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.

Advertisements

Europe and the 2015 Swiss election: On not jumping to majoritarian conclusions

Clive Church

Initial responses to the results of the Swiss elections of 18 October 2015 suggested a dramatic paradigm shift. And this was true both of outsiders and of Swiss journalists and others who ought to know better. Thus the best-selling tabloid ‘Blick’ claimed ‘The People’s Party Triumphs’ while other commentators made great play of the fact that, if one added together the seats won by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the Radicals and the regional extreme right parties, then the ‘right’ had an absolute majority. Others claimed that this meant the right now had a veto on policy and that the SVP had gained its revenge for 2011. All this boils down to an assumption that there will be sweeping political changes over the next four years as there might be in a majoritarian polity. Moreover, experience tells me that it is never wise to prophesy dramatic upheavals in Switzerland.

The reality is that Swiss politics are more complex than these simplistic assessments. In fact, Switzerland faces four more years of difficult negotiations and confrontations in parliament, as the increasingly divided political system struggles to agree deals. And things could be further complicated by referenda. So the only certainty is that the country faces further uncertainty.

On 18 October the SVP emerged with a historically unparalleled 29.4% of the vote and 65 seats. This represented a gain of 2.8% and 11 seats on its disappointing 2011 result. The Social Democrats came second with 18.8% and 43 seats. Although the latter marginally increased their vote share the party still lost three seats. It was followed by the Radicals who gained 1.3% and three seats, ending up with 16.4% and 33 seats. This was the first time in years that the party had not lost votes. The Christian Democrats lost less than normal, going down by only 0.7% and one seat to 11.6% and 26 seats.

The gains made by the SVP and the Radicals came mainly from the ecologists. In 2011 the latter benefitted from the Fukushima nuclear disaster which made environmental issues highly salient. Four years later fashions had changed and migration became the dominant concern, even though the wider European crisis had yet to impact on Switzerland. Hence the centrist Green Liberals lost 1.2% and 5 seats, ending with 4.6% and seven seats. The orthodox left-of-centre Green party lost 1.3% and 5 seats, finishing up with 7.1% and 10 seats. The other centrist winner from 2011, the Conservative Democratic Party (BPD), lost 1.3% and two seats ending up with 4.1% and 7 seats. Thus most of the 14 seats won by the two main right-wing parties came essentially from the centre, not the left. Hence, what was seen in 2011 as the ‘Neu Mitte’ was reduced to its real proportions in 2015.

The parliament also offers a home to three other parties. The centrist Evangelical People’s party (EVP) held on to its two seats, while two regional far right parties also maintained their place: the Ticinese League won two seats and the Genevan Citizens’ Movement (MCG) one. Despite the talk of a ‘slippage’ to the right, neither managed to win the extra seats they had hoped for. However, the Marxist Parti Ouvrier Populaire party won a seat in Neuchâtel. Hence, the National Council ended up hosting eleven parties, showing that Swiss political pluralism was alive and well.

This is one reason why the gains made by the SVP and the Radicals are not likely to translate into drastic changes of political direction. The Swiss have a very effective PR system which allows the people to enshrine their strongly held support for a wide range of parties. These cannot be side-lined as they are in the UK. Consequently, the kind of breakthroughs recently found in Scotland and Canada are just not possible. Unprecedented though the SVP’s figures are, they are still too limited to allow the party to re-shape politics and the polity in the way that parties with large majorities can do in majoritarian systems. In any case, the SVP’s gains only really restored it to where it was in 2007. Had it not forced its moderates out and into the new Conservative Democratic Party (BPD), it could probably now have even more seats. Certainly it fell short of the 33% that some hoped for.

There are other reasons. To begin with all the attention was on the Lower House. There are likely to be second rounds on the coming four Sundays. And these are likely to produce rather different results from those in the National Council, given the different electoral system used. Traditionally the SVP does not do well in them and it has already withdrawn its candidate from the re-run in Berne. Given that the Swiss Parliament is perfectly bi-cameral, the Council of States, widely regarded as a revising chamber, is well placed to block extremist policies.

Secondly, talk of ‘the right’ is an arithmetic construction not a political reality. Although there is much talk of ‘polarization’, Hanspeter Kriesi is right to say that Switzerland has a tri-polar political system, with a far-right, a centre-right, and a centre-left. The experience of the collapse of a pre-election agreement between the SVP, the Radicals and the Christian Democrats on economic policies to offset the rising value of the franc shows how limited their links are. And the nature of the government means that there is no manifesto to be implemented as there is in a majoritarian system Moreover, the Radicals have strengthened their position and will not wish to become a satellite of the SVP as cartoonists have suggested might happen. And, while there is a certain similarity in their views on economic matters, they disagree on EU relations. Thus the Radicals seem to have emerged as the most trusted, and sensible, party on EU relations.

Thirdly, although the SVP gained in the elections, it did so on the back of a singularly content-free campaign, described by some as ‘de-politicised’. Indeed, by the end the only real subject of discussion was the make-up of the government and whether the SVP would have another hissy fit if it was not given a second seat. This was partly because, for once, the SVP largely eschewed the inflammatory posters which have distinguished its previous campaigns and, like many others, resorted to dog whistle politics to win over its core supporters. Its slogans urged people to stay secure and free; in other words, to resist outside challenges, notably the growing waves of refugees seeking a European escape from Eastern war and chaos. It also talked much about breaking the alleged hold of the centre-left in Parliament. Hence it did not really engage in detailed policy prescriptions. In particular Europe was hardly mentioned at all.

So it cannot convincingly claim a mandate for specific policies especially as it failed to stop a further fall in turnout. Indeed, one senior SVP figure remarked that people knew what their parties stood for, and trusted them to pursue their interests in parliament. None of this means that the party campaigned ineffectively. It did not. It was as well organized as ever and even better funded. It also made greater use of Facebook than ever before.

