Six Things We Know About EU Referendum Campaigns

Kai Oppermann and Paul Taggart

Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’. Looking systematically at referendums and at the experience of these in Europe, we can learn from what has happened in other European referendums to help us in looking at what may happen in the UK’s referendum on EU membership. There may be uncertainty ahead but we can know what we don’t know from previous experience. We suggest that there are six lessons we can learn

  1. Referendum outcomes are hard to predict

The one ‘known known’ we have is the state of the polls at the outset. But early in the campaign, opinion polls tell us very little about what the outcome of the referendum will be on 23 June. Around 20% of voters are still undecided. More than that, voting behaviour in referendums is much less settled and more fluid than in general elections. This is because party affiliation and long-term party identification matter less in referendums whereas campaign effects tend to matter more. In particular, the referendum campaign will increase the level of information the average voter holds about Britain in Europe. The campaign only really started after the European negotiations about the British demands were concluded on 19 February, and voters will hear a lot about the EU from both sides of the debate between now and the referendum. Early polls reflect the balance of opinion in a relatively information poor environment, but the vote will take place in a quite information rich environment. This might swing a significant number of voters – in one direction or the other.

  1. Turnout matters

EU referendums have been won or list depending on the ability of the opposing sides to mobilise and to turn out the vote. Good examples are the two Irish ‘No’ votes on the treaties of Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008). Both votes involved low turnouts – 35% in the case of Nice, 53% on the treaty of Lisbon – which were primarily down to the poor mobilisation of the ‘Yes’ camps. When the two treaties were put to second referendums in 2002 and 2009, the ‘Yes’ campaigns learned the lessons from their previous defeats and were better at mobilising their supporters. In consequence, the turnout increased by 15% (Nice) and 5% (Lisbon) which in both cases was sufficient to overturn the results of the first referendum and to deliver ‘Yes’ votes.

The difference between the Irish experience and the current referendum campaign in Britain, however, is that we should not expect a significant gap in the mobilisation of the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns. There can be little doubt that the stakes are very high and that the question of British EU membership will dominate the UK political debate. Mobilisation will, therefore, be very strong on both sides of the divide. Turnout might well be higher than, for example, in the 2015 general elections when it stood at 66% but it is unlikely to be as high as the 85% achieved in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. What is less clear cut, however, is which camp a high turnout will benefit. On the one hand, the ‘Leave’ side might be able to mobilise disaffected voters who do not tend to turn out in general elections. On the other hand, the core support for leaving the EU will likely be sufficiently mobilised to turn out anyway and will already be ‘priced into’ current opinion polls. An exceptionally high turnout at the referendum would, therefore, likely be driven by the mobilisation of supporters for staying in the EU and thus be to the benefit of the ‘Remain’ camp.

  1. Establishment versus anti-establishment

A distinctive feature of referendum campaigns is their binary and polarised nature. In the case of EU referendums, this generally pits the establishment on the pro-EU side against the anti-establishment on the Eurosceptic side. This binary structure tends to work as a magnifying glass for the anti-establishment case, and part of the resonance of Eurosceptic arguments in EU referendums precisely comes from their anti-establishment appeal. However, this divide between the establishment and critics of that establishment is probably less pronounced in the current British referendum than in many previous EU referendums across Europe. This is because the case for leaving the EU has moved towards the mainstream in British politics and resonates with parts of the political and economic establishment as well as across large swathes of the print media. At the same time, it is still evident that the ‘Leave’ campaign seeks to play the anti-establishment card, trying to present itself as ‘outsiders’ standing up for the British people against Whitehall elites and ‘Brussels’.

  1. Elite cues matter

Although party identification is a less important driver of voting behaviour in EU referendums than in general elections, cues from the elites still matter. In particular, such cues will be more powerful, the more united each of the two camps is and the more voters trust their leading figures. However, elite cues on both sides of the debate will likely be weakened by internal divisions. The ‘Leave’ camp has difficulty finding a common line on how to engage with UKIP and on whether it should officially be led by ‘Vote Leave’ or ‘Leave.EU’. On the ‘remain’ side, the cues from the government to Conservative voters will become weaker the more the Conservative party and the cabinet are divided. In terms of trust, the ‘Remain’ campaign appears to be on the advantage, because David Cameron is better trusted on the referendum in the public at large than any leading figure of the ‘Leave’ campaign, including Boris Johnson. In particular, Nigel Farage divides public opinion and is trusted mainly by those who have already decided to vote for leaving the EU. His cues will thus be unlikely to sway many voters who are yet undecided.

