Softs remain soft…and attractive; Czech Soft Eurosceptic parties in the run-up to the 2017 parliamentary elections

Vít Hloušek and Petr Kaniok

What a political party thinks about the European integration hardly matters in election campaigns. Such statements has always been an idiom even for Czech party politics where EU issues always been, for several reasons, more salient than, for example, in Slovakia. This year’s parliamentary election, and the campaign leading up to them, confirms this once again. This does not, however, mean that EU politics and policies have not played any role. Recent developments in the EU involving a variety of crisis have particularly fuelled Eurosceptic streams. In this piece we review the ‘Soft’ ones – placing them in the context of established pro-European parties.

The first usual suspect, of course, represents they Civic Democrats (ODS). They did their traditional Soft Eurosceptic homework by drafting the paper A Strong Czechia in Europe of the 21st Century in April 2017. Here, there was a clear link going back to the 16-year-old Manifesto of the Czech Eurorealism which is hardly surprising given the fact that both of these papers were co-authored by Civic Democratic MEP Jan Zahradil. Both A Strong Czechia in Europe and the party’s election manifesto A Strong Program for a Strong Czechia discuss the EU’s situation as a crisis comprising migration, economics, security and trust. The Civic Democrats repeatedly stress that there is no other way than to remain an EU member but that the EU must be substantially transformed into a multi-speed Europe that would offer the Czechs the opportunity to participate only in what they want to without taking other obligations from other EU members. According to the Civic Democrats, the Czech authorities must “deny all legislation which contradicts Czech national interests, such as quotas for the refugees or regulation of the legal possession of weapons.” This approach, together with the promise to voters that the Civic Democrats, will negotiate an opt-out from the obligation to adopt the Euro are showing that the slogan of ‘Eurorealism’ hid a rather unrealistic treatment of any future Czech political representation’s bargaining potential is hidden. The Civic Democrats are offering detailed scheme of how to reform the EU demonstrating thereby that they are minor but still vital members of the European Conservatives and Reformists European Parliament (EP) grouping but they do not bother to assess feasibility of their proposals.

The second in the Soft Eurosceptic camp are, again not surprisingly, the Czech Communists (KSČM). Although the Communists have been previously labelled as Hard Eurosceptics, the scope and intensity of their critique towards the EU does not qualify them for this camp anymore. First, for example, the Communists´ interest in the EU affairs is remarkably lower than in the case of the Civic Democrats. To put it simply, the EU does not represent a policy of prominent interest for the Communists. It sometimes feels that the party mentions the EU in a critical tone because such a message, a very trivial one, is expected from its supporters. Particularly those core ones who still feel some sort of nostalgia for the “old times”. Hence, as in previous years, the Communists ritually called for “substantial institutional reform of the EU that would ensure equal position of EU Member states” or for “an increased role of the European Parliament as well as national parliaments at the expense of the influence of bureaucrats”. The Communists also criticized EU migration policy and rejected the “enforced quotas system”. This point, however, was perhaps the only innovation of the party´s approach towards the EU. The remaining slogans could be found in manifestos issued for all previous elections.

All the governmental parties are formally and rhetorically very much pro-EU. However, a detailed look suggests that words do not always match actions. A good example of this is Andrej Babiš’ Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) movement. Mr Babiš was “Rookie of the year” in the 2013 elections when his movement made a significant breakthrough. However in the run-up to the October 2017 poll no one was questioning whether ANO would win the election just how substantial its lead would be. The obvious superstar of the Czech party scene has developed into such a position due to a combination of Mr Babiš’s charisma, ANO’s strong presence in mainstream newspapers (owned, incidentally by Mr. Babiš) and dexterous populism; including the party’s policy towards the European integration.

As such, ANO is a movement that pays very limited attention to Brussels. The list of party statements and media appearances is long and contains hundreds of entries just for one calendar year, but entries on the EU are very rare and when they occur they quite sensitively follow what “the people” want to hear and what they currently associate the EU with. Such topics are particularly the money from the Structural Funds (which Mr Babiš and his team fight for) and refugees or security concerns (which Mr Babiš and his team will resolve).

Not surprisingly, this approach is very visible in the ANO 2017 election manifesto. Here EU affairs are discussed from the perspective of Czech interests. For example, ANO only agrees to the Czech Republic joining the Eurozone only after it has been substantially reformed. ANO also claims that immigration policy has to remain in hands of Member States. Even though ANO says that the Czech membership in the EU is a key principle of its policy, the EU is understood only as a utility to carry out Czech interests in a better way. ANO also suggests reform of the EU: “to do less and more effectively and only in these areas where the EU can bring added value”. This is quite an interesting approach for a party whose MEPs sit in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe EP grouping which has labelled itself as pro-European.

The Social Democrats are the party with the main share of responsibility for Czech EU policy – holding both the positions of Minister of Foreign Affairs and State Secretary for the EU Affairs maintained their official Europhile profile, rhetorically at least. The party´s manifesto, for example, advocated the Czech Republic being in the EU “core”, one speed European integration as well as calling for it to join the Eurozone. This clear profile was, however, problematized several times by key party politicians’ media appearance For example, in an interview for Austrian daily ‘Die Presse’, prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka claimed that “we do not want to have more Muslims in the Czech Republic” obviously addressing concerns about EU migration policy expressed by some parts of the Czech electorate.

The Christian Democratic electoral manifesto Responsibly for a Common Home is based on the metaphor of a common house for different generations of Czechs. This metaphor leaves only a little space for thorough discussions of the party’s EU policy. Moreover, the party treats the EU and its position on European integration as part of its foreign policy programme, more than 13 years after Czechia became an EU member. Both the party’s election manifesto and its long-term program adopted in May 2017, Basic Directions of the Policy of KDU-ČSL for the Period of 2017-2019 are rather vague. They express general support for the idea of European integration as the only tool for assuring peace and prosperity in Europe, but this is “compensated” for with references to Czech national interests and sovereignty and the necessity to reform the EU in order to achieve more subsidiarity.

The Christian Democrats highlight the EU as a community based on a common Christian heritage and values. This predestines their strong “no” to any vision of Turkish EU membership as well as the party’s attention to migration issues. Here, the Christian Democrats reject any permanent relocation mechanisms and focus on blocking the inflow of migrants and increasing the level of protection of the external Schengen borders. Currently, the Czech Christian Democrats are changing into a slightly more critical actor in terms of assessment of the current state of the EU. They highlight the principle of subsidiarity to give “a bigger space to decision-making at the national and regional levels” including the notion of flexible integration and the use of the “cards” mechanism more often.

The EU flag is hence only carried just by the TOP 09 party led by Miroslav Kalousek. Undoubtedly, Mr Kalousek’s party is the most enthusiastically pro-European party among the incumbents in the House of Deputies. In the 2017 campaign 2017, it starts already with the symbolical slogan of the campaign “nEUhneme” (We won´t move over) stressing the letter “E” and “U”. Its position towards the EU is discussed in the long-term program Successful Country – Resilient Society: Vision of the Czech Republic in 2030. It is a vision of the Europeanisation and modernisation of the Czech society fresher than the typical electoral manifesto yet less readable and emotionally catchy than Mr Babiš´s book dreaming about the future of the Czech Republic, as well as in its election manifesto of the same title.

The preamble of the programme summarizes the party’s policy on the EU issues concisely: “We are the part of the EU and we want to be its active and responsible member…We will decide (in the elections) … to remain a firm constituent of Western Europe or to become a periphery of the EU under still bigger Russian influence,” promises TOP 09. The EU is treated as the natural (and, together with NATO, the only) guarantee of Czech security. TOP 09 belongs (together with Greens) to the few parties that do not treat their EU policies as a part of their foreign policy agenda. “We are the EU” says the slogan: entering the Eurozone, turning to the core and mainstream of the integration process, maintaining close co-operation, including on migration issues, are the tools. TOP 09 is a straight pro-EU party, which agrees with the Czech mainstream (which is more openly or covertly Eurosceptic) only at one point, namely: rejection of any permanent mechanism relocating refugees among the EU member countries.

