alongside Saudi Arabia and Syria, for an initiative to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons. But Khatami did not have the final say in the program, and Iran continued to develop its civilian nuclear program under his rule (although Khamenei briefly suspended what appeared to be weapons-related technologies in 2003).

In 2006, Iran resumed uranium enrichment at Natanz, breaking a 2004 agreement with European countries. It later opened a heavy water plant. The UN responded with sanctions, while the United States (under Bush and since under Obama) and Israel launched cyberattacks on computer systems at Natanz. Negotiations between Iran and the west have invariably been unfruitful.

In September 2011, Iran opened its first civilian nuclear power plant, at Bushehr. The plant was built in close cooperation with Russia. The groundwork for the plant had been launched in 1974, before the revolution.

The response to Tehran’s defiant stance has been a whole wave of tough sanctions. Despite the pretensions to the contrary of the Iranian government, these sanctions have badly hurt the country’s economy and undermined domestic attempts to reform the economy. The UNSC approved the first round of sanctions back in December 2006 (banning the import and export of materials and technology used in uranium enrichment), and approved new sanctions in June 2010 (curtailing military purchases, trade and financial transactions by the Revolutionary Guards). In November 2011, new sanctions aimed at Iran’s central bank and commercial banks took effect, while the US imposed sanctions on companies involved in the nuclear, petrochemical and oil industries. In July 2012, the EU announced an embargo on Iranian oil which has severely restricted Iran’s ability to sell its top export. Iran has acknowledged that oil exports had fallen by 40% in 2012, at a major cost for Iran. Earlier this month, the Obama administration blacklisted what it describes as a global network of front companies controlled by the Iranian leadership, which the US alleges are used to hide assets and generate billions in revenues.

These sanctions have taken their toll on the Iranian economy, especially in recent months. In October 2012, the Iranian rial plunged by 40%. Inflation is raging, reaching 30% in 2012, its highest level since 1995. Inflation is projected to be 27% this year. In April 2013, Iranians rushed to supermarkets to hoard basic foodstuffs and goods, over new fears of price spikes from a change in the official exchange rate. However, economic sanctions are only part of the explanation – domestically, the Iranian government is guilty of woeful mismanagement of the economy.

Iran’s energy consumption has increased significantly in recent years, and because the country’s oil refining capacities are limited, it has been forced to import about 40% of its gasoline. The Iranian government spends huge amounts each year on unsustainable subsidies on food and energy (including fuel). In 2007, a gasoline rationing plan was introduced by the government, sparking large protests against Ahmadinejad’s government. The rationing plan ultimately failed. In 2010, the government announced an extremely ambitious subsidy reform which aimed to replace subsidies with targeted social assistance to the poorer families. As a result of the elimination of these subsidies, transportation prices skyrocketed and cash grants to poorer families was unable to compensate for the elimination of subsidies. The IMF and the World Bank have hailed this reform as a step in the right direction, but the reform’s success has been undermined by sanctions, government mismanagement and corruption.

Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009, officially taking 62.6% of the votes in the first round against 33.8% for his reformist rival, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The opposition claimed to have won, and many believe that the election was rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour. However, there has been no credible evidence to suggest that there was indeed massive fraud, of the kind which totally falsified the results. There was, to be sure, some fairly fishy things going on and there was likely, at the least, localized fraud or vote rigging. However, Ahmadinejad probably won the election – if there was rigging, it was probably not enough to make up for Ahmadinejad’s huge margin of victory.

Mass protests, the largest of the kind since 1979, swept through Tehran and other major cities across Iran between June and February 2010. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unflinchingly backed President Ahmadinejad throughout the duration of the protests. The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militias, both of which answer to the Supreme Leader, brutally repressed the protests, killing up to 70 protesters and arresting over 4,000. Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another reformist candidate, have been under house arrest since February 2011.

Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by a major rift between the President and the Supreme Leader. During his first term, Ahmadinejad had been seen as a fairly loyal ally of the Supreme Leader, who, in return, openly backed him in the runup to the 2009 election and provided him with the tools to remain in power despite the huge post-election protests. However, Ahmadinejad is an ambitious politician and sought to limit the clerics’ involvement in politics. In July 2009, Ahmadinejad irked Khamenei by nominating his close ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei to the office of First Vice President. Mashaei was forced to resign by Khamenei less than ten days after his resignation, but he has served as Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff throughout his second term. Like Ahmadinejad, Mashaei is a secular conservative who is hostile towards clerical involvement in politics. Additionally, Mashaei is regarded as a ‘heretic’ and ‘deviant’ by the Islamist leadership because of past conciliatory statements about Israel (he once remarked that Iranians are friends of Israelis) and his more relaxed views on religious matters. Rhetorically, Mashaei has also tended to go against the regime’s official rhetorical line (based on Shi’a Islamism and notions of pan-Islamism) and talked more along the lines of Persian nationalism.

In April 2011, Ahmadinejad dismissed intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi who was immediately reinstated by the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad protested by staging a 10-day long ‘walkout’ of cabinet meetings and other official functions, creating an anti-Ahmadinejad furor within religious conservative ranks which might have forced him to resign from office if he had not grudgingly accepted to end his act in May.

In the 2012 legislative elections, anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives crushed pro-Ahmadinejad conservatives (and reformists).


Iranian politics is often presented to foreign eyes as a battle between conservatives and reformists. To a certain extent, this dichotomy is true. However, it is also rather reductive in that it hides internal divisions within both the conservative and reformist tents. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, particularly his second term, highlighted the major divisions in the conservative coalition between secular, populist and nationalist conservatives like Ahmadinejad and Mashaei who wish to counter clerical influence in politics; and religious conservatives – known as ‘principlists’ – who are on better terms with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and adhere to Islamic fundamentalism which is more in line with Khamenei’s orientation. The term ‘reformist’ has been used to encompass a wide array of politicians more or less hostile to the conservative establishment (but still on good enough terms with it to be allowed to hold office) and supporting reforms (more civil rights, perhaps more rights for women and ethnic minorities, democratization and liberalization of the economy). Similar to the verligtes in apartheid South Africa, the Iranian reformists often seem to be misconstrued as being more radical and liberal than they actually are.

The Guardian Council approved only eight out of 686 presidential candidates. Most notably, it disqualified two major candidates. Of the eight candidates, two dropped out before the election, reducing the field to six.

Unsurprisingly, the Khamenei-controlled Guardian Council rejected Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s candidacy, which was widely seen as Ahmadinejad’s thinly-veiled bid for a third term. For the reasons outlined above, Mashaei was obviously unpalatable and a non-starter for the leadership.

Slightly more surprisingly, the Guardian Council rejected former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), who is the current chairman of the Expediency Council. Rafsanjani, often described as a moderate conservative, has had a falling out with the Supreme Leader, probably because Rafsanjani is powerful in his own right and perhaps too independent and high-profile for Khamenei’s tastes, who has no desire for a repeat of  Ahmadinejad’s antics. Besides, while Rafsanjani didn’t back the 2009 protests, he indicated his desire for more freedom and less brutal crackdowns. The Guardian Council rejected Rafsanjani’s candidacy, and Khamenei did not intervene to nullify the Guardian Council’s decision (he had done so in 2005 to allow two reformists to run).

The disqualification of Mashaei meant that there was no pro-Ahmadinejad candidate in the race. Out of the eight original candidates, five could be considered as ‘principlist’ conservatives on good terms with Khamenei.

Saeed Jalili was originally hailed by local and international media alike as the ‘frontrunner’ and the ‘favourite’. Jalili has served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), a position which made him Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in fruitless talks with western powers. Jalili, like Ahmadinejad and many of the ‘second generation’ of Iranian conservatives, served in the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war. During the conflict, Jalili saw heavy fighting and he lost a portion of his right leg. Jalili has never sought or won (to my knowledge) elected office and has served as a technocrat since the 1990s. After 2001, he worked in the Supreme Leader’s office. In 2005, Ahmadinejad appointed him as deputy minister for foreign affairs in charge of Europe and the Americas. In October 2007, he was named to the leadership of the SNSC, replacing Ali Larijani, a conservative who has since become speaker of the Majles. Jalili’s nomination was originally criticized because of his lack of experience, but he has gained a lot of goodwill with conservatives because of his tough, uncompromising stance in nuclear negotiations with Iran’s western rivals. He has often invoked the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, which Tehran claims were organized by the US and Israel. As negotiator, he has twice refused bilateral meetings with the American representative on the 5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany).

Ironically, Jalili’s name recognition is probably higher in diplomatic circles outside Iran than with the Iranian electorate. Nevertheless, with his reputation as an ultraconservative loyal to the Supreme Leader – he was originally described as Khamenei’s preferred candidate. Early in the campaign, Jalili’s image as a simple and pious man boosted his image with the public, especially ultraconservative networks. At the same time, of all the conservative candidates, Jalili is also the one who was seen as being the less hostile to the much-subdued Ahmadinejad. Although Ahmadinejad has denied that he supported or voted for Jalili, in the final weeks there was a lot of buzz about how Jalili was Ahmadinejad’s secret candidate – some pro-Ahmadinejad politicians apparently endorsed Jalili. However, Jalili was backed by the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, a conservative party led by two religious conservatives who have criticized Ahmadinejad and Mashaei’s “deviant movement” – Mashaei in particular is part of a minority which talks a lot about the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, something which really unnerves the regime’s Shi’a clerical elite.

The rumours of proximity to Ahmadinejad opened him to criticism from other presidential candidates, eager to tie him to the unpopular President and Ahmadinejad’s failed economic policies.

Late in the campaign, the Jalili buzz died down a bit and attention shifted to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the popular conservative mayor of Tehran since 2005. Ghalibaf, only 18 when the Shah was overthrown, had a long military (Revolutionary Guard) or police career before entering elective politics in 2005. During the Iran-Iraq war, Ghalibaf rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard at stunning speed to become commander. After the war, as a close supporter of Ali Khamenei, he was promoted to the rank of general and named as commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s air forces in 1997. He played a major role in the violent repression of the 1999 student protests, an experience he proudly shows off to this day. After the 1999 protests, Khamenei named him chief of the Iranian police force, a position in which he directed repression against students and journalists. As chief of police, he also created the 110 hotline, Iran’s equivalent of the 911.

Ghalibaf ran for president in 2005 (as a conservative, obviously), placing fourth with 13.9%. At the time, his reformist critics saw him as the ‘militarist’ candidate. After the election, he was elected mayor of Tehran by the capital’s city council (replacing Ahmadinejad) and has since successfully wrestled control of the city council from pro-Ahmadinejad conservatives. As mayor, he has modernized his image and managed (almost) to make people forget his militaristic past. His mayoral administration has been quite successful: he modernized public services, improved public transit, opened new green spaces and inaugurated a new subway line. In 2008, he was shortlisted for the ‘World Mayor’ award. Ghalibaf has never been allied to Ahmadinejad, and has minced no words in criticizing the President, especially since 2009. He was touted as a potential conservative rival to the incumbent in the 2009 race, but opted against running. Nevertheless, as mayor he had no problem in crushing the reformist ‘Green Movement’ after the 2009 election.

Ghalibaf is a principlist conservative – therefore on good terms with Ahmadinejad. Prior to the election, he formed a 2+1 principlist coalition with two other candidates – Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel (who dropped out) and Ali-Akbar Velayati. Ghalibaf has tried to reinvent himself as a moderate, pragmatic conservative; but he has had a tough time with that. Real reformists dislike him, and Ghalibaf still has a knack for proudly showing off his role in the repression of the 1999, 2003 and 2009 protests. Ghalibaf was supported by Ali Larijani, the current speaker of the Majles.

Ghalibaf’s other main ally in the 2+1 coalition was Ali-Akbar Velayati. Velayati, like Jalili, is a technocrat with a diplomatic career. Unlike Ghalibaf, Jalili and Ahmadinejad, however, Velayati does not belong to the ‘second generation’ of conservatives who came of age with the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war. He was a young dissident under the Shah’s regime (roughed up by the Shah’s ruthless secret police, the SAVAK) and became a parliamentarian in 1980. In 1981, Velayati was named foreign minister (under then-President Ali Khamenei’s Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi), an office he held until 1997 (continuing under Rafsanjani). As foreign minister, Velayati managed the best of both worlds in Khamenei’s eyes – being a tough conservative while not being loathed and isolated by the international community. With fellow candidates Mohsen Rezaee, he is on the Interpol’s most wanted list for his alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires (Argentina), which killed 85. Argentina claims that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the attacks, and an Argentine judge issued an arrest warrant for Velayati in 2006. That same year, he was appointed to the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and has been seen as the Supreme Leader’s main foreign policy adviser/ally. At times, he used this position to undermine Ahmadinejad’s policies on the world stage – there were (denied) rumours that, with Khamenei’s backing, he had been laying the groundwork for bilateral nuclear talks with the US.

Velayati is, naturally, a very close ally of Ali Khamenei and an opponent of Ahmadinejad. During one of the countless official debates, Velayati criticized Jalili for the ‘failure’ of nuclear negotiations (one of the first public criticisms from within the regime of the nuclear negotiations). He claims that Iran could have gotten acceptable deals out of the western powers at least three times, but each time Jalili’s hardline and Ahmadinejad’s obstinate refusals ‘sabotaged’ these deals. Nevertheless, Velayati is a conservative. He still favours a tough line against the United States and Israel, though he likely echoes Khamenei’s fears of Iran’s growing isolation as a result of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Only one candidate in the 2+1 coalition ended up dropping out before the vote: Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, the weakest of the three-men coalition. An opponent under the Shah’s regime, he served in various governmental offices (mostly related to cultural or religious/moral affairs) and was speaker of the Majles between 2004 and 2008. Out of all the candidates, he was probably the closest to Khamenei. His daughter is married to Motjaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader who is widely seen as a potential successor to his father as Supreme Leader. Motjaba Khamenei is quite rich and has a strong base of support with the ultraconservative Basij and Revolutionary Guards, which might make up for his near total lack of theological credentials. He dropped out on June 11 without endorsing a single candidate, instead calling on his supporters to vote for one of the hardline conservatives.

The final conservative candidate was Mohsen Rezaee, who ran for president in 2005 (dropped out) and 2009 (third, 1.7%). He has served as secretary general of the Expediency Discernment Council (the body which resolves disputes between the Guardian Council and the Majles, presided by Rafsanjani) since 1997, and was commander of the Revolutionary Guards between 1981 and 1997. During the Shah’s regime, he was held in solitary confinement by SAVAK and later quit university to join an Islamist guerrilla group. After the Iran-Iraq war, Rezaee also founded Khatam Al-Anbia, an engineering firm controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, gained a doctorate in economics and – allegedly – played a role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina. He is on Interpol’s most wanted list.