  1. Priming effects

Voters in EU referendums are primed to think about the question on the ballot in terms of the issues that are on the forefront of their minds on voting day. This suggests that the outcome of the referendum will be affected by which issues are most prominent in June. If the issue agenda at the time of the vote will still be dominated by immigration – crowding out, for example, economic arguments and concerns – voters will be primed to decide on EU membership in terms of what they think it implies for immigration. This stands to benefit the ‘Leave’ side which should, therefore, be expected to focus their campaign on the immigration issue. The more the political debate at the time of the referendum reflects a more optimistic mood and a broad sense of satisfaction with the government and with personal circumstances, the more this should benefit the ‘Remain’ side.

  1. The Status quo and the consequences of leaving

Voting behaviour in referendums (and elsewhere) is marked by a bias in favour of the status quo. Voters tend to be risk averse and prefer the certainty of the status quo to the uncertainty of change. The riskier voters consider leaving the EU to be, the more this benefits the ‘Remain’ side. Much of the referendum campaign will, therefore, become a framing contest about the consequences of voting to leave. While the ‘Remain’ campaign will portray leaving the EU as – in David Cameron’s words – a ‘great leap into the dark’, economically and politically. The ‘Leave’ campaign will make the case that change would be gradual and incremental and that leaving the EU would not entail a radical break with the past. The more dissatisfied voters are with the status quo and the more they believe to lose out from it, however, the more risk acceptant they will become and the more likely they will be prepared to vote against the status quo and for leaving the EU even if this is seen as risky.

This will be a tight referendum. The outcome is hard to predict but we can learn from other referendums. We can to some extent be aware of what we don’t know on turnout, on priming, elite cues and issue salience. These may well have a crucial effect in determining the outcome. But, of course, the other category that Rumsfeld has was the ‘unknown unknowns’, or, as British Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan would have it, ‘events’. The key ‘known known’ we have is that the next few months will matter in determining the outcome of one of the momentous decisions in UK politics.

Kai Oppermann is Reader in Politics at the University of Sussex. Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, where he is Director of the Sussex European Institute, and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network.


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.


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 [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.


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.

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:

Europe and the 2015 Snap Greek Elections, Round 2: Results, Patterns, and Divides

Nikoleta Kiapidou

Another general election was held in Greece on 20 September 2015. Greek people were asked to vote in an election for the fourth time since 2009, after prime minister and SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras resigned on 20 August. Mr Tsipras’ resignation came after only seven months in office followed by a rebellion by a significant number of SYRIZA MPs against the approval of the new austerity deal. In the previous election in January 2015, SYRIZA formed a coalition government with the minor right-wing Independent Greeks party and since then they had been negotiating for a better economic deal for the country.

However, the Greek government did not manage to avoid another bailout package being imposed by the European partners. The winning ‘No’ vote in the 2015 bailout agreement referendum also appeared also powerless – if not pointless. The one-time anti-austerity champions of SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks signed the new austerity deal and the third Memorandum was eventually approved by the Greek parliament. However, SYRIZA’s U-turn did not, in spite of what most opinion polls predicted, result in large damage for the party. Rather, SYRIZA came first with 7% lead over the second party, New Democracy, and re-formed its coalition government with the Independent Greeks. The minor parties that have become stronger since 2012, succeeded in re-securing their seats in the parliament, which now comprises eight parties in total. The far right-wing Golden Dawn once again came in as the third largest political force in the parliament and an old, previously minor centre party called the Union of Centrists gained seats for the first time since its creation in 1992. At 56.6%, voter turnout reached its lowest score ever recorded in a Greek general election.

The Results

Although some pollsters predicted a different outcome, the election results were not much different than the previous general election in January 2015. As Table 1 shows, although slightly weaker SYRIZA was still largest party securing 35.5% of the vote, finishing 7.4% ahead of New Democracy with 28.1%. Immediately after the referendum result, Antonis Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, which supported the ‘Yes’ vote, resigned and was replaced by Vagelis Meimarakis. Mr Meimarakis promoted a more relaxed popular profile but did not manage to attract enough voters. The election result left most of New Democracy’s MPs disappointed and involved in talks about ways to restore the party’s performance. On the other hand, the extreme right Golden Dawn remained third and even increased their vote share by 0.7%. The fact that Golden Dawn MPs had been held in pre-trial detention since 2013, accused of forming a criminal gang, and that just two days before the election their leader took ‘political responsibility’ for the murder of a left-wing Greek singer did not seem to affect the party’s followers.