Its strategy appeared to work. The party lost no seats and strengthened its control of the political agenda. And, although it is now the largest party in most districts and continued to attract former Social Democrat voters, its main gains came in its German-speaking heartland. This included seats in: Appenzell AR, Aargau, Berne, Graubunden, Lucerne, Schwytz, St Gallen, Uri and Zurich. These probably came from new or occasional voters with right-wing sympathies. It also won extra seats in the bilingual cantons of Fribourg and Valais. Four of these came from the Socialists, two from the Radicals and the rest from the centre parties. Exit polls also suggested that, while the party did well on the fringes of agglomerations, it did much less well in the big cities where its share of the vote never passed 17%. It was also somewhat weaker in several smaller cantonal capitals. This points to the continuing division between two Switzerlands: urban and outward looking, and rural and introverted.

Conversely the Social Democrats did well in such urban places, winning two seats in Zurich while losing in Aargau, Fribourg, Schwytz, Valais and Vaud. And in the biggest cities they won over 30% of the vote. The Radicals lost seats in Appenzell AR, Neuchâtel and Uri but won in six other cantons. The Christian Democrats also won a seat in Valais, although losing two in Solothurn and Basle City. Similarly the Green Party won a seat in the latter while losing elsewhere, largely in Western Switzerland. The other centre parties were unable to win any new seats.

All this points to a much more complicated picture than the press, traditionally more inclined to give more coverage to the right, often suggested. Switzerland remains a pluralist country and policies will have to evolve through parliamentary committees and debate. This will test the limits of the SVP’s new ‘muscle’ and its willingness to compromise. The latter will be particularly tested in the December elections for the national government where it will be hard for the SVP to persuade the other parties that it is willing to play the collegiate game.

Moreover there are at least two further complications. The SVP is going to challenge the new asylum law and there will certainly have to be a popular vote on the RAUS initiative, perhaps with a counter-project from NOMES/NEBS, the Swiss European movement. These could cut across on-going disputes, or possibly an impasse, on the twin linked issues of Europe and migration. This could mean parties resorting to yet more referenda. On financial questions things might be easier. As before the proof of the majoritarian headlines pudding will be in the Swiss eating, and this could be slow and anything but sure. Switzerland remains a divided mixed democracy and how it resolves its problems remains very uncertain.

Clive Church is Emeritus Professor of European Studies at the University of Kent.

What does a Law and Justice election victory mean for Europe?

Aleks Szczerbiak

Although the outcome of Poland’s parliamentary election was determined by domestic issues, the right-wing opposition’s apparent victory could herald a substantial shift in the country’s foreign policy, with major implications for its relations with the rest of Europe. However, divisions between Polish parties on international affairs are often an extension of domestic politics by other means and experience suggests that the new government may be more Eurosceptic in its rhetoric than in practice.

Mainstream versus ‘own stream’

The strategy of the outgoing government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), was to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a reliable and stable EU member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main European powers, especially Germany. By positioning Poland at the centre of the Union’s decision-making core it claimed that – in contrast to its predecessor, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – it was effective in promoting the country’s interests at the international level. The appointment in September 2014 of the then Polish prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council was presented as the crowning achievement of the previous government’s strategy of projecting Poland as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project.

Law and Justice, the main opposition grouping in the previous parliament and which (although the official results have not yet been announced) looks set to head up the new government, also supports Polish EU membership. However, it is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) grouping committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty. This is especially the case in the moral-cultural sphere where it rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Law and Justice also argues that Poland needs be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests. Rather than simply following European mainstream politics, which it sees as being driven by Germany, it says that the country needs to re-calibrate its relationships with the major EU powers and form its ‘own stream’ that can counter-balance their influence. Indeed, since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis the party has, if anything, articulated a more fundamental, principled critique of closer European integration, suggesting that the allocation of decision making powers between Brussels and member states should be re-visited to strengthen national sovereignty in areas such as climate policy where it claims EU policies are damaging Polish industry.

Scepticism about the euro

Law and Justice’s different approach towards European integration can be seen in the party’s attitude towards Polish adoption of the euro single currency. For sure, the outgoing Civic Platform-led government toned down its earlier enthusiasm for rapid euro adoption, stressing that it did not have a target date and that this would not occur in the immediate future. Nonetheless, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, it remained committed to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone accession as quickly as was realistically possible, as part of its long-term strategic goal for Poland to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core.

On the other hand, Law and Justice argues that the country should not adopt the euro until the Polish economy is more closely aligned with the rest of the EU and that any final decision should be approved by a referendum. Indeed, the party has increasingly given the impression that, with the eurozone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the single currency. In this respect the new government will be in tune with Polish public opinion: while there is still overwhelming support for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country joining the eurozone. During the election campaign, Law and Justice deputy leader and prime ministerial nominee Beata Szydło tried to tap into this by pledging that one of her first acts if elected will be to disband the office of government plenipotentiary responsible for Poland’s euro entry.

A more active Eastern policy?

The difference between Law and Justice and Civic Platform’s foreign policies can also be seen in their approaches to developing relations with Russia and Ukraine. Formally the two parties appear to be very similar: both supporting the idea of Poland being at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the international community adopts a robust response to Russian intervention – specifically, that EU sanctions are maintained and extended – and favouring a larger NATO presence in Central Europe. However, Law and Justice claims that the Civic Platform-led government was, notwithstanding occasional flushes of anti-Moscow rhetoric, constrained by its unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus and act as a counter-balance to the major European powers which, it argues, are over-conciliatory towards Moscow. The result of this was, it argues, a failure to conduct a sufficiently active Eastern policy.

