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Recent Elections in Europe Reflect Reaction to Current Issues     Print Email
By Brian Beary, European Affairs Contributing Editor

BrianBeary.new1All politics is local, or so goes the adage of former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Elections in Europe this past month are testament to this wisdom, in part. But other forces are also at play. Europe’s refugee crisis and the EU’s chronic economic and monetary challenges were prominent in voters’ minds when casting ballots in Austria, Greece, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland.

In Poland, national elections swept back into power, after eight years of opposition, the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczyinski. When Kaczyinski was Prime Minister from 2006-2007, he had a penchant for ruffling the feathers of his neighbors. He famously goaded German Chancellor Angela Merkel by complaining that Poland would have got greater voting weight in the EU Council of Ministers had Nazi Germany not killed so many Poles during World War II. This time round, such Germanophobe outbursts may be less frequent, given the more pressing threat posed by his easterly neighbor, Russia. Concern about Moscow’s manoeuvers in Ukraine over the past two years may have helped the staunchly pro-NATO PiS win back power. Anti-incumbency sentiment – the center-right Civic Platform party had been in power for eight years – was another factor.

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Michal Baranowski, Director of the Warsaw Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, predicted that the PiS government will place “a lower premium on staying within the European mainstream but there will be no desire to start unnecessary fights.” Baranowski added that the Polish government can be expected to forge a coalition with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary – the bloc of Central European countries known as the Visegrad Four – in opposing EU-wide refugee quotas and pushing for tighter control of the EU’s external borders.

In Switzerland, the far-right Swiss Peoples Party scored nearly 30 percent in federal elections, giving it a record 65 seats in the 200-member lower house. The party is thereby expected to bolster its strength in the Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive branch of government, when the two Swiss legislative chambers elect the Council on December 9. Similarly, in fellow alpine nation Austria, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party won nearly a third of the vote in two regional elections. The party finished runner-up to the center-left Social Democrats in Vienna and also scored second in Upper Austria, where it trailed the center-right Austrian Peoples Party.

On Europe’s periphery, meanwhile, elections in Portugal proved inconclusive. There were strong – but hardly breakthrough – showings from two hard-left, anti-austerity parties who together took about a 20 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the center-left and center-right alliances took about 70 percent of the vote between them. But it remains unclear who, if any, can cobble together a durable government.

Meanwhile in Greece, still sinking in a sea of debt after being pushed to accept a third EU bailout, this one worth €86 billion, the far-left Syriza party was handsomely returned to power on September 20. In the elections process, Syriza’s charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, deftly purged his party of dissenters when an anti-bailout faction split from Syriza to form a new party over the summer only to then fail to clear the 3 percent threshold for parliamentary representation.

According to Washington-based Kevin Lees, who runs his own website suffragio.org that aims to better inform Americans on foreign elections, these results underscore how central the European Union is becoming to local politics. The EU is struggling to deal with an influx of a million refugees, many from war-ravaged Syria, all the while continuing to insist that the 19 members of its single currency area, the Eurozone, implement austere fiscal policies that limit deficits and reduce debt levels. Both issues were front and center in the campaigns. The euro-fiscal policy issue was especially pressing for Greece and Portugal, both Eurozone members and bailout recipients. The immigration issue was more prominent in Austria, Poland and Switzerland as the current wave of refugees is mostly heading towards their part of Europe.

According to Lees, this is a signal of the EU’s coming of age in a sense. “The EU has become a living, breathing issue in politics. It has moved beyond an issue discussed by lofty elites. It is better that these debates are happening now at the national and local level,” he says.

The evolution was a predictable consequence of the EU’s expansion into so many policy areas. Greeks are acutely aware that their government no longer sets fiscal policy autonomously, with Brussels to a large extent in the driving seat. And Poles can see from the refugee crisis that their EU membership may involve ceding some control over who to admit to their country as the EU seeks to introduce mandatory quotas of refugees to more evenly redistribute them across the 28-member bloc. Syriza’s pledges to fight tooth and nail with the EU to end austerity and bring debt relief, and the PiS’ refusal to swallow the European Commission’s refugee redistribution plan reaped rewards for them at the ballot boxes.