The one-time ruling party, the social democratic PASOK party, came fourth and increased its vote share by 1.1% since January. However, this increase was largely explained by its coalition with the Democratic Left party. The latter collapsed after joining the pro-Memorandum coalition government in 2012, but apparently retained some support. The Communists maintained their share, while the centrist ‘River’ and Independent Greeks saw a decrease in their share. The River appeared particularly dissatisfied with the result and stressed its willingness to re-assess its performance. In contrast, the Independent Greeks were rather happy with the outcome and their revised co-operation agreement with SYRIZA in office, as most opinion polls showed that they would not even make it to the parliament. The last party to enter the parliament, the Union of Centrists, an old minor centrist party, secured representation for the first time since its formation more than 20 years ago. Finally, Popular Unity, which was created by the SYRIZA rebels after the approval of the third Memorandum, received only 2.9% of the vote and did not manage to gain any seats, despite their consistent anti-austerity stance. 

Table 1: The 2015 September Greek general election results (parties in parliament)

Party Vote Share % (% difference to previous election) Seats
SYRIZA 35.5 (-0.8) 145
New Democracy 28.1 (+0.3) 75
Golden Dawn 7.0 (+0.7) 18
PASOK-DIMAR 6.3 (+1.1) 17
Communist Party 5.6 (+0.1) 15
The River 4.1 (-2.0) 11
Independent Greeks 3.7 (-1.1) 10
United Centrists 3.4 (+1.6) 9

Source: Greek Ministry of Interior,

Long-term patterns

The main patterns that emerged from this election were not much different from what we have seen in the Greek party system since the earthquake twin elections of 2012. Figure 1 illustrates the vote share of all the parties that secured parliamentary representation in all the legislative elections held from 2009 until 2015 and reveals certain repeated patterns, namely: an updated duopoly and a highly fragmented and polarised party system.

A Revised Two-party System

Although PASOK secured some additional votes in this election, the party is now considered a one of the minor ones with no hope of going back to its glorious times in the once stable two-partism in Greece. However, the Greek party system never abandoned the familiar pattern of duopoly: the PASOK-New Democracy divide has now been replaced by the SYRIZA-New Democracy duet. Certainly, the combined vote of the two major parties does not reach the high levels that PASOK and New Democracy once secured. Nevertheless, SYRIZA and New Democracy appear as the two largest, steady competitors who still manage to secure more than 60% of the total vote and immobilise the biggest part of the left/centre-left and the right/centre-right camps respectively.

As Fragmented as it Gets

High fragmentation has been another characteristic of the Greek party system since 2012 and this was also evident in this last election. As Figure 1 shows, although only four parties managed to pass the 3% electoral threshold in 2009, this number increased to seven in 2012 and January 2015, and eight in September 2015, the highest number of parties in the history of the Greek parliament. New actors such as the Independent Greeks and the River, and old parties such as Golden Dawn and the Union of Centrists gained attention and benefited from high electoral volatility during these years. These parties not only get the opportunity to have their voice heard in parliament but were also involved in discussions about coalition formation.

A Wide Ideological Spectrum

Once again, high fragmentation went hand in hand with high levels of polarisation. As in every election held since 2012, the Greek parliament consists of parties of an extremely wide ideological spectrum. With SYRIZA moving even further to the centre-left after approving the third bailout package and New Democracy bringing together a large part of the centre-right electoral base, many of the minor parties are left with collecting the protest and extreme votes. In the post-September 2015 parliament one can find parties that range from the far left (the Communist party), and the moderate centre (the River and the Union of Centrists) through to the extreme right (Golden Dawn).

Figure 1: General election results from 2009 until 2015 in Greece (parties in parliament)


Source: Greek Ministry of Interior,

The Main Divides

The existence of a coalition government comprising SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks since January 2015 showed that the left-right divide of the Greek party system had further weakened under the fierce conditions of the economic crisis. A new pro-/anti-austerity debate was born around which parties competed instead. However, with SYRIZA, the previously biggest anti-austerity movement in Greece, signing the third Memorandum in spite of the ‘No’ vote in the referendum, one wonders why SYRIZA was still the biggest party and what was the purpose of remaining in a coalition with a right-wing party> The answer is the powerful combination of features that SYRIZA developed during these years, representing a new, ‘forced-to-be’ pro-austerity, and being pro-European.