Law and Justice, therefore, wants to sharpen EU and NATO policy towards Russia. It is likely to try and use the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater military presence in the country, preferably including permanently stationed US forces or military bases, and locating defensive weaponry on the Alliance’s Eastern flank; something opposed by Germany as too provocative towards Russia. A Law and Justice-led government will also try and achieve a stronger Polish presence in international negotiations on Ukraine’s future and policy towards Russia, and be more open to providing military aid to Kiev within the framework of the NATO alliance.

More broadly, Law and Justice has sought to contrast what it claims is its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives with the Civic Platform-led government’s earlier conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin which events in Ukraine have shown to be naïve and short-sighted. As part of this, the party has identified itself with the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by the late Lech Kaczyński – twin brother of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, and who was the party-backed President between 2005-10 – which envisaged Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. The new government is likely to try and breathe new life into the Jagiellonian project by re-building alliances with other post-communist states, although this will not be easy given that some of them have even questioned the rationale behind existing EU sanctions against Russia.

Resisting EU migration quotas

More recently, Law and Justice’s different approach towards European integration could be seen in its attitudes towards the migration crisis. The outgoing Civic Platform-led government tried to strike a balance between competing domestic and international pressures. On the one hand, it was concerned to be seen to be responding to popular anxieties and defending Polish interests against EU institutions trying to impose migrants upon the country. Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country with very few ethnic minorities, and virtually none who are non-European, which has had little experience of the modern migrations that have transformed Western Europe. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants, who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities.

At the same time, the outgoing government came under growing pressure – both domestically from the liberal-left media and cultural establishment, and internationally from Brussels and other EU states – to play a greater role in helping to alleviate the crisis by participating in a Europe-wide burden sharing plan. As a consequence, having initially opposed the European Commission’s proposal for mandatory binding quotas for the relocation of migrants among EU states, following the wave of migration during the summer the Civic Platform administration changed its approach. Calling for what it termed ‘responsible solidarity’ with West European states, it said that Poland was ready to share the burden of the crisis by taking in larger numbers of migrants. The Civic Platform government was concerned that Poland was losing the public relations war in the Western media by coming across as one of the countries least sympathetic to the migrants’ plight. At the September EU summit, therefore, Warsaw went against its Central European allies from the ‘Visegrad’ countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) on this issue and voted for the EU distribution plan, agreeing to accept 4,500-5,000 additional migrants (increasing to around 7,000 in total next year).

Law and Justice, on the other hand, has argued that Poland should resist EU pressure to take in migrants and instead make policy decisions based on Polish interests. The party has warned that there is a serious danger of making the same mistakes as many West European countries, whereby a large number of migrants who do not respect Polish laws and customs end up imposing their way of life so that Poles become ‘guests in their own country’. It has cited examples of EU states with large Muslim communities where it claims that such a scenario is already unfolding. Law and Justice argued that rather than taking in migrants the EU should concentrate on providing aid to refugee camps in the Middle East and North African regions. Not surprisingly, therefore, it accused the Civic Platform government of betraying its Central European allies and violating national sovereignty by taking decisions under EU pressure that might undermine Polish culture and security without the agreement of the nation. It argued that the figure of around 7,000 migrants was unrealistic because family members would be able to join initial arrivals and that it was naïve to believe that this quota would not be used as a precedent to force Poland to take in additional migrants in the future. A Law and Justice-led government would, therefore, oppose Poland taking in additional migrants under the EU scheme and may even try to unpick the existing deal agreed to by its predecessor.

More Eurosceptic in rhetoric than practice?

However, although the issue of Polish-EU relations has been highly contested in recent years these divisions were often not about the substance of the European integration project as such. Rather, they were simply an extension of domestic politics by other means, with Law and Justice and Civic Platform treating the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which of them was most competent to pursue a shared goal; in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the Union. In fact, although a Law and Justice-led administration would be more assertive in terms of trying to carve out an independent foreign policy and more Eurosceptic in tone than its predecessor, in practice it is not likely to take any radical steps against the EU integration process. It is worth bearing in mind that when it was last in government in 2005-7 the party’s rhetorical inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice – for example, signing Poland up to the Lisbon treaty – and that it has never opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle. Experience, therefore, suggests that a Law and Justice government would probably be more Eurosceptic in its rhetoric than in practice.

Aleks Szczerbiak 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/.

Busted flush or breaking through? UKIP and the 2015 British election result

Paul Taggart

The 2015 UK general election result for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) may look as if the spectacular coverage of the party and the predictions for its impact during the campaign were overblown. The party attained only one MP and the Conservative Party managed to pull a parliamentary majority out of the bag, against all expectations. UKIP compounded the turmoil of the post-election period with the resignation and un-resignation of its leader, Nigel Farage. At the same time, the mantle of the new challenger on the block clearly went to the Scottish National Party (SNP) which arrived in Westminster with 56 MPs. But we need to be very careful not to write UKIP off as a busted flush. In a number of ways UKIP was highly successful in 2015 and we need to not lose sight of this.

UKIP’s vote share was 12.6% with nearly 4 million voters. Most importantly, this means that UKIP is now the UK’s third party in terms of the electorate. Its vote share increased more than any of the other party with a rise of 9.5%. The compares with nearly 1.5 million votes for the SNP. And the SNP were the fourth largest party with 7.9% of the vote and nearly 2.5 million voters. And UKIP came second in 120 constituencies. The simple fact is that the vagaries, or more accurately the specificities, of a single-member plurality electoral system mean that, as Liberal Democrats have always known, large dispersed electoral support is not worth as much as smaller concentrated vote shares. The SNP won 56 MPs by winning a plurality in 56 Scottish constituencies but not even standing in 593 constituencies. Whatever Westminster holds, Britain now has a party system in the electorate that places a right-wing populist party right at the heart of the party system.

