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Give PiS a chance: why the EU has to play nice with Poland’s new populist government

Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński and German chancellor don't always see eye-to-eye on EU matters. (Bartosz Bobkowski / Agencja Gazeta)
Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński and German chancellor don’t always see eye-to-eye on EU matters. (Bartosz Bobkowski / Agencja Gazeta)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice), is now as important figure in European politics as French president François Hollande. Poland_Flag_Icon

No one should be surprised that Kaczyński is now the de facto leader of Poland, and no one should have doubted that he would direct a PiS-led government to pursue its full-throated agenda of populist economic sops to Poland’s poorest easterners and socially conservative values, mixed with equal amounts of nativism, euroscepticism and paranoia.

But Poland’s fresh government is facing criticism at home and abroad that it is now dismantling many of the features of the country’s post-Cold War democracy. Notably, critics argue that the new PiS government is co-opting both Poland’s constitutional tribunal and its state-run media.

Andrzej Duda, Poland’s new president has refused to seat five judges appointed by the outgoing government to Poland’s constitutional tribunal. Though two of those judicial appointments were subsequently ruled invalid, the new PiS government pushed forward with five new appointments anyway, leaving three judges validly appointed and unconfirmed. Moreover, the new PiS government passed a law mandating a two-thirds majority (not a simple majority) for constitutional rulings. The new government has also asserted greater political power over the state-controlled media.

Barely three months into Poland’s new government, the European Commission is opening a formal inquiry against the PiS-led administration, headed by EC first vice president Frans Timmermans, to determine whether the new government’s actions amount to a ‘systemic risk’ to Poland’s rule of law, a standard that — so far — hasn’t been breached in Hungary or Romania.

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RELATED: Polish conservatives prepare to return to power after 8 years

RELATED: Poland election results: PiS sweeps to power

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Those concerns are legitimate, especially insofar as the new government is undermining judicial independence and press freedom, and some Europeans hopes that US president Barack Obama will even exert pressure, through the NATO alliance, on Poland’s new government. But the overwrought response from EU elites will only play into the hands of the PiS’s most eurosceptic leaders and, what’s more, Polish democracy is far too developed in the year 2016 to crumble as easily as many of Kaczyński’s critics fear.

Throughout the European Union, the Greek economic crisis and lingering problems with the eurozone have undermined the monetary pillar of EU integration, while the deluge of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere, in greater numbers than at any time since World War II, have eroded the Schengen zone and the principle of internal European borders. EU leaders have far greater problems than allowing Kaczyński and the PiS into goading them into confrontation, especially as British voters focus on a 2017 referendum that could result in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
Continue reading Give PiS a chance: why the EU has to play nice with Poland’s new populist government

Poland election results: PiS sweeps to victory

The vital question for Poland’s new government is whether it will be led by the new prime minister, Beata Szydło, or by the longtime PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński. (Facebook)

In a sweeping election, the nationalist conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) will return to power after eight years in the wilderness, bringing the prickly former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński back to the heart of Polish and European governance, according to exit polls pending the release of full election results on Monday.Poland_Flag_Icon

Though Kaczyński himself didn’t stand for prime minister, he hand-picked the PiS’s prime ministerial candidate, 52-year old Beata Szydło, a more moderate figure who worked throughout the campaign to assure voters that the PiS could form a more constructive government than the one Kaczyński led between 2005 and 2007, when his late twin brother Lech Kaczyński simultaneously served as Poland’s president.

The PiS’s presidential candidate, Andrzej Duda, a 42-year-old member of the European parliament, won an upset victory in May’s presidential election. A nationalist who opposes Poland’s entry into the eurozone, Duda (like Szydło) nevertheless portrayed a more moderate quantity than Kaczyński.


Though Kaczyński hasn’t particularly undermined Duda (so far), the presidency is a far more ceremonial office than the premiership, so it’s reasonable to believe that Kaczyński will play a much more hands-on role in the next government, if behind the scenes. That means that most important question that the new government faces is whether it will embrace the more moderate Duda-Szydło approach or revert to Kaczyński’s more pugilistic and confrontational manner. (A close second is the degree to which the next government will embrace economic liberalism, given the PiS’s penchant for populism).


RELATED: Polish conservatives prepare to return to power after 8 years


The election results amount to a repudiation of Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister appointed last year as president of the European Council. Tusk hasn’t made the easiest transition from Warsaw to Brussels. Part of the reason is that he has spent so much effort trying to continue to shape Polish politics through his hand-picked successor, Ewa Kopacz, who didn’t share Tusk’s immense charisma or gravitas. His party, the more liberal, center-right Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform), had trailed consistently since the May presidential election, despite one of the best economic records in Europe. GDP growth since the 2008-09 financial crisis is the highest in Europe, and the country actually avoided recession throughout the past eight years.

Even with Tusk at the helm, a third consecutive mandate would have been difficult. Voters voiced growing concerns over a wire-tapping scandal and exasperation with the unequal pace of economic development. Civic Platform also faced the general sense of fatigue that comes after two full four-year terms in office. Moreover, fears over border security and the European refugee crisis this autumn also played to the PiS’s more nationalist strengths.