If we should sum up the role of EU for Soft Eurosceptics and pro-European parties, there would be three interesting points. Firstly, there has been quite remarkable stability in parties´ positions towards the EU. Neither earlier crisis as the Eurozone one, nor the newer EU troubles as Brexit or the refugee crisis, have changed parties´ approaches much. That means, we can hardly speak about any signs of a hardening of the Soft Eurosceptic family due to these multiple crisis. Secondly, the pro-EU camp seems to be very heterogeneous and flexible when it comes to borrowing metaphors and positions particularly from traditional Soft Eurosceptics. This is particularly the case of ANO, but we could identify this tendency also in Czech Communist rhetoric. The latter party in particular does not dare to, for example, call for a return of power back to national states and regions. What has been defined as Soft Euroscepticism does seem to keep its attractiveness and even increases it. These findings could suggest that there are much fewer differences between the Soft Eurosceptics and pro-European camp as it was assumed. Or, that there could be similar differences between the pro-EU parties in terms of their Soft and Hard positions as have been defined in the case of Eurosceptics.

Vít Hloušek (hlousek@fss.muni.cz) is Professor of European Politics at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno. His pedagogical research areas of specialization cover the contemporary history and comparative politics of Central-Eastern European countries with a special focus on Europeanisation of domestic party politics. His is the author of the books Origin, Ideology and Transformation of Political Parties. East-Central and Western Europe Compared (Routledge, with L. Kopecek) and Europeanised Defiance – Czech Euroscepticism since 2004 (Barbara Budrich Publishers, with P. Kaniok and V. Havlik), among others.

Petr Kaniok (kaniok@fss.muni.cz) works as Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno. He is interested in the political system of the European Union, European citizenship and the politics of CEE countries. Most recently, his work has been published by Journal of Contemporary European Research and East European Politics.

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The June 2016 Spanish elections: stabilizing party system change?

Luis Ramiro

The June 26th 2016, Spanish legislative elections were won by the incumbent People’s Party (Partido Popular: PP), in office since 2011 (see Table 1). The social democrat Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español: PSOE) was the second largest party but at a considerable distance from the winner. The left-wing coalition United We Can (Unidos Podemos: UP), formed by the radical left United Left (Izquierda Unida: IU) and the populist radical left Podemos (We Can) – to which we can add three regional electoral alliances in which these two parties took part jointly with left-wing peripheral nationalist parties in Catalonia (En Comú Podem), Galicia (En Marea) and Comunidad Valenciana (A la Valenciana) – got the third place, only less than 2% behind the PSOE.

The other post-2008 crisis new nation-wide party, the centre-right Citizens (Ciudadanos) finished fourth. Among the very significant peripheral nationalist parties, the results confirmed patterns already apparent previously: the weakening of the radical left Basque nationalist Bildu formerly associated in different ways and degrees to the ETA terrorist group; the stable weight of the moderate centre-right Basque nationalism of the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco: PNV); and the change in the balance within the Catalan nationalism, with the centre-right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya: CDC) behind the centre-left Catalan Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya: ERC). However, the June elections were supposed to contribute to the clarification of several political issues of the greatest importance but, as will be explained, they left almost all these key questions without a clear answer.

Table 1. 2015 and 2016 Spanish general elections results (main parties): share of votes and number of MPs (in brackets)

  December 2015 June 2016
PP 28.7 (123) 33 (137)
PSOE 22 (90) 22.7 (85)
Citizens 13.9 (40) 13.1 (32)
Podemos/regional alliances 20.7 (69) 21 (71)
IU 3.7 (2)
ERC 2.4 (9) 2.6 (9)
CDC 2.2 (8) 2 (8)
PNV 1.2 (6) 1.2 (5)
Bildu 0.9 (2) 0.8 (2)

Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerio del Interior).

The June 2016 elections were called after the December 2015 elections produced a hung parliament and the parties were unable to reach an agreement to form a government. During the months that followed the previous poll, during which the negotiations were expected to take place, the parties soon reached a stalemate that, amidst mutual vetoes, proved to be durable and permanent. The incumbent PP, aware of the difficulties of rallying a majority around it, somewhat surprisingly declined to even try to negotiate an agreement. The PSOE reached an agreement with the center-right Ciudadanos that required the support of the populist radical left Podemos. Yet, Podemos was not willing to support an agreement in which Ciudadanos took part. The PSOE did not accept the alternative agreement proposed by Podemos because it required the support of peripheral nationalist parties and the acceptance of independence referendums for some regions (as the Catalan allies of Podemos, En Comú Podem, strongly defended); and Ciudadanos explicitly rejected any agreement that included Podemos. The first key political issues that the June 2016 elections were expected to clarify were, therefore, whether the new elections would produce a result that would made government formation any easier, and the ensuing implications in terms of potential punishment and rewards for parties’ behaviour during the failed post-election government formation negotiations.

From this point of view, the June election results were far from conclusive. In a country where coalition governments have only (although very often) occurred at regional and local government levels, the allocation of seats pointed again towards a new hung parliament in which government formation would be far from straightforward. The PP improved its result compared to December 2015, both in terms of the share of the votes and number of MPs, despite its passive role during the government formation negotiations. The new centre-right party, Ciudadanos, lost ground. The PSOE slightly improved its share of the votes but saw its number of MPs reduced again. The poor Ciudadanos and PSOE results made the previous attempts by these two parties to form a minority government a very unlikely endeavour. UP maintained its number of MPs gained separately by IU and Podemos in December 2015, but their share of the votes fell well below the sum of what these two parties and their regional alliances had obtained then.

In this context, the clear winner of the elections, the PP, was forced to search for a very difficult agreement involving Ciudadanos and PSOE. In this way, compared to December the PP strengthened its position, though not greatly, and Ciudadanos and the PSOE were forced to a more secondary and subordinate role. UP can only repeat the strategy of appealing to a ‘progressive’ alliance with the PSOE that was unsuccessful after the December election and now faces the same, unresolved arithmetic and political problems, but with the two left-wing parties in an even weaker position. The PP’s passive role after the December elections appeared to be rewarded by the voters as a result of the unsuccessful maneuvers of the PSOE and Ciudadanos to form a minority government.

The second key political issue at stake in the June 2016 election was linked to the party system change that has been taking place in Spain since the start of the economic crisis. This has been clearly and dramatically visible since the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections and, wholly articulated by the December 2015 elections results, has involved the severe weakening of the previously hegemonic position of the two larger parties (PSOE and PP), the weakening of the traditional or established radical left (IU), the rise of a centre-right party previously active only in Catalonia to a new role of nation-wide medium-sized party (Ciudadanos), and the forceful growth of a new populist radical left party (Podemos) that has been able to challenge the balance of power within the Spanish left. The June 2016 elections confirmed this new party system format with four big players. This was probably because the new elections took place only after six months after the previous ones but also consolidated the new party politics dynamics of post-2008 Spain.

These party political dynamics were the third key aspect emerging from the June 2016 elections. Besides the most prominent issue of government formation, two very relevant party competition issues were at stake. First, the competition in the centre-right political space between a new party, Ciudadanos, and the incumbent PP finally favored the latter. After the powerful showing of Ciudadanos in the December 2015 election the June one meant a significant strengthening of the incumbent PP and a weakening of the new party. Second, after the sky-rocketing results of the populist radical left Podemos in almost every election since 2014, the polls before the June 2016 elections indicated that it was going to overcome the PSOE as the main left-wing party. The Podemos-IU coalition (UP), jointly with their regional alliances, was apparently ahead of PSOE. However, as already happened in the December 2015 elections when Podemos did not reach its original extremely ambitious goal of winning, this time the expectations were also un-fulfilled. The coalition did not persuade or mobilize enough previous IU and Podemos voters and, as a consequence, its share of votes was well below what IU and Podemos had gained separately in December. UP did not win the elections and did not even overcome the PSOE as the largest party on the left. After a campaign in which the worst scenarios for the PSOE (a further decrease in its share of votes, becoming only the third largest party, and falling behind UP in popular support) were considered most likely, they were finally averted.