During the campaign, it was sometimes easy to forget that UKIP was formed as a ‘hard’ Eurosceptic party, campaigning for British withdrawal from the EU. The focus on immigration and on the control of immigration came to the fore and party political broadcasts for UKIP failed sometimes to even mention Europe. But the linkage between the issues of immigration and Europe were foremost in the thinking of Farage and the party. The inability to control borders and immigration were linked to the UK’s membership of the EU, it was time and time again asserted by Farage. And even if we are to think of the two issues as decoupled, for voters the support for a party portraying itself as against the establishment on immigration and Europe come from the same fundamental well-spring. UKIP’s profile has always been more of a populist Eurosceptic force than as a Eurosceptic party that happens to be populist. The focus on immigration has policy links to the EU issue but it has populist sources deeply embedded in this anti-establishment party of the right. In this sense it is much more realistic to view UKIP as part of wave of populist parties in Europe that mobilise around different issues (immigration, regionalism, corruption and Euroscepticism) depending on the context in which they find themselves.

Keeping in mind the level of support, and looking at other populist parties across Europe, it is clear that, however low the supply of UKIP MPs is, the demand in the electorate for a party of this nature is both significant and unlikely to dissipate. The party faces a challenge in how it reacts to the failure to break into Westminster but we should not underestimate the on-going challenge that the party represents for the British party system.

The up-coming referendum on UK membership of the EU is not only largely a consequence of UKIP but it will also provide an important arena on which the party can mobilise. The commitment made by Conservative leader and prime minister David Cameron in January 2013 to an EU membership referendum was an attempt to both manage internal divisions within his party over Europe, but also represented a strategy to remove support for UKIP as a challenger for traditional Conservative voters. Now, sitting on a Conservative parliamentary majority, Cameron may well see this as a success but it is also a key goal for UKIP and, therefore, in this one way, the election was a score for Farage.

Europe is set to be the subject of fierce debate in the next year or so in the UK as the country heads towards the membership referendum. If the outcome is ‘Brexit’, UKIP will have achieved their core mission. If the outcome is to stay in the UK, the issue will not disappear. If we have learned one thing from the Scottish referendum, it is that a vote for the status quo on a divisive issue with a challenger party capturing the opposite position is a recipe for continuing the vitality and salience of that issue. The election result for UKIP shows them as a major party in the UK electorate. The impact of UKIP on British politics and, potentially, on the politics of the EU should not be underplayed.

Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He is Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendum Network (EPERN) and Co-Director of the Sussex European Institute (SEI).

The 2015 Turkish General Election: Mobilisational symmetry and another major victory for democracy

Toygar Sinan Baykan

On June 7th 2015 over 47 million people, almost 84% of the electorate, went to the polls in Turkey. The pre-election period was extremely tense as a result of the years-long divisive interventions of the founder and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) – and, since summer 2014, the President of the Turkish Republic – Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Besides Erdogan’s divisive personality and political style, corruption allegations against the JDP-led government – and the government’s claims that these allegations were a plot hatched by a Gulenist “parallel state” in the judiciary and the security services – made this election a particularly critical one for the ruling JDP. Given this background, with allegations of corruption in government circles and claims about the ruling party’s authoritarian tendencies, the JDP’s position in the pre-election period was rather disadvantaged despite the public resources available to it. Corruption probes against the government and the method chosen by the JDP leadership for coping with these allegations also left deep wounds as far as the rule of law in Turkey was concerned. As a result, the pre-election climate was dominated by a very strong suspicion that the poll would be rigged due to the ruling party’s interventions.

One of the indications that revealed the pressure on the JDP in this particular election was the new party leader and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s and Erdogan’s unprecedented appeal to the religious sentiments of the electorate. Despite all the criticism against his active involvement in the JDP election campaign – because, constitutionally, the President is supposed to be neutral as far as support for specific parties is concerned – Erdogan did not even refrain from showing a Kurdish translation of the holy Quran in one of his speeches in a South-Eastern city before the election. During the campaign the JDP – and, most notably, President Erdogan – emphasized the necessity of a transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This was seen by the majority of the electorate as further proof of the ruling JDP and Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies.

Unlike previous elections, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (RPP) chose an economy-based and highly redistributive discourse for its electoral campaign. To a great extent, by avoiding a direct response to the JDP’s highly religious appeal in this particular election, this diminished the effect of the ruling party’s propaganda. As an outcome of the increasing normalization of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) also tried to move decisively beyond its Kurdish ethnic electoral base through a strategy of becoming ‘the party of Turkey’ (Turkiyelilesme). Similarly to the RPP, the PDP also deployed some redistributive promises, such as a significant increase in the minimum wage and social support for young people. Another major player in the election, the Nationalist Action Party (NAP), constructed its campaign mainly on the basis of anti-JDP political propaganda which appealed to the reactions of the rightist-nationalist electorate against rumours of corruption and the reforms initiated by the ruling JDP when addressing the Kurdish issue. Another prominent actor in the election was the non-governmental organization Vote and Beyond (Oy ve Otesi), which was organized in order to provide neutral, civilian and grassroots control of the electoral process and protect it against potential fraud.

The election results were, if not shocking, then certainly extremely unpleasant for the JDP. Although the party received almost 41% of the popular vote and won 258 seats, it did not obtain a parliamentary majority. This is: it was not able to form a single-party majority government and the predominant position that it enjoyed in Turkey’s political system for the last 12 years came to an end. The JDP lost almost 9% of its support and 69 parliamentary seats compared to the previous general election. The most decisive external factor in this major failure was the fact that the PDP passed the unusually high 10% electoral threshold and made it into parliament. If the PDP had not taken the risk of participating in the elections as a party and had chosen their conventional strategy of fielding independent candidates, the JDP would have obtained many more seats, providing it with a parliamentary majority, while the PDP would have only have won half of the seats that it actually obtained.