Headlines and commentary suggest that the new Polish government will look like Viktor Orbán’s hard-right, nationalist government in Hungary, but that somewhat overstates the case. Though the PiS will echo Orbán’s line on migration and border security (essentially the same position as Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico), Orbán has expressly taunted European values and embraced the concept of an ‘iliberal’ Hungary. No one expects Poland to follow suit.

Nevertheless, the new government will be even more hawkish in pushing for European (and NATO) vigilance against Russia, and the PiS will push for Poland to take a leading role throughout eastern and central Europe on all matters, including security.

Relations with the rest of the European Union will not come quite as easily as under the Tusk-Kopacz governments, though. The PiS government will join both Orbán and British prime minister David Cameron with a far more nationalistic view toward EU reform to restore more powers to member states, especially as EU officials struggle with border security. As Cameron gears up for EU negotiations for greater British opt-outs prior to the 2017 referendum on UK membership in the European Union, Poland’s new government will provide him with a powerful eastern ally.
Continue reading Poland election results: PiS sweeps to victory

Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.
Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.

Amid the refugee crisis that has strained European borders, internal and external, since late summer, there’s increasing discussion of using formal diplomatic sanctions against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán for his intransigence in dealing with migrants, many of whom are Syrians fleeing years of civil war or otherwise miserable refugee camps in an overburdened Lebanon.austria flag

The last time that the European Union assessed diplomatic sanctions, however, was in 2000, when it chided Austria for letting the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) into government.

But in the first electoral test for the eastern European countries at the heart of the migrant crisis, it was the FPÖ that emerged as the clear winner, surging 9% to second place in Oberösterreich (Upper Austria)’s regional elections and winning 18 of the regional parliament’s 56 seats.


Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, already had reason to be pleased with himself after taking the party to third-place status in Austria’s national parliamentary elections in September 2013.

His party only narrowly lost to the long-dominant center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), which has controlled the state government since 1945, and whose leader, Josef Pühringer, has served as the state’s governor since 1995. Though its population is just 1.44 million, the state is Austria’s industrial heartland and the country’s third-most populous state, and it borders Germany’s Bavaria and the Czech Republic. The  center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) of Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann fell to third place.


Since 2003, the Austrian People’s Party has governed Upper Austria in a so-called ‘black-green’ coalition with Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative). Though the Greens actually improved on their support from the most recent election in 2009, the ÖVP’s loss of seven seats means that their partnership is two seats short of a majority in the unicameral Landtag. Pühringer will have to form a minority government, looking to the Social Democrats or the Freedom Party for support on a case-by-case basis or otherwise enter into negotiations for a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats. Continue reading Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

A Russian bailout may have always been ‘Plan B’ for Tsipras

junckertsiprasPhoto credit to ELTOS/ELTA.

It may have seemed odd that, within hours of taking office, Greece’s new prime minister Alexis Tsipras struck out at the European Union to delay and ultimately weaken the bloc’s resolution to extend sanctions against Russia and certain actors within the Russian government.Greece Flag IconRussia Flag Icon

The incident shed light on an under-explored element of policy preferences of Greece’s new governing party, the leftist SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς), including its reluctance to embrace NATO and the traditional military and security alliance that links the United States and the European Union. Tspiras, who has visited the Kremlin several times, has forcefully opposed the EU sanctions against Russia stemming from its involvement in the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Furthermore, Tsipras’s choice to form a coalition with the right-wing, anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες), and to appoint ANEL’s leader, Panos Kammenos, as defense minister, brought into government a brand of right-wing nationalism with roots in traditional Greek Orthodoxy and plenty of euroscepticism.

Throughout the campaign and, indeed, for years, Tspiras has publicly evoked confidence, if not outright cockiness, that he would be able to negotiate a deal to lighten Greece’s debt load if elected to power. Presumably, many commentators believed that meant Tsipras was willing to engage EU elites, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, in a game of ‘chicken’ over Greece’s potential exit from the eurozone. That’s probably still true.

But the common view among most economists is that Greece’s leverage on this point is growing weaker. Merkel and others have privately briefed that the eurozone is much stronger now than in 2012 when the ‘Grexit’ issue first became a real concern, and they don’t believe that the contagion from a Grexit today would be considerable. Greece’s turmoil can be isolated, but caving to the demands of the Tsipras government could embolden radical leftists elsewhere in Europe, especially in Spain, where the leftist Podemos movement now leads polls in advance of elections later this =year. The European Central Bank last week essentially backed Merkel’s view by announcing that it would refuse to accept Greek bonds as collateral, pushing the burden of risk on Greek debt exclusively upon the Greek central bank. Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis clashed publicly with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble last week as well, noting that he didn’t even ‘agree to disagree’ with Schäuble over the Greek debt standoff.

But Kammenos’s comments yesterday about Greece’s ‘Plan B’ make it clear that the Tsipras government believes it has another, potentially more explosive card it can play:

“What we want is a deal. But if there is no deal – hopefully (there will be) – and if we see thatGermany remains rigid and wants to blow apart Europe, then we have the obligation to go to Plan B. Plan B is to get funding from another source,” he told a Greek television show that ran into early Tuesday. “It could the United States at best, it could be Russia, it could beChina or other countries,” he said.