Finally, a fourth key political issue at stake in the June 2016 Spanish elections was of a more general and broader nature. It refers to the lessons that these elections leave us in terms of the post-2008 economic crisis elections in Europe. The elections after the 2008 crisis have very often resulted in: the electoral punishment of incumbents, the appearance of new parties, the rise of new populist contenders, and, in sum, significant party system changes. Spain certainly was a good candidate to show every one of these elements given that it was one of the hardest hit countries in the 2008 Great Recession. In Spain the very severe economic crisis, including hardly bearable unemployment levels, was soon followed by a political crisis, expressed through increased dissatisfaction and negative opinions of mainstream parties by citizens. The political crisis included recurrent cases of political corruption affecting above all the centre-right PP.

In a certain sense, Spanish politics lived through a perfect storm, and the expected consequences of such a crisis soon were fully visible. The incumbent PSOE was punished for its austerity policies in the first Great Recession election in 2011, successively the incumbent PP was punished in the 2015 elections also due to the continuation of austerity policies, a new centre-right party aiming at political regeneration, Ciudadanos, appeared to increase its public support rapidly, and a new populist radical left party, Podemos, achieved astonishing electoral successes in the 2015 and 2016 general elections. The mainstream parties saw their support severely weakened and the two new entrants on the right and left of the ideological spectrum introduced a party system change of seismic dimensions.

However, interestingly enough the electoral and political earthquake did not reach ‘Greek’ dimensions in the Spanish case. Some noteworthy elements should be mentioned in relation to this. The centre-right PP and centre-left PSOE maintained their positions as the two largest nationwide parties (although the latter by a very small margin), and the new actors were not able to win an election or to replace them. The PP was able to win the 2015 and 2016 elections, improving its results in the latter, despite the implementation of painful austerity policies and the bail out of the financial sector. In this sense, Spain joined the not-very-numerous group of West European countries where the incumbent was able to win the elections despite the electoral impact of the economic crisis.

Spain also showed that the joint effect of economic and political crises causes critical electoral and party system changes, as the historic decrease in support for the PP and PSOE shows. However, Podemos’ hopes of repeating the Greek Syriza experience in Spain and winning office (or being close to it) – or at least overcoming the PSOE as the largest left-wing party – were possibly unwarranted. In the December 2015 elections, although still tainted by the austerity implemented in its 2008-2011 term, the PSOE maintained its status as the second (and largest left-wing) party, and in the June 2016 elections, confronted by an even more threatening left-wing coalition headed by IU and Podemos, it was able to maintain its position. The challenger parties, and above all Podemos, could not repeat the success of Syriza in Greece despite the PSOE’s discredit in the absence of some of the Greek contextual conditions. These included a centre-left party that was not only delegitimized by the austerity policies that it implemented but also by its alliances with what some voters considered unacceptable government partners.

Finally, the Spanish June 2016 elections also showed an interesting feature in relation to EU politics and policies. Contrary to what has happened in some European countries in which the crisis has produced the rise of populist and challenger parties with strong anti-EU views, in the Spanish case the new actors still navigate within the limits of a broad pro-European integration consensus. Even Podemos and UP only display what could be at most considered as soft Euroscepticism. The de-legitimization of national elites and EU actors has not translated into a rejection of the European integration project in Spain.

Luis Ramiro is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester where he specializes in party politics.

The 2016 parliamentary election in the Republic of Cyprus: Centrifugal tendencies and dealignment

Yiannos Katsourides

On 22 May 2016, Cypriots went to the polls to elect deputies for the eleventh time in the short 56-year-old history of the Republic of Cyprus. There were 543,186 eligible voters and 494 candidates – the most ever in Cyprus’s electoral history, and which corresponded to one candidate for every 1099 voters. There were a total of 13 parties and platforms ranging from the left to the far right and covering niche agendas such as the Animal Party as well as individual candidates.

In the end, the elections were basically little more than a fight among the political parties amidst a largely indifferent electorate. It was a fight between big parties and smaller parties; a fight between the two largest parties to secure the lead in the balance of power and in view of the forthcoming presidential elections of 2018; a fight between the smaller parties for survival and for the lead in the so-called middle space; a fight among all parties against abstention; a fight within the parties for who would be elected.

The context of the elections was defined by three parameters. First and foremost was the huge crisis of legitimation of the entire political system. This was a crisis intensified by the many political and economic scandals that had come to the fore in recent years and led to the widespread perception among the public that all politicians are corrupt and selfish and that all parties are the same.

Second were the repercussions of the bail-in of 2013, which caused the economy, for the first time, to be the most important issue of the elections. The Cyprus problem is usually the focus of political campaigns, and during these elections the negotiations for a possible solution to the long-standing Cyprus problem had been revived, bringing the issue into headlines again. Nevertheless, the economy won out as the major issue.

Finally, there was the decision to increase the electoral threshold from 1.8% to 3.6% just a few months before the elections. This was a joint decision of the two major parties – the Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) and the Democratic Rally (DISY), an obvious attempt to keep out unwanted newcomers – for example, the extreme right National Popular Front (ELAM) and also limit their losses to smaller parties. This act invited the severe criticism of the smaller parties as they accused the larger, mainstream parties of authoritarianism, criticizing their decision as undemocratic.

Lacklustre campaign

The campaign was rather short by Cypriot standards and was a far cry from the passionate campaigns of the past. Indifference among the voters was the principal characteristic of these elections; polls indicated that approximately one-third of them would abstain.

The parties focused on a variety of different issues: the two major parties (AKEL and DISY) stressed the economy in lieu of the Cyprus problem and the ongoing negotiations; this was done to highlight their differences in the face of accusations by the smaller parties that their stances on the Cyprus problem were too similar. Thus, the other parties focused on the Cyprus problem while criticizing the two main parties for co-operation and making too many concessions towards the Turkish side. This perceived cooperation necessitated, according to smaller parties, a decrease in the total vote for these two main parties.

The governing right-wing DISY’s campaign called upon voters to place their trust in the party, reminding them that its realistic policies had led the country out of the crisis and out of the memorandum of understanding (‘success story’). They also warned of the risk and consequences of relying on the former governing party (AKEL), with their populist proposals. The opposition left-wing AKEL, on the other hand, stressed the need to terminate the austerity policies resulting from the Troika demands but also from the government’s policy choices, and blamed DISY and the government for the downfall of the economy.

The centre-right DIKO emphasized its pivotal role in the functioning of the entire political system, and called on voters to move forward, instead of left or right. The social democratic United Democratic Union of the Centre (EDEK), amidst internal tensions, initially underlined the importance of maintaining the sovereign Republic of Cyprus, which it accused the two main parties of aiming to abolish. Later in the campaign, the party changed tactics and focused on the economy, proposing that all debts be frozen. The other smaller and newly founded parties campaigned on a platform asking for an end to the dominance of the traditional mainstream parties, which they accused of corruption.

Winners and losers

The most telling story of this election was the high degree of abstention, 33.26%; this set a record for post-1974 Cyprus and revealed an 11.96 % increase from 2011. This figure is even more important if we factor in the 22,000 (out of the 32,000) young voters who were eligible to register yet declined to do so. Although not confined to the younger cohorts, exit polls revealed their turnout to be the lowest. 