He dropped out of the 2005 presidential elections two days before polling day, so as to not split the conservative vote, and placed a paltry third with only 1.7% in the 2009 election. After the election, he denounced the official results, but as a conservative he did not join Mousavi and Karroubi’s Green Movement and dropped his complaints after the Supreme Leader’s warnings.

He presented himself as a pragmatic independent conservative focused on economic issues – he was one of the few candidates with economic credentials. He supports economic diversification, decentralization to local governments and wished to continue Ahmadinejad’s subsidy reform. Born in Khuzestan Province, a southwestern province bordering Iraq with an ethnically diverse population (Iranian Arabs, Lurs), he promised to include members of ethnic minorities (including Kurds) in his cabinet.

The ‘surprise’ candidate of the field of eight/six was Seyed Mohammad Gharazi, an obscure politician whose political heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s – when he served as minister of petroleum (1981-1985) and minister of posts (1985-1997). An independent candidate with a leftist background (like Mir-Hossein Mousavi), he focused his largely irrelevant campaign on economic issues – first and foremost inflation. At 71, he was the oldest candidate.

Hassan Rouhani (source:

Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, was the only religious cleric in the field. Rohani, a member of the Assembly of Experts (since 1999), the Expediency Council (since 1991) and the Supreme National Security Council (since 1989). He served as deputy speaker of the Majles between 1992 and 2000 and, as secretary of the SNSC between 1989 and 2005 he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.

Born to a religious and dissident family in 1948, he started religious studies in Qom in 1960 (at the age of 12) but also followed legal studies at the University of Tehran (bachelor’s degree, 1972) and gained a masters (1995) and later a PhD (1999) at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. He was active in Khomeini’s Islamist movement prior to the Islamic Revolution, and returned to Iran to serve in the Majles as early as 1979 (he served in the legislature until 2000). During the Iran-Iraq war, he was Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces between 1986 and 1991. After being named to the head of the SNSC in 1989, he gained the confidence of the Supreme Leader and, especially, then-President Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani appreciated his moderate conservatism and his talents as a negotiator.

He gained international prominence between 2002 and 2005, during the first years of the Iranian ‘nuclear crisis’. In 2003, right after the American invasion of Iraq and the discovery of Iran’s covert nuclear program, Rouhani managed to convince Khamenei of accepting a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment. In these pre-Ahmadinejad day, Tehran was more inclined towards compromise and reassuring the US and the main European powers (UK, Germany, France). However, his conciliatory stance did not please the Supreme Leader, who eventually replaced him as head of the SNSC with the more conservative Larijani in 2005 and Jalili in 2007. Rouhani claims that his 2003 compromise with the European ‘Troika’ saved Iran from an “American-Israeli invasion”. However, radicals and ultraconservatives accused him of conceding too much to the Troika and weakening Iran. Saeed Jalili’s spokesperson, for example, has been very critical of Rouhani’s moderation in the handling of the nuclear dossier between 2003 and 2005.

Rouhani is a close supporter of former President Rafsanjani, who was barred from running. Like Rafsanjani, Rouhani is a moderate – centrist – conservative who has often been described as a reformist. Before the Guardian Council approved him and during the campaign, Rouhani publicly said that Mousavi and Karroubi, the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, should be released from house arrest. He also criticized the methods of the Basij/Revolutionary Guards and called for more civil rights.

Khamenei must at least tolerate Rouhani since the Guardian Council allowed him to run. However, on June 10, two Iranian news agencies (Fars, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, and Mehr) suggested that Rouhani would be disqualified prior to the election.

Rouhani started the campaign as a little-known candidate in the single digits, but got a huge wave of momentum in the final stretch. He received Rafsanjani’s support, and, on June 11, reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref dropped out and endorsed him. Aref, who was former President Mohammad Khatami’s candidate, had been pressured to drop out and coalesce the reformist  vote behind the moderate Rouhani by Khatami himself. Mohammad Reza Aref had served as Khatami’s First Vice President between 2001 and 2005.

Results and aftermath

Turnout was 72.7%, down from 85% in 2009 – but there are claims that turnout was inflated in 2009 because of vote rigging.

Hassan Rouhani (moderate/reformist) 50.71%
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (Principlist conservative) 16.55%
Saeed Jalili (hardline conservative) 11.35%
Mohsen Rezaee (independent conservative) 10.58%
Ali-Akbar Velayati (Principlist conservative) 6.18%
Mohammad Gharazi (independent/moderate) 1.21%

Iranian elections often end in surprises. In 1997, Khatami – the dark horse reformist – defeated the conservative ‘favourite’ with nearly 70% of the vote. In 2005, Ahmadinejad – the populist conservative who had not been expected to win – defeated conservative rivals in the first round and went on to win three-fifths of the vote in a runoff against a former President. This election was no different. The ‘favourites’ and ‘frontrunners’ – basically Jalili and Ghalibaf – did poorly, with only 16.6% and 11.4% respectively. The winner was somebody which few people had noticed in the first days of the campaign, and whose momentum came very late in the campaign. The winner was also somebody quite far removed from the conservatism which has been ascendant in Iranian politics since 2005.

Rouhani’s success was not entirely unexpected, because the most reliable pollster had shown him surging in the final days – first surpassing Ghalibaf on 8-11 June and then widening his advantage in their final, 9-12 June poll. He went from 14% and fourth place (behind Ghalibaf, whose support had been dropping from nearly 40% to the mid-20s, Jalili and Rezaee) on 7-11 June to 32% on 9-12 June. What was unexpected, however, was that he won a huge landslide – 51% by the first round! Most people had been expecting that, like in 2005, the first round would be exceptionally divided between the five fairly strong contenders and that the election would be decided on June 21 in a second round ballot. Few were certain who would qualify for the second round ballot, though in the final days it was probably a good bet to say that it would oppose Rouhani and Ghalibaf. Those harbouring suspicions about Iran’s electoral process (especially after 2009) felt that Rouhani was too moderate and close to the shunned reformists to be “allowed” to win by the Supreme Leader and the powers that be.

Overly high expectations? (source: Der Standard, Austria)

Even though Rouhani’s more conservative past and his past proximity to Khamenei (and Rafsanjani) might have potentially made it harder for him to rally reformist votes, his victory was likely built on a massive outpouring of reformist and moderate support for his candidacy. The reformists, including actors of the 2009 Green Movement – well, those which aren’t rotting in jail – coalesced around his candidacy, with little second thoughts, after their leaders – Khatami, Aref and Rafsanjani (to a lesser extent) – endorsed Rouhani. The result is that Rouhani’s grassroots supporters are probably far more radical than he is. He is more centrist than reformist and goes out of his way to emphasize his ‘moderation’. However, in large urban rallies celebrating his victory, his supporters chanted Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s name and celebrated the loathed Ahmadinejad’s removal from office.

The high turnout serves as proof of Rouhani’s ability to rally the reformist voters. A day before the vote, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called on all Iranians – even those who “do not support the Islamic system” – to vote. Khamenei and the Iranian leadership had a major interest in ensuring that turnout was very high, which they wished to use as proof that their regime still enjoys popular legitimacy and to counter western claims that the regime is crumbling against popular dissatisfaction.

In sharp contrast with the bloodshed and mass protests which followed Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 reelections, the results of this election have been met with calm on both sides. All the major actors – the conservative candidates, Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards – all issued messages of goodwill congratulating Rouhani and pledging to work with him. The young Iranian students and reformist activists who took the streets did so to celebrate Rouhani’s victory and Ahmadinejad’s upcoming departure. In this sense, the election is a blessing for Khamenei and the high echelons of the Islamic Republic, who can now claim renewed legitimacy after the 2009 clusterfark.

Results by province have not been released yet, although Wikipedia seems to be in the process of creating (a fairly unclear and messy) map of the results and providing results by province. With such a huge margin, Rouhani was likely victorious in most of the country – the urban centres which are often seen as reformist bastions but also the conservative small towns and interior where Ahmadinejad triumphed in 2005 and 2009. It appears as if Rezaee might have won his native Khuzestan province, and perhaps he did well in other provinces with large ethnic minorities – such as Kurdistan, Kermanshah or Loristan. The reformist movement has usually been fairly strong in provinces such as these, the Azeri provinces or Sistan and Baluchestan, with large non-Persian ethnic minorities or Sunni Muslim minorities (in Khorasan, Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan).

Iran’s ethnic and religious diversity – an often underestimated factor (source: Wikipedia)

Rouhani’s wide victory reflects deep-seated popular dissatisfaction with outgoing President Ahmadinejad, who leaves office as a controversial and unpopular President turned into a lame duck because of his feud with Khamenei. His victory owes a lot to domestic conditions – an economic recession, high inflation, failed economic policies, the economic problems caused by foreign sanctions and high unemployment. Although Iranian conservatives downplay it, there is at least a partial link between international sanctions, bred by Iran’s stance on its nuclear program, and the country’s economic troubles. Many voters likely made that link as well.

Among the other candidates, Jalili was likely perceived as too hardline and uncompromising on the nuclear issue and inexperienced on other issues. Velayati was never a top contender, being far too technocratic for that. Rezaee was never a very high-profile contender either. Ghalibaf was a strong candidate on paper, given his conservative anti-Ahmadinejad credentials and his fairly good record as mayor of Tehran, so I’m not so sure why his support tanked like it did. Was he seen as too conservative? Was he hurt by his ‘militaristic’ past and incessantly boasting about how he mowed down ‘subversives’ thrice?

We should always keep in mind that the President of Iran is not the highest source of authority in Iranian politics – the real powers, especially on touchy topics such as foreign policy and nuclear issues – are still in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is clearly far more conservative and ‘hawkish’ than his President-elect is. Nevertheless, the Iranian President does have some relevance in the game and some degree of influence. Rouhani’s victory should not be cynically dismissed as an irrelevant realpolitik move by Khamenei. Rouhani won’t change the world and he might not be what he is expected to be.

Yet, he will have some leverage and could, at the very least, tone down the hardline rhetoric just a bit and make Tehran more amenable to compromise than it was under Ahmadinejad’s presidency. He has stressed moderation, diplomacy, pragmatism and engagement with the US and its partners. He has a record as a real ‘negotiator’ rather than an uncompromising representative (like Jalili was), and he earned the sobriquet of the “diplomatic sheikh” during his two-year stint as Iran’s nuclear go-to guy.

Basically all Iranian politicians – conservatives and reformists alike – support the country’s nuclear program and nobody is going to dismantle it and throw their hands up. A vast majority of Iranians see the nuclear program (and the technological/scientific advances and prestige it gives) as a source of national pride and a repudiation of foreign mingling (which has been going on for hundreds of years). Rouhani says he wants a peaceful nuclear program, though the eternal question is how far he or any other Iranian politician is going to take the program to inch towards an actual weapon. Rouhani, as aforementioned, supports engagement and constructive dialogue/compromise with the west.

However, in a 2004 speech, while saying that Iran needs to engage the west through diplomatic channels, he noted that Iran’s strategy of slow-playing the west with negotiations/compromises has allowed the country to continue developing its nuclear program covertly. He says that, while nuclear negotiator, his top concern was to stall and drag out talks while Iranian scientists pushed nuclear technology forward behind closed doors. Therefore, Rouhani should not be seen as somebody who is willing to sacrifice strategic aspects of Iran’s cherished but controversial nuclear program. He strongly supports the (civilian) nuclear program, and wants to push it to its conclusion which will force the west to ‘deal with it’ – just like they were forced to ‘deal with it’ when Pakistan got the bomb in 1998. He does have a genuine interest, or so it seems, in improving diplomatic ties with the west. But not at the cost of “surrendering”.

Rouhani’s ‘reformist’ credentials – if any – have not yet been proven. He promised to release Mousavi and Karroubi from house arrest and would also like to release political prisoners from 2009, but he has warned that such things will require time and patience – meaning that he needs to convince Khamenei that it’s a good idea. Rouhani, like almost all reformists, remains an “insider” with a long political career working inside the Islamic Republic’s state apparatus. That means that there will not – there cannot – be overnight transformations, and any reforms will be moderate and gradual. He needs to maneuver with a state apparatus which is otherwise dominated by conservative allies of the Supreme Leader. The Majles is dominated by principlist conservatives, presided by Ali Larijani. The Guardian Council, the courts and most importantly the Revolutionary Guards are ultraconservative bulwarks controlled by the Supreme Leader. We should remember how these institutions and the regime’s ideological paramilitaries successfully thwarted Khatami’s reformist agenda and destroyed the reformist wave after 2003-2004.

It is worth pointing out that the top concern in this election was the economy, not foreign policy (although, again, in Iran, both are linked). Rouhani has said that his priorities will be fixing the economy, reducing unemployment and tackling high inflation.

Cynical voices suspicious of Iran’s very controlled and curtailed illiberal democracy believe that Rouhani was handpicked by the Supreme Leader as a ‘moderate’ which would give him domestic legitimacy and reduce tensions with the west with the least coast to Iran. It could certainly be a calculated effort by Khamenei et al to give the outward appearance of moderation and reform and regain domestic and international legitimacy after the 2009 crisis. Khamenei felt increasingly threatened and fragilized by the 2009 protests, which was the first time that popular anger was directed not only at his lackeys and hapless Presidents but at him directly. In the past, he had a teflonic ability to deflect unpopularity and criticism by placing the blame on unpopular decisions and economic troubles on others – like the President. The more radical elements of the 2009 Green Movement directly targeted him and events like Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral in 2009 became opportunities for public denunciations of the regime’s ruling elite. One might also assume that Khamenei is at least a little concerned by the international isolation of his country and the economic impact it has had. He is clearly a hardline conservative on nuclear matters, but he is not suicidal. He wants to push the nuclear program forward while reducing tensions with the west. Rouhani provides him with a tool to do just that. Finally, Rouhani is a religious cleric – unlike the other candidates and the outgoing President. As such, he won’t be like Ahmadinejad/Mashaei and lead a crusade against religious involvement in politics.

Iran’s top echelons are fine strategists, and we should not put such a calculated manipulation of the election beyond them. But it is perhaps overly cynical to see Rouhani as Khamenei’s tools. Plenty of other conservative candidates would have been just as useful to further Khamenei’s objectives – sure, Jalili was a bit too radical and Ghalibaf might have been too independent and turned into Ahmadinejad 2.0, but I think it’s pretty clear that Rouhani was not Khamenei’s favourite (unless Khamenei is even more Machiavellian than previously assumed).

Basically put, Khamenei had nothing to lose with Rouhani’s victory and he will probably be able to use it to his advantage, but it’s unclear whether he really had something big to gain from it.