The Old versus the New

The main reason behind SYRIZA’s was the effective use of the growing old/new political system divide in the Greek party system. A falling combined vote of PASOK and New Democracy, along with a significant decline in popular trust in the national political institutions, showed that the power of the old two-partism started decreasing even before the crisis began. SYRIZA capitalised on public discontent with the old political system and further promoted the division between the old and the new in Greek politics. It, therefore, tried to represent a new political force which was not associated with the scandals, corruption, and the elitism of the past. Popular dissatisfaction with the old political system was so high that even a U-turn by SYRIZA on the most salient issue of austerity was not enough to damage the party’s performance. As SYRIZA’s current coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, are also a part of the new non-corrupted political system, Mr Tsipras stated that he could even co-operate with PASOK as long as the latter let certain ‘old-PASOK’ members go. As a result, the main message of SYRIZA’s pre-election campaign ‘Let’s get rid of the old’ was what Greek people wanted to hear most.

Pro-austerity vs. ‘Forced-to-be’ Pro-Austerity

The pro-/anti-austerity divide was particularly strong from the beginning of the crisis until the 2015 January election. Nevertheless, SYRIZA’s re-election proved that this debate has taken an interesting turn. While in opposition SYRIZA burnished its anti-bailout profile, but when in office it was forced to sign the third bailout package.  However, the difference with the previous government of New Democracy and PASOK, who favoured similar deals, was that SYRIZA ‘did not fall without fighting’. Mr Tsipras presented the failed negotiations with the European actors as the ultimate struggle against the elites who blackmailed the country. After months of discussions with Europe, several impressive talks given by the former Minister of Economics, Gianis Varoufakis, and a controversial referendum, SYRIZA appeared themselves as being left with no more weapons to fight with. The Independent Greeks also followed the same logic when signing the austerity deal. Indeed, SYRIZA’s approach to its European partners, at least at the beginning of the negotiations, seemed very different from its predecessors, who seemed more willing to accept the austerity deals. SYRIZA argued that, in the end, they were forced to sign the Memorandum and Greek people liked to hear that the new political power ‘did not give up without a fight’.

The European Issue

The pro-/anti-European divide also played an interesting role in shaping party competition since SYRIZA started growing. Although it was relatively weakened from 2010 until 2012, SYRIZA’s rise led other parties – and, most importantly, New Democracy – presenting it as an anti-European force that would put Greece’s EU and Eurozone membership in danger. This pattern was particularly evident in New Democracy’s pre-election campaign in January 2015, but also in the referendum. SYRIZA’s main opponent developed a discourse of fear in case SYRIZA won the elections and Greek voters voted against the bailout package in the referendum. In both instances, the European issue gained significant ground as parties rushed to position themselves among the pro-/anti-European and pro-/anti-drachma arguments. Nevertheless, once again SYRIZA followed what most Greek people supported. As a constantly pro-European political force, SYRIZA ended any claims that it would lead the country out of the euro by accepting the third Memorandum. In what can be considered as a particularly smart move, SYRIZA managed to sign a bailout agreement without losing its popular appeal. And this could only be achieved by a party that featured these three components: being new, presenting itself as a ‘fighter’ against Europe, and yet remaining pro-European.

Nikoleta Kiapidou is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.

Europe and the 2015 Danish election

Carina Bischoff, Flemming Juul Christiansen and Mads Dagnis Jensen

On May 27th 2015, Danish Social Democratic prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called for general elections to be held on June 18th 2015. The government’s four-year-term was due to expire in September. Ms Thorning-Schmidt held the strategic advantage of being able to control the date. When the Social Democrats launched their campaign in early spring 2015, this was viewed as an attempt to ‘prepare the soil’ for a later electoral harvest. The campaign had two main messages. First, it was claimed that the centre-left government had led Denmark out of the economic crisis and laid the ground for a healthy economic upswing already in progress. The second message was on the topic of immigration. Analyses had shown that the question of immigration was back at the top of the electoral agenda.

In this context, the Social Democrats’ ‘pre-election’ campaign made perfect sense. It aimed to strengthen confidence that it would be ‘tough on immigration’ and thus present a viable option for the large share of voters perceiving this as a critical issue. Moreover, it sought to justify its austerity policies that had cost support in its traditional electoral base. The Social Democrats had suffered from the widespread public perception that they had failed to cash in on many of their ‘leftist’ pre-election promises.