The United States is certainly not going to undermine Merkel and the EU leadership, especially to bail out a far-left government in Greece. Furthermore, China’s recent history demonstrates that it very rarely makes splashy political moves in foreign policy outside regional Asian politics (such as in Bhutan or Sri Lanka).

That, of course, leaves Russia, which shares a common form of Christianity with Greece in Orthodoxy, and which also happens to be in the middle of the most high-stakes geopolitical struggle with NATO since the end of the Cold War. Continue reading A Russian bailout may have always been ‘Plan B’ for Tsipras

Iohannis upsets Ponta in Romanian presidential election


It’s becoming a more German Europe in more ways that one.Romania Flag Icon

In a stunning upset victory, Sibiu mayor Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, defeated prime minister Victor Ponta, in Sunday’s Romanian presidential election, challenging confident predictions that Ponta would easily take the presidency.

Ponta’s center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party), dominated both the December 2013 national parliamentary elections and the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, and Ponta entered the runoff as the prohibitive favorite after a resounding victory in the October 2 first round, when he took 40.44% of the vote to just 30.37% for Iohannis, the new leader of the center-right Partidul Național Liberal (PNL, National Liberal Party).

But Ponta’s 10-point lead disguised the fact that he fell 10% short of an absolute majority and, as voters’ minds focused on the runoff, Iohannis gained from a surge in turnout — from around 53% in the first round to over 64% in the runoff.

That’s despite the endorsement that Ponta won from third-place challenger, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, a former PNL leader and the country’s prime minister between 2004 and 2008, who founded the Partidul Liberal Reformator (PLR, Liberal Reformist Party) in July, helped boost Iohannis to an unexpectedly wide margin of victory — 54.50% to just 45.49% for Ponta.

Iohannis, a physics teacher by training, has served as mayor of Sibiu, a city in Transylvania, since 2000, and he led the relatively small Forumul Democrat al Germanilor din România (FDGR, Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania) from 2002 to 2013. As outgoing incumbent Traian Băsescu receded from the spotlight after a decade as president, Iohannis assumed the leadership of the PNL, the larger of Romania’s two major opposition parties, though Iohannis also had the support of Băsescu’s Partidul Democrat-Liberal (PD-L, Democratic Liberal Party).


Though the PNL joined forces with Ponta (pictured above) in 2011 to form the Social Liberal Union, it left the coalition in February 2014 to enter opposition, eyeing an alliance with the PD-L. When the PNL suffered disappointing losses in the May European elections, however, its leader Crin Antonescu stepped down, paving the way for Iohannis to reboot the party and become the joint PNL/PD-L presidential candidate.

Though ethnic Germans settled much of Transylvania, including the city of Sibiu, two waves of German exodus, first after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, have left few German-speaking enclaves in Romania. Today, just over 4% of Romanians are ethnically German. Continue reading Iohannis upsets Ponta in Romanian presidential election

Beware Putin’s southern European, soft-power front


Russian president Vladimir Putin travel to Belgrade on Thursday with a warm welcome from Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić (pictured above, left, with Putin) with  parades and fanfare.Russia Flag Iconbulgaria flagSerbia_Flag_IconHungary Flag Icon

Even as a shaky ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian eastern separatists limps forward, US and European policymakers continue to keep a wary eye on the Baltic states and Ukraine. Just over a month ago in Tallinn, US president Barack Obama disabused Putin that NATO would flinch in its response to any Russian attack against any of the Baltic states.

Russian aggression may have nudged Latvian voters into reelecting a center-right government otherwise unpopular after a half-decade of economic malaise and budget austerity, and Russian relations are certain to play a vital role in Ukraine’s snap parliamentary elections in less than two weeks.

Nevertheless, Western strategists may be overlooking Putin’s ability to undermine both EU and NATO resolve through the Achilles’ heel of southeastern Europe by leveraging economic, political and cultural influence in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. While it’s hard to believe that Russia would assume the economic burdens of annexing large swaths of eastern Ukraine and even harder to believe that it would risk World War III by invading Russian-majority territory in Estonia, Russia could easily, quietly and gradually maximize its influence within southern Europe, a region that continues to suffer inordinately from the fallout of the global financial and eurozone debt crises.

Earlier this month, Bulgarian voters went to the polls for the second time in just 17 months. They elected a fragmented National Assembly, though the former pro-European, center-right prime minister Boyko Borissov is likely to return to power with a minority government. One of the first decisions he will have to make is whether to proceed with the South Stream natural gas pipeline, which would carry Russian energy through Bulgaria and to Austria, Hungary and elsewhere in southern Europe. The pipeline is one of the reasons, in fact, that the previous center-left coalition government fell earlier this summer. Continue reading Beware Putin’s southern European, soft-power front

European Council proposes Juncker as Commission president


Bowing to pressure from European parliamentary leaders, the European Council has proposed as its candidate for the presidency of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg and former head of the Eurogroup, the informal gathering of the eurozone finance ministers. European_Union

That makes it virtually certain that the European Parliament will elect Juncker (pictured above) as the next Commission president, likely with the full support of the two major pan-European parties in the Parliament, Juncker’s own center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left, social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES). It also likely means that the PES candidate for the Commission  presidency, Martin Schulz, will become the Commission vice president. 