Unless we subscribe to the cynic view of the matter in which the election was entirely manipulated by Tehran’s high echelons for self-interested purposes, Iran’s presidential election is quite significant. It is unwise to see it as a victory for reformism and overnight transformations, or to view it as a sign that Iran will suddenly back down on the contentious nuclear issue and hand victory to the west. It is more of a sign that President Ahmadinejad leaves office with a terrible record of civil rights abuses, unprecedented isolation and crippling sanctions, an economy in shambles and a feud with Khamenei which made his entire second term quasi-irrelevant. Out of these conditions, a ‘moderate’ like Rouhani who promised to fix the economy, democratize things a tiny bit and patch up diplomatic ties with the west while still moving forward on the nuclear dossier was able to win a landslide victory; appealing to 2009 Green Movement activists, reformists, moderate conservatives and many depoliticized Iranians eager for a change and way out of the impasse which Ahmadinejad has led them into since 2005.

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.

South Korea (President) 2012

Presidential elections were held in South Korea (Republic of Korea) on December 19, 2012. The President is directly elected to a non-renewable five-year term through a FPTP system. In the South Korean system, the President – as head of state and chief executive – holds the key powers. As a result, the presidential election is often the closely watched election in South Korea.

South Korea’s contemporary politics are heavily influenced by two factors rooted in the country’s recent political history: military rule and regionalism. Between 1962 and 1992, South Korea was ruled by the military, and alternated between authoritarian periods and semi-democratic openings. Between 1962 and 1979, under the presidency of Park Chung-hee, South Korea experienced a period of rapid economic growth which transformed the poor country into an advanced industrialized economy. In this period, South Korea’s economic structure began being marked by the chaebol structures – large industrial conglomerates which ran the country’s economy through a close alliance with the state. The rapid economic development of the country thanks to Korean state capitalism remains Park’s main achievement, but he remains a very controversial figure in Korea because of his authoritarianism. Economic development, indeed, went hand-in-hand with draconian repression of the opposition (students, intellectuals and unionized labour) and an authoritarian political system rigged in favour of Park’s party and the military. At the same time, Park’s regime laid the foundations of regionalism in South Korean politics, which is one of the most surprising aspects of politics in a fairly homogeneous country. Park, a native of Gyeongsang province (Daegu and Busan), led policies which heavily favoured his native province over Jeolla, the native province of his top political rival Kim Dae-jung and historically sidelined by political elites. A wave of opposition and the risk of losing Washington’s crucial political support led Park’s secret services, the KCIA, to turn against him and assassinate him.

Out of the chaos which followed Park’s death, another military officer from Gyeongsang, Chun Doo-hwan, seized power. Chun quickly asserted his power by setting up his own dictatorial regime, arresting opponents and bloodily putting down a revolt in Gwangju (Jeolla). With the backing of US President Ronald Reagan, the country’s economy continued to grow at a rapid pace during the 1980s, but opposition movements gained strength, to which Chun responded by an eclectic policy of political reforms mixed in with good ole repression. In 1987, Chun and his handpicked successor – another military officer from Gyeongsang, Roh Tae-woo, were forced to agree to the direct election of the President in 1987. That year, Roh, the candidate of Chun’s incumbent right-wing Democratic Justice Party, was elected president over an opposition divided between Busan native Kim Young San and Jeolla native Kim Dae-jung. Roh’s administration slowly democratized the system, but with the unfortunate backdrop of corruption, regional discrimination, economic decline and associated labour unrest. Prior to the 1992 election, Kim Young Sam had merged his party with Roh’s party, and had in the process managed to take control of the party to run against Kim Dae-jung in the 1992 election, which was disturbed the emergence of a populist centrist force led by Hyundai patriarch Chung Ju-yung. Kim Young Sam defeated the other Kim in the 1992 election, with the results revealing – once again – a deep regional divide between Jeolla and Gyeongsang.

Kim Young Sam’s presidency, disturbed at the end by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, marked the end of military rule in the country. Kim Young Sam proved to be the Trojan Horse who took control of the military-led Korean right to destroy it from within, which he did through the arrest and conviction of both of his predecessors in an ambitious and ultimately successful anti-corruption campaign. However, the economic crisis in Korea in 1997 hurt his party – now styled the Grand National Party (GNP) – in the 1997 elections which were narrowly won by Kim Dae-jung.

Kim Dae-jung, who became the first “liberal” president of the country – the opposition to the Korean right/military has largely been styled as liberal (which means slightly different things in Korea) – had a succesful presidency marked by economic growth, economic reforms aimed at breaking the chaebols power and a new policy of détente with North Korea (the Sunshine Policy). In 2002, he was succeeded by Roh Moo-hyun, whose presidency might be one of the most controversial in South Korea’s post-military history. The GNP led a futile charge for his impeachment in 2004 while backfired on them, while his economic policies in a period of less impressive economic numbers and growth attracted criticism. He also faced allegations of corruption (which led to his party’s collapse and later his own suicide in 2009) and incompetence.

Roh was succeeded by another controversial figure, Lee Myung-bak, the GNP candidate who won the 2007 election by a landslide over a discredited and unpopular liberal government. Already in hot water before his election for involvement in a scam by an investment house, Lee has been a polarizing figure. His opponents decry his authoritarian style, his economic policies which they claim are too favourable to big business and the chaebols, as well as a controversial free trade agreement with the United States. Lee has also led a more stridently pro-American foreign policy, and has shifted gears in relations with the North by adopting a more confrontational posture than the controversial Sunshine Policy of past liberal government. Lee had also struggled with a divided right – in 2007, he faced a dissident candidacy by former two-time GNP presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang who founded his own party, the Liberty Forward Party (LFP) – but also a divided party. Lee’s loyalists have battled with members closer to Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, herself defeated by Lee in the 2007 GNP primaries.

In legislative elections held in April, the GNP – renamed and rebranded as the Saenuri Party and led by Park Geun-hye – managed a surprising victory over the liberal opposition, now known as the Democratic United Party (DUP). The Saenuri Party, which under Park’s leadership distanced itself from the unpopular President, won 152 seats to the DUP’s 127 seats.

As noted then, the legislative election foreshadowed the presidential election. Park Geun-hye, who had lost the 2007 GNP primary by a hair to Lee, had been working to gain control of Lee’s party ever since then and positioning herself for the presidency since 2008. In 2011, she gained control of the GNP and promptly rebranded it (quite successfully) as the Saenuri Party. She then proceeded to move the party towards the centre and distancing herself from the Blue House (the President’s residence) – notably on economic issues where the Korean right has naturally leaned towards a pro-business and pro-chaebol stance. Her presidential ambitions and political shift away from Lee and towards the centre have incensed some within her party, but after her party’s surprising victory in the April legislative elections, most of her internal opposition was silenced and humbled. She handily won the Saenuri primaries, with about 84% support.

Park’s somewhat unique personal history as the daughter of a dictator who served as First Lady under her father’s administration (between 1974 and 1979) following her mother’s assassination has been somewhat of an issue throughout her political career, but her family ties have not been untenable baggage. The liberal left, which opposed her father’s administration, has branded her as the daughter of a dictator. However, her father’s legacy is a divisive subject in Korea. The liberal left (and younger voters) widely loathes him and considers him a dictator who committed major human rights abuses, but the right (and older voters) is slightly more positive on his legacy, reminiscing the strong economic growth under his administration. Park recently apologized for atrocities and human rights violations under her father’s administration, but at no point in her career has she clearly disowned him and his legacy. During the primary campaign, she declined to state whether she considered the May 16, 1961 coup a coup or a necessary revolution to save the country. All in all, being the “daughter of a dictator” did not seriously hinder Park’s presidential ambitions – most Koreans do not consider her to be the “daughter of a dictator” or do not hold her father’s controversial presidency against her.

The presidential race was set on fire, late last year, by the potential independent candidacy of Ahn Cheol-soo, a 50-year old software engineer whose self-made businessman image and his outsider, nonpartisan political stance appealed to many voters – especially liberals and younger voters. Ahn had acted as a kingmaker in the October 2011 Seoul mayoral by-election, which was won by Park Won-soon, an independent backed by Ahn. Park defeated the GNP candidate in a major blow to the Blue House (Lee had been mayor of Seoul prior to becoming President).

The DUP candidate was Moon Jae-in, a lawyer and a chief of staff under the late President Roh’s administration. Roh left office with high disapproval ratings, dogged by accusations of corruption which ultimately led to his own suicide. Even within the DUP, Roh’s legacy remains a divisive issue. Moon struggled to emerge from Roh’s damaging shadow.

Park was the frontrunner in the campaign since 2008. The division of the opposition vote between the independent Ahn and the DUP’s Moon led to significant pressure for one of them to drop out in favour of the other. In late November, Ahn, who had announced his candidacy in September, announced that he was dropping out and endorsed Moon.

As in April, domestic issues rather than foreign policy were key issues in this election. As mentioned above, Lee’s policies have been decried by opponents as being too pro-business. He has been unable to live up to his “747″ economic promise (7% growth, per capita income of $40,000, 7th economy in the world). Instead, hit a bit by the economic crisis, the country has had slower growth (3.5%) and rising inflation (3%) and unemployment (4%). Voters are concerned by welfare programs and social services, which have forced both parties to tack a bit to the left.

Both candidates campaigned chiefly on the idea of “economic democratization”, that is breaking up the power and influence of the chaebols, South Korea’s industrial conglomerates which emerged during Park Chung-hee’s administration. Some sectors of the Korean right, which has traditionally been on good terms with the chaebols were alarmed by Park’s rhetoric during the legislative and presidential campaign, but her strategy proved successful in April and her campaign signaled that they would not turn back. Both candidates also spoke of expanding and strengthening the welfare state, to help those left behind by the past eras of development-at-all-costs.

Turnout was very high, at 75.8%. It was only a bit over 62% in the 2007 presidential election.

Park Geun-hye (Saenuri) 51.55%
Moon Jae-in (DUP) 48.02%
Kang Ji-won (Ind) 0.17%
Kim Soon-ja (Ind) 0.15%
Kim So-yeon (Ind) 0.05%
Park Jong-sun (Ind) 0.04%

The early favourite and the frontrunner, Park, won, becoming South Korea’s first woman President. Park’s victory is not all that much of a surprise, considering her frontrunner status since 2008 and most importantly throughout the actual campaign. Since taking the leadership of the South Korean right, she successfully managed to reincarnate her party, distance it from an unpopular outgoing administration and successfully steal the left’s advantage on hot-button issues such as economic inequality.

The high turnout level should have benefited Moon, and it could explain why he managed to come as close as he did. Moon and the DUP’s strongest base are young voters, who – as in any country – often drag their feet to the polls and need to be motivated by a successful campaign to actually turn out. However, the DUP and the liberals face a demographic problem. South Korea has a rapidly aging population, and older voters favoured Park. Older voters are more likely to have positive or nostalgic feelings about her father’s administration, they are a high-turnout demographic and they now make up an increasingly large segment of the electorate –  for the first time, more voters were above 50 than under 40.

The result is another blow to the DUP, which had already been rattled by its defeat in April. Moon did well, but he was unable to take all of Ahn’s potential support and recover adequately from Ahn’s challenge. Furthermore, elections fought on economic inequality have traditionally favoured the liberal left. Now, the DUP finds out that its traditional edge on that issue is gone.

Results of the 2012 South Korean presidential election by municipality/urban district (source: Wikipedia)

The election results revealed the deep influence of regionalism and regional polarization in modern South Korean politics. Regionalism and regional polarization has been an enduring element of South Korean politics since the 1970s. On the one hand, Moon won 92% in Gwangju, 86.3% in North Jeolla and 89.3% in South Jeolla. On the other hand, Park won 80% in Daegu, 80.8% in North Gyeongsang and 63% in South Gyeongsang. Moon also won Seoul, with a narrow majority (51.4%) while Park won the populous Gyeonggi province (surrounding Seoul) with 50.4%. She prevailed with 62% in Gangwon in northeastern Korea, won about 56% in North and South Chungcheong province, and took over 59% in Busan and Ulsan (two major cities in Gyeongsang region). The race was close in the urban areas of Incheon, Daejeon and Sejong (but Park won a narrow plurality in all of them).

The regional divide between Jeolla and Gyeongsang (particularly North Gyeongsang) thus endures. It is not a particularly emphatic favourite son vote even though Park herself was born in Daegu and her father was from North Gyeongsang; because Moon is from South Gyeongsang and represented Busan in the legislature. As explained above, the regional divide owes to a long-standing historical enmity between Jeolla and Gyeongsang which goes back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57-668 AD) when the kingdoms of Baekje (Jeolla) and Silla (Gyeongsang) fought for control of the southern Korean peninsula. The regional polarization was deepened following World War II, when South Korea’s dominant political elites (notably Park’s father) hailed from Gyeongsang and implemented economic and social policies which favoured Gyeongsang over Jeolla, which remained an underdeveloped poor backwater region with strong opposition sentiments (Kim Dae-jung was from Jeolla). The Gwangju Democratization Movement in the late 1980s, violently crushed by Chun Doo-hwan, crystallized this regional polarization.

The map to the right, shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia, highlights this deep regional polarization. Moon was also victorious in Seoul (with the exception of some affluent districts and suburbs of the city, most notably the now internationally-famous Gangnam district in Seoul). As a urban area with a strong industrial base (unions and the working-class usually lean towards the DUP or other left-wing parties) and a young population, Seoul has traditionally been a base of opposition to the authoritarian regimes and remains generally liberal-leaning.

Park will take office in February 2013. On terms of domestic policy, her campaign’s rhetoric and style differed fairly significantly from Lee’s policies, but it remains to be seen whether she will tack back to the right or if she will truly confront the chaebols and the cosy arrangements between conglomerate affiliates. In terms of foreign policy, she will pursue Lee’s pro-American policies and free trade agreements (notably with the US) while having few warm feelings for either China or Japan. She could adopt less confrontational policies in relations with North Korea, which have been frozen since Lee stated that he refused to be blackmailed by Pyongyang. She will certainly not return to the cozy détente “Sunshine Policy” pursued by the two past liberal Presidents (Kim Dae-jung and Roh) which Moon apparently wanted to return to, but she has vaguely promised to find a balance between Lee’s hard-line and the liberals’ dovish gestures.

United States 2012

A whole bunch of elections – most significantly a presidential election – were held in the United States on November 6, 2012. Given the international interest in this election and considering how almost every political observer around the world knows at least a little about American politics and political history, I figured that I should approach the post-election coverage of these American elections in a slightly different way. We know the candidates, we know the background to this election and we know how the campaign went along. Rather than covering the results in my usual fashion, this post has a mish-mash of my observations about the results, the exit polls, the surprises, the trends and the geography of this all. This post is extremely long, but it has been divided into headers so you can pick and choose what interests you.