The PDP’s striking electoral success, the party received the 13% of the votes, can be explained by reactions to the further concentration of power in the hands of Erdogan and his desire to consolidate his position even further by introducing of an a la turca presidentialism in which the limits of President’s power are not clear and checks and balances hardly evident. The clearest reaction to this major project of political change came from Selahattin Demirtas, the young and highly telegenic leader of the PDP. Several days prior to the election, Demirtas clearly stated that his party “won’t allow” Erdogan “to become the President”. This, in turn, led many leftists who were against the concentration of power in the hands of Erdogan – and a considerable number of these were likely to have been from the conventional electorate of the RPP – to vote for the PDP. This, as well as the consolidation of the party’s support among mostly Kurdish voters, helped the PDP to pass the electoral threshold with “borrowed votes” (emanet oylar). The PDP raised its vote share by 7% and obtained 80 seats, adding 45 members to its parliamentary group. Another remarkable electoral success story was the far-right NAP. The NAP could easily channel rightist reaction to corruption allegations against the ruling JDP and the government’s reforms regarding the Kurdish issue, and received 16% of the vote. It thus raised its vote share by 3% and obtained 80 seats, an additional 27 compared to the previous election.

The election result also had rather complicated consequences for the centre-left RPP. On the one hand, despite its attempts to become a modern social democratic force by focusing in its political propaganda on income inequalities and the erosion of rights and liberties under JDP rule, the party could not increase its vote share. However, although winning 25% of the vote and 132 seats was not a spectacular success story, the renewal of party policies and outlook under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu was definitely a remarkable political achievement. Kilicdaroglu overcame the nationalist-secularist anxieties of the party’s traditional supporters and brought the party closer to a modern social democratic trajectory. Although hard to capture at first glance, another major strategic achievement of the RPP was the fall of the JDP’s single-party majority government. The RPP leadership refrained from antagonizing its electorate against the PDP by avoiding appeals to Turkish nationalist sentiments on the Kurdish issue. Instead, the RPP intensified its electoral propaganda around redistributive promises and major development projects such as a new city in Anatolia, which was envisaged as a major industrial and transit hub for international trade. The RPP leadership, in a sense, allowed some of its supporters to vote strategically for the leftist appeal of the PDP. In other words, the RPP’s attitude towards the PDP made a vital contribution to the latter’s success in overcoming the 10% electoral threshold and breaking the JDP’s political hegemony.

The most visible outcome of the election is the end of debates surrounding whether the Turkish party system has become (in Sartorian terms) a ‘predominant’ one after several electoral JDP victories. The end of JDP single-party majority government revealed the fact that, despite the party’s unprecedented electoral achievements and robust organization, personalistic leadership and divisive strategies do not sustain a sufficiently institutionalized party which can dominate the party system for decades. Another important consequence was the consolidated polarization of the party system caused by the rise of far-right Turkish nationalist NAP, on the one hand, and the far-left PDP, with its origins in the Kurdish political movement, on the other. Further consolidation of these forces in parliament has increased the polarization of the party system on both the left-right and ethnic axes. Yet, despite political polarization, better representation of these forces in parliament is highly likely to decrease the social tensions stemming from poor representation in the legitimate political space.

Thus, despite the political turmoil in the Middle Eastern region – most notably two failed states to the south of Turkey and the chaos after the Arab Spring in Northern Africa – Turkey has remained a remarkably stable polity in the region alongside Iran. How can one explain the exceptional stability of democracy in Turkey? The conduct of the 2015 general election and the prior rumours that there would be massive electoral fraud committed demonstrate the contribution of a crucial variable to explaining this exceptionality. As recently illustrated by Mufti and previously emphasized by Angrist, what distinguishes Turkey from the rest of the Middle East has been its mobilisational symmetry. In other words, from the very beginning of the multi-party competition, the organizational and mobilisational capacity of the country’s major political actors was more or less equal. This equilibrium of power has protected the country from, on the one hand, the perils of the degeneration of modernising regimes into authoritarianism and, on the other, from a conservative majoritarianism which also gradually developed into authoritarianism. The importance of this mobilisational symmetry was all too evident in this election. Despite widespread rumours about potential electoral fraud, most notably those spread by fuat avni (a Twitter account revealing information most likely stemming from Gulenist ‘deep throats’) via social media, and the exception of some sporadic news, healthy elections could indeed be conducted in Turkey.

Major credit for the fairness of the election should be given to the organizational vigilance of the opposition parties, most notably the grassroots organizations of the NAP and PDP which were able to counterbalance the JDP’s robust organization. In addition to the party organizations, NGOs formed around democratic concerns relating to electoral fraud helped the opposition forces to counterbalance the organizational capacity and state resources deployed by the ruling JDP. In this sense, the ‘Vote and Beyond’ movement created an exemplary situation in which tens-of-thousands of volunteers were deployed as ballot box observers across Turkey. Nevertheless, one should also take into account the true democrats in the JDP headquarters and within the membership party on the ground, whose presence probably did not allow the ruling party to commit extensive voter fraud. Mobilisational symmetry over many years has illustrated the vitality of healthy and safe elections and helped party members to internalise the minimum conditions for democracy: reliable and fair elections. 

The June 7th 2015 Turkish general election represented the third major victory of the democratic method in Turkey. After absorbing the reaction of the conservative-religious segments of Turkish society to modernization in the middle of the Twentieth Century, with the transition to multi-party politics and transforming the Islamist challenge into a centrist and post-Islamist political actor at the end of 1990s, democracy effectively absorbed the ethnic challenge and started to transform pro-Kurdish politics in Turkey. Mobilisational symmetry, a kind of equilibrium of power among competing political parties, has been vital to the victories of democracy in Turkey, and this situation has been grounded in decent ties with Western powers as well as the bureaucratic-institutional “democratic infrastructure” inherited from the modernising Ottoman Empire. In this sense, the EU process has proved itself as an extremely useful leverage for democratization compared to the so-called “exportation of democracy and freedom” by aggressive military-economic means of colonialism and imperialism.