This moment in EU history can be likened to the ‘Articles of Confederation’ period in America’s history in the 1780s where weaknesses in the confederation form drove the founding fathers to decide that a more closely-knit union was needed to enable the nascent nation to function better.

Yet it is far from certain right now that Europe will move in the direction of ever-closer union. The PiS in Poland is markedly more EU-sceptic that its predecessor, Civic Platform, a party that until 2014 was led by Donald Tusk, who then got appointed as President of the European Council, responsible for chairing the EU leader summits. The PiS’ members in the European Parliament are in the euro-sceptic European Conservatives and Reformists Group, where they sit alongside the British Tories.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is probably quite pleased with the PiS win as it may bolster his hand as he embarks on negotiations with the EU to claw back some powers from Brussels to London. Cameron intends the process to culminate in a new agreement that he will ask British voters to approve in a referendum to be held by 2017. The alternative choice voters will have is for the UK to exit the EU entirely, an option Cameron opposes.

In Austria, the resurgence of the Freedom Party has been fueled in part by anxiety over the sudden influx of refugees. This small country of 8.6 million people has welcomed 200,000 so far this year.

Party Chairman Heinz-Christian Strache’s success is also a reaction against a very Austrian phenomenon: the ‘grand coalition’. This is where the two largest parties, typically from the center-left and center-right of the spectrum, start to look indistinguishable from one another after serving side-by-side in coalition governments for years, or even decades.

Swiss Peoples Party leader Toni Brunner is also benefiting from a combination of nativist fears about rising immigration coupled with disdain for an entrenched centrist establishment. Though their country is not in the EU, the Swiss enjoy access to the EU single market via various bilateral agreements with Brussels. A dark cloud hangs over this access, however, since February 2014 when the Swiss in a referendum voted to introduce quotas for immigrants, including migrants from EU countries. The EU strenuously objects to this because it goes against the EU-Swiss accords. A solution has yet to be found.

Further south, Portugal and Greece’s election results make for an interesting contrast study. Both countries are EU and Eurozone members who have been forced to implement painful austerity policies to curb public deficits and debts. Portugal did manage to exit its EU/IMF-run bailout program in 2014 and has returned to modest economic growth. But Greece is now on its third EU bailout and its economy is forecast to further shrink this year.

An ardent desire to avoid a Greek-style showdown with the EU over fiscal policy was foremost in the mind of Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva when he recently prodded the center-right Forward Portugal Alliance, led by Passos Coelho, to form a minority government. While the socialist party’s leader Antonio Costa offers a potential alternative as Prime Minister were he to form a coalition of left-leaning parties, Cavaco Silva chose not to ask him to do so. Justifying the move, he said: “In 40 years of democracy, the Portuguese governments never depended on anti-European political factions.”

In Greece, successive electoral wins of Syriza – most recently, it came first place, winning 35 percent of the vote in last month’s elections - have surprised some pundits who thought that once he entered government, Tsipras’ poll numbers would plummet. Voters seem to be rewarding Tsipras for standing up to Brussels even though he caved in the end.

But while this paid off for him politically, it came at a heavy economic price. The months-long Athens-Brussels tussle over the terms of the third bailout plunged Greece back into recession, after it had just emerged from a five-year brutal economic contraction. Despite this setback, Tsipras is hoping that his EU partners make good on recent commitments to consider the issue of debt relief for Greece.

As much as policies, the elections revealed who the big political hitters are on the political stage. Two figures, Tsipras and Kaczynski, stand out prominently. Kevin Lees predicts that “Kaczynski will be one of the most powerful politicians in Europe. He will set the limits of EU integration.” As for Tsipras, he already had emerged as a leader of Europe’s far-left, which in 2014 nominated him as their candidate to be EU Commission President during the spitzenkandidat process that the main political groups created for the European Parliament elections. Greece’s youthful leader looks like he will be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.