It’s obviously a defeat for British prime minister David Cameron who, just last week, was still holding out hope that he could pull together a blocking minority to keep Juncker from receiving the Council’s endorsement. But by the time the Council gathered to vote, only Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán joined Cameron in opposing Juncker. Not only did Cameron fail to win over allies, he failed to keep both Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Swedish prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt, neither of whom are enthusiastic about the prospects of a Juncker candidacy.

Contacted by a reporter for the Moscow-based RIA Novosti earlier today, I had a chance to put together some quick thoughts on what the Juncker decision means. Here are my real-time responses, which will double as my real-time analysis on where things go from here.  

On how the choice reflects the European parliamentary elections on May 25:

The choice reflects the fact that Juncker was the candidate of the European People’s Party, the pan-European group of center-right, Christian democratic parties, and the EPP won the greatest number of seats in the European parliamentary elections on May 25. The EPP nominated Juncker as its candidate for the European Commission presidency prior to the May 25 parliamentary elections, just as several other European parliamentary parties nominated their own candidates. The candidates — the German term ‘Spitzenkandidaten‘ developed widespread use across Europe — campaigned throughout the spring, and they participated in a set of debates on the EU’s future.

Under the Lisbon treaty, the European Council is supposed to ‘propose’ a candidate for Commission president, which will be ‘elected’ by the European Parliament, with the Council ‘taking into account’ the results of the parliamentary election. No one knows exactly what that means, but Juncker and the other parliamentary leaders believe firmly that the Council must propose Juncker as its candidate. In so doing today, the Council has set an important precedent for future parliamentary elections, though national leaders will be loathe to admit it.

Proponents of the Spitzenkandidaten system argue that Juncker represents the will of the European electorate, because he’s the candidate of the party that won the most votes, but it’s not so simple as that. There’s no real indication that the majority of European voters were voting on the basis of this or that Commission presidential candidate. Voter turnout has dropped significantly since the first European elections in 1979, and voters often cast their ballots on the basis of national governments or other factors. To the extent there was a unifying theme to the elections, it was the rise of euroscepticism on both the far right and the far left, with the victories of groups like the United Kingdom Independence Party, France’s Front national (National Front) and Denmark’s Dansk Folkeparti (People’s Party). Whatever ‘mandate’ you take away from the European elections, it’s hard to argue there’s a groundswell of genuine democratic support for Juncker. It was only last October that Juncker’s own center-right Christian Social People’s Party suffered so many losses in Luxembourg’s national elections that he was forced out as prime minister after 18 years.

Continue reading European Council proposes Juncker as Commission president

It won’t necessarily take much to block Juncker in Council vote

David Cameron and Angela Merkel

One fact that’s becoming increasingly clear in the current tussle over electing a new president of the European Commission is that the eventual candidate must win a qualified majority on the European Council, as well as an absolute majority in the European Parliament. European_Union

Though the rules for qualified majority voting on the Council are greatly simplified under the Treaty of Lisbon, it’s worth noting that those rules don’t take effect until November 2014.

That means that the old rules, under the Treaty of Nice, will be in effect during the current fight this summer over whether former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP), can become the next Commission president.

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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

RELATED: The mother-of-all-battles over
European integration has begun

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With the current president of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, currently taking the lead on the process, the Council will submit a formal proposal for Commission president during its next official summit on June 26 and 27.

That explains why the focus of the fight over Juncker has moved from the Parliament to a fight between German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron (pictured above, last week, left, with Swedish prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte).

Under the Lisbon rules, qualified majority voting means that a proposal under consideration by the Council must meet three requirements:

  • a majority of countries within the European Union (15 out of 28 countries);
  • a supermajority (74%) of countries according to a formula of voting weights; and
  • a supermajority of countries representing  at least 62% of the EU-wide population.

The trickiest hurdle is meeting the 74% hurdle. The system assigns weights, roughly corresponding to population, to each country, with a maximum of 29 for each of Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy, and a minimum of three for the smallest member, Malta. With a total of 352 weighted votes after Croatia’s July 2013 EU accession, that means Juncker must win at least 260 weighted votes. Conversely, it means that a minority consisting of 93 weighted votes can block Juncker.

Cameron is committed to opposing Juncker.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who belongs to the EPP, has also opposed Juncker in retribution for Luxembourg’s outspoken role on the Commission in the past five years attacking Orbán’s questionable respect for democratic norms and press freedom in Hungary.

Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, has also voiced doubts about Juncker’s candidacy, even though he also belongs to the EPP. If Juncker fails to pass muster in the Council, Reinfeldt himself has been mentioned as a compromise candidate, given the likelihood that his center-right Moderata samlingspartiet (Moderate Party) is expected to lose national elections in September.

Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, has joined Reinfeldt in his hesitation over Juncker. Rutte, like Cameron and Reinfeldt, is generally a Merkel ally on European economic policy and the need for trimming national budgets, but he belongs to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), the third-largest European parliamentary bloc.