Table 1: Results of the May 2016 Cyprus parliamentary election

Party % (seats) Votes Difference from 2011 (%)(seats) Difference from 2011 (Votes) Results if abstention is included (%)
DISY(Democratic Rally) 30.68 (18) 107,825 -3.99 (-2) -30,857 19.85
AKEL (Progressive Party of the Working People) 25.67 (16) 90,204 -7 (-2) -41,967 16.6
DIKO (Democratic Party) 14.49 (9) 50,923 -1.28  (-) -12,840 9.25
EDEK (United Democratic Union of the Centre) 6.18 (3) 21,732 -2.75 (-2) -14,381 4
Citizens Alliance 6.01 (3) 21,114 3.88
Solidarity Movement 5.24 (3) 18,424 3.39
Greens 4.81 (2) 16,909 +2.6 (+1) +7,949 3.11
ELAM (National Popular Front) 3.71 (2) 13,041 +2.6 (+2) +8,687 2.4
Others 3.21 11,217 -1.86 (-) -9,317 4.26 (including blanks and void)
Abstention  33.26 180,644 +11.96 +67,468 33.26

Source: Author’s compilation of data based on official results at http://www.ekloges.gov.cy

The results reveal clear winners and losers. The biggest winners were the centre-right DIKO and all the smaller parties except EDEK; the biggest losers are the two main parties and especially the left-wing AKEL. AKEL lost 7%, 42,000 voters and three seats compared to the 2011 elections when they were in government. DISY lost 4%, more than 30,000 voters and two seats. DIKO is the only historical/mainstream party that managed to maintain its seats despite the loss of approximately 13,000 voters; the party also managed to retain its modulatory role in the middle space.

Together, the newly founded parties polled 14.26% (including those that did not enter parliament), a clear indication of voter frustration with the mainstream parties. In contrast, the entire ‘middle space’ – that is, all other parties except the two big ones – polled 36.73%, a very important development since together they now have the largest representation in the parliament. This fact does not mean that these parties are ideologically similar. Their parliamentary representation shows that they can have a considerable say in all future developments on the island, and especially with regard to the Cyprus problem: these parties all profess a more hardline position, albeit to varying degrees.

What do these elections tell us?

These elections reveal interesting patterns and offer important insights. First of all, they reinforce the trend in Cyprus towards de-alignment, which indicates a crisis of representation. Abstention has become a systemic feature of Cypriot electoral politics, with many voters deliberately abstaining to punish the political parties and to convey their anger at the entire political system for its failure to respond to their concerns. However, election results also revealed a partial re-alignment, with up to 25% of voters, according to the exit polls, changing party allegiance. Those who benefited were, of course, the newer parties, which garnered votes and parliamentary seats at the expense of the more traditional ones.

This disconnect between people and politics (see the last column of the table), most likely accounts for the increase in younger candidates who are not tarnished by accusations of corruption; 28 new MPs were elected (24 for a first time) which represented half the total number of deputies in the House of Representatives.

Second, if we consider the election results in Sartorian terms, the party system of Cyprus seems to resemble the polarized pluralism model. For a second time in its history, the Cypriot parliament houses eight parties compared to only six previously; this has significant implications both for the internal working of the parliament and for the relations between the legislature and the President. In this regard, co-operation and alliances between the parties will become more complicated than ever before, which will definitely affect the President’s ability to pass legislation. In turn, this will affect coalition building with regard to the forthcoming presidential elections.

Third, the elections also reveal a shift in the Cyprus party system’s ideological centre of gravity: the centre-right, albeit more fragmented now, has increased its vote share at the expense of the centre-left. In 2011 the centre-left represented by AKEL, EDEK and the Greens polled approximately 44%, whereas in 2016 their overall share dropped to approximately 37%. The right and centre-right (including the extreme right), represented by DISY, DIKO, Citizens Alliance, Solidarity and ELAM, rose from 51% to approximately 60%. This could be related to, and could also explain, as many scholars argue, the inability of the (centre) left to provide feasible alternatives for overcoming the huge economic crisis, which reinforces conservative reactions among the electorates.

Fourth, the strength of bipolarism has declined considerably. Although AKEL and DISY still commanded more than half of the votes, together their vote total 56.36%, down from 66.95% in 2011. Moreover, these two parties together now have 34 deputies compared to 39 in the last elections. These losses represent the price they paid for holding the executive in this turbulent period, which saw both parties failing to meet the expectations of their constituencies. This decrease combined with the increased vote share for smaller and new parties verifies the trend shown in other recent elections, that is: that Cyprus has entered an era of increased fluidity. Nevertheless, the new parties’ breakthrough does not prove their endurance, which must be tested in consecutive elections.

Fifth, these elections are the first in which an extreme, ultra-nationalist, right-wing party garnered enough votes to win seats in the House of Representatives. ELAM, the sister party of the Greece’s Golden Dawn, tripled its vote share to elect two MPs. Their presence in parliament offers them an institutional/legitimate channel to air their (populist) views, while their anticipated marginalization by other parties will probably act as a public signifier of their fake ‘anti-systemeness’. In turn, this could help them fuel their propaganda and consequently their electoral fortunes, especially amidst the ongoing negotiations for a possible solution to the Cyprus problem. However, their mere participation in the parliament is also an expression of their incorporation in the political system and their acceptance of the political rules.

Sixth, the number of female MPs increased in these elections from 7 to 10 (it would have been 11 but E. Theocharous, the leader of Solidarity and an MEP, opted to stay in the European Parliament). This is definitely a positive development in a country where civic and equal gender rights tend to be respected on paper but not in actuality.

Finally, the two big parties’ decision to increase the electoral threshold to their benefit not only failed but even backfired. Many analysts now say that this act has created a reverse dynamic against the big parties and actually helped the smaller parties gain seats in the House.

Yiannos Katsourides teaches in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus.

The 2016 Serbian parliamentary election: a gamble that almost backfired

Tena Prelec

On 24 April, Serbs were called to the polls only two years after the previous parliamentary contest, half-way through the government’s mandate. Reports in the international press focused on the elections being a test for the ruling party’s ‘pro-European’ positions against the advancement of the nationalist far right. But this was only part of the picture, and far from being the most important matter.

Last Sunday, another general election was held in Serbia, despite the regular ballot not being due until 2018. This was the 15th time Serbian citizens were asked to vote for their parliament since 1990 – an average of once every 1.6 years. There was no impending external crisis, no reason to doubt in the stability of the ruling party (secured by a landslide victory in 2014), and no grounds to argue that the government had exhausted its mandate by fulfilling all its electoral promises. It was thus clear since the beginning that the vote represented an attempt by Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić to bank on his current popularity in order to cement his hold on power.

The 24 April parliamentary election was called alongside already planned local and regional elections. It is reasonable to believe that this constituted a further reason for Vučić to throw his hat in the ring in the hope that his name on the lists will help the local branches of the party to gain better results. The PM’s leadership is as top-down in his party as it is in the government he leads, and indeed his popularity surpasses by far anyone else’s in the party ranks.

This attempt, however, almost backfired. As the final results finally came in, after a long and heavily criticised delay by the central electoral committee, it became clear that the forecasts tipping Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) at over 50 per cent of the vote were not justified. The final count has now settled at 48.2 per cent, a figure inferior to the 49.3 per cent achieved by the ruling party in 2014. The SNS will thus end up losing 27 seats in parliament, in spite of having this time joined forces with several minor parties. On paper, the SNS leadership is jubilant; behind the scenes, the real reaction may well be one of bitter disappointment.

Table: Result of the 2016 Serbian parliamentary election and change in seats from 2014

Party Vote share Seats Change in seats
Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) 48.2 131 -27
Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) 12.0 29 -15
Serbian Radical Party (SRS) 8.1 22 22
Democratic Party (DS) 6.0 16 -3
It’s Enough Movement (DJB) 6.0 16 16
Coalition for a Better Serbia (SDS/LDP/LSV) 5.0 13 -5
DSS – Dveri 5.0 13 13
Others 10.0 10 -1

Note: Vote shares are rounded to one decimal place. There are 250 seats in the Serbian Parliament. The change in seats refers to the change since the previous election in 2014. For more information on the parties, see: Serbian Progressive Party(SNS); Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS); Serbian Radical Party (SRS); Democratic Party (DS); Enough is Enough (DJB); DSS – Dveri.Source: Wikipedia, 25 April 2016. Table compiled by Bogdan Marković and EUROPP editors.

Of the other parties, the Socialists (SPS) led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and former PM Ivica Dačić incurred heavy losses, while the feared hemorrhaging of votes was limited in the case of the Democratic Party (DS). Three formations that were previously absent have secured seats: the nationalist far right with the Serbian Radical Party (22 seats) and DSS – Dveri (13 seats), and finally the progressive movement Enough is Enough (16 seats).

