The Cypriot European Elections, May 2014: The Political Parties Count their Losses

2014 marked the third time that Cyprus sent elected representatives to the European Parliament (EP). The Cypriot elections took place in a volatile and fluid setting defined by mounting anti-party sentiment and fury at the entire political system and the economic administrators that brought the country to the brink of financial collapse one year ago. However, and at first view, the long-stable Cypriot party system has shown remarkable resilience once again. The elections yielded no surprises with regard to the allocation of seats; these remained the same as in the 2009 European elections. The dynamics of change that have been gestating in recent years, however, are becoming more and more visible, although not yet reflected in the party system. The most significant change relates to the continuing increased levels of abstention, and this was clearly reflected in the European election turnout. Given the high threshold for representation (16.33%) that discouraged protest voting, and the absence of an anti-EU party to absorb such a vote, public discontent was largely expressed through abstention. At 42.37% (46.56% if Turkish Cypriots are not included), turnout was both down from 59.4% in 2009 and astonishingly low for Cypriot electoral standards.

The European elections were held just a little over three months after the dissolution of the governing coalition between right-wing Democratic Rally (DISY), centre-right Democratic Party (DIKO) and right-wing European party (EVROKO). The Democratic Party withdrew its support in February 2014 due to the renewed negotiations between the leaders of the two Cypriot communities (Greek and Turkish) to solve the long-lasting division of the island. As a result, the coalition lost its de facto majority in parliament only one year after it was formed.

The context

When the elections took place, the island was suffering from the repercussions of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed with the ‘troika’ (the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) in March 2013 and the harsh austerity measures stipulated in the agreement. The violent transformation of Cyprus’s economic and social landscape has shifted popular concern to a focus on the economy and the personal consequences of the crisis, rather than on wider politics. It has also contributed to a further decline of trust in political institutions, both European and domestic.

The Cyprus national problem, which monopolised party competition in the past, has taken a backstage position in public debates recently. However, the issue has entered a new phase recently, which could elevate its importance once again. This new phase is marked by two developments. First, there is the recent discovery of oil reserves and natural gas deposits in Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Second, there is an increased US interest in finding a speedy solution to the Cyprus problem. The discovery of hydrocarbons has injected new vigour into the process of finding a solution and the Americans seem to have taken the initiative from the British in guiding the process of finding a solution. US leadership on this issue was exemplified by a US Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to the island four days prior to the elections. Mr Biden is the most senior US official to visit Cyprus in over 50 years, as the quest to find alternative energy routes into Europe has focused international attention on the continent’s only divided country.

The campaign

The European elections sparked very little interest among the Cypriot public. The unprecedented degree of indifference can be explained by: the fact that: very few seats allocated to Cyprus (six); the perception that ‘we cannot influence Brussels (which is seen as quite remote) because of our small size’, resulting from the unfair treatment of Cyprus thus far; and the inability of political actors to relate EU decisions and workings to the everyday life of Cypriots.

Indifference stood out as the most important feature of this campaign, with citizens distancing themselves from the discredited political parties and the elections. Public debates centred once more on the national rather than the European arena, mainly revolving around Cyprus’s bail-in agreement with the troika and citizens’ profound distrust of political institutions. However, it was the first time that ‘Europe’ played a small part in any type of election campaign in Cyprus. In general, however, there was no clear and consistent vision of the EU’s future. Anger at the EU stood at an all-time high in Cyprus following last year’s Eurogroup’s decisions. This led to a major surge in public Euroscepticism. However, this was not reflected in any party manifesto, apart from the communist AKEL party.

Given the public’s indifference it was no surprise that the campaign was short and expenditure on it was minimal. The high rate of abstention and the question of who would win the sixth seat were the only interesting puzzles of an otherwise lacklustre campaign. It was evident in the polls that AKEL would lose a significant portion of its electorate, a factor that put its second seat in jeopardy. For that reason AKEL tried, not very successfully, to link the elections to the government’s austerity programme, whereas the Democratic Rally tried to avoid such polarisation.

Beyond that, three things stood out during the campaign. First, there were a high number of candidates competing for a place in Brussels: 61 stood in these elections, either on party tickets or as independents, the most since Cyprus first participated in European elections in 2004. Second, it was the first time that Turkish Cypriots were running for office. Two of these contested these elections under the banner of the (Turkish Cypriot) Socialist Party of Cyprus (KSP), two others as part of a bi-communal political platform (DRASY-EYLEM), and a fifth stood as an independent. Third, it was the first time that small protest groupings expressing various social and political messages contested these elections, ranging from niche agendas (e.g., the animal rights’ party) to anti-corruption and anti-party campaigns (e.g., the ‘Message of Hope’).

Overall, approximately 56,000 Turkish Cypriots were eligible in specially crated polling stations out of 550,000 in total. 10 parties (or platforms) and 8 independents contested the election. Two stood the elections on a joint ticket (social democratic EDEK in alliance with the Greens), whereas DISY included the European party’s president on its ticket.

Results

Although European elections are usually characterised by voters punishing incumbent parties, in this election Cypriot, as Table 1 shows, voters appear to have penalised the former governing AKEL party for the March 2013 bail-in. While maintaining its two seats and hard core vote, AKEL lost 8% of its vote share and 37,000 voters compared to the previous EP elections. The party was unable to overcome the problems caused by its five-year presidency and its anti-austerity message was not persuasive because the public remembered that it had actually invited the troika to Cyprus and voted in favour of most of the Memorandum-related legislation.