Toygar Sinan Baykan is a doctoral researcher in the University of Sussex, Department of Politics working on a thesis on the role of party organisation and strategy in the electoral success of the Turkish Justice and Development Party.

What does Andrzej Duda’s victory mean for Europe?

Aleks Szczerbiak 

The right-wing challenger’s unexpected victory in last month’s presidential election has shaken up the Polish political scene but its impact on European politics more generally depends on the outcome of the autumn parliamentary poll. If the opposition wins then this could herald a major change in Poland’s European and foreign policy. If the current ruling party remains in office, the country faces a possibly turbulent period of cohabitation with conflicting foreign policy narratives coming from the two main state organs.

Mainstream or ‘own stream’? 

The shock victory of Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping – over incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, who was backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) led by prime minister Ewa Kopacz, in last month’s presidential election has led to speculation as to whether there will be a significant shift in Poland’s international relations. The Polish President is not simply a ceremonial figure and retains some important constitutional powers, notably the right to initiate and veto legislation. However, the President’s competencies are much more limited than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister, so Mr Duda’s victory will not result in any immediate change in Poland’s foreign policy. Nonetheless, if it is followed up by a change of government after autumn’s parliamentary election then there could be major implications for the country’s relationships with the rest of Europe.

The current Civic Platform-led government’s strategy has been to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a reliable and stable EU member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main EU powers, especially Germany. By locating Poland at the centre of the Union’s decision-making core, the current government claims that it has, in contrast to its Law and Justice predecessor, been effective in promoting the country’s interests at the international level. The appointment last autumn of the then Polish prime minister Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council was presented as the crowning achievement of the government’s strategy of positioning Poland as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project. 

On the other hand, while it supports Polish EU membership Law and Justice is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) party committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty, especially in the moral-cultural sphere where it rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Law and Justice also argues that Poland needs be more robust in advancing its national interests within the EU rather than simply following European mainstream politics which it sees as being driven by Germany. Indeed, since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis, the party has, if anything, articulated a more fundamental, principled critique of Civic Platform’s support for German-led closer European integration. 

Knowing that he was potentially at a disadvantage on foreign affairs against a more experienced incumbent, Mr Duda was wary of highlighting international issues during the presidential campaign. However, when he did address European and foreign policy Mr Duda also argued that Poland needed to be more assertive in promoting its interests and form its ‘own stream’ that could counter-balance the major EU powers. He called for Poland to ‘recalibrate’ its relationship with Germany which, he argued, should not be pursued at the expense of subordinating the country’s interests. Mr Duda also said that he wanted to revisit the allocation of decision making powers between Brussels and member states to strengthen national sovereignty in areas such as climate policy, where he claimed EU policies were damaging Polish industry.

Scepticism about the euro 

Civic Platform and Law and Justice’s different approaches towards European integration can be seen in their attitudes towards Polish adoption of the euro single currency. For sure, the Civic Platform-led government has toned down its earlier enthusiasm for rapid euro adoption, stressing that it does not have a target date and that this will not occur in the immediate future. Nonetheless, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, it remains committed to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone accession as quickly as is realistically possible, as part of its long-term strategic goal for Poland to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core. For its part, Law and Justice argues that the country should not adopt the euro until its economy is more closely aligned with the rest of the EU and that any final decision should be approved by a referendum. Indeed, the party has increasingly given the impression that, given the eurozone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the single currency.

During the presidential election Mr Duda tried to tap into strong public opposition to joining the eurozone – while there is still overwhelming public support for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country adopting the single currency – and make this into a campaign issue. For example, he visited supermarkets on each side of the border between Poland and Slovakia to show that household groceries were considerably more expensive in its eurozone member neighbour. Mr Komorowski, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic supporter of the single currency who had previously urged the government to accelerate its preparations for eurozone accession; although, sensing his vulnerability, tried to downplay the issue during the election. 

However, although a Law and Justice-led administration will be more assertive in terms of trying to carve out an independent foreign policy and more Eurosceptic in tone, in practice it is not likely to take any radical steps against the EU integration process. It is worth bearing in mind that when it was in government in 2005-7 the party’s rhetorical inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice – for example, signing Poland up to the Lisbon treaty – and that it has never opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle. In fact, although the issue of Polish-EU relations was highly contested in recent years these divisions were often not about the substance of the European integration project as such but were rather simply an extension of domestic politics by other means, with the two parties treating the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which was most competent to pursue a shared goal – in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the Union. 

A more robust Russian policy? 

The difference between the two parties’ foreign policies can also be seen in their approach to developing relations with Russia and Ukraine. Formally they appear to be very similar: both supporting the idea of Poland being at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the international community adopts a robust response to Russian intervention – specifically, that EU sanctions are maintained and extended – and favouring a larger NATO presence in Central Europe. However, Law and Justice claims that the Civic Platform-led government has, notwithstanding occasional flushes of anti-Moscow rhetoric, been constrained by its unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus and act as a counter-balance to the major European powers which are over-conciliatory towards Moscow. The result of this has, it argues, been a failure to conduct a sufficiently active Eastern policy.

Mr Duda and Law and Justice want to sharpen EU and NATO policy towards Russia. They would like to use the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater military presence in the country, preferably including permanently stationed US forces or military bases, and locating defensive weaponry on the Alliance’s Eastern flank; something opposed by Germany as too provocative towards Russia. During the election campaign, Mr Duda also called for a stronger Polish presence in international negotiations on Ukraine’s future and policy towards Russia, and indicated that he would consider providing military aid to Ukraine within the framework of the NATO alliance.