If Sweden (10 weighted votes) and The Netherlands (13 votes) join Hungary (12 votes) and the United Kingdom (29 votes), Cameron will have 64 votes to block Juncker — and he’ll need just 29 more votes to do so.

Those votes could come from Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi has demanded a more flexible interpretation of EU budget rules and a greater emphasis on economic growth stimulation (instead of austerity) in exchange for backing Juncker. A deal seemed imminent earlier this week, though Renzi hasn’t yet declared either support or opposition for Juncker.

Right now, the momentum seems to be with Merkel and Juncker, and flowing away from Cameron. Either Rutte or Reinfeldt could back down from their criticisms. Furthermore, Renzi might be wary of alienating Merkel just four months into his premiership and days before Italy assumes the six-month rotating Council presidency. But Cameron, who has suggested Denmark’s social democratic prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as an alternative Commission president, might yet persuade Renzi to join him for at least one shot at obtaining a more reformist Commission president than Juncker.

It’s worth noting that French president François Hollande, like Renzi, would like to see a greater emphasis on growth at the European level, and he hasn’t firmly indicated that he’ll support Juncker, either.

Continue reading It won’t necessarily take much to block Juncker in Council vote

The mother-of-all-battles over European integration has begun


Three days after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, with leaders at the national and European level firing the first shots in what promises to be an epic battle over European integration — and that will determine who really calls the shots in the European Union.European_Union

Last night, at an informal meeting of the European Council, the leaders of all 28 member-states of the European Union met to discuss how to approach the election of the next president of the European Commission, the powerful regulatory and executive arm of the European Union. The term of current president José Manuel Barroso, who has served in the role since 2004, will end within six months.

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RELATED: In depth — European parliamentary elections

RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are real four contests

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They poured cold water on the notion that they would automatically propose former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president. Since Sunday, Juncker has stridently made his case that as the Commission presidential candidate (the ‘Spitzenkandiat‘) of the European People’s Party (EPP), which won the greatest number of seats in Sunday’s EU-wide elections, he should have the first right to attempt to assemble a parliamentary majority. That’s a position that, ironically, even the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES), the second-largest bloc in the European Parliament has endorsed:

Commenting on the leaders’ decision, outgoing Socialist group leader Hannes Swoboda tweeted that it’s “absurd that Juncker has our backing to start negotiations but is blocked in the Council by his own EPP family!”

It’s already starting to appear that, behind the scenes, the EPP, which won around 214 seats, and the PES, which won around 191 seats, are coming closer to forming a ‘grand coalition’ to back Juncker’s candidacy in a bid to assert the precedent that the Parliament should be the institution to determine the Commission presidency, not the Council. Both Juncker and the PES Spitzenkandidat, German social democrat Martin Schulz, have argued repeatedly that the Parliament should reject any Commission president that wasn’t among the original Spitzenkandidaten.

But it’s not so simple. The Commission president must win not only a parliamentary majority. He or she must also win a qualified majority among the heads of government and state that comprise the  Council, and enthusiasm among those leaders seems to be flagging for Juncker.

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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

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The key player, German chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured above), seemed testy in two press conferences since the election when asked about the looming showdown. As the leader of one of the top parties in the EPP, she officially supports Juncker, but her comments should hardly give Juncker comfort:

She also thanked Juncker for the “good campaign” he ran for the European People’s Party, but seemed slightly irritated by the avalanche of questions as to whether she backs Juncker to become the next EU commission president.

“I don’t decide who gets the post. Juncker is our candidate, the EPP candidate, and we will put his name forward in the discussions. It’s always been said that it’s up to the strongest group to put forward the candidate, but just being the strongest group is not enough, a majority is required,” she said.

A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

skepticismAs voters in 28 European countries prepare to head to the polls, beginning on May 22 and running through May 25, no one knows whether Europe’s center-left or center-right will win more seats, and no one knows who will ultimately become the next president of the European Commission.European_Union

But the one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that Europe’s various eurosceptic parties are set for a huge victory — not enough seats to determine the outcomes of EU legislation and policymaker, perhaps, but enough to form a strong, if disunited, bloc of relatively anti-federalist voices. Voters, chiefly in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, are set to cast strong protest votes that could elect more than 100 eurosceptic MEPs.

In some countries, such as Spain, euroscepticism is still a limited force the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) is tied for the lead with the governing center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. But Spain is quickly becoming an outlier as eurosceptic parties are springing up in places where unionist sentiment once ran strong.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections
RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

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Of course, not all eurosceptics are created equally. Some anti-Europe parties have been around for decades, while others weren’t even in existence at the time of the last elections in 2009. Some are virulently xenophobic, far-right or even neo-Nazi in their outlooks, while others are cognizably on the more mainstream conservative / leftist ideological spectrum. Some seek nothing short of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union altogether, while others seek greater controls on immigration. Some are even pro-Europe in the abstract, but oppose eurozone membership. That’s one of the reasons why eurosceptics have had so much trouble uniting across national lines — the mildest eurosceptic parties abhor the xenophobes, for example.