 

Table 1: Results of the May 2014 Cypriot European Parliament election

 

Party

% Vote

2009

Seats

2009

% Vote 2014

Seats

2014

Change

% (Seats)

DISY

35,65

2

37.75

2

+ 1,76% (0)

AKEL

19.6%

2

26,98

2

-8,37% (0)

DIKO

15.5%

1

10,83

1

– 1,48% (0)

EDEK/Greens

9.8%

1

7,68

1

– 3,76% (0)

Citizens Alliance

6,78

0

Message of Hope

3,83

0

European party

4,12

0

Greens

1,50

0

National Popular Front

0.22%

0

2,69

0

+2,47

Others

6.7%

0

3,46

0

Source: http://live.elections.moi.gov.cy/English/EUROPEAN_ELECTIONS_2014/Islandwide

At the same time the governing right-wing DISY enjoyed a comfortable win polling 37.75% of the vote, the highest score in its history despite its decision to implement the bail-in. The party had successfully run on an inclusive ticket accommodating candidates with divergent views, largely due to satisfy conflicting views among its electorate. However, and despite their cumulative losses, DISY and AKEL continued to constitute the majority in Cyprus, comprising 65% of the electorate. What changed was the balance of power between them, with a 10% shift in favour of the Democratic Rally. In spite of its relatively good result, though, Democratic Rally once again faces the spectre of isolation since all other parties oppose its policies, albeit to different degrees and on different issues.

The centre-right DIKO polled 28,044 votes, approximately 10,000 less than its membership but still the lowest fall in the percentage share of the vote since 2009. The biggest problem for the party lay with its intra-party disputes: DIKO is actually “two parties in one,” and this leads it to be constantly self-absorbed with the opposing factions clashing on every possible occasion. 

The socialist EDEK party avoided the worst scenario and managed to hold on to its seat but still lost a significant share of its electorate. Many commentators felt that its alliance with the Greens is what saved the day for the party, especially given that their distance from the next party, the Citizens’ Alliance, was less than 1% (2,345 votes). The latter tried to capitalize on its anti-establishment message and the favourable result of its president Giorgos Lillikas in last year’s presidential elections. The results proved that the party is here to stay and has to be taken into account in any future analyses of the Cypriot party system.

At the far right end of the ideological continuum it is worth noting that the National Popular Front (ELAM), the sister party of the Greek Golden Dawn, received 2.69% of the popular vote. Although not a high percentage as such, the Front increased its vote share tenfold. Moreover, the party demonstrated its endurance contesting its fourth consecutive election since its establishment in 2008. In the forthcoming May 2016 national elections a similar result would guarantee the party a seat in the House of Representatives for the first time.

Although most of the smaller parties, platforms and independents that took part in the elections did not perform well on their own, taken together (9.98%), they signal underlying currents of alternative and fringe agendas and issues that have so far been absent from Cypriot politics. They also constitute another manifestation of the challenges posed to the country’s party system and, for some citizens, an alternative channel for expressing their discontent with the established parties.

It was expected that Turkish Cypriot electoral behaviour would impact upon the results. However, at only 3.19% turnout among this group was exceptionally low. This was the result of a combination of causes. First, all Turkish Cypriot political parties called upon their voters to abstain. Second, there is the long-embedded culture and practice of separate political representation. Third, approximately one-third of the 90,000 eligible voters were actually left off the electoral roll due to an apparent error concerning their registration. However, this would not have resulted in any significant change in the outcome.

All the above, however, are secondary factors in relation to the high levels of abstention, which constitutes the most important story of this election. A post-election public opinion survey on the causes of abstention (See Phileleftheros, June 1) reveals that the vast majority (84%) of abstainers rejected the entire political system. The elections verified an underlying trend in Cypriot politics: the continuing divide between politics and society. In essence, we have two parallel and opposing worlds; those running the political and party system and who remain loyal partisans on the one hand, and the majority of the citizens on the other. The results showed clearly that the political parties engaged in an unsuccessful battle to convince the voters to go the polls. A process of de-alignment seems to have been put in place in Cyprus in recent years, and this serves to delegitimize the national political system.

Yiannos Katsourides

Yiannos Katsourides (katsourides.yiannos@ucy.ac.cy) teaches in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus and is visiting fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

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Surprise turnout, laconic European messages and swapping of party groups in Romania’s 2014 EP election

The 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections were Romania’s second fully-fledged experience in seven years of membership (Romanian MEPs were elected in mid-parliamentary term in 2007). As one of the eight most populous countries in the Union, the country’s national delegation contributes 32 MEPs to the composition of the EP. Falling in between the break-up of the governing coalition in February and ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for this November, the EP election was, by the main parties’ own admission, seen as a predictor of the autumn presidential run-off.

The outcome was hardly surprising, save for the relatively high turnout which bucked the Central and Eastern European trend. In 2014, 32.16% of the electorate cast a vote compared to 27.21% in 2009, which put the country above the 28% regional average. This may be due, in part, to the increased visibility of the election in the immediate run up to polling day. Several Romanian intellectuals, politicians and media representatives spoke publicly on the importance of voting in an attempt to counteract a ‘citizens’ strike’ which set out to boycott the elections on grounds of corruption and a lack of representativeness of, and democratic control over, the electoral process (the ‘United we save’ movement).

