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European Election Update

April 28, 2014

A series of elections around Europe over the last five weeks has demonstrated a clear and consistent string of victories for parties that are aligned right of center of the political spectrum.  In countries with strong, successful center-right governments, ruling parties have been confirmed, and in countries with center-left governments, opposition and outsider parties and candidates have gained significant ground. 

In several of the countries in question, these elections have served as focal points for concerns regarding weaknesses in democratic institutions and imbalances in power that raise questions about the state of democracy around the region.  With a number of elections still to come in the next two months, including continent-wide elections to the European Parliament at the end of May, IRI continues to examine elections in the member- and candidate-member states of the European Union for emerging trends.

Hungary

Parliamentary Elections – April 6, 2014

The ruling, center-right Fidesz party under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán handily won the regularly scheduled elections to the National Assembly, taking 44.87 percent of the national list vote (and 37 seats) and winning 96 of 106 single-member district races outright.  With this result Fidesz won a second, consecutive two-thirds majority in the Assembly.  Turnout was 61.24 percent, somewhat lower than it was four years ago.  The socialist-liberal alliance led by the Hungarian Socialist Party came in second with 25.57 percent of the national list vote.  Jobbik, the radical, far-right party took 20.22 percent and the green-liberal Politics Can Be Different party just passed the five-percent threshold with 5.34 percent.

These elections were the first conducted under a new and controversial election system.  The subject of broad international criticism (which Fidesz argues has been politically driven by the Left), the new system cut the number of seats in parliament from 386 to 199, with 106 of these elected in single-mandate districts and the rest by proportional representation.  One ongoing criticism of the new districts is that they were gerrymandered to the benefit of the ruling party, but by comparison to any number of U.S. congressional districts, they are clean, compact, balanced and proportional.  

Of these 106 single-mandate districts, Fidesz won 96 and the socialist-liberal coalition 10 – actually a worse performance for Fidesz than in 2010 under the old systems, when it won 173 of 176 districts.   Another criticism of the elections was that, although private media is competitive and has voices from left and right, a “significant part” of Hungary is served only by state media, and thus allegedly only received the “government line.” 

IRI conducted a staff assessment in and around Budapest for the elections, with resident country directors from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey observing 24 polling stations.  Overall, IRI staff assessors found the environment on Election Day to be quiet, well-run and efficient.  Because IRI had no long-term observation mission, the Institute is not able assess the pre-election environment.

In his victory speech, Prime Minister Orbán said that the voters had said no to two things: hatred and leaving the European Union.  The voters, he said, reaffirmed that Hungary’s place is in Europe, but only when it has a strong national government.  “We stand, all of us, on the threshold of a new and wonderful age,” he said.  “I call on the citizens of Hungary:  Let us step into this new and wonderful age together.  Only together were we able to get this far.  And only together will we be able to make Hungary great and successful again.”

France

Municipal Elections, Second Round – March 30

As expected after the catastrophic results of the first round, the second round of France’s municipal elections saw a spectacular rout of the center-left government, with the Socialist Party and its allies suffering major defeats across the country and losing control of no fewer than 155 cities to the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).  It was the first victory in an election since 2009 for the UMP.  The festive mood at UMP party headquarters was not euphoric, though, as the party did not succeed in taking Paris, and the far-right Front National took control of 15 city councils.  Turnout was 63.7 percent, a record low for this type of election.  The results further weakened Socialist President Hollande, who was already at record lows in popularity and continues to face bad economic numbers.

The day was an abysmal one for the French Socialists, except in Paris.  Hollande’s party suffered its worst local election defeat since 1983.  More than the numbers, however, is the symbolic significance of some of the cities lost: the left lost Toulouse (the fourth largest city in France) and working-class cities such as Amiens and Saint-Etienne.  It even lost Limoges, a Socialist stronghold, which had been ruled by the left for the past 102 years.  The scale of the rout was clearest in Marseilles, where the Socialist candidate ended up in third position, behind re-elected UMP Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin and the far right.

The Socialists did, however, hold on to three of the five largest cities, where the left has a comparative advantage as the sociological distribution of city centers has tipped in favor of the “bobo” (bourgeois-bohemian) demographic group.  As expected, Lille and Lyons stayed on the left.  But the main good news was the victory of Anne Hidalgo in Paris, as she managed to mobilize her electorate to clinch victory over her opponent Nathalie Kosciuszko-Morizet, who had won the first round (and who comes from the family of the famous French General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War).