It must be noted that the results used in this post are not final; there are still tons of absentees and early votes yet to be counted. The final, hard results should only be known in December. I don’t really like talking about results when we are only dealing with unofficial and incomplete results, but it will have to do for now. Please keep in mind that the numbers used here are not the final results and that they will be different from the final results when they come out.

Some media sources have apparently been a bit lazy at updating their results with the full results from each state’s updated results, but the US Election Atlas appears to be the best at keeping up with results from each state. Fox News (sorry liberals!) has the best layout for presenting the results of the exit polls.


Barack Obama/Joe Biden (D) 50.79% winning 332 EVs
Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan (R) 47.49% winning 206 EVs
Gary Johnson/James Gray (L) 0.99%
Jill Stein/Cheri Honkala (G) 0.36%
All others winning less than 0.1%

Obama (D) +3.31%

Yes, I do not use the “blue Dem-red GOP” colour scheme (I use the opposite).

These two spreadsheets (here and here) are being updated with the latest results.

The status-quo and polarization prevails

The conclusion was, regardless of one’s feelings about the results themselves, fairly anti-climatic. After a grueling campaign which lasted for over a year in total, after tons of money spent, after bombarding every swing state vote with ads depicting the other candidate as the anti-Christ; the end was very anti-climatic, all over by 11:15 on election night (less than half an hour longer than in 2008). The results presented fairly few surprises, indicating that the polling averages were on the whole fairly correct in calling each state.

Ultimately, the status-quo prevailed: President Obama was reelected fairly comfortably (in the electoral college), the Democrats retained the Senate but the Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives. A lot of voters were thirsty for “change” of some kind, but in the end, what they got was, more or less, a return to square one, where they stood prior to November 6.

Obama’s victory was not inevitable. With sluggish economic growth, unemployment hovering at 8% for months (even if the economy is slowly improving) and rising concern over the United States’ huge public debt, Obama was not in an overly strong position. While it was certainly not a case of not scoring on an open goal, Obama’s reelection was not inevitable and the Republicans – with a better candidate – could have won this election. Romney’s failure speaks to his own problems as a candidate but also the problems the Republicans as a party face with the wider electorate.

Romney was not a good candidate, but despite the wild fantasies of some Democratic partisans, being a fairly bad candidate did not sink his candidacy. His image as an “elitist rich guy” who did not understand the problems of the “middle-class”, an image which he himself contributed to with comments such as “the 47%” did not help his case, but it did not sink him either. His past as a “flip-flopper” and the view that Romney did not really have any personal, deeply ingrained personal ideological convictions but rather opportunistically adopted the policy positions which would provide him with the most political benefits hurt his image as well. To a certain extent, the Democrats were able to define Romney before Romney defined himself; but they were unable to scuttle his candidacy (a la McGovern ’72 or Mondale ’84).

Romney had been able to significantly improve his image following the first debate, during which Obama sleepwalked and allowed Romney to walk all over him. If the polls were correct, Romney’s strong performance in the first debate narrowed the race down to a tie in the national popular vote (down from a major Obama advantage, post-DNC). In retrospect, looking at the results, it appears as if the first debate ultimately made little difference. Obama swept every swing state except North Carolina, including even Florida.

The first debate may have only rekindled Republican enthusiasm and motivation, which had been severely depressed by Romney’s terrible campaign in September (notably ‘47%’) and Bill Clinton at the DNC. While Romney, as it currently stands, actually won less raw votes that John McCain in 2008, he will probably end up with more votes than McCain when all the votes have been counted.

Romney’s debate victory narrowed the race, but it is possible that it would have narrowed anyway, only later in October, as conservatives got more motivated to vote as the election got closer. Therefore, Romney possibly surged too early and narrowed the race too early. He was unable to sustain his momentum, even if the race remained close.

If one agrees that Romney was a weak candidate and that relatively few of his own voters were overly, 100% enthusiastic about him; the fact that he still pulled 48% of the popular vote indicates two things: that American politics are extremely polarized and that the sluggish economy hurt Obama.

The weak economy of course precluded Obama from winning a landslide re-election, even against the worst imaginable candidates (of the Sarah Palin genre), but American politics has become so polarized since 2000 that it is extremely hard to imagine either Republicans or Democrats winning a presidential election with over 58-60% of the popular vote. Politics and the parties have changed since the days of Reagan’s 1984 landslide over Walter Mondale or Nixon’s 1973 shellacking of George McGovern, making a repeat of these elections near-impossible in the modern day.

Both parties have become less ideologically diverse: moderate or centrist Republicans (“Rockefeller Republicans” and the like)  are very much a dying breed, chased out by conservatives hell-bent on ideological purity; while conservative/moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats and Southern white Democrats in general are also facing rapid extinction, while many liberals are increasingly hostile to these “Blue Dogs” who don’t necessarily abide to the Democratic agenda. Obama’s presidency has increased polarization, with the radicalization of the conservative movement (the Tea Party) while the Democrats continue their transition to some kind of “true progressivism”, notably with Obama endorsing gay marriage.

Romney was a flawed and poor candidate, but in the field of Republican contenders in 2012 he was likely one of their strongest, which can say a lot about how they stand as a party. Newt Gingrich turned into a weird crackpot during the primaries and would have lost by an even bigger margin; Rick Santorum might have played better with white working-class voters but his social conservatism and obsession with homosexuals would likely mean that he would still have lost (at least) by a similar margin as Mitt Romney. Ron Paul is harder to quantify, with some insisting that he would win a phenomenal landslide and others insisting he is totally unelectable. Jon Huntsman is similarly hard to quantify: more centrist, pragmatic and moderate he could have performed well in the general election, but at the same time he would probably have struggled with conservatives.

The fairly close finish in the popular vote (Obama has won by a margin a bit bigger than Bush’s 2004 2.7% PV margin over Kerry) and the electoral map confirms that American politics remain deeply polarized and divided along deep fault lines.

A nation divided by race

One of the biggest fault lines in American politics remains race/ethnicity. Whites made up 72% of the electorate according to the exit poll, down from 74% in 2008. Mitt Romney won whites by 20 points (59-39), whereas John McCain had won whites by 12 points in 2008. Obama’s victory in 2008, as in 2012, was dependent upon a strong coalition of ethnic minorities. Blacks still made up 13% of the electorate on November 6, the same percentage as four years ago, and Obama won them by 87 points (93-6), down slightly from a 91% advantage over McCain in 2008.

The most crucial part of Obama’s winning “rainbow” coalition were Hispanics/Latinos, who made up 10% of the electorate (up from 9% in 2008). In the 2008 election, Obama had won a decisive advantage over John McCain with Hispanics, carrying them by 36 points whereas John Kerry had won them by only 13 points over George W. Bush in 2004. This year, Obama actually increased his margins with Hispanic voters, carrying them by a huge 44 points (71 to 27) over Mitt Romney. The electoral weight of Hispanics proved decisive in the swing states of Nevada (19% of voters, Obama +47), Colorado (14% of voters, Obama +52), Florida (17% of voters, Obama +21) but also in other states such as California (where exit polls report that Romney won whites by 10). In Florida, the Republicans even lost their historic advantage with Cuban voters: the exit poll in Florida reveals that Cubans, who made up 6% of the electorate, voted for Obama by 2 points (49-47). This is the first time that Florida Cubans have backed a Democrat; Bill Clinton in 1996 lost them but likely came close to even.

Latino Decisions, a Hispanic-based pollster with a very good track record with Hispanic voters (they accurately predicted that Obama would increase his margin with Hispanics), had similar results in their exit poll. They found that Obama won them by 52 points (75-23), though they say that Cubans voted for Romney (in Florida, he supposedly won them by 29 – 64-35?; and by 10 nationally, 54-44). In contrast, they say that Mexicans voted 78-20 for Obama and Puerto Ricans backed him 88-14.

Asian-Americans made up 3% of the electorate, up from 2% in 2008. Here again, Obama actually increased his margin of victory; from 27 points to 47 points in 2012. We should be careful in interpreting this data, given that this year’s exit poll is a bit dodgy: only 31 states (rather than all 50) had a complete exit polls, and they called only enough people in the 19 other states to get a statistically significant sample. Therefore, the Asian sub-sample might be a bit heavy on California; but it is clear that there was a significant swing to Obama with Asian-Americans. Obama had won them by 29 in California in 2008, he won them by 58 (79-21) this year. Precinct-level results in predominantly Asian towns in the Bay Area and LA will confirm whether this is true or not, but I would be surprised if the exit polls were wildly off.

What might explain the swings to Obama with Hispanics and Asians? The Republican Party’s right-wing positions on immigration issues, most notably Arizona’s SB 1070 and Mitt Romney saying that illegals should “self-deport” before applying for citizenship did not help matters with Republicans. Even if some Hispanics like Puerto Ricans are natural-born US citizens, they might perceive the GOP’s policies and controversial laws such as SB 1070 as an attack on themselves. On the other hand, Obama has not followed through on his 2008 promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but his administration recently launched a program to allow young undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary work permits.

Asian-Americans, highly educated, white-collar, affluent and in some cases fairly small-c conservative, could be expected to be Republicans. In fact, they used to be Republicans: Asians backed George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole in 1992 and 1996; but since then the GOP’s share of the vote with Asian-Americans has declined election after election. However, the GOP’s shift to the right – particularly towards Christian conservatism/traditionalism, has been very poorly received by Asian-Americans, who tend to be secular (or whose religious values are different than those of traditional Abrahamic religions) and highly value education. In addition, the “anti-science” rhetoric of some Republicans is another big turn off for Asian voters. Finally, immigration likely played a role. While Hispanics are more directly affected by immigration policy, a lot of Asian-Americans are also recent immigrants and they are, as a result, allergic to some of the GOP’s quasi-nativist rhetoric on immigration.

Asian-Americans, similar to Asian societies, are less distrustful of prevailing institutions – notably government – than “white Americans” tend to be. As a result, Asians are very pro-incumbent and supportive of the existing order.

The Republicans have a clear demographic problem. Mitt Romney could have won the election with his 20 point margin over Obama, but it would have required a decrease in minority turnout since 2008. A lot of Republicans and those behind the “unskewed polls” hogwash were banking on whites increasing their share of the electorate, but minority turnout remained at 2008 heights. They should have read the trend lines: the share of white voters in the whole electorate has declined almost consistently since 1980, from nearly 90% of the electorate to barely over 70% of the electorate. Nothing in politics lasts forever, and Obama’s “rainbow coalition” could very well disintegrated somewhat by 2016, but one thing which seems fairly certain is that minorities will make up an increasingly large proportion of the electorate in upcoming elections. Therefore, the Republican Party’s overwhelmingly white electorate is, in the long term, unsustainable unless they win over even more whites (but at 60% of the vote, they will soon hit a ceiling).

It is urgent that the Republicans reach out to Hispanic and Asian voters, the two fastest-growing minorities in the US. Appealing to Hispanics does not mean merely packaging their current rhetoric and ideology differently, with a Hispanic candidate or running-mate. It means, in good part, taking a deep look at where they stand ideologically and re-evaluate their party’s political positioning – especially on issues such as immigration. It is not impossible, after all, George W. Bush lost them by only 13 points in 2004 in part because he emphasized more moderate positions on immigration reform. However, it probably requires moderation on issues such as immigration. While a lot of potential 2016 GOP candidates, most significantly former FL Governor Jeb Bush have moderate positions on immigration reform, it is easier said than done. The GOP primary electorate is conservative and (very) right-wing, it forced Mitt Romney to the right. Even if he returned to more centrist positions in the first debate, he was unable to shake off some of his baggage inherited from a grueling primary in which he needed to prove that he was not a “Massachusetts liberal”. In 2016, it is conceivable that even more “moderate” candidates like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie would be pushed to the right by the primary electorate if they were actively determined to win the nomination.

Appealing to Asian voters is not overly difficult – a lot of them are fairly fiscally conservative and would probably vote for a more moderate GOP which places emphasis on fiscal conservatism rather than arguing semantics of rape. However, in this case, again, it requires the GOP to re-evaluate where it stands and move in a more moderate direction.

That being said, the post-election talk about GOP collapse is likely overhyped. There was similar talk of the GOP being “doomed” after Obama’s victory in 2008, while observers had said the same thing for Democrats after the 2004. The GOP is not facing electoral oblivion or anything close to collapse, and no electoral coalition in the United States should be taken as permanent. However, the GOP does face long-term demographic and structural problems in winning elections.

Race remains the most salient divide in American politics. The exit polls confirm that race neutralizes some of the effect of age, gender and religion on vote choice. All white age groups, from 18-29 to 65+, voted for Romney with margins ranging from 7 points to 23 points. Both white men and women voted for Romney, even though there was still a major gender gap: white men backed Romney by 27, white women ‘only’ backed him by 14 points. Finally, even though Obama won Catholics (by 2), he lost non-Hispanic Catholics by a full 19 points (59-40).

Black and Hispanic men and women both backed Obama by huge margins, but it is interesting to point out that while Obama lost 8 points with black men and gained only 1 point with Hispanic men compared to 2008, he remained at those levels with black women and gained a full 8 points with Hispanic women. He lost the most ground with young (18-29) and middle-aged (45-64) blacks. With Hispanics, he gained the most with young adults (30-44) and middle-aged adults (45-64).

A gender gap

There was a stark gender gap in this election (10 points up from 7 in 2008; the difference between the men’s D-R margin and the women’s D-R margin is 18 points, up from 12 in 2008), as in the 2008 election, which is nothing new in American elections but which has become fairly rare in other Western democracies. Women backed Obama by 11 points, men backed Romney by 7 points; and even when race is taken into account, as noted above, the gender gap is not eliminated. In 2008, Obama had won women by 13 and males by a single point. As mentioned above, both white men and women voted for Romney, but white men backed him by 27 points and women backed him only by 14 points.

Obama lost 4 points with males, falling from 49% support in 2008 to 45% support this year. However, he only lost 1 point with women, falling from 56% to 55%. He lost a full 6 points with white men but shed a more modest 4 points with white women. Obama’s stable support with women voters nationwide is due in large part to a substantial increase in support (+8) with Hispanic women. There is now a stark 11-point gender gap with Hispanics, up from a small 4-point gender gap between Hispanic men and women in 2008. Latino Decisions did not find a sizable gender gap in their exit poll, however.

Democrats talked a lot about the GOP’s “war on women”, a term referring to the policies of various Republican governors (notably in Virginia and Pennsylvania) seeking to restrict access to abortion (mandatory ultrasounds, gestational limits on abortion). Obama’s campaign targeted women voters and placed a large emphasis on “women’s issues”, including notably pay equity and access to contraception. In contrast, Romney struggled with women and his answer on a pay equity question in the second presidential debate (“binders full of women”) became the butt of many jokes. The Democrats criticized Romney for wanting to defund Planned Parenthood and seeking to restrict women’s access to contraception. His position on pay equity and the Lilly Ledbetter Act was also very vague. The GOP’s precarious standing with women was further weakened with the rape comments from Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Tom Smith.