The final results released on May 29th put the governing Social Democratic Union (SDU) – a coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), with the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR) and the Conservative Party (PC) – well ahead of the remaining contenders for EP seats (14 other parties and eight independent candidates). At 37.6% of the votes, the Social Democratic Union secured a total of 16 seats, which made it one of the four largest national delegations in the Socialists and Democrats EP party grouping (S&D). The National Liberal Party (PNL), the Social Democrats’ coalition partner until its abrupt break-up in February, came in second and gained six seats at a considerably lower percentage of 15%, which triggered the resignation of the party president. The Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) followed with five seats (12.23% of the vote). Observers of the EP elections expected the European People’s Party (EPP) to lose about two seats in Romania (with an overall loss of 29% of their seats at the EU level) in favour of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). However, three days after the elections, the National Liberal Party expressed its intention to leave the latter group and instead join the EPP, on grounds of a “significant conservative component which puts us closer to the EPP”. If the move is approved, this would leave the EPP with four additional MEPs.

The newest addition to the Romanian political scene, the People’s Movement Party (PMP, a splinter from the Democratic Liberal Party) supported by President Traian Basescu and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) gained two seats each (at 6.29% and 6.21% of the votes respectively), all likely to join the EPP. The most surprising performance was that of actor-turned-politician Mircea Diaconu, who secured his seat as an independent (6.81%) and will very probably serve as a non-affiliated EP member. None of the smaller, recently founded parties, the Civic Force and the New Republic, made it past the 5% electoral threshold and neither did the far-right Greater Romania Party (PRM). Compared to the 2009 EP election, extremist, nationalist and populist candidates were quasi-absent from the campaign and did not make the cut. Ironically, the Greater Romania Party, who lost it EP representation, claimed electoral fraud arguing that it was dubious that the party performed so badly when nationalistic parties in Europe were on the rise on account of the economic crisis. Both citizens and parties in Romania, however, remain among the most pro-EU in Europe.

Both the results and the campaign speak, yet again, more to the national context than the European one. Had the approach of the political class been different, this election could have offered a genuine campaign on European issues. The opportunities were certainly there in terms of controversial issues such as immigration, austerity, Ukraine or youth employment. Instead, it seems more fitting to write about ‘the EP campaign that could have been’. The ‘Europe’ theme did not make it much further than the parties’ campaign slogans. The campaign itself segued quickly into a blame-shifting contest between the President and prime minister, linked to their respective parties and centred on national topics (the reform of the judiciary, seasonal floods, corruption and electoral fraud) and their respective fitness to hold the presidency. Personality politics replaced issue politics in a prelude to the autumn elections. This was even more evident as the ‘presidential’ candidates were often the lead figures on their respective parties’ campaign banners rather than the EP candidates. The parties saw the EP election as a springboard for the presidential one, and the European message became a valence issue, as it had been in the past.

The escalation of the Ukrainian crisis could have been an opportunity for the country to have a say in the geopolitics of the region and the role of the EU, and overcome its marginal position in EU decision-making (especially in the context of the Polish, Romanian and Turkish common declaration on Ukraine in early May). Some Romanian MEPs promoted specific positions during the plenary debate in Brussels on the situation in Ukraine, focusing on the role of the EU in the region and its relationship to Russia, but none of these concerns made it into the national debate. Instead, the main protagonists of the campaign used the crisis to show the inability of their opponents to handle it effectively and the situation in Ukraine was quickly turned into a tool against the governing coalition led by the Social Democrats; the National Liberal Party filed a censure motion regarding the handling of the crisis.

Paradoxically, in spite of the controversies brought about by the opening of EU borders for Romania and Bulgaria in January 2014, voters heard very little of this at the national level (yet the latest Eurobarometer showed that 52% of Romanians identified free movement as the symbol of the EU). The Social Democratic Party claimed that its “We will send to Brussels people who are proud of being Romanian, who will defend Romania” slogan promoted the idea that Romanian MEPs would fight back against discrimination, but it ended up being interpreted merely as a nationalistic, soft anti-EU stance. On a related note, the frontline candidate of the Democratic Liberal Party accused the Social Democrat and the Liberal leaders of being responsible for the failure to secure Schengen entry due to the political turmoil that they had generated in the summer of 2012 (namely, the presidential impeachment and curtailing the powers of the Constitutional Court).

The issues of economic recovery, austerity and youth unemployment were only tangentially mentioned by individual MEPs and failed to be picked up as issues for debate in the campaign. A couple of Social Democratic candidates criticised the EU – and, more specifically, the dominance of the political right in the EP and the Commission – for the austerity measures that member states were forced to implement and for cuts in salaries and jobs across Europe. They linked the national vote to an opportunity for the left to increase its representation in the EP and the Commission and change the direction of EU policies towards economic growth and creating new job opportunities, especially for the Europe’s young people. These occasional interventions, however, were usually made at meetings with the voters at a local level and not debated as part of the nationwide campaign. This left-right party positioning at the EU level was one of the isolated references to the future of the Union, its leadership and Romania’s position within the institutions, but these got lost quickly in the virulent national contest.

The parties returned to the issue of EU-level affiliations in the aftermath of the election as, in the first three days after the preliminary results were announced, they raced to build new coalitions and re-group in view of the next electoral contest in November. The National Liberal Party immediately announced its intention to leave the ALDE family (where it was a contender for a leadership position) in favour of the EPP. Although this preference had been articulated in the past as well (for example, ahead of the December 2012 legislative elections), it appeared rather opportunistic this time around. The party’s leadership announced the day after the election that it would join forces with the Democratic Liberal Party (which already belongs to the EPP) to construct a strong centre-right political formation to counter-balance the power of the Social Democrats. On May 28th, the party’s political bureau agreed unanimously to begin talks with Democratic Liberals, speaking about a “short, medium and long-term collaboration” which would target “not just the presidential elections this year, but also the local and parliamentary elections in 2016”.