If everyone acknowledges that eurosceptic parties will do well when the votes are all counted on Sunday, no one knows whether that represents a peak of anti-Europe support, given the still tepid economy and high unemployment across the eurozone, or whether it’s part of a trend that will continue to grow in 2019 and 2024.

With 100 seats or so in the European Parliament, eurosceptics can’t cause very many problems. They can make noise, and they stage protests, but they won’t hold up the EU parliamentary agenda. With 200 or even 250 seats, though, they could cause real damage. There’s no rule that says that eurosceptics can’t one day win the largest block of EP seats, especially so long as most European voters ignore Europe-wide elections or treat them as an opportunity to protest unpopular national government.

For now, though, they’re all bound to cause plenty of trouble for their more mainstream rivals at the national level, and in at least five countries, they could wind up with the largest share of the vote. So it’s still worth paying attention to them.

Without further ado, here are the top 13 eurosceptic parties to keep an eye on as the results are announced on Sunday:

Continue reading A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

Lessons from Hungary’s election — and challenges for its future

Guest post by Dániel Kiss


Last Sunday Hungary had a paradoxical election. Politicians and commentators had forecast that this vote would set the future direction of the country. It would determine whether prime minister Viktor Orbán and his nationalistic party Fidesz – Magyar Polgári Szövetség (Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance), would be able to strengthen their hold on power, or the leftist opposition would run Hungary according to more mainstream ideals of capitalism and liberal democracy. In fact the election turned out to be something of a flop, with only 61.2% of the electorate casting their vote. Only one parliamentary election in the country saw a lower rate of participation since democracy was restored in 1989.Hungary Flag Icon

The results too were paradoxical. Opinion polls had forecast a major victory for Fidesz. Some commentators had chosen to disbelieve them, as they thought that a significant number of voters would not feel free to say that they would be voting against a party that is known to have punished its opponents. In fact the polls turned out to be correct, and Fidesz won by a broad margin. It is not yet clear exactly how many seats they will win, as some votes (including those of Hungarians living abroad) still have to be counted four days after the election. However, it is likely that they will take 133 of the 199 seats in parliament, or just over two-thirds of the total. That means that they will hold on not only to power, but also to their supermajority of two-thirds of the seats. This supermajority has enabled them to change every law of the country since 2010, and to enact a new constitution that came into power in 2012. The left-wing opposition have not only failed to bring down Orbán’s government, which had been their aim at the election, but they have barely dented his majority in parliament. Orbán celebrated what he called “a victory that shook the sky”.

In fact the results are less favourable for him than they might appear, and they hold risks for all parties concerned. In the previous parliamentary elections of 2010, Fidesz won 52.7% of the national vote. This time the party only won 44.3%, according to the most recent figures, despite the strong support of ethnic Hungarians living abroad, who were enfranchised by Fidesz in 2011. The left-wing opposition coalition, consisting of the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSzP, Hungarian Socialist Party) and four recently founded small parties, won 26.2%, which is significantly better than the 19.3% won by the Socialists in 2010. The other large force opposing Fidesz, the far-right-wing Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Jobbik), also increased its share of the national vote from 16.7% to 20.7%, while the green liberal party Lehet Más a Politika (LMP, ‘Politics Can Be Different’)  saw its share fall from 7.5% to 5.3%, which is just above the threshold of 5% that is required to send deputies into parliament from the national list. Still, this is not a bad result, given that LMP split in 2013 and a number of its deputies founded one of the parties that has allied itself with the socialists.

The success of Fidesz can partly be explained by the continuing appeal to voters of its combination of nationalistic rhetoric with anti-market, statist policies. The party also managed to outmaneuver the Socialists in the run-up to the elections. The Fidesz government forced utility companies to lower their tariffs to private consumers twice by 10%, which met with considerable approval in a country where many people struggle to make ends meet. Continue reading Lessons from Hungary’s election — and challenges for its future

Spring 2014 voting blitz: five days, six elections


We’re beginning to hit the peak of what’s perhaps the busiest world election season of the past few years.

What began as a slow year with boycotted votes in Bangladesh and Thailand in the first two months of 2014 snowballed into a busier March, with important parliamentary elections in Colombia, the final presidential vote in El Salvador, parliamentary elections in Serbia, a key presidential election in Slovakia, and municipal elections that upended national politics in France, The Netherlands and Turkey.

But the pace only gets more frenetic from here.

Between today and Wednesday, five countries (and one very important province) on three continents will go to to the polls: Continue reading Spring 2014 voting blitz: five days, six elections

How Hungary’s Viktor Orbán got his groove back


Despite a united opposition front, prime minister Viktor Orbán is headed to a crushing victory in Hungary’s April 6 parliamentary elections this weekend, consolidating his hold on power in the emerging central European country of 10 million.Hungary Flag Icon

Orbán’s victory looks so assured that it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought that his chances for 2014 reelection would be much tougher.

Only a year ago, Orbán appeared to have a much more troubled path to victory.

For example, an Ipsos poll from January 2013 shows that the three largest of the five parties that comprise the opposition, Osszefogas (‘Unity’), would win a combined 43% of the vote, compared to just 41% for Fidesz – Magyar Polgári Szövetség (Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance). The largest opposition party, the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSzP, Hungarian Socialist Party) won 32% of the vote.