It is therefore striking that prior to the vote, opposition to Vučić’s SNS in the parliament was almost non-existent, considering that the SPS are de facto SNS allies, and that the only opposition that was present in parliament – consisting of the DS and its spin-off SDS – was heavily discredited. A much more composite picture is emerging after the April 2016 ballot: on the one hand, the nationalist far right is back on the sanctioned political scene; on the other, progressive political forces calling for the strengthening of democratic institutions, and for an alternative European path to the one set out by the government, are now emboldened. Vučić is no longer the only bastion of ‘Europeanness’ in Serbia (though the western press is yet to grasp that).

So who is the real winner?

There is no denying that the SNS is still the overwhelming force on Serbia’s political scene. A preference higher than 40 per cent is something most western ruling formations can only dream of. Vučić’s appeal is certainly still strong among the Serbian population, where the model of a ‘strong leader’ enjoys widespread adherence.

Serbia’s PM, who was Minister of Information under war-time leader Slobodan Milošević and made his first political steps in Vojislav Seselj’s ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, has been particularly successful in using his nationalist credentials to reassure the hard-line conservative fringes among the public that Serbia’s national interests will be well protected. At the same time, he has pandered to the West and convinced European leaders that if Serbia was to be set on the right course for European integration, he was the man for the job. They placed their trust in him – and still do, as evidenced by the congratulations which promptly came in from Johannes HahnSebastian Kurz and others.

However, considering the significant disadvantages that exist in terms of media coverage and party funding, the success of some minor parties is truly remarkable. One to watch out for is ‘Enough is Enough’ (DJB), led by engineer Saša Radulović. In his short spell as Minister of the Economy under Vučić (September 2013 – January 2014), Radulović endeavoured to clean Serbia’s finances by starting with public companies. Openly attacked by Vučić after deciding to stop several privatisation processes which were deemed to be dubious, Radulović resigned and launched his own political movement. The new formation failed to pass the threshold in 2014, but more than tripled its support in the 2016 contest.

This may well mean enhanced visibility for DJB and an opportunity to truly start profiling themselves as a serious political alternative for those voters who are yearning for more transparency and pluralism, but were previously disappointed by other political actors such as Boris Tadić (former Serbian President and DS leader, now part of the Coalition for a Better Serbia). It will indeed be interesting to see whether DJB, the DS and the Coalition for a Better Serbia will find common ground to challenge the government, or if they will remain isolated voices. In the first scenario, the progressives would stand much better equipped to make a meaningful impact at the next round of elections.

On the other side of the spectrum, the comeback of Šešelj’s SRS only weeks after his first-grade acquittal by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, as well as the seats secured by DSS-Dveri, indicate that Serbian nationalism and pro-Russian stances are still an important factor in the country. To a certain extent, this type of opposition plays into Vučić’s favour, as the PM can claim that he represents the only viable pro-European alternative for Serbia. In so far as this means putting a respectable face to a latent nationalist tendency and attaching to it a pro-EU tag, he is probably right. The political game played by the PM so far has been a very clever one and not without merits.

This pro-European versus pro-Russian divide, often implied by the international mainstream media when reporting that Vučić’s victory was an ‘endorsement of EU policies‘, is, however, wide of the mark. For a start, even though Vučić pays ample lip service to European integration, his past allegiances and present style of government do not quite match these stated intentions. The worrying state of independent media in Serbia (recently described by the OSCE as being ‘virtually non-existent’) and the PM’s undoubtedly autocratic way of understanding public office stand as a reminder of a governing style that should not be understood as conforming to European values – but that, alas, is becoming increasingly common throughout the continent.

Furthermore, Vučić has been markedly omnivore in choosing his allies. While keeping western leaders happy with a more lenient approach towards Kosovo, he has never reneged the traditional partnership with Russia, nor has he backed out of securing new ties with the UAE, with China and with other foreign investors. Ultimately, this is not something he has ever attempted to hide, repeating on more than one occasion that economic interest is the number one criterion in his government’s line. This ‘Europe versus Russia’ narrative is therefore distinctly unhelpful when trying to understand the political dynamics in Serbia and the wider region – lest it ends up overshadowing more crucial issues.

Tena Prelec (t.prelec@sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex and keeps an active involvement in the London School of Economics research unit on South Eastern Europe, LSEE. She is also an Editor of LSE EUROPP blog where this post was first published.

Europe and the February 2016 Irish general election

Michael Holmes

Although the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition was defeated, no clear alternative emerged and the radical left secured its best-ever result in an Irish election. The outcome is likely to be some form of agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Background

The 2016 general election in the Republic of Ireland was one where the EU was at the heart of the campaign, but in a manner that meant hardly any substantive discussion of Ireland’s relationship with the EU. Irish politics has been dominated by the economic crisis since 2008. Financial support had been sought from the EU and the IMF in November 2010, and an €85 billion bail-out package was put in place, accompanied, of course, by stringent austerity conditions and tight supervision by the EU-ECB-IMF troika.

The government at the time was a coalition between the centre-right Fianna Fáil and the small Green Party. They suffered very badly in the February 2011 general election – Fianna Fáil’s vote fell by almost 60%, and they lost 51 out of 71 seats, while the Greens lost every one of their six seats. However, the incoming coalition between another centre-right party, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party did not represent any major shift in policy. It was committed to working within the constraints imposed by the troika, and the cutbacks continued.

At one level, the economic strategy seemed to work. Unemployment declined gradually from a peak of 15% in late 2011, Ireland exited the bailout programme in 2013 and by the end of 2015 the country had the fastest-growing economy in the EU. But from another perspective, there were continuing problems, with the decision to impose water charges being a particular focal point for public protest.

There are two technical features of the election worth noting. First, a new law had been passed in 2012 introducing a 30% gender quota for all parties. Second, the Dáil (lower house) had been trimmed from 166 seats to 158, carried out by an independent commission through a significant revision of constituency boundaries. It is also worth noting the high degree of party political volatility in the period between 2011 and 2016, when three new parties were formed and with three significant electoral alliances. The three parties were: the centre-left Social Democrats; the right-wing conservative Renua Ireland; and the left-wing Independents 4 Change. The alliances were: a co-operation agreement between the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit; the Independent Alliance; and the Right 2 Change movement which was a loose grouping of left-leaning parties, trade unions and individuals. Of these, only Renua failed to win a seat.

The campaign

From the beginning, both Fine Gael and Labour argued that after a painful but necessary adjustment, the country was now back on the road to prosperity and an end to austerity was in sight. However, that depended on keeping to the narrow path. Fine Gael’s manifesto was titled “Let’s keep the recovery going”, while Labour talked of the need to “sustain and spread the economic recovery”. Unsurprisingly, there was virtually no criticism of the EU from them. Fine Gael has always been a strongly pro-European party, and it claimed credit for “regaining our status as a committed and active member of the European Union” and asserted that “Ireland has returned to the heart of Europe”. Back in 2011, Labour had been more critical of the EU, but once in government their tune changed. This time their manifesto declared “we believe that Ireland will be strong and our interests are best served when there is a strong European Union”.

While there were many strands to the opposition, a common view was that the recovery was narrowly confined, and far too few people were experiencing any actual improvement in their lives. If anything, a deeply unequal economy and society was becoming still more engrained. Fianna Fáil argued that government policy “threatens to make us more unequal and divided”, but also committed themselves to “uphold Ireland’s EU and national fiscal obligations” and “to adhere fully to EU and national rules”. Sinn Féin also argued that “it isn’t a fair recovery. It is a two-tier recovery”. But they adopted a much more critical tone in relation to the EU, stating that “recent governments have been totally deferential to the EU”. They did not espouse an outright anti-EU policy, but called for reforms of decision-making in the EU, the introduction of a “growth and investment oriented policy of the EU” and they criticised TTIP.