In this context, this election conformed, with minor exceptions, to the ‘second order’ election model usually attributed to EP polls. The main contenders – and, by implication, the voters – were caught in a national contest fixated on the parties’ performance in the upcoming autumn presidential election. In spite of coming first, success was short-lived for the governing Social Democratic Party. These elections were an opportunity for the party to show that it had regained its national stronghold and could nominate a credible presidential candidate. Instead, the 37% vote share did little to consolidate the legitimacy of the governing coalition that it has been leading since February and forced it to reconsider its strategy for the autumn election. While the Social Democrats seemed to be trying for a rapprochement with the National Liberal Party, the latter has been adamant to signal a clear break and refuted the possibility of a new alliance by negotiating with the Democrat Liberal Party instead. This election was also the National Democratic Party’s first test after a considerable defeat in the local and parliamentary elections in 2012 and the ensuing internal conflicts which weakened its performance. It remains to be seen whether the electorate will be able to wrap their minds around the erratic political trajectory of the party and the credibility of the prospective centre-right front.

This EP election was, therefore, more significant in relation to the national political context – questions of participation, legitimacy, party competition and survival, or the quality of democracy – than the European one. By and large, the parties failed to engage with issues of European relevance, most significantly current debates on the leadership and future direction of the EU.

Roxana Mihaila

(R.I.Mihaila@sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.

A flash-in-the-pan? Understanding Poland’s Congress of the New Right

Much of the media commentary on the May 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections focused on the apparent strong showing of anti-establishment parties such as the French National Front, the UK Independence Party, the Danish People’s Party and Syriza in Greece. The European Parliament (EP) election in Poland also saw the emergence of a new radical challenger party, the Congress of the New Right (KPN), which appeared to come from nowhere to finish fourth with 7.2% of votes and win 4 out of the country’s 51 MEPs.

In spite of its leader’s numerous controversial statements, the Congress emerged as the most effective vehicle for protest voters, mobilising the frustrated Polish intelligentsia and younger voters around a programme of radical economic liberalism and hostility to the EU. Its election success will provide the party with political momentum over the next few months but its controversial leader is too wilfully provocative, and support base almost certainly too unstable, for it to be anything more than a fleetingly successful but short-lived protest party.

A controversial political veteran

Formed in March 2011, the Congress is the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of its new MEPs and a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene who has contested every national election since the collapse of communism in 1989. Many prominent members of other parties – including Civic Platform (PO), the centrist grouping led by prime minister Donald Tusk that has been the main governing party since 2007 – began their political careers as members of the Real Politics Union (UPR), Mr Korwin-Mikke’s first political party in which he played a leading role until resigning in 2009. Some commentators have quipped that if everyone who had ever been a member of the Real Politics Union joined the same party it would probably be the largest in Poland, and if all those who ever voted for Mr Korwin-Mikke did so at the same election then he would easily win!

In fact, until the recent EP poll, he only had one brief stint in the Polish parliament; at the beginning of the 1990s before the 5% electoral threshold for securing representation was introduced. However, Mr Korwin-Mikke’s fortunes began to look up in the June/July 2010 presidential election when, although only securing 2.5% of the votes, he finished fourth ahead of Waldemar Pawlak, the then deputy prime minister and leader of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner since 2007.

Mr Korwin-Mikke is one of the most controversial figures in Polish politics. Right-wing conservative politicians, particularly those from the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, have often fallen foul of the West European liberal cultural and political establishment, but Mr Korwin-Mikke goes way beyond this and is in a league of his own as far as political incorrectness is concerned. During the EP campaign, for example, he appeared to: agree with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Poland had trained ‘Ukrainian terrorists’ who took part in the demonstrations that led to the downfall of the country’s previous pro-Moscow government; claim that there was no proof that Adolf Hitler was aware of the Holocaust; and argue that the difference between rape and consensual sex was very subtle, implying that some apparent victims actually wanted to have intercourse.

Previously, he questioned whether women should vote in elections given that they were less interested in politics and supported higher welfare spending; although his supporters argued that, as a declared monarchist, Mr Korwin-Mikke was actually in favour depriving every one of the right to vote! On another occasion, criticising the Paralympics he argued that, in order for humanity to flourish, people needed to watch ‘healthy, beautiful, strong, honest and intelligent people’ on the TV rather than invalids.

A repository for ‘Generation Y’ protest voters?

However, this string of controversial statements did not appear to harm the Congress’s electoral prospects in the EP poll. Indeed, if anything it re-inforced Mr Korwin-Mikke’s credentials as a ‘political outsider’ and helped his party to emerge as the most attractive repository for protest voters looking for a radical alternative to the political establishment. Such voters often play a disproportionate role in ‘second order’ elections, such as EP polls where turnout is traditionally much lower than in national elections, and Mr Korwin-Mikke was thus able to mobilise his relatively small but extremely loyal following (some commentators earlier doubted whether they would actually come out to vote). In the context of a 22.7% turnout in Poland – the third lowest among the 28-member EU bloc and much lower than the 47.5% average recorded in post-1989 Polish parliamentary elections – these voters provided the Congress with the basis for a respectable EP election result.