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RELATED: Hungarian left unites, but will it be enough to stop Orbán?

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But the most recent March 31 Századvég poll gives Fidesz 51% of the vote, with just 25% for Unity. The far-right, anti-Semitic, ultra-nationalist Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Jobbik), which has surged over the past six months, would win 18%, and there’s a chance that it could actually win more seats on Sunday than the center-left Unity.

In early 2013, despite an uphill challenge under new election rules, designed to benefit Fidesz, the opposition had a strong case against Orbán, who has isolated Hungary from the rest of the European Union, increasingly chipped away at democratic checks and balances and the rule of law, and nearly torpedoed an already struggling economy with tax increases, further budget cuts, and a haphazard nationalization of Hungry’s private pension system.

What happened? Continue reading How Hungary’s Viktor Orbán got his groove back

Hungarian left unites, but will it be enough to stop Orbán?


As Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán hopes to consolidate his hold on Hungarian government in the country’s April 6 elections, the Hungarian center/left is uniting in a broad anti-Orbán coalition.Hungary Flag Icon

Under the banner of Osszefogas (‘Unity’), five of Hungary’s center-left parties will band together behind the prime ministerial candidacy of Attila Mesterházy (pictured above, center), the leader of Hungary’s largest opposition party, the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSzP, Hungarian Socialist Party).

The coalition brings together four relatively new groups:

  • Együtt 2014 (E14, Together 2014) is a new social democratic party founded in October 2012 by former prime minister Gordon Bajnai, a Socialist who governed Hungary s somewhat of a technocratic caretaker between April 2009 and May 2010, when which Orbán came to power with a supermajority.  Bajnai’s government tried to steer a course through crippling budget austerity and an economy that hit its nadir with a 6.8% contraction in 2009.  From the outset, Bajnai (pictured above, far left) has advocated a united anti-Orbán front for the 2014 elections.
  • Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM, Dialogue for Hungary) is a green liberal party founded in February 2013 as a breakway faction of Lehet Más a Politika (LMP, Politics Can Be Different), another green party founded in 2009.  PM’s leaders are Timea Szabó and Benedek Jávor, the latter an environmental lawyer and botanist.  The party has, since March 2013, been allied with E14 in advance of this year’s elections.
  • Demokratikus Koalíció (DK, Democratic Coalition) is the party of Ferenc Gyurcsány, prime minister between 2004 and 2009, and it was founded in October 2011 when Gyurcsány (pictured above, center, behind Mesterházy) left the Socialists, taking with him 10 of the Socialists’ 59 seats in the National Assembly.  Gyurcsány’s decision to unite under Mesterházy is particularly helpful for the anti-Orbán opposition because Gyurcsány remains more well-known than Mesterházy.  Even though Mesterházy led the (disastrous) 2010 electoral effort, Gyurcsány has more governing experience and political canny.  Gyurcsány, who came to power at a time when Hungary’s budget deficit was spiraling out of control (even in pre-crisis days), resigned in 2009 after introducing ever harsher budget reforms in line with a 2008 financing agreement with the International Monetary Fund.  Gyurcsány’s budget reforms, and his attempt to modernize the Hungarian health-care system, alienated him from his own party. 
  • The Magyar Liberális Párt (Hungarian Liberal Party) was founded in April 2013 as a pro-European, liberal party by Gábor Fodor, a former education minister in the mid-1990s and an environmental minister in 2007-08.  Fodor (pictured above, far right) was the the final leader of the Alliance of Free Democrats/Liberal Party, a predecessor to the current party that divided in 2008, when the liberal coalition lost the last of its 20 seats in the National Assembly.

Though the green LMP hasn’t joined the coalition, the five-party front is demonstrating about as much unity as you could expect — and much more than the alternative, much feared a month ago, that Orbán would take advantage of the disunity to win an outsized supermajority in the National Assembly. 

In the current 386-member National Assembly, Orbán’s ruling conservative party, Fidesz – Magyar Polgári Szövetség (Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance) controls 226 seats.  Together with its ally, Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt (KdNp, Christian Democratic People’s Party), which today has become more a satellite of Fidesz than a truly independent party, Orbán controls 263 seats.  That’s a supermajority of just over two-thirds, and that’s permitted Orbán to introduce constitutional reforms and other laws that have strengthened his hold on power and undermined Hungary’s democratic institutions.

The Socialists control just 48 seats, and the far-right nationalist Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Jobbik) controls 43 seats.

Under new electoral rules, the National Assembly will be reduced from 386 seats to just 199 seats.  Unlike the prior system, where just over half of the seats were determined by proportional representation, the new system tilts slightly more toward plurality districts — 106 seats will be determined in single-member districts by first-past-the-post voting.  Another 93 seats will be determined by party-list proportional representation (with a 5% threshold for parties and a 10% threshold for coalitions).  In an election with five center-left parties competing against each other as much as against Orbán, Fidesz remained the overwhelming favorite to with the 106 plurality seats.  So the unification of the center-left opposition makes a nearly impossible race merely a tough race.