Among the smaller parties, attitudes to Europe showed general support for the idea of integration but criticism of aspects of the EU. The Green Party was one of the few to talk about the migration crisis, arguing that a “retreat to nationalism and the closure of borders is precisely the wrong direction” for Europe, but identifying TTIP as “a major retrograde step”. The Social Democrats talked about “a deep sense of injustice that these banking debts were foisted on the Irish people due to a combination of weak and incompetent Irish politicians and bullying from European institutions”, while the common platform of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit declared opposition to TTIP and CETA and generally to “a Europe run in the interests of big business and the bankers” while calling “for a democratic and socialist Europe of the millions, not the millionaires.”

However, despite the fact that the economic situation created by the crash and the bail-out was central to the election campaign, the EU itself did not feature in any significant way in the actual campaign debates. The campaign kicked off with a debate about what was termed the ‘fiscal space’ – in other words, the degree of budgetary freedom that was now available. There was broad agreement that there was room to allow a limited relaxation of austerity, but each party chose a different path – tax reductions to the right of the spectrum, greater public spending to the left. This was linked to two further dominant policy issues in the campaign. First of all, there was a major debate around the issue of housing, as a return to rapid growth in house prices was accompanied by a serious continuing problem of evictions and homelessness. Second, a crisis in the health care system was a continuing issue.

But as the campaign continued, another issue began to come to the fore – the question of government formation. Opinion polls showed that the incumbent coalition was very unlikely to be returned, with Fine Gael stuck just below 30% and Labour struggling around 8%. There was a lack of trust in the government, and their basic argument about economic recovery did not seem to be gaining much traction. But the polls also indicated that this was not transferring to any clear alternative. Fianna Fáil was lodged around 20% with Sinn Féin around 16%, and there were a clutch of smaller parties jostling between 2-4% each. The polls also suggested that a large minority of people were likely to vote for independent, non-party candidates.

The results and outcome

__________________________________________________________________________

Table 1: Results of the February 2016 Irish general election

__________________________________________________________________________

Votes (%)        Change                        Seats                Change

Fine Gael                                 25.5                 -10.6                50                    -26

Fianna Fáil                              24.3                 +6.9                 44                    +24

Sinn Féin                                 13.8                 +3.9                 23                    +9

Labour Party                             6.6                 -12.8                  7                    -30

AAA/PBP                                 3.9                 +3.9                   6                    +2

Independent Alliance               4.2                 new*                 6                    +1

Independents 4 Change            1.5                 new*                 4                    0

Social Democrats                      3.0                 new*                 3                    0

Green Party                               2.7                 +0.9                   2                    +2

Independents                          11.7                 +0.4                 13                    -1

Turnout: 65.1%

__________________________________________________________________________

Source: RTE (2016) Election 2016: national summary, online at http://www.rte.ie/news/election-2016/ [accessed 4 March 2016]

*First time to contest an election; formed during previous Dáil and thus already held seats.

__________________________________________________________________________

As Table 1 shows, the results confirmed the patterns evident in the opinion polls, and there was no late surge by either the government parties or the opposition. After their success in 2011, both Fine Gael and Labour saw big falls in their support, although despite dropping more than 10% of their vote and losing 26 seats, Fine Gael just clung on to their position as the largest party. Labour lost two-thirds of their vote, and only barely reached the target of 7 seats needed to hold on to full party rights in the new Dáil. Fianna Fáil could be considered the main winners from the election, as they more than doubled their number of seats. However, having been the dominant party throughout most of the history of Irish politics, they remained still far below their traditional level of support. And Sinn Féin, who had been growing steadily, continued this rise without any achieving any dramatic breakthrough.

A prominent feature of the result was fragmentation. At least nine parties or groups gained representation (ten if the two components of the AAA-PBP alliance are treated as separate parties), and there were also a large number of independents elected, reflecting the highly localised, parochial and clientelistic nature of Irish politics.

Inevitably, the results meant a complicated picture for government formation. There were three broad groupings, none of which was even close to a majority: a centre-right bloc with Fine Gael at its core, another centre-right bloc centred on Fianna Fáil, and a left-wing bloc including Sinn Féin. Given that the parties in the left-wing bloc were strongly opposed to the austerity programme, they were largely out of consideration. However, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would have the seats for a potentially cohesive and coherent centre-right government.

Such a deal was anathema to both parties – they had been the rival poles of Irish politics for almost 100 years, even if their differences were more tribal than ideological. The 32nd Dáil met for the first time on 10 March and again on 6 April, but on both occasions it could not elect a Taoiseach. Eventually, over forty days after the election, the two parties began direct talks about the possible formation of a government, either a grand coalition between the two or else Fianna Fáil support for a minority Fine Gael government.

Conclusions

Similar to other European countries, the economic crisis is leading to some potentially significant political transformations. In Ireland, this has taken the form of a weakening of the traditional parties of government and a boost for the radical left. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, there is no extreme right trading on anti-immigrant policies, nor is there an openly Eurosceptic right-wing party akin to UKIP or Alternativ für Deutschland. The radical left secured by far their best ever result in Ireland, albeit in a very fragmented manner between Sinn Féin, AAA-PBP and Independents 4 Change.

Instead, the election may have led to the two traditional rivals being pushed into each other’s arms. Throughout the economic crisis, governing parties – particularly those in bail-out countries – have suffered defeats. The 2016 Irish election can be seen as a test of whether a government could sell a story of recovery and hold on to power. The answer was very clearly no, but it has thrown up the tantalising prospect of a fundamental re-adjustment of Irish politics.

Michael Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Liverpool Hope University.

Slovakia’s surprise election result: a new attitude to the EU?

Karen Henderson

Unexpected election results are the norm in Slovakia, but 5 March 2016 was more surprising than most. As Table 1 shows, for the first time since 1989, eight different parties crossed the 5% threshold necessary for gaining seats in parliament and, although one new party normally enters the Slovak parliament at each election, this time there were three of them. Slovaks bucked the regional trend towards dominant-party rule, and Robert Fico’s Smer-Social Democracy, which had formed Slovakia’s first single-party government after gaining 44% of the vote in 2012, was cut down to 28%, which meant it would need at least two coalition partners in order to stay in power. Nationalism appeared to be on the rise though, and not only did the Slovak National Party re-enter parliament, but the more extreme right People’s Party-Our Slovakia led by Banska Bystrica regional governor Marian Kotleba, also made its parliamentary debut. Since neither government nor opposition is prepared to consider Kotleba as a coalition partner, forming a government is going to be extremely difficult and early elections are likely.

With Slovakia’s EU presidency due to start on 1 July, and the country determined to impress, this is bad news. It may be possible to cobble together a fractious and fragmented broad coalition for the duration, and there is even talk of a non-party government of technocrats (a solution adopted by their Czech neighbours when the government disintegrated half-way through its EU presidency). However, in a small and heavily politicised country like Slovakia, almost no-one is considered to be politically neutral, and any arrangement that gave more power to the non-party President Kiska would be unwelcome, particularly to the centre-right, who regard him as a potential rival. 

Table 1: Slovak parliamentary election 5 March 2016

  % votes seats votes March 2012
Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) 28.28 49 737,481 (83)
Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) 12.10 21 315,558 (11)
Ordinary People (OĽaNO-Nova) 11.02 19 287,611 (16)
Slovak National Party (SNS) 8.64 15 225,386 (0)
Kotleba – People’s Party-Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) 8.04 14 209,779 (0)
We are the Family – Boris Kollár 6.62 11 172,860 (-)
Bridge (Most-Híd) 6.50 11 169,593 (13)
#Network (#Sieť) 5.60 10 146,205 (-)
Others (15), including: 13.16 0 343,277 (0)
Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) 4.94 0 128 908 (16)
Party of the Hungarian Community (SMK) 4.04 0 105,495 (0)
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party (SDKÚ-DS)    0.26 0 6,938 (11)
Total 100.00 150 2,607,750 (150)

Turnout: 59.82%

Source: Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, https://www.volbysr.sk/en/index.html

What caused Slovakia’s surprise election result? Three interlinked themes are particularly interesting: the government’s exploitation of the refugee crisis, the salience of corruption as a political issue, and a shift in perceptions of the EU.