Moreover, although Mr Korwin-Mikke is 72-years-old, the Congress enjoyed particularly high levels of support among younger voters. According to an exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency, it secured 28.5% of 18-to-25-year-old voters, more than any other party, and these comprised half of the party’s supporters (overall three-quarters of the Congress’s voters were under 40-years-of-age). Although more data and empirical analysis is required before more definitive judgements can be made about the party’s demographic profile, some sociologists have argued that many of these voters are drawn from what social commentators sometimes refer to as ‘Generation Y’: the large numbers of young and fairly well-educated unemployed in Poland who live at home with their parents and are frustrated that the country has not developed more rapidly, with an apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks stifling their opportunities.

These young people often face a choice between moving abroad to take jobs that fall well short of their abilities and aspirations or remaining in a country which they feel offers them few prospects for the future. The fact that these younger voters spend much of their time on the Internet, which is their main source of political information rather than the traditional broadcast and print media, also helped to give the Congress a very strong on-line presence; Mr Korwin-Mikke’s Facebook page, for example, has nearly 400,000 ‘likes’.

More broadly, the Congress of the New Right appeared to tap into what some sociologists have termed the ‘frustrated intelligentsia’: fairly well-educated Poles, sometimes running small businesses, who blame the deadweight of excessive state regulation and red tape, high taxes, vested interests and cronyism for blocking individual freedom and initiative, thus preventing them from realising their professional and career ambitions. For example, 16.6% of managers and specialists and 13.4% of private entrepreneurs voted for the Congress in the EP poll. Moreover, many of these voters also see the EU increasingly as the embodiment of a stifling bureaucracy and political and cultural oppression rather than symbolising the civilisational progress and socio-economic modernisation and solidarity that Poles were promised at the time of accession to the Union.

Radical economic liberalism is the core

The Congress is an economically libertarian and socially conservative party but the core of the party’s programme, and main driver of its support, is its radical economic liberalism. It opposes all but the most minimal form of state intervention in, and regulation of, the economy, which, it argues, stifles opportunities for the most dynamic sections of Polish society. Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party supports the abolition of income tax and slashing other tax rates, together with radical and far-reaching privatisation and government expenditure cuts, leaving only a residual and massively slimmed-down public sector.

The party combines this with a traditionalist conservative stance on some social and moral-cultural issues, for example: favouring a tough approach to law and order and the restoration of capital punishment, while opposing same-sex marriage. However, the Congress also supports some social libertarian policies, such as the legalisation of cannabis, and does not have the same high profile commitment to Christian values and promoting policies rooted explicitly in the Catholic Church’s moral and social teaching, which has, to a greater or lesser extent, been the hallmark of almost every other Polish centre-right party.

Rather, the party argues more generally that Polish laws should be underpinned by the norms and principles of ‘Latin civilisation’. Interestingly, 20% of those who voted for the Palikot Movement (RP) – a liberal, but also strongly anti-clerical, protest party that came from nowhere to win 10% of the vote and finish third in the most recent 2011 parliamentary election – switched to the Congress of the New Right in the 2014 EP poll. The Congress is also a radically Eurosceptic party, with Mr Korwin-Mikke arguing that half of the current EU commissioners should be arrested, and promising to ‘blow up the EU from within’ and turn the European institutions into a brothel!

A flash-in-the-pan?

As far as the Congress’s future prospects are concerned, the party’s relatively strong EP election showing will certainly give it a higher media profile over the next few months that could carry it through to relative success in the summer 2015 presidential and autumn 2015 parliamentary elections. Mr Korwin-Mikke will use his new EP platform to continue to make controversial statements and outspoken attacks on the EU that will no doubt delight his most dedicated supporters and get thousands of ‘hits’ on Internet sites like YouTube.

However, although, at the time of writing, it is unclear which of the Eurosceptic European party groupings the Congress will choose to align itself with, Mr Korwin-Mikke will also be an extremely marginal, maverick voice in the EP. His often-wilfully outrageous statements will limit his ability to attract the support beyond the party’s core that it needs to make a real breakthrough, and he may eventually also prove too much for all but his most committed supporters. In addition to straightforward rebuttal and trying to contextualise his remarks, these are often forced to defend Mr Korwin-Mikke’s more controversial claims by (not very convincingly) distinguishing between their leader’s personal opinions and the party’s official stance.

Moreover, the Congress’s anti-establishment protest electorate is an impulsive and unstable one. Even if the party is able to retain this support for a period, it could evaporate very quickly. While it will undoubtedly benefit in the short-term from the political momentum derived from its EP success, there is, therefore, every chance that Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party could prove yet another flash-in-the-pan and join the long list of fleetingly successful but relatively short-lived anti-establishment protest parties that been a recurring feature of the post-communist Polish political scene.

Aleks Szczerbiak

(a.a.szczerbiak@sussex.ac.uk) is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.

An earlier version of this post was published at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/06/10/the-congress-of-the-new-right-is-the-latest-anti-establishment-party-to-have-success-in-poland-but-it-may-struggle-to-secure-long-term-support/.

The Eurosceptic paradox

The results of the European elections represented an undoubted success for Eurosceptics of all stripes. With the big advances made by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Front National (FN), Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Movement 5 Star (M5S) in both vote share and seats secured, plus a host of others, there are now more sceptical, critical and generally heterodox voices than ever before.

And yet, there still remains something of a paradox. For all this strength, while it is easy to point to all these parties and to announce the breaking of a Eurosceptic dawn, there is not clarity about what that means or even if it will happen at all.

The reasons for this are threefold.