Marital status, as in 2008, had an impact on vote choice. The 60% of voters who were married backed Romney by 14 (56-42) and the 40% of voters who were not married backed Obama by 27 (62-35). Both married men and women backed Romney, but the gender gap was persistent: married men backed him by 22, married women only backed him by 7. Both unmarried men and women backed Obama, with another large gender gap: unmarried men backed the President by 16 but he had a huge 36 point margin over Romney with unmarried women.

Mothers backed Obama by 13 points (56-43), a larger margin than women without children (he won them by 9). Fathers backed Romney by 8, men without children backed him by 3.

In addition to his “rainbow coalition” of minorities and white liberals, Obama’s strong support with women – especially non-white women – was another major factor which contributed to his victory. The gender gap also helped Democrats in key Senate races.

Age and vote choice

As in 2008, Obama’s support decreased with age. He won 60% of the 18-24 vote, but lost the 65+ vote by 12 points (56-44). Obama hence retained his unusually high levels of support with younger voters (who, while traditionally Democratic, did not historically back Democrats with such margins) even though he did shed 6 points off his 2008 records with those 18-24 and 25-29. We need to remember that age categories change from election to election, a lot of those who were 18-24 in 2008 are now in the 25-29 category and so on and so forth. There was much less youth enthusiasm about Obama this year, although it remained high and he was succesful in mobilizing a large amount of younger voters.

Obama’s support with those 30-39 and 40-49 remained essentially stable: up 1 with the former, down 1 with the former. I am not sure what this may indicate, if anything, but is Obama’s very strong showing with those aged 30-39 a rare example of a cohort effect? It is noteworthy to point out that those aged 50-64 and 65 and over did not budge all that much either: Obama lost 3 with the former and and 1 with the latter. Paul Ryan and his “Ryan plan” did not scare seniors away, though they barely swung to Romney.

Therefore, Obama lost the most support with younger voters, including a sizable number of which are first-time voters. It is sometimes said that those who come of voting age during a recession tend to be more conservative, and this year’s result could indicate that. Was the weak economy, higher youth unemployment and fears about finding a job post-graduation of particular concern to younger voters, hence turning them away from Obama?

Keep in mind, as noted above, that Obama gained support with Hispanic young adults (30-44) and middle-aged adults (45-64).

The importance of income, class and education

Family income and the level of education had a significant impact on vote choice, as in previous elections. This year, Obama’s support ranged from 63% with the poorest 20% (a total family income under $30,000) to 42% with the “top 4%” (total family income over $250,000). However, as is traditionally the case, Obama’s support by income level formed a bit of a parabolic curve. He performed best with the poorest Americans, those earning under $30,000, beating Romney by 28 points (63-35) and his support decreased in each successive income level under $200,000: 57% and a 15 point win with those earning $30,000 to $49,999; 46% and a 6 point deficit with those earning $50,000 to $99,999 and 44% and a 10 point deficit with those earning $100,000 to $199,999. However, Obama’s support picked up with those earning $200,000 to $249,000 – he lost them, but only by 5 points (52-47). His support falls significantly with the top 4%, he lost them by 13 points and won only 42% of their vote.

Compared to the 2008 exit polls, Obama resisted better with lower-income groups while he lost more heavily with higher-income groups. His support with the lowest 20% did fall by a fairly significant amount, from 66.5% to 63% (-3.5); but he gained 2 points with the next level ($30,000-$49,999). Going up the income ladder, Obama’s losses become larger and larger: -3.5 with those earning $50k to $100k, -4 with those earning $100k to $200k and -7.5 with those earning over $200k. Looking at the results through larger categories, common to both the 2008 and 2012 exit polls (the decimals in the comparisons above are due to averaging two income categories in the 2008 exit polls) confirm that Obama shed the most support with the higher-income groups: he remained at 2008 levels with those earning under $50,000 but lost 4 points with those earning over that amount.

Obama’s stronger resistance with lower-income levels in general and his heavier loses with wealthier Americans, particularly those in the top 2 echelons, likely reflects Obama and Romney’s comparative appeal as candidates. Romney’s “elitist rich guy” image, combined with the “47%” probably hurt his image with lower-income Americans, but an observation of the results by counties reveals that he did not suffer much from that image problem in lower-income white areas. Obama’s more populist campaign and fears of higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans certainly hurt his standing with the upper middle-class and the top 4%, weakening his strong appeal, in 2008, to liberal/moderate upper middle-class suburbanites. That being said, it is unfortunate that the exit polls did not break down income groups by race, as they had done (to a limited extent) in 2008. It is clear that more affluent blacks and Hispanics are slightly less Democratic than their poorer counterparts, but it would be interesting to have some data on the white vote by income levels. To a large extent, Obama’s strong support with lower-income levels (and his strong resistance with them) reflects his strong support (and strong resistance) with blacks and Hispanics, who are poorer than the average white American.

Education level is correlated with income, and Obama’s support forms an even clearer parabolic curve (as in 2008 and previous elections). He beat Romney by 19 points (64-35) with those without a HS diploma, he won HS graduates by 3 (51-48), won those with some college by 1 (49-48) but lost college graduates by 4 (51-47) to Romney. He won those with a postgraduate degree by 13 points (55-42). Again, this parabolic curve reflects the modern Democratic coalition: lower-income minorities who tend to have more limited education combined with middle-class suburbanites and urban white liberals who are highly educated. It would be interesting to control for race in this question, as it would reveal a different story with white voters only (in the 2008 exit polls, Obama did far worse with non-college grad whites than white college grad whites).

Compared to the 2008 election, the education levels also reflect Obama’s resistance with lower-income groups (who tend to have less certifications) and his heavier loses with higher-income groups (who tend to be more educated). He gained 1 point with those 3% who have no HS diploma, but lost 3% with those with a postgrad degree.

A nation divided by religiosity (and religion)

Religion – more specifically the lack thereof and one’s religious practice (religiosity) – retained their strong influence on voting patterns in this election. At the headline level, Protestants backed Romney by 25 points (62-37) and Catholics backed Obama by 2 (50-48). Obama retained his strong hold on those with no religion (70-26), those with another religion (73-24) and Jews (69-30). He won “other Christians” by 1 (50-49). Mitt Romney, the first Mormon presidential candidate for a major party, won 78% of the Mormon vote (2% of the electorate), trouncing Obama by 57 points with his correligionists. However, these headline results hide many things.

When controlling for race, Obama lost both white Protestants/other Christians and white Catholics by large margins (39 points and 19 points respectively), while he won white Jews, ‘others’ and ‘none’ by big margins. Obama lost a significant amount of support with white Catholics, down 7 points from 47% in 2008 to 40% this year. His administration’s policy compelling religiously-affiliated employers to cover contraception and birth control costs led to a rift with the Catholic Church earlier this year and led Republicans to speak of a “war on religion”. Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage might have alienated some white Catholics, but it certainly had no effect on predominantly Catholic Hispanics.

Obama also lost significantly with Jewish voters, losing a full 9 points – from 78% to 69%. In this case, Obama’s fairly conflictual relationship with the Israeli government and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have played a role. Some Jews might have seen Romney as more pro-Israeli than Obama (Israel is a major issue for Jewish-American voters).

Romney’s huge advantage with white Protestants hides something else: white evangelical Christians. Romney won white evangelical or born-again Christians by 57 points (78-21). Obama lost 3 points with these voters, and Romney regained George W. Bush’s 2004 level of support with these voters (despite the historical tension between Mormons and evangelicals). Their share of the electorate remained the same, at roughly 26% of all voters – indicating that Romney’s Mormon faith did not depress turnout with evangelicals. With non-evangelical Protestants, Romney beat Obama by about 10 points – the same amount by which McCain had beaten Obama with those voters in 2008.

It is interesting to point out that while Romney’s support with Mormons is huge, it is actually slightly smaller than Bush’s 2004 support with Mormons. In 2004, Bush won them by 61 points (80-19).

Religiosity/religious attendance remained major variables, especially with Protestants. Romney won Protestants who attend church weekly by 41 (70-29) but won those Protestants who do not attend weekly by 11. Obama won Catholics who do not attend church weekly, by 14, but lost those who do by 15. Therefore, there is a big gap between those voters who attend church on a weekly basis and those voters who either never attend church (Obama’s strongest demographics) or attend church less often.

Party ID!

A lot was said about ‘party ID’ (voter self-identification with a political party or as an independent) this year, especially in regards to polls. A lot of Republicans never bought into most polls showing Obama leading Romney because they doubted that Democrats had a significant edge over Republicans in party ID, leading a few of them to “unskew” the polls by removing the Democratic edge on party ID. Republicans insisted that their base was far more enthusiastic in 2012 than in 2008, while Democrats would be less motivated this year. Prominent Republican strategists, right-leaning pollsters (Rasmussen) and conservative pundits (notably the huge airhead Dick Morris) used models with a tied party ID to predict a Romney victory.

Their delusions were proven wrong. According to the exit poll, the electorate was “D+6” (meaning that there were 6% more Democrats than Republicans in the electorate), which is in line with what other pollsters (PPP among others) had usually predicted and similar to the partisan ID of the 2008 electorate (D+7). Democrats made up 38% of the electorate, down 1% from 2008, and Obama won them 92-7 (up from 89-10 in 2008); Republicans made up 32% of voters, and Romney won them 93-6 (up from 90-9 in 2008). Independents made up 29% of the electorate, and Romney won them by 5 points (50-45), whereas Obama had won them by 8 in 2008. The “independents” have shifted to the right since 2008, in good part because a fair number of Republicans and a lot of Tea Party activists identify as independents rather than Republicans.

The share of both self-identified liberals and conservatives in the electorate increased at the expense of self-identified moderates. Liberals grew from 22% to 25%, conservatives grew from 34% to 35% while moderates went from 44% to 41% of voters. Moderates backed Obama 56-41.

Issues and Candidates

Unsurprisingly, 59% of voters identified the economy as the most important issue facing the US, out of a choice of four issues (foreign policy, federal deficit and health care were the other issues). Romney actually narrowly won those who identified the economy as their top concern, by 4 (51-47). The 18% who said health care was the most important issue heavily supported Obama, by 51 points (75-24) and the 15% who were most concerned by the deficit backed Romney by 34.

In terms of economic problems, an equal number of respondents cited unemployment and rising prices as the biggest economic problems (38% and 37% respectively, 14% said taxes and 8% said the housing market). Obama won those most concerned by unemployment (by 10) and both Obama and Romney tied with those concerned about rising prices. Unsurprisingly, the small minority who cited taxes as the biggest economic problem backed Romney by 34 points.

The exit poll also asked for voters’ views on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage, Obamacare, taxes, the economy and government intervention. On abortion, 59% of voters agreed that it should be legal either in all cases or most cases with 36% who felt it should be illegal in all or most cases. Not surprisingly, each candidate’s electorate diverged significantly on abortion: 67% of those who said it should be legal backed Obama, 77% of those who said it should be illegal backed Romney.

Obamacare polarized both candidate’s supporters while the overall electorate was split on the issue, a narrow plurality (49%) wanting to repeal parts of it or all of it (44% wanted to either expand it or keep it as is). Only 11% of Americans who want to keep Obamacare (or expand it) backed Romney and only 15% of those who want to repeal parts/all of it backed Obama.

On the issue of tax rates, 47% of voters want tax increases only on those earning over $250,000 but a sizable 35% do not want any increases in taxes, for anyone. 70% of those who agreed with the first statement voted Obama, while 75% of those who agreed with the latter statement voted for Romney. Interestingly, among the small 13% who want tax increases for all, the two candidates were more closely matched (52-44 for Obama).

Americans remain pessimistic about the current economy but a bit more optimistic about the future. While only 23% thought the economy was excellent or good, 39% said the economy was getting better. Then again, 30% said the economy was getting worse. Those whose view of the current economy is the bleakest and who are the most pessimistic about the future backed Romney: 85% of those who said the economy’s condition was “poor” (31% of voters) backed him as did 90% of the 30% who thought it was getting worse. This is, unsurprisingly, the reverse of 2008, when Obama was the challenger to the incumbent party. Obama was able to beat Romney by 13 (55-42) with the 45% of Americans who said the economy’s condition wasn’t so good.

Likewise, those who said that their family’s financial situation improved since 2008 (25%) backed Obama heavily (84-15) and those who said their family’s financial situation got worse since 2008 (33%) backed Romney (80-18). The 52% of Americans who said that things in the US were off on the wrong track backed Romney 84-13, Obama won with the 46% who though things were in the right direction (93-6).

Luckily for Obama, 53% of voters blamed George W. Bush more for the country’s current economic problems and only 38% blamed him more.

On government intervention, most voters (51%) said that government is doing too many things that are better left to businesses and individuals while 43% said it should do more. Obama did manage 24% of the vote with the 51% who said government is doing too much, Romney won only 17% with those who said it should do more.

On gay marriage, 49% of respondents felt that their state should ‘recognize’ gay marriager and 46% said it should not. Obama won the former group by 48, Romney won the latter by 49. The exit poll, for the first time, asked respondents if they were gay, lesbian or bisexual. 5% said that they were, these voters backed Obama by 54 points (76-22) while the two tied with the 95% who identified as heterosexual.

On “candidate qualities” which mattered most, no one category dominated though “has a vision for the future” and “share my values” were the top two qualities. In both cases, Romney won voters who said that either of these qualities mattered most to them, in both cases by roughly 10 points. However, 21% of voters said that a candidate who “cares about people like me” was the most important quality in a candidate, and Obama crushed Romney with those voters – 81 to 18. Romney beat him 61-38 with the 18% who said being a “strong leader” was the most important quality for them.

For the two in ten voters whose candidate choice was made, in part, on empathy, Obama trounced Romney. However, asked of all voters, 43% said that Romney was most in touch with people like them (against 53% for Obama).

Romney won a one-point edge over Obama on handling the economy (and a two-point edge on the deficit), but Obama had a 8-point advantage on handling Medicare. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s strongest suit was foreign policy and handling an international crisis. 57% of voters trusted him to handle an international crisis, against 50% who said the same of Mitt Romney.

With the electorate on November 6, Obama’s approval rating spread was +9 (54 approve, 45 disapprove). That being, those who disapprove of Obama strongly disapprove: 33% strongly disapproved against only 13% who somewhat disapproved of his job as President. Obama had a +7 favourability rating, while Romney’s favourable rating with the electorate was underwater, slightly (-3). Obama had an edge, but America remains closely polarized. A final example: voters split 49-49 on their opinions of Obama’s administration.