Firstly, Prime Minister Fico’s decision to exploit the refugee crisis for political gain backfired. He had had a relatively successful four years in power, and it was assumed, even a week or two before the election, that he would still be in office for the EU presidency, which would be a highlight of his 25 years in politics. Despite some notable corruption scandals, the country’s economic performance had been good, and the government presented three ‘social packages’ with goodies such as: free train travel for students and pensioners, rebates on gas bills and a reduction of VAT on certain ‘essential foodstuffs’ that just happened to be normally produced in Slovakia. Unwilling to rely on this alone, Fico then mercilessly exploited the Syrian refugee crisis to whip up nationalism he assumed would aid his party, and changed his party’s main slogan from ‘we work for the people’ to ‘we protect Slovakia’. Slovakia attracted international attention at the end of August 2015 when an interior ministry spokesman stated that it could only accept Christian refugees as it had no mosques and Moslems could not integrate if they did not feel at home. (Slovak law on the recognition of religions does not permit the building of mosques, but this was overlooked.) When Slovakia later refused to accept refugee quotas, and started legal proceedings against the Council of the EU, there was consequently reasonable doubt that the Slovak government was really concerned about sovereignty and the way the decision had been made, with racism appearing a more likely motive. Repeated comments by the prime minister stating that Moslem communities could not be integrated (as if this were actually a fact) were not challenged by most of the opposition, who were too timid to dismiss Islamophobia as a distasteful election ploy.

Yet on election night it turned out that the tactic of exploiting racism had not worked. Sowing the wind of Islamophobia had reaped the whirlwind of racism and the party was outflanked by Marian Kotleba’s far-right party. A Smer-SD election law change backfired as well: the publication of public opinion polls within 14 days of the elections was banned, thus concealing the fact that Smer’s support was dropping lower than it had been at any point in the last four years.

The second theme was continued public hostility to political elites and a perfectly understandable distaste for corruption. Strikes by nurses and teachers in the run-up to the elections had moved both sectors up the political agenda, with it finally becoming widely recognised that, in education in particular, Slovakia lagged behind even by regional standards. Both areas were politically sensitive as they touched upon most voters’ everyday lives, and some Smer-SD politicians were perceived to have enriched themselves by corrupt practices in both, with hospitals being a particular bone of contention.

However, the centre-right was also affected by hostility to established elites – as well as its own self-obsession, inability to unite and general preference for targeting each other’s voters rather than those of Smer-SD, whom they sometimes regard almost as belonging to another species. A further election night surprise was the success of the liberal rather than conservative parties of the centre-right. (Considering whether this might be because the left in Slovakia has to vote for someone and can’t be expected to choose Smer-SD would involve a long debate on the meaning of ‘left’ and ‘right’, best left for another occasion.) Richard Sulik’s Freedom and Solidarity, which pushed neo-liberal economic policies as well as being the only party that supported registered partnership, became the leader of the right, followed closely by Igor Matovic’s ‘Ordinary People’ standing together with a break-off party of younger Christian Democrats, Nova. ‘Ordinary People’ refuses to impose policy on its members of parliament, who were expected to vote according to their consciences (thereby making them a nightmare coalition partner). Their candidate list did, indeed, contain some impressive civic activists who genuinely appeared to have consciences, including several holders of the ‘white crow’ award for people who had suffered after whistle-blowing (which, as the party’s posters emphasised, included uncovering some of the government’s more notable corruption scandals). Interestingly, all three parties – Freedom and Solidarity, Ordinary People and Nova – have MEPs who sit with the European Conservatives and Reformists. They were also the parties which had declared unequivocally that they would not go into coalition with Smer-SD.

The four parties whose MEPs sit with the European People’s Party, as well as the new #Network party which has a similar orientation, fared less well. The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party, which presided over the two governments which assured Slovakia’s accession to the EU and NATO, failed to survive a change of leader and gained just over 6,000 votes. The Christian Democratic Movement, which had been the only Slovak party elected to every parliament from 1990, had gradually become a fundamentalist Catholic party more interested in sex than in economics and sank just below the 5% mark necessary to enter parliament. Of the two parties representing Slovakia’s 10% Hungarian minority, the Party of the Hungarian Community fell below the 5% threshold for the third parliamentary election in a row, while Bridge – a party which commendably united both Hungarians and Slovaks and had also been the only party to challenge the dominant discourse portraying refugees as a dire threat to security -retained its existing vote while the polls suggested that it should have done better. Finally, #Network, which had appeared to be the leader of the right in almost all opinion polls, barely scraped into parliament with 5.6% of the vote.

Behind the Game of Parties, however, was also a marked shift in the whole Slovak discourse on the EU, which was a third theme underlying the election. Slovakia had, up until 2015, been a cheerful aid junkie, happy to publicise the fact that about 80% of its public investments were financed by EU funds. The EU was regarded rather like a benevolent rich uncle who gave Slovakia money, and was occasionally required by the centre-right to act as the headmaster who told off Smer-SD for doing things that weren’t democratic (a task where ‘Brussels’ lived up to expectations less frequently than in its role as the provider of ‘EU funds’). Election manifestos on the left and the right had, for over a decade, been full of promises that would be financed by EU funds. While such references were by no means completely absent in 2016, they no longer provided the dominant EU discourse, and EU funds were increasingly linked to corruption rather than well-being. Freedom and Solidarity – the only party which had traditionally used Eurosceptic arguments and challenged the desirability of structural funds and cohesion policy – presented an alternative discourse summed up by its main poster slogan: ‘So that it’s worthwhile to work, run a business and live at home’. The idea that hundreds of thousands of young Slovaks moving abroad was a problem was quickly picked up by other parties of the right, who listed ‘migration’ as one of Slovakia’s big problems and then immediately made clear that they meant out-migration of Slovaks rather than the Syrian refugee crisis.

A number of reasons may lie behind the shift in discourse on the EU. With the argument over refugee quotas making the EU less popular than it had been in the past, highlighting EU funding as a positive may have appeared risky. Opposition parties probably also believed that Smer-SD’s securitisation of the migration issue was best countered not by daring to defend the rights and needs of refugees, but by turning the migration theme around to point indirectly to defects in the Slovak economy for which the government was responsible. Politicians may also have realised, at least at a subliminal level, that there was something inherently ridiculous about Slovakia reacting hysterically to the idea of receiving a few thousand refugees while it was itself still a major producer of economic emigrants.

However, the shift in the portrayal of Slovakia’s relationship to the EU also indicates a sense of empowerment and a switch to the country being an active participant rather than a passive recipient. This may come not just from the new assertiveness of the ‘Visegrad Four’ over the refugee crisis, but also from the upcoming EU presidency. Slovakia’s foreign ministry is one of its most effective, where competence and professional expertise have survived successive changes of government. Consequently, the turbulence on the political scene that will follow the unexpected election result may not adversely affect Slovakia’s performance in the EU presidency. And although the growth of Euroscepticism is a major challenge to the EU as a whole, in the Slovak case the recent, more critical discourse may actually be healthier and more constructive than its former incarnation as an unquestioning aid recipient. Likewise, while rejecting political elites because they are tainted by corruption is sometimes designated as populism, it is surely far better than accepting corruption as an inevitable.

Karen Henderson is senior lecturer in Politics at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University in Bratislava. She has been living in Slovakia permanently since 2014, but has closely followed political developments there since first visiting Bratislava as a British Council scholar in 1987.

Crisis Averted? France’s 2015 regional elections

Ben Margulies

The Front National can keep growing, even if it’s unlikely to reach the Elysee

The French Fifth Republic managed to pull itself, punch-drunk, off the ropes to deny the right-populist Front National a victory in the second round of regional elections. Despite fears that the party would take control of two of France’s 13 European regions (France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean and Indian oceans have their own regional authorities; the figure of 13 regions includes Corsica, where a nationalist list won in an overlooked development), the Front was locked out in all of them. It took extreme measures – the left withdrew its lists in the two most-threatened regions, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, creating a front républicain against the Front – but in the end, the far right failed to top the polls in any region. The electoral rules for the regional councils assured their mainstream opponents a majority so long as they came in first.