A January 15 IPSOS poll shows Fidesz with around 48% of the vote, the Hungarian Socialists with 27%, Jobbik with 11% (far below the troublingly high 17% it won in the April 2010 elections) and other parties in single digits.  But when you add the new Unity coalition totals together, Fidesz leads by a more narrow margin of 48% to 37% (DK and E14 each win 5% of the vote.

If the election were held tomorrow, Fidesz would still win, but the Unity coalition might together win seats that would otherwise fall to Fidesz.  In other words, Mesterházy and the united opposition would turn a landslide defeat into a robust defeat.

But is there a way to actually win the election against Orbán? Or does Fidesz have a lock on April’s elections?  Continue reading Hungarian left unites, but will it be enough to stop Orbán?

Tsunis nomination draws scorn from Norwegians


Not only does George Tsunis not speak Norwegian, he’s never even set foot in Norway.USflagnorway

Yet, even as he stumbled through an embarrassingly poor performance at a hearing on Thursday before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tsunis is set to become the next US ambassador to Oslo.

As US senator John McCain asked Tsunis about the ‘anti-immigration’ Framskrittspartiet (Progress Party), which is the junior member in Norway’s center-right governing coalition, the future ambassador stumbled with his answer or, as Norway’s newspapers phrased it, tråkket i salaten (trampled through the salad bowl).  

“You get some fringe elements that have a microphone and spew their hatred,” he said in the pre-appointment hearing. “And I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them.”
McCain interrupted him, pointing out that as part of the coalition, the party was hardly being denounced.
“I stand corrected,”  Tsunis said after a pause.  “I would like to leave my answer at… it’s a very,very open society and the overwhelming amount of Norwegians and the overwhelming amount of people in parliament don’t feel the same way.”

Good grief.  This came after Tsunis referred to Norway’s ‘president’ — of course, there’s no such office because Norway is a constitutional monarchy.  By way of background, Tsunis is an attorney and a businessman from Long Island.  He founded Chartwell Hotels, which operates properties for InterContinental Hotels and other hotel chains.  Though he supported McCain, a Republican, in the 2008 US presidential election, he bundled nearly $1 million in contributions for US president Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the subsequent 2012 presidential election, and he personally donated $267,244 to the Democratic Party in 2012 and $278,531 in 2010.  Tsunis is an active member of the Greek-American community and the Greek Orthodox Church, which begs why anyone in the Obama administration would send him… to Norway.

McCain, not thrilled with the response, thanked Tsunis and the ‘incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.’  But perhaps McCain should leave aside the snark himself — Norwegians might also take issue with his characterization of the Progress Party solely as an anti-immigration party.  In fact, the party has its genesis in the anti-tax movement of the 1970s.  It’s certainly in favor of tougher immigration restrictions, and it’s probably Norway’s most controversial major party.  But it’s not nearly as xenophobic as some of Europe’s other parties (e.g., Marine Le Pen’s Front national in France), and it represents something greater in Norway as a party of rupture.

Other mainstream center-left and center-right parties largely support Norway’s social welfare state, just as they support the relatively fiscal conservative steps to limit spending from Norway’s oil largesse.  The Progress Party wants to break away radically from the state-heavy welfare model, and it wants to spend more of Norway’s oil fund today.

That’s why Erna Solberg, the leader of Høyre (the ‘Right,’ or more commonly, the Conservative Party) is Norway’s prime minister today instead of Progress Party leader Siv Jensen.  Solberg pulled the Conservative Party toward a more moderate policy path that’s essentially the center-right analog to the long-governing Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party), which lost the September 2013 elections after two terms in power under former prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.

It doesn’t seem like it would be so incredibly hard for the Obama administration to bring even someone woefully uniformed about Norway’s political, cultural and economic basics up to speed — even Tsunis!  That the Obama administration chose not to do so is perhaps the most egregious oversight of all. 

The previous ambassador to Norway, Barry White, who served from 2009 to 2013, had at least some basis in international affairs as the longtime managing partner of Foley Hoag LLP, and as the chair of Lex Mundi, a global association of international, independent law firms.  His predecessor, Benson Whitney, served from 2005 to 2009 under former president George W. Bush.  A native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Whitney came from the US state with the greatest number of Norwegian-Americans by far.  As then-president of the Minnesota Venture Capital Association, he could argue that his experience in venture capital and investments would bode well to serve as a representative to the country with the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

It’s not just Tsunis. The Obama administration’s nominee to serve as the ambassador to Hungary, by the way? Colleen Bradley Bell, a television producer and — you guessed it — philanthropist and top Obama campaign donor.  At a time when Hungary faces some of the most troubling accusations of democratic backsliding within the European Union, and with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán set to win another majority under a new (troubling) electoral system in April, the United States is sending the producer of television daytime soap opera ‘The Bold and the Beautiful.’


I wrote last June that the nomination of James Costos, a Hollywood executive and Obama donor with no Spanish language skills and no apparent ties to Spain, to become the US ambassador of Spain was a prime example of why the current practice of sending wealthy donors (instead of career diplomats from the US state department) is so flawed: Continue reading Tsunis nomination draws scorn from Norwegians