Firstly, in all the media hype, it has been largely forgotten that ‘Euroscepticism’ doesn’t really exist, at least in the sense of a coherent ideology. Euroscepticism is a manifestation of actions that are themselves ideologically driven, and there are almost as many different motivations as there are parties. The differences between Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament (EP) are as big as the range of ideologies represented in the chamber as a whole. Thus, the ex-communist left has little, or nothing to let it make common cause, with the far-right, or the conservatives, or even the liberal strand represented by AfD.

The struggles we are witnessing now to form parliamentary groups was always going to happen, especially with the fundamental cleavages on the right. With the three parties that were likely to be most successful (in seats) – the FN, UKIP and the British Conservatives – mutually excluding links with each other, the race to lure in the small parties needed to meet the country threshold has been intense.

Even if we concede that the formation of three groups on the right – far-right, Eurosceptic and conservative – is mathematically possible, then just as clearly we have to concede that they will have relatively low levels of cohesion, both internally and externally. Thus, in narrow parliamentary terms, the scope of Eurosceptics to block or even shape legislation coming through the EP will be very limited indeed.

This leads us to the second key factor, namely the other MEPs. Despite the losses suffered – especially by the EPP – the EPP-S&D centrist blocs control 55% of the votes, with ALDE adding almost another 8%. This might not be as robust as the coalitions in EPs past, but the ability to draw on past experience of centrist politics will be helpful.

Added to this is the on-going Spitzenkandidat issue. The high level of support, within the EP at least, for Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President is not only good politics by the EP, but also a vehicle for inter-group cooperation. Notably, it is the Eurosceptic parties and groups that have been least interested in this and so are less bound in.

It is not difficult to imagine a centrist coalition holding the reins of power in the EP for the next five years, regardless of whether Juncker moves into the Berlaymont. The politics of a cordon sanitaire, as practised in several member states, will be the norm, treating critical voices of any kind as being akin to far-right or fascist parties. The communautaire norms of the EP might have taken a knock with the election results, but we are much more likely to see the pursuit of pro-EU actions to ‘reconnect with the public’ than we are to see a dismantling of the system.

Those citizens then form the third key factor. While politicians and media commentators are all claiming they know what these elections ‘mean’, the truth of the matter is that such ‘meaning’ is highly elusive. Given the continuing second-order nature of EP elections, voters will have had primarily national concerns in mind: to take one small example, consider the difference successes of the FN and Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), despite their pre-election alliance.

Despite this, we have to accept that there is much discomfort within the electorate, even if it is inchoate and uneven. However, given the fractured nature of Eurosceptic representation and the likely reaction to it in the EP, it is hard to see how that will be translated into a programme of action, both either the EU or national political systems.

This is not to say that there is no regard for this, but rather that the EU as a political system is designed to build consensus for policy outputs, and the hetereogeniety of opposition and scepticism, makes it very difficult to address: addressing one issue (free movement of people, for example) will either displease sceptics of a different stripe, or be unacceptable to the broader community. Seen like this, the response of ‘more Europe’, via the Spitzenkandidat model, looks like the path of least resistance.

This is unlikely to engender a reversal of popular attitudes towards the EU, or with the democratic system more generally. While turnout might have lifted fractionally this time, the depth of disengagement seen in some countries might become a lot more common next time around.

To pull this all together, we might, therefore, consider that the greatest danger is not the election of so many Eurosceptics to the EP, but the risk that the Parliament (and the Union) can continue to function as if nothing has happened. Even if Eurosceptics are split among themselves and poorly organised, they still form a legitimate part of the body politic and deserve as much attention as any other section of society. Only with a genuine and substantial commitment to trying to engage with such voices can the Union find a way out of this situation: an ambitious demand, but surely one in keeping with the democratic mission of the EU.

 

Simon Usherwood

(s.usherwood@surrey.ac.uk) is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and one of the co-ordinators of the Universities Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism.

Electoral Choices in Central and Eastern Europe

In their preview of the elections to the European Parliament posted on the EPERN Blog on March 31st, Paul Taggart and Aleks Szczerbiak rightly stress that ‘“Europe” remains a very diverse and multi-dimensional issue’ and – from views published after the results were announced – this seems to be just as true for those commenting on the elections as it does for the voters themselves. While the political establishment in France and the United Kingdom trembled in the face of advancing hordes of Front National and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voters, those living on planet Brussels expressed relief that a higher election turnout had actually brought positive results. European Parliament (EP) Liberal leader Verhofstadt noted with apparent pleasure that, for the first time, turnout was ‘going up and not going down as we have seen in the last 30 years’ while leader of the Socialists and Democrats, Hannes Swoboda, was equally pleased that the forecast ‘big disaster’ did not happen (EurActiv May 26). Such sanguine views were possibly not shared by Nick Clegg or François Hollande. The higher turnout thus welcomed in the EU as a whole was, further, a less than spectacular rise of 0.9% on the modest 43% achieved in 2009. Perceptions of the election results were, indeed, mixed.

It was, too, in terms of turnout that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) generally attracted most attention. Slovaks maintained their reputation as the Europeans least inclined to vote with a turnout of only 13% (www.results-elections2014.eu/en/country-introduction-2014.html). All other CEE countries, with the exception of Lithuania (where the vote was combined with one for the presidency), also showed levels of turnout below the EU average. Compulsory voting laws in Belgium and Luxembourg (countries where 90% participated in the election) raised the voting average in Western Europe and the EU overall, but turnout in the countries of CEE as a whole was still strikingly low and declined from the 2009 level in eight of the ten countries that were EU members at that date. Apart from Lithuania, it was only Romania that saw a higher turnout (to a modest 32%). The low turnout was doubtless associated with the fact that in no post-communist country was there a populist Eurosceptic victory like that of UKIP and Front National or, for that matter, Beppe Grillo’s M5S in Italy, the Danish People’s Party or Syriza in Greece, all of which captured more than 20% of the vote.