Still, the Front’s performance can only be described as alarming. The party took more than 6 million votes in the first round on December 6th, 27.73% of the total. On December 13th, it took 6.8 million; only a higher turnout kept its vote share from rising (it fell to 27.1%). One could argue that this is simply the FN’s base – after all, Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader since early 2011, won about 6.4 million votes in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. That was a bit less than 18% of the total, since the turnout was of course higher.

But the recent regional elections were second-order elections, where the crucial socio-economic, social and foreign-policy issues of general elections are absent. (As Kevin Lees points out, regional councils in France have very limited powers.) Turnout is lower in such elections, so the total number of voters for the Front – even with protest votes – should be lower than in a presidential poll. Take last year’s European Parliament elections, which the Front won for the first time with about a quarter of the vote. Even then, the party took only 4.7 million votes, implying that, when the presidential elections came around and the party reached its maximum mobilisation capacity, it would be unable to do much better than Marine Le Pen achieved in 2012. The Front seemed to have an absolute ceiling of 6-7 million votes, and that would never exceed 20% of the vote for the presidency.

Except now the Front not only won a record share of the vote (27-28%), but managed to mobilise that 6-7 million in an off-year election to a not particularly important tier of government. The Front’s trend in recent second-order elections has been relentlessly buoyant – from 4.7 million and 24.85% at the June 2014 European polls, to 5.14 million and 25.24% at the March 2015 departmental elections, to the 6.8 million it scored on December 13th. Marine Le Pen won more than 40% in both rounds in her base, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, and apparently did not even run the most vigorous campaign there.

Almost certainly, this growth is partly due to the various security- and immigration-related crises of the past year: the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the mass exodus of Syrian and other refugees into Europe, and the November 2015 Paris massacres. But the Front’s unsettling rise long precedes these events, and the decay of France’s establishment and mainstream parties was clear to observers as far back as the end of the last century. Peter Mair’s thesis on the decay of mainstream parties, starved by the dissolution of mass memberships and organisational linkages and choked by a stifling neoliberal consensus, applies to France with particular acuteness, with its elitist political culture and decades of poor economic performance and strained social cohesion.

So how far can the Front go? This question is of special import in France, because of its almost uniquely strong presidency, and the two-round ballotage system used to elect it. To become President, Marine Le Pen needs an absolute majority of votes, a barrier almost uniquely high in Western democracies. Can the Front win that majority?

One way to consider the question is to examine who votes for the Front and similar parties. Typically, right-wing populist parties appeal to certain kinds of voters. One key group, according to current theory, are “modernization losers” from the industrial working classes who have lost their jobs with globalization – as Loch and Norocel (2014) put it: ‘The ideal-typical voter of such parties is a first-time voting young male, belonging to the petty bourgeoisie and the working class, with a relatively weak formal education qualifications and a rather low level of religious practice.’ Goodliffe (2013) adds in the petits indépendants of the middle-class: artisanal workers and small-business owners side-lined by globalization. Betz (1993) describes these as the ‘one-third’ of society that has not benefited from the post-industrial and globalized economy (‘an increasingly marginalized sector of unskilled and semiskilled workers, young people without complete formal education and training, and the growing mass of the long-term unemployed’). To this we can add social conservatives and authoritarians, and some specifically French groups, including traditionalist Catholics and the pieds noirs, the former French settler populations in North Africa.

If Betz’s thesis is correct, than the Front should have a natural ceiling; not everyone can be a modernization loser, and only a minority of voters vote for ‘post-materialist’ reasons. And the Front won’t capture all of these groups; France’s banlieues are full of ethnic-minority modernization losers, who certainly aren’t voting Le Pen (or at all, it would seem). As major parties decline in a fragmenting society, we can expect the number of parties to grow, and that too would tend to put a ceiling on the Front’s capacity to expand its support, and that ceiling is well below 50%. One of Le Pen’s former advisers suggested as much: ‘They have gathered as many votes as they can among French people who are suffering, who are dissatisfied with the government and hate the “system”. But they need to get from 30-50% of the vote, and that is going to be the hardest part by far. I don’t think they have the means, currently, to do it.’

In established Western European states, it is fairly rare for far-right parties like the Front National to get 30% of the vote, much less an absolute majority. The Freedom Party of Austria, one of Europe’s most successful far-right parties, which has been in federal and state governments several times, has never done better than 26.9% in a general election (2009). The Swiss National Party, that country’s leading purveyor of anti-immigrant sentiment, topped out at 29.6% in October 2015’s legislative polls.

All this suggests that the Front has a larger core base now than it did, say, even five years ago, and that Marine Le Pen could exceed her 2012 score quite easily in the next presidential election, due in the spring of 2017. The opinion polls suggest much the same, rarely giving Le Pen more than 30% of the vote in the first round. In the forced choice of the run-off, Marine Le Pen loses, just as she did in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie on December 13th. The National Front’s strength does seem to mobilize leftist, or just anti-Front, voters: turnout jumped from 50 to 58% between the two rounds of the regional election, while the Front’s vote share remained little changed.

However, it may not be impossible. Remember, one of the factors in Mair’s thesis about party breakdown is the fragmentation of society in general; the decline of mass working- or middle-class organizations and identities, and of collective identities in general. In general, this seems to be causing fragmentation, making large pluralities more difficult. But this decline of class and other historical internal cleavages also means that Western Europe is converging, somewhat, with post-Communist Eastern Europe, where class identities and other natural cleavages were obliterated under Communism. With fewer hard class barriers, it may be possible for a populist party to someday cast a much wider net. And Marine Le Pen herself has worked very hard to broaden her party’s appeal, abandoning the less popular extremist stances her father embraced, such as his barely concealed anti-Semitism, and to adopt a bastardized form of France’s mainstream liberal, republican discourse (which she claims to be able to defend better than the incumbent elites). The Front is showing signs that it is appealing to new groups of voters, including new elements of the middle classes; it took a fifth of the vote of the professional classes in the 2014 European polls, not too far off the 24.85% it won overall.

We can look at the comparative performance of other right-populist parties. Take Poland’s Law and Justice, an organic-nationalist party which also represents ‘modernisation losers’ and has deep roots in a Catholic-inflected right. Law and Justice narrowly won an absolute majority in the October 2015 general elections in Poland. A parliamentary system affords a lower hurdle than a two-round presidential election: Law and Justice only won 37.6% of the vote. But in Hungary, Fidesz really did win an absolute majority in a general election, in 2010 – on a low turnout, but it won. In both cases, the combination of a discredited elite, weaker party loyalty and civil societies and a large concentration of ‘modernization losers’ created populist pluralities or majorities. Fidesz’s subsequent turn in government – its emasculation of checks and balances, politicization of public services, legislative gerrymandering and ethnic and religious chauvinism – may provide a foretaste of what Front National France would look like.

So are we likely to see a President Le Pen? On the balance of probabilities, we are not, or at least not we are not anytime soon. The French system of government introduces an unusually high barrier to executive power which few parties can surmount, and provides unusually strong incentives to anti-Front alliances. Tellingly, Michel Houllebecq’s succès de scandale from earlier this year, Soumission (Submission), suggested it was more likely that a version of the Muslim Brotherhood would win the presidency than Marine Le Pen. But in a world where old certainties and identities are being swept away, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Marine Le Pen or another National Front figure could someday win power. The changes to European party politics are unprecedented; we have never had a mass politics without the old mass parties, or in the context of a European Union and such high rates of immigration. If right-populists like Le Pen are the spectre haunting Europe now, uncertainty is the white sheet cloaking its ghostly form.

Ben Margulies completed his doctorate at the University of Essex on the electoral behaviour of liberal parties. Previously he has worked as a policy researcher and his research focuses mainly on party systems, new political parties and populism. Ben is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick, currently working on the ERC-funded Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty Project.