More broadly, Law and Justice has sought to contrast what it claims is its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives with the ruling party’s earlier conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin which events in Ukraine have shown to be naïve and short-sighted. As part of this, during the election campaign Mr Duda identified himself with the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by the late Lech Kaczyński – who was the Law and Justice-backed President between 2005-10, and in whose chancellery Mr Duda worked as a senior legal advisor – which envisaged Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. Mr Duda is likely to try and breathe new life into the Jagiellonian project by re-building alliances with other post-communist states, although this will not be easy given that some of them have even questioned the rationale behind existing EU sanctions against Russia. 

Conflicting foreign policy narratives? 

If Civic Platform wins the autumn election and remains in government, which is still a distinct possibility, then Poland faces a period of up to four years of political cohabitation. Although, according to the Polish Constitution, foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, it also gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role while failing to delineate the two state organs’ respective powers precisely. Moreover, the President can exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. He also ratifies international agreements, so can block treaties negotiated by the government, and is the country’s highest representative and can, for example, try and participate in meetings of the EU Council. So the government has to factor in his position and there is a danger of two conflicting European and foreign policy narratives coming from Warsaw.

Indeed, the previous period of cohabitation between the Civic Platform government and Mr Kaczyński in 2007-10 saw an ongoing power struggle between the government and President, with the former accusing the latter of attempting to pursue a parallel foreign policy. One of the most high profile disputes occurred in October 2008 when Mr Kaczyński and the government clashed bitterly over who had the right to determine the composition of the Polish delegation at that month’s EU Council meeting in Brussels. This ended as a major political embarrassment for Poland as Mr Kaczyński attended the summit against the wishes of the government, which even refused the President use of the official government aircraft forcing him to charter a private jet. Mr Kaczyński and the government also had a number of high-profile disputes over the substance of Poland’s EU policy, the most dramatic being when the President delayed Polish ratification of the Lisbon treaty for eighteen months in 2008-9.

The parliamentary election is the key

Mr Duda’s unexpected presidential election victory will certainly have an impact upon Poland’s relationships with its European partners but its full ramifications depend on the outcome of the parliamentary election. Experience suggests that Law and Justice is often more rhetorically than practically Eurosceptic and that foreign policy divisions between the two main parties are an extension of domestic politics by other means. Nonetheless, if Mr Duda finds himself working with a government with whom he shares a common programme then Poland will certainly be more assertive in pushing forward its interests at the international level independently of the major EU powers. If, on the other hand, we are in for re-run of cohabitation then there is a danger of ongoing clashes between a Law and Justice President and Civic Platform-led government over both their respective competencies and the substance of European and foreign policy.

Aleks Szczerbiak 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.

Europe and the 2015 Finnish election: the success of the Finns Party continues

Tapio Raunio

Before the 2011 Eduskunta elections international media had paid hardly any attention to Finnish politics. The remarkable success of the populist and Eurosceptic Finns Party (previously known as the True Finns) changed that overnight, with the media particularly interested in how the politicization of the euro crisis and the associated rise of Timo Soini’s party might influence the EU policy of the Finnish government. And it certainly did. While the National Coalition-led ‘six pack’ cabinet was overall committed to European integration it: demanded bilateral guarantees on its bailout payments (following a campaign promise by the Social Democrats); attempted, on its own, to reject 85% majority decision-making in the European Stability Mechanism, demanding unanimity instead; and, together with the Netherlands, blocked the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area. More broadly, it appears that the emphasis on national interests and the role of smaller member states has become more pronounced in Finland in recent years, and the success of the Finns Party has clearly pushed the other parties in the direction of more cautious EU discourse.

Hence it was understandable that European media once again closely followed the campaign in Finland, focusing especially on party positions regarding future loan packages to Greece. The party leaders mainly avoided the question through refusing to speculate on such potential bailouts and even the Finns Party did not seemed that keen on debating the EU. Four years earlier, the Finns Party had a clear electoral incentive to capitalize on the Eurozone crisis. However, this time around the picture was rather different. After the 2011 elections, Soini decided to stay in opposition, justifying his decision by the impossibility of joining a government that was committed to Eurozone rescue measures. Yet many feel that Soini shirked government responsibility, preferring instead the safety of opposition. Now Soini had publicly declared that his party wants to enter the cabinet and, hence, the Finns Party was probably happy to see the campaign dominated by national issues.

Euro area bailouts can prove difficult 

Many had predicted (or hoped) that the Finns Party would fade away quickly, but such predictions proved to be wrong. As Table 1 shows, Soini’s party finished second with 38 seats (down one) and 17.7 % of the votes – a much better result than the polls had suggested, just as they achieved four years earlier. The Finns Party won seats in each of the 12 constituencies (the Åland Islands also elects one MP), indicating both the widespread popularity of the party and that its investment in local party organization is paying off. With his eyes on post-election coalition formation bargaining, during the campaign Soini assured voters that the EU and potential bailouts would not be obstacles to his party entering the government. However, the Finns Party has consistently voted against euro area bailout measures in the Eduskunta and, hence, the question may prove tricky in government formation talks. Interestingly, Soini reminded the electorate that the Centre Party had also voted against such measures, so a workable compromise might be achievable.

Table 1: Results of the 2015 parliamentary elections in Finland

VOTES SEATS
2015 Change from 2011 2015 Change from 2011
The Centre Party 21,1 5,3 49 14
The Finns Party 17,7 -1,4 38 -1
National Coalition 18,2 -2,2 37 -7
Social Democrats 16,5 -2,6 34 -8
Green League 8,5 1,3 15 5
Left Alliance 7,1 -1,0 12 -2
Swedish People’s Party 4,9 0,6 10* 0
Christian Democrats 3,5 -0,5 5 -1
Others 2,5
TOTAL 100 200

*Including the representative of the Åland Islands.

Source: Ministry of Justice.