The campaign paid off in the polls and the Social Democrats could, therefore, begin the actual election campaign with a certain momentum. They tried to frame the election as a choice between the two candidates thereby playing on the fact that a majority of the electorate, according to the polls, preferred Ms Thorning-Schmidt as prime minister rather than Lars Løkke Rasmussen from the Liberals, who served as prime minister from 2009-2011. The Social Democrats hardly missed an opportunity in the following weeks to remind voters of stories of personal expenditures covered by the public (or party) purse that had tarnished Mr Løkke Rasmussen’s personal reputation.

By contrast, the Liberals tried to put the incentives of working compared to receiving social benefits at the top of the political agenda. The Social Democrats responded by questioning the correctness of the proposed calculations and thereby indirectly tapping into the trustworthiness of the opposition leader. While Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s approval ratings descended, his largest ally in the quest for government power, the Danish People’s Party, could boast of a leader whose ratings were soaring. In fact, Kristian Thulesen-Dahl was just a few percentage points behind Ms Thorning-Schmidt in the polls as the most popular party leader. The move to attack a weak opponent may have appeared to be a solid tactic in a race where two candidates for the post of prime minister were competing for power. However, in the post-election analyses, pundits suggested that voters reacted by turning to Ms Thulesen-Dahl rather than to Ms Thorning-Schmidt. The enemy of the Social Democrats was perhaps defeated, but the enemy’s ally picked up the losses, leaving the attacker no better off than before.

During the campaign, the Social Democrats and Liberals pursued a strategy of appealing to the median voter. To a large extent, they copied each others’ policies to the point where many complained that differences were hard to detect. In addition, both parties were wary of making promises that would prove difficult to keep should they manage to gain office. Only one key issue divided the two parties: the extent to which the public sector should be allowed to grow or not. The Social Democrats advocated moderate growth of 0.6% while the Liberals supported zero growth. One of the latter’s main allies, the Danish People’s Party, did not agree with the zero growth platform, however, and cracks in the centre-right coalition were, therefore, apparent on this issue.

Denmark has a working multi-party system, but is, as just described, defined by relatively disciplined competition for government by two opposing ‘blocs’ in the run-up to elections. All parties thus pointed to either Helle Thorning-Schmidt or Lars Løkke Rasmussen as their preferred candidate for prime minister. The ‘blue bloc’ consisted of 4 parties, plus one that failed to secure parliamentary representation, and the ‘red bloc’ was composed of 5 parties.

The ‘blue bloc’ has been led by the Liberal party since the 1990s.With a new leader in place who had no previous experience in national politics, the Conservatives ran a highly profiled advertisement voicing its intent to ‘stop’ everything from crime to bureaucracy and radical Islam. The Danish People’s Party had become a ‘normal’ party and thereby crossed the Rubicon from political ‘outcast’ to responsible alliance partner. Its economic policies make the ‘red bloc’ a more obvious choice of partner, although it found more resonance for its strict immigration policies on the political right. However, the ‘immigration issue’ was less emphasized by the party this time around and more emphasis given to welfare and its own economic plan. This, combined with its leader’s agreeable style, probably explains the wider appeal of the party at this election. The latest addition to the ‘blue bloc’ was the Liberal Alliance which originated in the run-up to the 2007 elections. After a name change, a series of setbacks, internal disagreements, and leader exits and entries, it managed to define itself successfully as a party with a strong liberal stance on economic as well as on value politics. During the campaign, they were the sole advocates of significant cut backs in the welfare state, while they were joined by the Conservative party in proposing tax cuts for the highest income brackets.

The ‘red bloc’ was led by the Social Democrats, and also included the Social Liberal Party, the Socialist People’s Party, the Red-Green Alliance and, as the latest addition in this election, ‘The Alternative’. The Social Liberal Party has been the traditional king-maker of Danish politics occupying a position in the political centre. The Socialist People’s party entered government in 2011 for the first time since its formation in 1959 and virtually crashed in the process. It left the government in mid-term amid internal strife over the sale of the state owned energy company to foreign investors. A vocal critic of several of these reforms since its exit it also advocated for green growth and increasing security for children, the elderly, and the unemployed. Somewhat surprisingly, it reached an agreement with the Danish People’s Party to undo the unpopular reform of the unemployment insurance system during the campaign. The Red-Green alliance on the far left thrived under the charismatic leadership of Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen and successfully picked up voters who were disappointed with the government’s lack of leftist-oriented economic policies and its increasingly hardline positions on immigration. The ‘new kid on the bloc’ for this election was ‘The Alternative’: a party founded by a former member and government minister for the Social Liberal Party. Without a clear programme, it set out to develop its policies in open dialogue workshops across the country. Most, if not all, political pundits did not anticipate its subsequent successful entry into parliament. It did not appear to be made of the ‘stuff’ successful parties are typically made of. However, during the campaign it managed to bring a series of left-leaning economic as well as green proposals and stood out with a very different style of debating.