Although it usually faces difficulty in municipal elections because of the two-round system which has so far ensured that its dominance in the first round could not be followed through in the second, Marine LePen’s far-right Front National managed to score resounding victories in France’s southeast and north.  In all, the Front won control over 15 cities (it controlled none going into the elections), scoring resounding victories in places like Orange and Fréjus. 

All eyes are now turned toward the European Parliament elections of May 25, in which the proportional representation voting method will be more favorable to the Front National.  Its vice president announced that the objective would be to have the party finish in first position on May 25, and the expectation seems to be reachable, as recent opinion polls have suggested.

Macedonia

Parliamentary and Presidential Elections, Second Round – April 27

As expected, with almost 100 percent of the vote counted, the governing Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) under Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski easily won early parliamentary elections with 42.18 percent of the vote cast.  The opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), led by Zoran Zaev, took 24.91 percent.  VMRO-DMPNE’s coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), led by Ali Ahmeti, won among the ethnic Albanian electorate with 13.48 percent, while the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), led by Menduh Thaci, took 5.83 percent.  Turnout was 64 percent.  Election Day was peaceful. 

According to the unofficial mandate allocation by the State Election Commission the VMRO-DPMNE coalition won 61 seats, the SDSM coalition 34, DUI 19, DPA seven, Citizens’ Option for Macedonia one and the National Democratic Revival one.  The Macedonian Parliament has a total of 120 seats, thus VMRO-DPMNE and its coalition partners have taken an outright majority.

Incumbent President Gjorge Ivanov, nominated by VMRO-DPMNE, won the second round of the presidential election with 55.25 percent of the vote.  Opponent Stevo Pendarovski, nominated by the opposition SDSM, took 41.17 percent.  Turnout for the presidential election was 54.33 percent.  Ethnic Albanian voters who support the DUI did not vote in the presidential election.  DUI had stated that the party would not recognize Ivanov’s victory and would continue to demand the president be elected in a “consensual manner.”

Immediately after the elections, SDSM Chairman Zaev held a press conference stating the SDSM did not recognize the results of either the parliamentary or the presidential elections, calling them “unfair, undemocratic and uncivilized.”  He cited alleged pressures on public administration employees, vote-buying, intensifying inspections and fines imposed on private firms in the 35 days prior to the elections, threats to recipients of social welfare and electioneering in houses of worship, as proof that the government had usurped the citizens’ right to vote freely.  SDSM asked that a technocratic government be formed to conduct “normal and fair” parliamentary and presidential elections.

Serbia

Parliamentary Elections – March 16, 2014

The center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by Aleksandar Vučić, won an overwhelming victory in early parliamentary elections, with three prominent parties failing to cross the electoral threshold of five percent.

Early elections were called on January 29, 2014, barely a year and a half after a coalition of the SNS and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) took power.  During this government’s mandate, SNS led the effort to normalize relations with Kosovo, begin membership negotiations with the European Union and start a crackdown on corruption.  As a result, SNS more than doubled its support in public opinion polls.  SNS then called early elections to consolidate its power and ostensibly to obtain a clear mandate to reform the country’s moribund economy, although the campaign offered few specifics in this regard. 

The SNS, along with smaller coalition parties, won 48.34 percent of the vote, which translated into an absolute majority of 158 seats the 250-seat parliament.  The SPS and its coalition parties came in second with 13.51 percent and 44 seats.  Only two other traditional parties – the Democratic Party (DS) and the DS-breakaway New Democratic Party—Greens crossed the electoral threshold with 6.04 percent (19 seats) and 5.71 percent (18 seats), respectively.  Three ethnic-minority lists (Hungarians, Bosniaks and Albanians) also entered parliament. 

In a historic turn of events in a country where governments have traditionally been made up of 20 or more parties in coalition, the election results would give the SNS the chance to form a government alone.  After more than a month of post-election negotiations and trial balloons, however, it seems that SNS will form a government with its former partners, the SPS, as well as with the Hungarian ethnic-minority party.  It is expected that Vučić will be prime minister, while SPS Chairman and former Prime Minister Ivica Dačić will become minister of foreign affairs.  Five or six ministries will be headed by SNS members, while the other roughly 10 ministers (with the exact number to be specified in a new Law on Ministries) will be “experts” recruited from non-party sources.  