Obama’s Swing State sweep

Even as the race tightened up seriously after Romney’s victory in the first debate, Obama remained an edge in what really matters in American elections – the electoral college map. His campaign had been able to build up a “firewall” in the electoral college, giving the President an advantage over Romney in the case of a tied popular vote (or even a narrow Romney victory in the popular vote). Obama’s firewall included, in the Midwest, the key swing state of Ohio (the tipping state of 2004) where Obama maintained a narrow but consistent lead in nearly every single opinion poll throughout the 2012 campaign. In the west, Obama’s firewall included Colorado and Nevada while New Mexico – a swing state as late as 2004 – was safely in Obama’s column. Romney’s campaign hoped that the Paul Ryan pick would swing Wisconsin in their direction, and while it did tighten a bit after the Ryan pick and after the first debate, it remained out of reach for Republicans. Similarly, as in 2008, Republicans got tempted by fool’s gold in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota – feeling that those three traditionally Democratic but not overwhelmingly so states were within reach.

There’s not much point in reiterating what was said during the campaign, but Obama’s firewall was solid. Obama could have won with all the Kerry 2004 states, plus Ohio and Nevada. In contrast, while Romney could do without Bush 2004 states such as Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada; Ohio and Florida were basically must-win states for him.

Going into November 6, Obama had the lead in every state he won back in 2008 except Indiana (a repeat of Obama’s spectacular 2008 victory in traditionally solidly Republican Indiana was never a real possibility), North Carolina (the second tightest of the Obama 2008 states) and Florida. On election night, Obama successfully swept every single swing state – including Florida – except North Carolina.

What is more, Obama outperformed his polling average in almost every single swing state. RealClearPolitics (RCP) had him up 1.7 in Colorado (won by 5.5), down 1.5 in Florida (won by 0.9), up 2.4 in Iowa (won by 5.8), up 4 in Michigan (won by 9.5), up 2.8 in Nevada (won by 6.6), up 2 in New Hampshire (won by 5.6), down 3 in North Carolina (lost by 2.1), up 3.8 in Pennsylvania (won by 5), up 0.3 in Virginia (won by 3.7) and up 4.2 in Wisconsin (won by 6.7).

The only state where Obama did not outperform his polling was in Ohio – yes, Ohio. RCP had him up by 2.9 in Ohio, but he only won the state by 2. As more votes get counted in Ohio – largely votes from Democratic counties – that may change, but Obama’s result in Ohio is still slightly underwhelming. What happened in Ohio? Was the result in Ohio one of the very, very rare incidences of the “Bradley effect”? For example, PPP’s last poll out of Ohio, showing Obama up 5, had him losing the white vote by 4 when the exit polls indicate that he lost the white vote in Ohio by 17.

Ultimately, Ohio did not end up as the crucial state – the so-called “tipping point state” (the state which puts a candidate over 270). Instead, Pennsylvania was the tipping point state which placed Obama over 270; while Ohio was less Democratic than the nation (as of now) and would have gone to Romney in a tied race (assuming a UNS).

On the other hand, Obama did outperform his polling in every other swing state. The best explanation is that undecided voters and late-deciders broke in his favour by a relatively solid margin, an explanation confirmed by the exit polls. They found that 3% of voters decided on election day, and Obama won them by 7 points over Romney. He also won the other 6% who said that they had decided “in the last few days”, this time by 5 points over Romney.

The conventional wisdom is that undecided voters end up breaking heavily against the incumbent, in favour of the challenger; the so-called “incumbent rule”. If an incumbent is polling below 50%, the rule argues, it is a bad omen for him/her, because undecided voters tend(ed) to break heavily against the incumbent. The veracity of this so-called ‘rule’ has not held true in recent elections, specifically the last direct incumbent-challenger battle – the 2004 election between Bush and Kerry. Bush held a 2 point lead over Kerry going into election day but was consistently below 50%, leading some to speculate that Kerry could win the election if undecideds decided heavily in his favour. Unfortunately for him and the “incumbent rule”, they did not. Kerry did not get any “undecided boost” on election day, and lost the PV by roughly 2 points. Earlier this year, polling God Nate Silver found no evidence that most undecided voters broke against the incumbent.

Ultimately, the “incumbent rule” was proven wrong in this election, as it had been in a few previous elections. In fact, Obama seemingly outperformed his final polling numbers, especially in the swing states (especially Ohio). This can either mean that undecided voters broke for him, which seems likely, and that some pollsters were simply wrong, another good possibility. In states with a large Hispanic population such as Nevada, Democrats tend to underpoll because pollsters have a notoriously hard time with their Hispanic samples – some Hispanics do not speak English or don’t speak it well.

Geography of the Vote: Obama’s Rainbow Coalition

In my discussion of the exit polls, I referred to Obama’s “rainbow coalition” of minorities, women, the youth and white liberals and how this broad and heterogeneous coalition ensured his victory. A geographical view of the results, for now at a county level, illustrates the nature of this coalition and confirm its importance not only for Obama but also the Democratic Party. At the same time, the electoral map also confirms that some of the last vestiges of the old Democratic coalition, the New Deal coalition, have completely disappeared.

Results of the presidential election by county (red: Obama, blue: Romney) using a graduated 5% colour scale

The shape of this new Democratic coalition was first seen in the 2000 election and confirmed in subsequent elections. In 2008, Obama was able to expand this coalition and turn it into a winning coalition by motivating unprecedented minority and youth turnout all while reaching out to new constituencies with his unique appeal. In 2012, some parts of the Obama ’08 coalition have fallen off, but the core remains: racial/ethnic minorities, complemented by what we can call “white liberals”.Minorities were crucial to Obama’s victory in almost every single swing state and beyond, considering that the general view seems to be that Obama lost the white vote to Mitt Romney in basically every state outside New England, the Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington) and parts of the Upper Midwest (Iowa/Minnesota). Even in California, the exit polls say that Romney won whites by 10 (54-44) after Obama had won them by 6 in 2008. While Romney winning whites in California (only 55% of the electorate) can make sense, a 10-point gap and an 8 point improvement over McCain’s performance is still a bit doubtful.

The county map allows us to see the key elements in Obama’s coalition. First and perhaps foremost, Democratic support is predominantly urban rather than suburban or rural. This is certainly not a recent development, but Obama has been able to strengthen the Democrats’ stranglehold on major urban areas but also expand into other urban areas which had historically been Republican. In major cities, ethnic minorities have played a major role in entrenching or strengthening . Almost all major cities in the United States are either majority-minority or have a large non-white population. Growing minority populations, specifically Hispanics, have shifted historically Republican urban areas such as Harris and Dallas Counties (Houston and Dallas, TX) into the Democratic column.

Furthermore, white voters in urban areas – young professionals, artists, students/academia, unmarried young men and women, LGBT – tend to be cosmopolitan, socially liberal and hence strongly Democratic. Obama, especially in 2008 but again in 2012, had a particularly strong appeal to these type of voters, who are, alongside minorities, a key element in the new Democratic coalition.

Obama carried basically every major urban county in the United States. While they are reliably Democratic, their large population and the large number of votes they provide for Democrats means that the Democrats cannot afford to do without strong turnout and maximized support in these urban stronghlolds. Obama’s campaign was able to mobilize the base in its urban bases very effectively, as it had been able to do in 2008.

Obama won 77.6% in Suffolk County, MA (Boston); between 79% and 91% in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx (NYC; 85% in Philadelphia County, PA (Philadelphia); 87% in Baltimore City; 91% in Washington DC; 54.5% in Wake County, NC (Raleigh); 60.8% in Mecklenburg County, SC (Charlotte); 64.2% in Fulton County, GA (Atlanta); 61.6% in Miami-Dade County, FL (Miami); 52.8% in Hillsborough County, FL (Tampa); 58.7% in Orange County, FL (Orlando); 62.6% in Shelby County, TN (Memphis); 68.8% in Cuyahoga County, OH (Cleveland); 51.8% in Hamilton County, OH (Cincinnati); 73.1% in Wayne County, MI (Detroit); 74% in Cook County, IL (Chicago); 66.8% in Milwaukee County, WI; 62.5% in Hennepin County, MN (Minneapolis); 82.7% in St. Louis City, MO; 49.4% in Harris County, TX (Houston), 57.1% in Dallas County, TX (Dallas); 73.5% in Denver County, CO; 56.4% in Clark County, NV (Las Vegas); 68.6% in Los Angeles County, CA; 83.4% in San Francisco County, CA and 68.8% in King County, WA (Seattle).

Many of these cities – NYC, Philly, DC, Atlanta, Miami, Memphis, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Vegas or LA – have very large minority populations which are heavily Democratic; their voting Democratic is not surprising so Obama’s success is more his ability to mobilize turnout and maximize Democratic support. In other urban areas which are more politically diverse and which had helped Obama carry the White House in 2008, the Democrats usually resisted very well this year. They were able to mobilize their base – generally Hispanics, blacks or younger “white liberals” – as they had done in 2008.

Outside of urban areas, the Democrats find very strong support in more rural (or suburban) areas with a large minority population. The old Black Belt in the South, but also the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley (Texas), native American counties in the Dakotas or Montana and the old Spanish country in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado are quite perceptible. The Black Belt in Alabama or Mississippi are not of strategic importance in the Democratic strategy, because they cannot ‘swing’ the state, but again, minorities – particularly Hispanics – proved crucial in swing states. We will come back, for example, to the key role played by Hispanics in Obama’s surprise victory in Florida.

In 2008, Obama, with an appealing brand of consensual, cosmopolitan moderate liberalism, had been able to make major inroads into affluent, politically moderate suburban counties across the country which had historically been Republican strongholds. He was the first Democrat since LBJ in 1964 to carry affluent suburban counties such as Loudoun (VA), Prince William (VA), Arapahoe (CO), Jefferson (CO), Somerset (NJ) and Chester (PA); only the second since LBJ to carry Lake County (IL) and the first Democrat since Franklin Pierce (in 1852) to carry DuPage County (IL). At the same time, he also performed very well in other affluent counties which had already been in the Democratic column such as Fairfield (CT), Westchester (NY), Montgomery (PA), Fairfax (VA), Marin (CA) or San Mateo (CA).

While growing minority populations in these counties can serve to explain part of these shifts, the major story in all of these major suburban counties is the shift of well-educated, middle-class professionals in suburban areas from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party as a result of the GOP’s shift to the right and towards socially conservative “culture wars” politics.

Romney with his businessman image not overly concerned by the culture wars, in addition to Obama’s more populist rhetoric in 2012, was presumed to be a good match for these counties. Ultimately, however, Obama was able to hold all of the aforementioned counties except Chester County, PA which he lost by a very close margin. There was no major swing, as we will see, in these counties where many had assume Romney’s businessman reputation would play well with swing voters.

At the same time, the Republicans fortified their hold on the “heartland” – white rural areas and small towns across most of the United States. There are, to be sure, still a good number of Democratic-leaning “white” rural areas – New England and the Driftless Area in Iowa/Wisconsin/Minnesota – but, by and large, the Republicans are dominant in (white) rural and small-town America. Any old Democratic tradition have almost completely died out, especially in the South but also in other parts of the country.

The urban-rural widened this year. The difference between the Obama vote in the largest areas (cities over 50k) and the smallest areas (small cities/rural) grew from 18 points to 23 points. Obama’s support remained stable in the largest cities, losing only one point in the cities over 50k. In cities over 500k, he won 69-29 and won 58-40 in cities with a population between 50k and 500k. The suburbs voted for Obama in 2008 (50-48), he lost two points there this year as they switched back to the GOP (Romney won them 50-48). Mitt Romney’s strongest gains came in small city and rural areas, which McCain had won by 8 (53-45) but which he won by 20 this year (59-39). He killed 61-37 in rural areas and won by 14 (56-42) in cities with 10k to 50k inhabitants.

Southern white Democrats are very much a dying breed outside of major urban areas. States such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia but also Alabama or Oklahoma had large pockets of (white) Democratic support at the presidential level until the 1990s and early 2000s, and while their shift to the right predates the Obama presidency – it began in 2000 and sped up in 2004 – his presidency has seen a near-annihilation of these remnants of support.

In other regions of the country, white working-class (WWC) voters – a core component of the old New Deal coalition, have swung to the right. Urban, heavily industrialized and traditionally unionized working-class areas – a lot of them with a large non-white population – remain solidly Democratic; but smaller white working-class areas which had traditionally been Democratic-leaning have shifted to the right.

The Democratic Party moved further to the left, towards a brand of progressive social liberalism embodied by the likes of Gore, Kerry and especially Obama. Traditionally conservative white Democrats in the South and throughout the country have felt, since 2000, that the Democratic Party has abandoned them and has become too liberal. At the same time, starting with George W. Bush, Republicans have been successful at reaching out to lower-income/working-class white voters, primarily in the South and the Midwest, by playing up “culture war” rhetoric and using “wedge” issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control to motivate and mobilize religious and conservative lower-income whites.

As a result, these voters have drifted further and further away from the Democratic Party – especially at the presidential level – while the Democratic Party has itself slowly drifted away from these voters towards their new “rainbow coalition”.

Democratic support in predominantly white rural areas in the South, Appalachia and the Plains has really dried up. In 2008, Arkansas and Tennessee – two states where white voters had remained Obama was never a good candidate for these voters. Already in the Democratic primary battle in 2008 he had done terribly with WWC voters and Southern whites; in the general election, there was a major countercyclical swing towards the GOP in wide swathes of heavily white rural counties in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky and parts of West Virginia (see the maps under ‘voting shifts’). Kerry had already done quite poorly in those areas in 2004 and their rightward trend predates Obama, but white support for Democratic presidential candidates had been holding up better in those Upper South states with fewer blacks (and hence lesser racial polarization and tensions) than in Deep South states such as Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia. The 2008 and 2012 results show that these states are “catching up” with other states where the realignment, at the presidential level, had come with Reagan in 1980/1984.

Rural whites, lower-income whites (especially in the South) and most of the non-urban WWC have abandoned Democrats in drove, and this election – like 2004 and 2008 – only fortified the GOP hold on these voters. The novelty since 2010 (a bit earlier in some states), confirmed again this year, is that the realignment is extending to the congressional and state level. Blue Dog and white Democrats in the South are a dying breed, at all levels. The GOP gained Alabama and North Carolina’s state legislatures for the first time since Reconstruction in 2010, followed by Mississippi and Louisiana. Even in Arkansas, where the state Republican Party was in shambles until recently, Democrats are being swept out of office at the state level: the GOP gained the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction this year. In West Virginia, it is only a matter of time before the Republicans gain the state legislature, in Democratic hands since the Great Depression.