This, in turn, reflected the fact that the surge of Euroscepticism and dissatisfaction with the EU apparent in Western Europe was not seen in CEE. As in other respects, Hungary was something of an exception and the far-right Jobbik attracted 14.7% of the votes. But even this was way below most predictions and a marked decline from the 20.3% it had gathered in the national election in April, just a few weeks earlier. Elsewhere, populist anti-EU parties were even less successful. In Poland the Congress of the New Right gained 7%, Slovenian and Slovak Nationalists 4% each, Bulgaria’s Ataka just 3%, and the Party of Greater Romania even less. Of these parties, only the Polish Congress has gained any seats.

As a general rule, it was governing parties that headed the list as they consolidated their existing position. This was clearly the case with Fidesz, which received 51% in Hungary, similar to their share of the national vote the previous month. Governing parties also prevailed in Latvia, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia and Slovakia, with between 24-46% of the vote. The ruling Social Democrats also won in Romania where more people voted than in 2009, probably because of growing interest in the presidential contest to be held later in the year and greater public awareness of shifting party alignments. Turnout, it seemed, was not affected the same way in Slovenia, where the government had recently collapsed and national elections were also imminent. In this context, it was the opposition Democratic Party that won.

Overall there were few surprises and the post-communist countries did not share the strong Eurosceptic turn apparent elsewhere (although they had also suffered considerably during the economic crisis that gathered momentum after 2008 and also – in some cases like Slovakia and Slovenia – felt the direct pressures of the Eurozone crisis). There was, too, little scope for the anti-immigrant sentiment that fed the populist forces seen in the West (hardly surprising, as many immigrants came from the East). All in all, the elections in CEE were not just second-order events, as has generally been the case (see Taggart and Szczerbiak), but were often seen as a routine of rather little significance. Nearly half of Czech respondents in one survey just thought that the EP elections were not necessary (EUobserver 25 May). It is, nevertheless, interesting that dissatisfaction with the national government – which is hardly negligible in CEE – has not transmuted into anti-EU sentiment in the way seen in France and the UK (the fact that the current administration is better regarded in Italy and Germany seems to have limited anti-EU electoral currents in those countries).

In similar vein, Slovak analyst Zuzana Gabrizova dismissed concern over the low turnout in that country and noted that there were just no strong incentives for people to vote (EUobserver May 25). Recent data certainly point to a more supportive view being taken of the EU in Slovakia. Much like the average EU citizen, in March 2014 60% of Slovaks perceived the situation of the European economy as bad or very bad; the overall EU figure was 58% (Special Eurobarometer 415). They were, however, significantly more inclined to trust the EU (45% compared to the 32% EU average). A European University Institute (EUI) study from 2013 (The Euro Crisis and the State of European Democracy) showed that the sharp decline in trust in EU institutions since the start of the crisis was indeed most pronounced in the original 12 members of the Eurozone, that is: excluding the CEE countries as well as Malta and Cyprus. Also significant, and largely confirming West European apprehensions, in terms of what the EU means to them personally Slovaks particularly valued the freedom to travel, study and work throughout the EU: 52% against an EU average of 44% (Special Eurobarometer 415).

Given these responses, the widely expressed view that low turnout rates are alarming and show that the ‘last remaining bit of enthusiasm for the Union seems to have vanished in numerous eastern European countries’ (EUobserver May 26) appears rather simplistic. The low propensity to vote may indeed show that enthusiasm is in short supply, but it does not necessarily mean that Slovaks and other CEE citizens are as disenchanted with the EU and as keen to leave it as are major parts of the West European electorate. Similar views, and a willingness to accept the rough with the smooth in terms of EU and even Eurozone membership, have been detected in the context of the economic crisis by the EUI study referred to above. Hungary, Romania and Latvia all applied for IMF loans and were thus obliged to follow its financial sustainability requirements, a similar path being followed by Eurozone candidates who were part of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. This meant that strict austerity measures had to be taken, as not doing this would have endangered prospects of Euro membership or existing Euro arrangements which were regarded as more important for governments and electorates than short-term improvements in growth and employments (See: K. Armingeon, ‘National fiscal responses to the economic crisis’, in The Eurocrisis). It was a question of priorities, which had, in turn, a distinct influence on voting patterns in the EP elections. For this reason, popular opposition to, and electoral protest against, these measures was considerably more muted than in Western Europe.

The election of a new EP was not the only one held on May 25th. Just across the border of the EU a presidential election was held in Ukraine, a country whose long-running crisis sparked in November 2013 by President Yanukovych’s rejection of the Association Agreement proposed by the EU and whose problematic relations with Russia were of far greater importance to the CEE countries than to Western Europe. The experience of Soviet Russian rule was a not too distant memory in most countries of the region, and Russia’s involvement in Ukrainian affairs was seen as a direct security threat. In some countries, Poland and Latvia in particular, developments in Ukraine and the stance taken by different parties had a strong effect on voter preferences, although it clearly did not motivate people to vote. Nevertheless, ever since the end of World War II the countries of CEE had been faced with a clear alternative in terms of East or Western affiliation, even if their inhabitants had little or no choice in the matter. In 2004, most of them had made a clear choice for EU membership, with three more following suit in 2007 and 2013. This had been the decisive choice, and the make-up of the EP (itself a rather ambiguous body) was a matter of no great interest, a factor which goes a long way to explaining low turnout and the absence of major currents of opposition to the EU in the elections.