Much will, indeed, depend upon the Centre Party and its leader Juha Sipilä. In 2011 the Centre won a meagre 15.8% of the votes, its lowest vote share since the Second World War, and ended up in opposition. However, the party’s fortunes turned around quickly and, according to opinion polls, has been the largest party in Finland for about two years now. This revival is surely in no small measure thanks to the Laestadian IT-millionaire Juha Sipilä, who became an MP in 2011 and was elected party chair in 2012. Sipilä probably profited from his ‘non-political’ background while his successful track record in business boosted his credibility in running the national economy. While the Centre did not perform as well as the polls predicted, the party finished first with 21.2% of the vote and 49 seats (up 14) and Sipilä will thus be leading the coalition formation talks. Sipilä himself was the vote king of the elections, winning 30,758 votes in the Oulu constituency.

The Centre has been internally divided over the issue of European integration ever since EU membership entered the domestic political agenda in the early 1990s. Two-thirds of Centre supporters voted against membership in the 1994 referendum, and the rank-and-file continue to be sceptical of further integration. The party’s parliamentary group also contains diverse views on Europe, and the pro-EU Sipilä may thus be under pressure not to appear too soft when representing Finland in Brussels. At the same time, it is unlikely that the new cabinet will overall cause problems for EU decision-making, even if its two largest parties are the Centre and the Finns Party. The campaigns and debates focused strongly on the country’s dwindling economic fortunes (especially rising levels of debt and unemployment) and the associated reforms of social and health services, and it is certain that the introduction of domestic austerity measures will keep the cabinet pre-occupied. While the challenges in the national economy were not linked to EU level policies in pre-election debates, the new government may well need friends in Europe when implementing un-popular policies at home.

A vote against the government 

The election result was essentially a vote against the incumbent government. It was broadly acknowledged that the cabinet – which, initially, brought together six parties but in the end consisted of four parties after the exit of the Left Alliance over economic policy and the Greens over nuclear energy in 2014 – had failed to deliver promised reforms. It was particularly damaged over the poor handling of its top priority project: the re-organization of social and health services and the related municipal reforms. The cabinet also presided over a period of consistent economic decline, with worsening public debt amidst increasing job market uncertainty: one month ahead of the election the unemployment rate stood at 10.3%. To make matters worse, the final months before the elections saw a lot of nasty public conflicts between the two leading coalition parties: the National Coalition and the Social Democrats.

The continuing downturn in the economy was particularly bad for the ruling National Coalition and prime minister Alexander Stubb who was elected as the party chair last June. A manic tweeter and a self-confessed ‘sports nut’ who competes in marathons and triathlons, Stubb’s youthful 24/7 exuberance did not appeal to all sections of the electorate. Perhaps more importantly, Stubb openly admitted that domestic issues were not his strength and, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably not the best choice as a party leader given the focus of the election debates. Stubb also supported both a federal Europe and NATO membership, while attacking trade unions and favouring more market-led policies. To be fair to Stubb, his party’s problems had already began during the premiership of Jyrki Katainen, but clearly he was unable to provide the kind of leadership many had hoped for. The National Coalition came second in terms of vote share (18.2 %), but third in the number of seats with 37 MPs (down seven).

The left weaker than ever before 

However, the main losers of the elections were the Social Democrats, who had also elected a new party chair in spring 2014: Antti Rinne, a former trade union leader with no parliamentary experience. As finance minister, Rinne predictably stressed job creation and economic growth, positing a more active role for the government in meeting these goals. Considering the financially demanding times, Rinne needed to strike a balance between defending wage earners’ benefits whilst appearing as a credible manager of the national economy. While Rinne himself won a seat, the Social Democrats finished fourth with 16.5 % of the vote and 34 seats (down 8), the party’s worst-ever performance in Eduskunta elections. The dilemma facing the Social Democrats is quite typical for centre-left parties across Europe. At its core are two interlinked questions – whether to defend traditional leftist economic goals or endorse more market-friendly policies, and who the party represents – questions that had already surfaced in the leadership contest that saw Rinne narrowly beating the incumbent Jutta Urpilainen. That debate will no doubt only intensify following this un-successful campaign.

The Social Democrats have not been as strong in Finland as in the other Nordic countries, but they were the largest party in every Eduskunta election held from 1907 to 1954, and since the 1966 elections they have finished first in all elections apart from those held in 1991, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015. The peak was achieved in the 1995 elections with 28.3% of the vote, the highest vote share for a single party after the Second World War. In fact, the collective vote share of the leftist parties has declined quite dramatically in recent decades. Whereas Social Democrats and the predecessor of Left Alliance, the Finnish People’s Democratic Union (FPDU), won over 45% of the vote between them in all but one election between 1945 and 1966 (when together they won 48.3%), by 2015 the electoral strength of the left has decreased to only 23.6%. The Finnish People’s Democratic Union’s decline began in the late 1960s and support for the Left Alliance has declined gradually since 1995. The Left Alliance won 7.1% of the vote and 12 seats (down two). The party has found it difficult to cater for the needs of both traditional working class voters and more urban new ‘green left’ supporters. The Left Alliance was the only Eduskunta party not advocating cuts to public spending, arguing instead in favour of public investments financed with more foreign loans, a strategy that may have cost it votes given the broad consensus behind austerity measures.

The Green League – who refuse to be categorized as belonging to either the left or the right – experienced a different fate, winning 8.5% of the vote and 15 seats (up vie). Whilst this was a solid improvement on the previous elections, in a way the Greens only returned to the level of support they reached in 2007. The Swedish People’s Party won 4.9% of the vote and 9 MPs (10 including the MP from the Åland Islands), while the Christian Democrats received 3.5% of the vote and 5 MPs (down one). Finally, the new Eduskunta will include the first immigrant MPs in Finland: Nasima Razmyar (Social Democrats) and Ozan Yanar (Greens), both elected from the Helsinki constituency. Turnout was a respectable 70.1%.

Tapio Raunio is a Professor of Political Science at the School of Management, University of Tampere.