The question remains whether this GOP coalition is sustainable in the long-term without significant Republican inroads with non-white (primarily Hispanic and Asian) voters. If the Republicans can continue to peel off more and more white working-class voters, historically Democratic white “ethnics” (Irish, Polish, Italian etc) from the Democratic Party, then Rust Belt states could become more Republican. The GOP coalition as it presently stands will have a hard time winning presidential elections (where turnout is higher) unless future Democratic candidates cannot mobilize their electorate as efficiently as Obama. Any winning GOP coalition will need to make gains where they are most needed: middle-class, moderate suburban voters; Hispanic and Asian voters and younger voters.

The Shifts since 2008

The raw results of any election must be put into perspective – historical perspective – to be better understood. It is always quite instructive to look at how the different states and counties swung compared to the last election.

This map (a bit outdated), based on individual state county maps from the aforementioned US Election Atlas (under each state, rollover the ‘swing’ and ‘trend’ buttons) shows the “swing” from the last election. In this case, the “swing” refers to the change in the D-R margin compared to the 2008 election. For example, the United States as a whole had a +7.26% margin for Obama in 2008 and this year it had a +2.96% margin – the US swung by 4.3% towards the Republicans. The “trend” map is the change in the D-R margin relative to the change in the national margin (states which swung by less than 4.3% in the Republican direction “trended” Democratic). The New York Times, with even more outdated results, shows the shift since 2008 using some annoying arrows. I’m not sure what methodology the NYT used, but the results seem basically identical to the swing maps.

Utah, West Virginia, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota had the five biggest swings against Obama in the country, all five states registering a swing of over 10% (nearly 20% in Utah’s case). Mississippi, New Jersey, Louisiana, Maryland and Alaska are the only four states which swung to Obama this year.

Utah is unsurprising. Romney won 72.8% of the vote in the state, the biggest percentage of the vote for a Republican in Utah since Ronald Reagan in 1980. As the first major party Mormon nominee, Romney received a very big “favourite son” vote from his correligionists. Obama must have done fairly decently with the Mormon vote in the 2008 election, winning 34% of the vote in Utah – which was the best showing for a Democrat since 1968. Obama had even won Salt Lake County, home to Salt Lake City, by a narrow margin. The Mormon vote swung heavily in Romney’s direction this year.

This swing is, of course, most perceptible in Utah but it also shows up in eastern Nevada and some counties in Wyoming. However, the swing in heavily Mormon and solidly Republican eastern Idaho was fairly small, with the exception of three counties directly bordering Utah. Eastern Idaho, known for being extremely conservative (perhaps moreso than Utah), had already been voting Republican by huge margins (over 70% of the vote), so the GOP was perhaps already hovering close to the ceiling (unlike in Utah).

West Virginia, the heart of Appalachian coal country, used to be a Democratic stronghold at all levels because of its large unionized working-class (coal miners) population. After the New Deal and the rise of unions such as the UMW, West Virginia voted for Democratic presidential candidates between 1932 and 2000 with the exception of 1956, 1972 and 1984. Democratic candidates usually polled over 60%, sometimes over 70%, of the vote in the “coal counties” of southern West Virginia.  After Clinton had won the state by nearly 15 points in his two elections, George W. Bush won the state by a 6 point margin over Al Gore in the 2000 election. John Kerry lost the state by 12.9, Obama lost it by 13.1 points in 2008. This year, he lost by a massive 26.9 point margin, and failed to carry a single county in the state (the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has failed to carry even a single county in WV).

Environmental policies combined with the national Democrats’ shift towards socially liberal policies (including abortion, gay marriage but also gun control). West Virginia’s struggling economy is still fairly dependent on coal (including mountaintop removal mining), which has been targeted by environmental policies as being particularly “dirty” and environmentally damaging. Gore’s strong stance on environmental issues in the 2000 election, along with the salient issue of gun control in that election, explains the definitive shift away from the national Democrats in 2000. Since then, national Democrats have pursued policies which have alienated traditionally conservative and religious West Virginians from the national Democratic Party. Once again, Obama was never a good fit for the white working-class in Appalachia. At the base, race likely plays a role, but Obama is perceived in these milieus as a liberal “big city” politician (from Chicago and its “machine politics”, no less) similarly to how Kerry had been perceived and painted in the ‘heartland’ as an “elitist east coast liberal”. Furthermore, Obama’s 2008 rhetoric of “change” and “bipartisanship” was far more appealing to affluent middle-class (and white-collar) professionals, minorities or “white liberals” – not WWC voters who have been struggling economically for years.

Since 2008, the coal industry has been having a really hard time. The White House’s environmental policies (cap-and-trade, EPA regulations) and the natural gas boom (due to hydraulic fracking) have badly hurt the coal industry, which is facing terminal decline. Given that WV’s economy is still largely dependent on “dirty” coal (it is also by far the state’s main source of energy), these troubles have been hurting voters directly and they have resented that the administration is abandoning coal in favour of renewable energies or coal. The swing in coal country is the last stand of economically deprived voters who feel sidelined in the modern economy and swept up and away by new energies and the post-industrial economy.

Romney’s best congressional district – the 3rd – in which he won 65% (62.4% statewide) is ironically the most Democratic district in the state, encompassing most of the “coal counties” of southern WV. The swing against Obama had already been huge in those counties in 2008, but he had managed to narrowly carry two coal counties – Boone and McDowell. This year again, the swing was heaviest in the southern “coal counties”. Romney won 70.1% in Mingo County (Democratic between 1928 and 2008 except for 1972), 68.8% in Logan County (Democratic between 1928 and 2008), 64.2% in Bonne County (Democratic since 1920 save for 1972) and 64.1% in McDowell (Democratic since 1936 save for 1972). These are massive swings: from 54% Obama in Boone County back in 2008 to only 32.9% this year. In 2008, Obama had managed over 53% in the latter two counties and McCain had won roughly 55% in the first two counties.

He also lost Webster County, which had voted Democratic since 1868 (with the exception of 1972). In 2008, he won 51% there, this year he won only 34% in a county with a history of coal mining and salt sulfur wells. Nicholas County, a coal mining county, had given him over 46% in 2008 but only 30.4% this year!

At the congressional and state level, the state Democrats – many of whom, including popular Senator Joe Manchin, have moved away from the toxic national party to the point of disavowing Obama (Manchin did not attend the DNC) and his policies – proved more resilient. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin defeated his Republican rival by about 5 points, while Joe Manchin took nearly 60% of the vote against John Raese (who is a terrible candidate). That being said, the writing is on the wall even for the very right-wing state Democrats. The Republicans gained 11 seats in the state’s House of Delegates and are within reach of taking control by the next election. Nick Rahall, the Democratic congressman for the 3rd CD (the last WV Democratic congressman) since 1977, won reelection but with one of his narrowest margins in his career.

Nonetheless, the extent of ticket-splitting in WV this year is quite remarkable. In some counties in southern WV, most voters probably voted for Romney (R) and Manchin (D)! In addition, the results of the presidential race and the state-level races (governor, senate) in WV show two different bases for the Democrats: the national Democratic Party base, which reflects the new nature of the party’s coalition, and the traditional working-class base of the WV Democratic Party. Obama performed best in places where WV Democrats had historically not performed extremely well. He won 46.9% in Jefferson County (he had won it in 2008), a rapidly growing DC exurb which has been trending towards the Democrats (Dukakis lost it in 1988 while winning the state…). He won 43.9% in Monongalia County, the heart of a smaller mining basin abutting on Pennsylvania, but also home to a major college town (WVU in Morgantown). He had also won it in 2008. Finally, Obama took 43.2% in Kanawha County, where Charleston is located. Obama’s performance does not correlate very much with Tomblin or Manchin’s performance, which is more reflective of the traditional support of the state Democrats – strongest in the southern “coal counties” where Romney obliterated Obama.

% swing by county in Kentucky (source: uselectionatlas)

Coal country’s swing against the President is also very noticeable in Kentucky and western Virginia, the extensions of the Appalachian mining basin. The swings were huge in Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Fields, historically a working-class Democratic stronghold very similar to West Virginia (with the exceptions of some counties on the southwestern ends of the coal fields, which fall in the Unionist Republican strongholds dating back to the Civil War). Obama had already performed horribly in the Democratic counties of the Eastern Coal Fields, for example becoming the first Democrat since the 1880s to lose Knott and Floyd Counties. This year, he lost three other coal field counties he had narrowly taken in 2008 (Rowan, Bath, Menifee counties) and there were more huge swings against Obama in other coal field counties. He managed to win Elliott County, which has voted Democratic since time immemorial, by a hair. But he was, basically, eaten alive in the rest of the state.Like in WV, this shift predates Obama – Kerry had lost Harlan County, an old unionized Democratic stronghold which had been voting Democratic since FDR – but it got very pronounced under Obama. Race (and racism) likely plays a role, sadly, in this case – it’s not like McCain or Romney are particularly perfect candidates for impoverished, isolated and very religious/conservative mining counties in either WV or KY. This year, however, race was not the main factor: the coal industry’s collapse since 2008 was likely a much more salient factor.In the realm of specific examples, here are a few coal counties from KY: Obama won 48.1% in Floyd in 2008, he won 31.8% this year; in Knott he fell from 44.9% to 24.9%; from 43.8% in Breathitt County he won only 31.2% this year; from an already horrible 26.1% in Harlan County in 2008, he collapsed even further to 17.2% (Clinton won 58% there in 1996!); in Pike County he won 42.1% in 2008 and 23.9% this year; finally in Magoffin County, Obama went from 45.3% to 29.2%. These are some massive shifts.

In western Virginia, finally, Obama collapsed in the small extension of the historically Democratic coal basin. Again, this is a continuation of a 2008 countercyclical swing against Obama. The swings were biggest in Buchanan and Dickenson counties, two counties bordering KY or WV. Obama fell from 46.5% to 32% in Buchanan, and from 48.5% to 35.9% in Dickenson. There were also big swings in surrounding counties in the Virginian Appalachian Plateau.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, following a large countercyclical swing towards the GOP in a region which had been a working-class (mining/steelworks/manufacturing) Democratic stronghold for decades, there were more, albeit smaller, swings towards the GOP this year. The Democratic base in Pennsylvania has shifted dramatically; the Democrats have scored impressive gains in Philly’s middle-class moderate suburbs (which are growing increasingly diverse) while the GOP has destroyed the old Democratic blue-collar/WWC base in southwestern Pennsylvania (though the other blue-collar Democratic base, in Scranton and Allentown/Bethlehem has held tight; largely because mining and industry has been dead for years in Scranton).

Back in Kentucky, the “coal swing” wasn’t limited to the Eastern Coal Fields. Looking at the county swing map, while there were massive swings in the Eastern Coal Fields, the swings were more limited in central Kentucky (Bluegrass region, Pennyroyal Plateau) – including the old Unionist Republican country dating back to the Civil War. However, in the Western Coal Fields – another major coal mining region – the swings were pretty big; for example, from 46.5% to 32.5% in Union County, from 43.1% to 32.3% in Webster County and 48.3% to 37.5% in Muhlenberg County.

Indiana was the surprise of the 2008 election. The state had been a Republican bastion, voting Republican since 1940 with the exception of 1964, and giving George W. Bush a crushing 20.7% margin over John Kerry. Then, to the surprise of most people, Obama won the state by 1 point over McCain. Obama’s remarkable victory in Indiana was the product of some ephemeral demographic shifts but especially to strategic choices made by both campaigns. Obama set up camp in Indiana during the Democratic primaries, which extended into Indiana’s late contest; and after the primaries, Obama’s campaign decided to remain on the ground and seriously compete in the state (which no Democrat had done in years). On the other hand, McCain’s campaign likely took the state for granted and largely ignored the state (despite close polling) until the end of this campaign, allowing Obama to blast the airwaves in the state.

The victory in Indiana was a one-shot deal, because the state remains, fundamentally, a Republican state. Obama’s campaign basically conceded Indiana early in the campaign and did not spend much money in the state. Romney won the state by 10.6 points, with 54.3% against Obama’s 43.7%. This is a respectable performance by Obama, much stronger than Kerry’s disastrous showing and the best showing in the state since 1976 (excluding 2008). Compared to the 2004 rout, Obama performed much better than Kerry in Marion County (Indianapolis) which he won with 60.2% against only 50.6% for Kerry in 2004. He also made some further gains in the state’s oldest Democratic stronghold, Lake County (Gary). Both counties have large black populations. However, Obama also outperformed Kerry in other counties in northern Indiana, including St. Joseph County (South Bend, a blue-collar town with a large university).

The Gary (Chicagoland) area and some Ohio Valley counties in the south did not swing much – perhaps an effect of media markets – but there were heavy swings towards the GOP in the rest of rural, small/medium-towns and suburban Indiana.

In 2008, Obama had performed particularly (unusually) well for a Democrat in areas of the Midwest that are manufacturing-oriented but have a Republican tradition and have more medium-sized manufacturers that lack the mass union tradition of the big auto and steelmakers. Indiana is a blue-collar Rust Belt manufacturing-driven state; but it has few large, unionized working-class urban centres (like Cleveland or Detroit) and more small manufacturing centres (Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, Evansville, Columbus etc) which are traditionally Republican-leaning (even if some of these towns have significant black populations or colleges).

In 2008, because of the economic crisis and the high unemployment rates in these areas, Obama carried a particular appeal to blue-collar (often white) voters in these conservative regions. In 2008, there were significant swings towards Obama in Indiana but also northwestern Ohio, parts of Michigan, southern Illinois and the Fox River Valley/Northern Highlands in Wisconsin – other regions with a history of smaller manufactures lacking a strong union history.

% swing by county in Wisconsin – notice the Fox River Valley and the Northern Highlands (source: uselectionatlas)

These trends were transitory, especially because Obama is now the incumbent and the economy is still struggling in these regions. The Fox River Valley, northwestern Indiana, downstate Illinois and Michigan all swung heavily towards the GOP in 2010. This year, there were sizable swings towards the GOP in northern Wisconsin, downstate Illinois and northwestern Ohio.

Montana and North Dakota had particularly large swings against Obama (over 10% by the Atlas defintion); Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas also all had swings above the national average. Obama had done quite well in the Dakotas and Montana back in 2008, losing Montana by only 2.4 points and both Dakotas by a bit more than 8 (Kerry had lost them by much wider margins). This year, he lost Montana by 13.7 and both Dakotas by 18-19 points.

The northern Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain west are both fairly elastic and anti-incumbent regions noted for their strong independent streak and a habit of ticket-splitting. Montana in particular is often considered a “libertarian” state, and Montana Democrats like outgoing Governor Brian Schweitzer or Senator Jon Tester are often fairly independent and somewhat libertarian in their politics. Montana and both Dakotas, for example, had swung to John Kerry in 2004.