Speculation about the reasons the SNS decided to invite the SPS to join the government include: international pressure, the magnitude of the problems facing Serbia and the lack of human resources in the SNS.  Unemployment is near 30 percent, the budget deficit is at seven percent and rising, and there are nearly as many pensioners as workers.  The economy is largely unreformed from the days of the Cold War, and riddled with corruption from the 1990s war.  At the same time, SNS is itself a relatively new party with few members having experience in government.  Vučić has consistently promised major reforms that would be “difficult and painful.”  A coalition with the SPS could supply both the social consensus, and the experienced personnel, to make major economic and structural reforms.

Slovakia

Presidential Elections, Second Round – March 29, 2014

Political rookie and independent candidate Andrej Kiska, who ran with the general support of the center-right, and the direct assistance of a number of center-right campaign professionals, inflicted a major defeat on ruling center-left Prime Minister Robert Fico, taking 60 percent of the vote to Fico’s 40 percent.  Long the leader of the large, center-left Smer-Social Democracy party and now in his second term as prime minister, Fico was reaching to take the presidency in order to set in place a managed succession that he hoped would leave Smer victorious in the 2016 (and possibly also the 2020) parliamentary elections.

Kiska had never been involved in politics before he announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2012.  He had previously successfully run a number of finance companies and then started an nongovernmental organization called Good Angel, to support cancer victims and their families, which went on to become one of the country’s largest collectors and distributors of charitable funds.  He ran the classic anti-establishment, “outsider” campaign.

Although the presidency has relatively limited power under the Slovak constitution, it can be assumed that Kiska will make life much more complicated for Prime Minister Fico in the coming years, as the president has the authority to appoint individuals to a number of key positions, including the members of the constitutional court.  Although it remains deeply fragmented, the country’s center-right sees in his victory the potential beginning of the end of the dominance of the left in government, and is buoyed by the idea of now running against a weakened Smer in 2016.

Turkey

Municipal Elections – March 30, 2014

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) received 45.6 percent of the total vote cast nationwide, taking 48 out of 81 provincial mayor positions.  The party thus increased its support by five million votes across Turkey when compared to the results in the 2009 municipal elections, despite a year of sometimes violent anti-government protests and gathering accusations of corruption against the government.  The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 27.8 percent of the vote, the Nationalist Movement Party 15.2 percent and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) 4.2 percent of total vote for seats in the local provincial/municipal assemblies.  Turnout was more than 82 percent and voting is (technically) compulsory.

The fiercest battle was seen in the mayoral race in the capital, Ankara.  Five-term incumbent AKP Mayor Melih Gökçek barely managed to defend his seat against the CHP’s Mansur Yavaş, who early on election night declared victory with only partial results counted.  The final margin was 32,187 (or one percent) of the total 3.15 million votes cast.  CHP requests for a recount were rejected.  In Istanbul, where the CHP also hoped to make the race close, the AKP candidate took 47.9 percent to the CHP candidate’s 40.1 percent.  Here, too, the CHP candidate declared victory prematurely. 

The victory for AKP comes as proof that last year’s Gezi Park protests, recent corruption scandals, a graft probe against several ministers in Erdoğan’s government and even recordings of the prime minister himself in which he allegedly discusses with his son how to hide large sums of money have not managed to seriously hurt AKP’s support.  In fact, AKP managed to reinforce and even enlarge its voter base while the opposition has still not managed to capitalize on cracks in Erdoğan’s 11-year long rule.

For the first time in Turkey’s history, women were elected to govern three metropolitan cities.  The AKP candidate for the southeastern province of Gaziantep, Fatma Şahin; the BDP candidate for the southeastern province of Diyarbakır, Gültan Kışanak; and the CHP candidate for the Aegean province of Aydın, Özlem Çerçioğlu all won handily, representing three different parties and gaining remarkable support from voters.

Despite its decisive character, AKP’s victory was tarnished by allegations of fraud during the vote count.  Across the country, there were reports of ballots being burned and thrown away in traditionally opposition-oriented districts.  Several cities in critical areas of Turkey were also hit by power outages during the counting, thereby feeding the opposition with ammunition for accusations of fraud, although no link between the outages and the elections has been proven.  On the whole, voting was peaceful throughout most of Turkey, although feuds did break out in two villages near Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria where eight people were killed and another 13 reported injured in the gunfire.

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