Paul Lewis

(p.g.lewis@open.ac.uk) is Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Studies at the Open University, UK.

Does Eastern Europe chart a course from anger to apathy?

The results of the elections to the European Parliament which took place across the EU’s 28 member states last week very much as predicted – at least in the ‘old’ pre-2004 member states: driven by frustration with austerity, economic stagnation, diminished opportunities and a yawning sense of disconnect with established parties and politicians, a variety of outsider parties made sweeping gains and unignorably stamped themselves on the electoral map.

In Northern Europe, where socio-economic malaise and disconnect were often refracted through the politics of anti-immigration, this tended to benefit right wing, Eurosceptic parties. In Southern Europe, anti-austerity parties of the radical left such as Greece’s Syriza or Podemos in Spain gained most.

The most spectacular gains were made by parties of varying political complexions which had a long-time presence on the political margins: UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, and Sinn Féin in Ireland. Whatever their coloration, the scale of their political success underlines the potential fragility of mainstream parties in Western Europe, even in states with well-established party systems previously considered immune to populist surges such as Spain or the UK.

Many commentators have lumped in the newer EU member states of Central and Eastern with the unfolding (if exaggerated) story of a populist backlash in the EU’s West European heartlands. Anticipating the strong showing of the radical right in Denmark, Holland and Austria, The Observer’s Julian Coman, for example, casually assured readers that ‘across much of eastern Europe, it is a similar story’

But, in fact, it was not: outsider and anti-establishment parties, perhaps surprisingly, did not perform well in Central and Eastern Europe. The extreme right, with the marked exception of Hungary, has long been weak in the region and flopped badly even in countries like Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia where polls had suggested it might pick up some MEPs.

Hungary’s powerful extreme right-wing party Jobbik widely reported second place (and 14.8% vote share). But this success was more of an optical illusion caused by the disunity of the mainstream Hungarian liberal left. The radical right party’s vote share in fact fell sharply compared to the parliamentary elections in April.

The only appreciable success in Central and Eastern Europe enjoyed by a new party of the radical right was chalked up by the Congress of the New Right (KNP) in Poland, a political vehicle for the long-time enfant terrible of Polish politics Janusz Korwin Mikke whose eccentric libertarian views variously embrace: the restoration of the monarchy; doubts over Hitler’s responsibility for the Holocaust; and suggestions that the European Parliament building be redeveloped as a brothel. The KNP’s modest 7.2% vote gives it four MEPs, including the redoubtable Korwin Mikke.

New anti-political parties of a more centrist persuasion which have been so much a feature of politics in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years also failed to make much of an impact: the ANO movement of billionaire Andrej Babiš narrowly topped the pollin the Czech Republic, but had weaker (16%) support than some polls had predicted.  In Slovenia, the hastily formed ‘I Believe’ list created by the former head of the country’s Court of Auditors  Igor Šoltés – whose entire campaign reportedly amounted to an intermittently functioning Twitter account – gained a more creditable 10.5%, while in Bulgaria the more controversial anti-corruption party Bulgaria Without Censorship polled 10.7%.

The real story of Central and Eastern Europe was, however, one of non-voters: ten of the twelve lowest turnouts across the EU in generally low turnout elections were recorded in post-communist member states. The Czech Republic and Slovakia recording the lowest levels of participation on 19.5% and 13% turnouts respectively – levels of abstention which arguably begin to drain those elected of legitimacy. (Only in Lithuania – where the EU poll coincided with second round of voting in presidential elections – did turnout match the 43% average for the EU as whole.)

Epern1

Examining changes in turnout reveals a regionally more mixed picture: the biggest falls since are, on the whole, in Central and East European member states with already low turnout rates. However, some crisis-hit old member states – such as Ireland, Cyprus and Italy – also experience large drop off, albeit from a substantially higher turnout rates, while both Lithuania and, interestingly, Romania appears as outliers, having seen election turnout rise. The overall picture, however, in Central and Eastern Europe is one of draining participation, at odds with the stability over EU-wide turnout between 2009 and 2014 which leaders of EP groups were quick to gloss in optimistic terns as a crisis averted.

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European elections have, in many ways, always been a story of turnout failure. Since their inception in 1979, turnout in has been low (and declining) and since Eastern enlargement turnout has always generally been lower still in Central and Eastern Europe, where European integration has always been a technocratic, top-down project with limited societal engagement. Voters in the region may sense that small, poorer post-communist states have a limited real influence on the direction of EU affairs, but few realistic exit options.

It is also perhaps worth reflecting that Central and East Europeans have already turned to new anti-establishment protest parties in large numbers in recent national elections: they have not needed the opportunity of the European elections to cast mass protest votes triggering electoral earthquake of the kind UKIP celebrated last week. Having now used up this option, many voters in the region have moved on to the next stage and simply switched off and disengaged from the electoral process altogether.

Given this prior history, it is tempting to wonder that, in some ways, Central and Eastern European voters may be ahead of the game. If the various victorious protest parties of 2014 disappoint, in 2019 will we see the spread of near-critical rates of abstention seen in Slovakia or the Czech Republic? Non-voting, rather than populist protest voting could prove the real long-term threat to sustainability of the EU’s troubled democratic institutions.

Sean Hanley

Dr Seán Hanley is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His personal research blog can be found at: http://drseansdiary.wordpress.com/.