Obama, with his consensual image and the centre-leftist rhetoric of “change”, was a good fit for these states in 2008. The war in Iraq – these states had a reputation as being anti-war by then – likely hurt McCain somewhat as well. There were major swings towards the Democrats in most of Montana (where Obama had an active campaign) and the eastern parts of North and South Dakota – the most populous regions of these states (with cities such as Sioux Falls, Grand Forks and Fargo), and also places where Obama had a fairly active campaign in 2008 (the effect of Obama’s strong presence and spending in eastern ND is visible by the similarly heavy swings in his favour in northwestern Minnesota).

This year, the anti-incumbency of these right-leaning but independent regions explains – in part – why Obama did poorly. The county map shows that the biggest swings were in the farmlands of Montana’s eastern plains and the sparsely populated Badlands and Black Hills of the Dakotas; the most Republican regions of these states. In Montana, western mountainous counties – including solidly Republican fast-growing Flathead County (Kalispell), also had heavy swings.

Given the libertarian and independent reputation of Montana and parts of the Dakotas, perhaps some of the administration’s policies which have been perceived by libertarians/the right as “big government” (Obamacare, cap-and-trade, environmental regulations etc) explain the big swings in these regions. The economy of the Dakotas are doing particularly well, with very low unemployment, because of the natural gas boom in these states (concentrated, as far as I know, in the aforementioned western parts of ND/SD). Perhaps the big swing back this year is a response to some of the administration’s environmental regulations/policies?

% swing by county in Illinois (source: uselectionatlas)

President Obama’s home state of Illinois had a particularly heavy swing as well. Obama had won his home state by 25 points in 2008, the largest margin for a Democratic presidential candidate in the state. This state, he won it by a still very comfortable but far narrower 16.7 points. The county swing map is particularly interesting. The largest swings were recorded in southern (downstate) Illinois, a conservative and Southern-influenced region which had historically been a Democratic stronghold before shifting towards the GOP in the past decades.

Illinois politics usually features a stark dichotomy between conservative downstate and liberal Cook County (Chicago), the Democratic stronghold by excellence in Illinois. Cook County’s huge population and hefty Democratic margins every election can usually allow Democrats to win narrowly statewide even if they lose handily downstate and even in Chicagoland suburbs (see Pat Quinn in 2010). In 2008, the biggest swings towards Obama had actually been in northern Illinois – particularly the affluent Chicago suburbs which used to be GOP strongholds (even in 1964…) but have been trending hard towards the Democrats. But he had also performed well in many downstate counties, particularly those with small manufacturing centres or counties bordering Indiana (spillover from ad spending in southern IN media markets?).

Sitting Presidents usually lose their “favourite son” appeal in their home state – in 2004, 1996 and 1984 for example, the incumbent’s home state either swung to their opponent or at least “trended” to the opponent (swing below average). By having been in Washington for four (or more) years they usually lose their strong ties with their home state and are less perceived as being a “favourite son” candidate. This is part of the explanation as to why Illinois swung particularly heavily against the President; it is also a “correction” of the 2008 result which was clearly unusually huge, even for a Democrat in a “blue state” like Illinois.

Southern Illinois is a fairly working-class and coal mining region. The heaviest shifts – where Republicans gained roughly 10-15% since 2008 – came in southern Illinois’ mining basin which borders southern Indiana and KY’s Western Coal Fields. That being said, there were also some fairly large swings throughout the quasi-entirety of the state (with two major exceptions), from north to south. Romney improved on McCain’s performance by over 5 points in most of the state’s counties. This shift is similar to what happened in Indiana, northwestern Ohio or Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley: those smaller, non-unionized manufacturing centres where Obama did unusually well in 2008 because of the crisis shifted back to their natural Republican roots.

Chicago did not swing much, Romney only gained 2 points off of McCain’s 2008 performance in Cook County; though its suburbs did show some more significant swings. This fits in with a general pattern which we will come back to.

On the other hand, there were only small swings – usually less than 3% more GOP than in ’08 – in northwestern Illinois (the Rock Island/Davenport area). This result shows the importance of ads and campaign strategy on the results. Almost all of the counties in NW Illinois where Obama held up better than in the rest of the state are part of the Davenport media market, centered around Davenport, Iowa. As a swing state, Iowa – Davenport’s media market included – was barraged with thousands of ads from both sides. There were barely any Dem or GOP ads in IL’s other media markets. In this particular case, it appears as if because those particular voters had more audiovisual exposure to the President and Romney because of ad spending.

This WaPo feature includes a handy map of ad spending by media market, on which you can see the very heavy ad spending in Davenport, IA (and in all other swing state media markets). A media market means those regions where cable providers are required to carry all local stations, but a media market does not prevent a cable provider from carrying stations from other areas/media markets.

The Illinois case is the most visible example of media market “spillover” on the election map. It is harder to find other examples. There are a few WV counties which border Ohio across the Ohio River, but in this case they are part of the Charleston, WV media market (which had lots of ads too). The Denver media market, which extends into some sparsely populated plains counties in Nebraska and Wyoming, seems to have limited the swing towards the GOP in far-western Nebraska. In Pennsylvania, finally, there were large swings towards Romney in the centre of the state; and while I would privilege the demographic explanation (shift of the WWC away from the Democrats, which had begun in 2008; GOP rebound in smaller manufacturing centres) the WaPo map indicates that Romney outspent Obama in the Johnstown-Altoona media market (he also beat him in Pittsburgh’s media market, like McCain in 2008).

That being said, there is an amusing counterexample to all these hypotheticals: Minnesota. Mitt Romney’s campaign was led into believing that the state might be in play, and they spent a lot in the Minneapolis and Duluth-Superior media markets (and somewhat less on the cross-border Fargo-Valley City media market). The swing map in Minnesota shows that the heaviest swings towards the Republicans came from those northwestern counties in the Fargo-Valley City market (the region which had swung the hardest towards Obama in 2008). This swing seems to be a “correction” of the 2008 result, Obama had done quite well in northwestern Minnesota. On the other hand, swings in the heavily-targeted Minneapolis and Duluth-Superior media markets hardly budged. To be fair, however, the Obama swing in those parts of Minnesota in 2008 had been fairly underwhelming – again because McCain’s campaign had gone for a futile attempt at targeting Minnesota and blew Obama out of the water with ad spending in the state.

Missouri, especially rural and now solidly Republican exurban/small-town/rural Missouri, had heavy swings towards the Republicans (their vote share increased by over 5% in most counties). Unlike in 2008, the former bellwether state was not contested by either side, Obama conceding the presidential race in MO to Romney while Democrats focused all their efforts on the McCaskill/Akin senatorial race. Missouri, a border state, has had conflicting northern and southern influences – solidly Unionist Republican tendencies in the Ozarks or the Missouri Rhineland clashing with Dixiecrats in MO’s Little Dixie or the Missouri Bootheel and working-class Democrats in the St. Louis and the Lead Belt. Like in other border states and the Upper South, white voters have become ever more firmly Republican. This year, Obama saw his support drop fairly dramatically in the Lead Belt, a mining area south of St. Louis (Iron County, Washington County, Ste. Genevieve County) which was historically a Democratic stronghold- but again of the conservative and traditionalistic WWC variety.

The collapse of the last remnants of substantial Democratic support outside of St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City has transformed Missouri – at least at the presidential level – from a perfect bellwether into a lean-GOP state.

% swing by county in Arizona (source: uselectionatlas)

Arizona was quite disappointing for Democrats, who had hoped that they would make gains in the state because of the growing Hispanic minority and John McCain’s “favourite son” effect in the state in 2008 (it had barely swung). Romney won the state with 53.48% against 44.45% for Obama, a 9.03% margin which is slightly larger than McCain’s 8.48% margin in the state in 2008 (Bush had won by 10.5 in 2004). Obama won the Hispanic vote, whose share of the electorate increased from 16% to 18%, by a large margin: 74 to 25 (+49), whereas he had only won them by 15 (56-41) against McCain in 2008. However, while he had lost whites by 19 in 2008, he lost them by a huge 34 point margin this year (66-32). These exit poll numbers might be off some, but they make sense. White voters in Arizona approved Governor Jan Brewer’s controversial illegal immigration crackdown (SB 1070) even though it has seriously damaged GOP support with Hispanics.

Obama made gains in Apache and Navajo counties, two counties with a large Native American population. Along the Mexican border, he also gained in Santa Cruz, Pima (Tucson) and Yuma counties; all of which have large Hispanic populations. Santa Cruz County is 83% Hispanic according to the census, and voted 68.2% for Obama – up from 65% support for the President in 2008. Greenlee, Graham and Gila counties also swung to Obama.

In decisive and very populous Maricopa County (Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale), however, Obama fell back a bit – from 43.9% to 43.6%. It is clear that Democrats who want to win statewide need to make major inroads in Maricopa County, which is 59% white and 30% Hispanic. Heavily white Yavapai County (Prescott) swung even more, from 61.1% McCain in 2008 to 64% for Romney this year.

Arizona’s electorate was 18% Hispanic, but the census showed that Hispanics made up 30% of the electorate. The Hispanic share of the VAP (18+) is likely lower, but as in other states, notably Texas (another long-shot Dem target) or California, many Hispanics do not vote because they are not registered (often because they are not citizens) or, in the past more than today, due to apathy. Until they make up a larger share of the electorate in both AZ and TX, both states which many Democrats dream of “turning blue” in the next few elections, the Democrats’ attempts to make gains in those states will remain frustrated by their low and declining support with the white majority.

Five states swung to Obama, which means that Obama’s margin of victory or defeat in those states was bigger/smaller than in 2008. Alaska had the biggest swing towards Obama, going to Romney by 14 points after having gone to McCain by 21.5 points in 2008. Obama increased his share of the vote from 37.9% to 40.8%, in the process becoming the first Democrat since Hubert Humphrey in 1968 to win over 40% of the vote in Alaska. Romney won 54.8%, down significantly from McCain’s 59.4%.

The state, in which oil, energy and land use issues have almost always been at the forefront of local elections, is solidly Republican. In 2008, early polls had shown Obama polling strongly in Alaska, pulling within single digits of McCain. However, after McCain picked the state’s popular governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, the state was never competitive. In 2008, Palin – in office since January 2007 – was still phenomenally popular in Alaska with the success of her administration’s natural gas pipeline (AGIA). If she turned out to be a major hindrance to the McCain campaign in the rest of the country, her selection did shore up Alaska’s hefty 3 EVs for John McCain. The state barely swung towards Obama, McCain performing only a bit worse than Bush in 2004.

The heavy swing this year is probably, in large part, a correction of the Palin “favourite daughter” effect in the state. But it is still fairly bizarre for Alaska, similar in many ways to Montana (with the addition of a huge and politically influential oil industry), to swing towards Obama while Montana swung heavily in the other direction.

Results of the presidential election in Alaska by state house district (source: uselectionatlas)

Alaska reports results by state house district rather than by borough, which explains why media sources never give Alaskan results at a more micro level than the state. The map to the right shows the results by house district, you can find the data on OurCampaigns (which also has a map of the 2008 results, here). State house districts changed a lot with the redistricting, making comparisons harder, but the biggest pro-Obama swings were in the “bush” – the North Slope, western and southwestern Alaska, Bristol Bay and the Aleutians; with some shifts in the Panhandle region as well. These regions are predominantly Native, extremely sparsely populated and barely connected with one another. The North Slope is also the centre of Alaskan oil and gas production.

Alaska Natives are not as solidly Democratic as other Native Americans; owing largely to a different form of self-government and oil revenues. While they usually lean Democratic more often than not, a strong Republican can win them over. In the 2010 senate race, Native support was crucial to GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski’s write-in victory over Joe Miller (R). In the 2008 presidential election, Obama performed well in some predominantly Native districts (Nome, Bethel) but the McCain/Palin ticket held up well.

This year, Obama basically swept the “bush”, including the North Slope. HD40, which covers the North Slope, gave 66.5% to Obama against only 29.3% for Romney. In 2008, the same district (which did not change much in terms of boundaries) had voted 53.7-42.7 for McCain. He won over 60% in almost every other “bush” house district. On the other hand, the MatSu valley – Alaska’s conservative Republican heartland – did not move all that much (though redistricting makes it hard to quantify). Romney still won over 65% of the vote in most of the MatSu, even taking over 70% of the vote in Wasilla, Palmer (Anchorage exurbs and Palinland) and rabidly conservative North Pole (Fairbanks exurb). McCain had done extremely well in the MatSu in 2008, likely the Palin effect; even better than Bush in 2004. It appears as if the Alaska swing is predominantly due to the Natives in the bush and some more moderate voters in the Panhandle, which, outside of Juneau, is a more moderate GOP-leaning region. The MatSu valley and its profoundly conservative “rugged individualism” stayed the same.

Romney did worse than McCain and Obama improved on his 2008 results in Mississippi and Louisiana. Mississippi is the most racially polarized state, with likely the lowest white vote for Obama of any state. On the other hand, Louisiana – while a Deep South state like MS or AL – was historically less racially polarized. The Democrats polled particularly well with the French Catholic Cajuns in Acadiana, and some strong local Democrats still do well in Acadiana. Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996 (while losing MS and AL), but like AR or TN it has progressively abandoned Democrats, first at the presidential level and now at the state level (Democrats recently lost the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction). Gore lost the state by 7.7%, Kerry lost by 14.5% and Obama lost it by 18.6% in 2008. There were substantial countercyclical swings towards McCain, primarily in Cajun country/Acadiana.

The swing towards Romney was below the national average throughout the South, Alabama barely swung and AR, GA, SC and NC all “trended” towards the Democrats (swing below the national average). This indicates that, in large part, the realignment of 80-90% of Southern whites with the GOP at the presidential level throughout both the Deep South and Upper South is almost complete, after large swings against Obama in 2008.

On the national swing map, the Southern swing towards Obama stems from black-majority counties (or those with a large black minority) – the Mississippi Valley (AR, LA, MS) and the Black Belt (MS, AL, GA, SC, NC). There had already been substantial swings towards Obama in those counties in 2008, indicating primarily his ability to motivate and mobilized black voters like no candidate before him had done. How could they swing towards him again, after nearly maximizing turnout and support in 2008?

We can exclude the hypothesis that Southern whites swung to Obama. The exit polls do say that Obama’s performance with Alabama whites was 5% better than in 2008 (from 10% to 15%) while he lost 1 point with MS whites (taking 10%); there were no exit polls in AR, LA, GA or SC. More likely, white turnout declined somewhat and black turnout increased or at least stabilized. In Mississippi, the white share of the electorate fell by 3 (from 62% t