As usual, the EU only played a minor role in political debates. The EU question does not follow the usual left-right lines of conflict that typically dominates national elections and it is generally of low salience to Danish voters. It did manage to slip through the cracks at this election, however. The ‘blue bloc’ thus took everybody by surprise when they put forward a common proposal to work towards limiting the rights of EU migrant workers to social benefits for their families. Moreover, they expressed support for UK prime minister David Cameron’s quest for renegotiating the terms of EU British membership.

As Table 1 shows, the clear winners of the election were to be found on the political ‘wings’ and in the centre of Danish politics. The Danish People’s Party, known for its anti-immigration positions and pro-welfare stance, became the second largest parliamentary party and the largest of the centre-right coalition – and, therefore, normally the natural leader of the governing coalition. Instead, however, the decimated Liberal Party, that suffered a major defeat, was asked to take up the mantle of power. The other winners were: the Liberal Alliance, ‘The Alternative’ and the Red-Green Alliance. Parties at opposite ends of the left-right divide with one thing in common: a clear vision for the future development of the country. The losers were the ‘older’ and more pragmatic parties.

Table 1: 2015 Danish parliamentary election results 2015
% votes Seats Seat change
Social Democrats 26.3 47 +3
Danish People’s Party 21.1 37 +15
Liberal Party 19.5 34 –13
Red–Green Alliance 7.8 14 +2
Liberal Alliance 7.5 13 +4
The Alternative 4.8 9 New
Danish Social Liberal Party 4.6 8 –9
Socialist People’s Party 4.2 7 –9
Conservative People’s Party 3.4 6 –2
Christian Democrats 0.8 0 0
Independents 0.1 0
Total 100 175 0
Registered voters/turnout 85.9

Source: Danmarks Statistik (20 June, 2015)

One election night, when Helle Thorning-Schmidt accepted the consequence of her narrow 90-89 defeat, and declared her intent to resign, the only thing known to the public was that a new government would be formed among the four winning parties in the ‘blue bloc’ and would include the Liberal Party. Negotiations to form a coalition government fell apart due to differences between the four parties, especially over the EU issue. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, therefore, formed a single-party Liberal minority government with only 34 seats out of 179 in parliament. There were 17 ministers in the new government and, at only 40 pages long, the government declaration was shorter and less detailed than for previous administrations.

The new government’s control of 19 per cent of the seats makes it the second-weakest in parliamentary history. Denmark is used to minority government but most of them have controlled at least 35 per cent of the seats, and in particular the Liberal-Conservative-government enjoyed permanent support from the Danish People’s Party. Since 1982 all governments have been coalitions.

Mr Løkke Rasmussen will need all his skills as a deal-maker. On EU matters and socio-cultural issues such as immigration policy and law and order, the Liberal Party could be said to hold the pivotal position in the new parliament. The European refugee crisis puts this to the test. However, when it comes to general economic policies and reforms on the classical left/right-scale zero growth places the Liberals to right of median in parliament and, for this reason issues, may emerge where the governments will be put under pressure. The Social Democrats, however, have ruled out agreements with the Danish People’s Party without the government. Every year, the government will have to find support for its state budget. It is too early to predict whether the government will be able to survive for long. The first months in office have shown that this government that it needs to manoeuvre and find majorities from case-to-case much more than any government since the 1980s.

Dr. Carina S. Bischoff is an assistant professor at Roskilde University. Her research interests lie in the field of comparative politics where she has worked on questions related to the parties and party systems, elections and voter behaviour.

Dr. Flemming Juul Christiansen is an associate professor at Roskilde University with particular interests in how parties work together in coalitions, not least in the Danish case. That includes coalition agreements, pre-electoral coalitions, parliamentary opposition and legislative agreements.

Dr. Mads Dagnis Jensen is an associate professor at Roskilde University. His research deals with institutions and policy processes in the EU, co-ordination within and between central governments, and political systems in Europe.

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).