It’s entirely possible that September 2016 marks the worst month of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.
Merkel’s center-right party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) fell to third place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a relatively low-population state of just 1.6 million that sprawls along the northern edge of what used to be East Germany. While the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has been traditionally stronger there in elections since reunification, two factors made the CDU’s loss particularly embarrassing. The first is that it’s the state that Merkel has represented since her first election in 1990 shorly after German reunification. The second, and more ominous, is that the CDU fell behind the eurosceptic, anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland (Afd, Alternative for Germany), a relatively new party founded in 2013 that today holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and that, according to recent polls, will easily win seats in the Bundestag in next September’s federal elections.
Two weeks later, on September 18, Merkel’s CDU also suffered losses in Berlin’s state election. As left-wing parties have long dominated Berlin’s politics, and the SPD placed first and Germany’s Die Linke (the Left) and Die Grünen (the Greens) placed third and fourth behind the CDU. But even in Berlin, the AfD still won 14.2% of the vote.
Taken together, the state election results forced a mea culpa from Merkel on Monday. The chancellor, who is expected (though by no means certain) to seek a fourth consecutive term next year, departed from the calm, steely confidence that since last summer has characterized her commitment to accept and integrate over a million Syrian refugees within Germany’s borders. Merkel admitted, however, that she would, if possible, rewind the clock to better prepare her country and her government for the challenge of admitting so many new migrants, and she admitted lapses in her administration’s communications. With the AfD showing no signs of abating, it’s clear that its attacks on Merkel’s open-door policy are working. Merkel’s statement earlier this week admitted that her policies have not unfolded as smoothly as she’d hoped.
Indeed, German polls are starting to show that voters are souring on Merkel and her approach to migration, so much that in one poll in August for Bild, a majority of voters no longer support a fourth term for Merkel. All of which has led to hand-wringing both in Germany and abroad that Merkel’s days are numbered.
As global politics takes its strongest lunge towards ultranationalist populism in the postwar era, Croatian voters on Sunday delivered a fresh (if narrow) mandate to a conservative party now headed by a moderate and technocratic former diplomat.
In a repeat of last November’s elections, the conservative Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (HDZ, Croatian Democratic Union) placed first but short of the absolute majority that it needed to govern alone.
Just as after last year’s elections, it will now look to form a coalition with Most nezavisnih lista (Bridge of Independent Lists), a reformist and centrist party formed in 2012 that fared slightly more poorly in the September 11 parliamentary election than last year. Nevertheless, Most continues to hold the margin of power for the next Croatian government, and it’s very likely to join an HDZ-led coalition. Together, the HDZ and Most are just two seats short of a majority, which they might pick up from independents MPs.
Andrej Plenković, a mild-mannered diplomat, is the HDZ’s fresh-faced leader, and he’s part of a rising generation of Croatians who came of age, politically speaking, long after Yugoslavia’s breakup. Though he leads the Croatian right in what has become an increasingly nationalist moment, Plenković’s career is rooted in foreign policy and diplomacy, not populist politics. A longtime member of the bureaucracy in Croatia’s ministry of foreign and European affairs, Plenković served for five years as deputy ambassador to France, then as secretary of state for European integration from 2010 to 2011, shortly before Croatia acceded to the European Union. Since 2013, he has also served as a member of the European Parliament (after a brief two-year stint in the Croatian national parliament).
Yet as the aftermath of the 2015 election showed, coalition agreements are easier conceived than executed. After 76 days of negotiations, the HDZ and Most agreed in January 2016 to form a coalition headed by a non-partisan prime minister, Tihomir Orešković, a dual Canadian national and pharmaceutical businessman. Tasked with a nearly impossible project to boost GDP growth and cut Croatia’s debt, the government seemed to be on track to meet its goals. Continue reading Croatian conservatives win elections in repeat from last November→
On September 4, German chancellor Angela Merkel will face one of her final electoral tests this year before most Germans believe she will attempt to win a fourth term in 2017.
That test comes in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the sprawling state that flows across the north of what used to be East Germany and, as has been reported extensively, Merkel’s own home state. Voters will select all 71 members of the regional assembly, the Landtag, on Sunday, September 4.
Though the state is home to just 1.6 million people, it’s one of two state elections this month (the other is in the left-leaning Berlin on September 18), and it’s really the first political test since March of the appeal of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) that hopes to win over 20% of the vote and, perhaps, edge out Merkel’s own party, the more center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party).
The CDU, under Merkel’s leadership, has led Germany since 2005, and it has also served as a junior partner in a coalition government in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern since 2006, alongside the more dominant center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). Nationally, the CDU serves as the senior partners alongside the SPD in the second of two ‘grand coalitions’ that Merkel has headed since winning power over a decade ago.
As Europeans weigh the wisdom of Nice’s ill-fated (and judicially reversed) decision to ban ‘burkinis’ and as Germany’s state interior ministers try to adopt a limited burqa ban in public spaces, Merkel’s popularity is still sagging from a decision last summer — easily the boldest of her political career — to permit nearly one million Syrian refugees to settle in Germany at the height of the largest wave of migration in Europe since World War II.
Polls show that the AfD is roughly tied with, or even leading, the CDU in the state, each with anywhere from 19% to 23% of the vote, with the SPD leading in the range of between 24% and 28%. In a series of state elections earlier this year, the AfD performed best in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, winning nearly 25% of the vote there in March.
But reports that Merkel’s decision about whether to seek a fourth term — or the contours of a national election next September — could be significantly affected by a regional election in one of Germany’s most sparsely populated states are misguided. Barring a more lopsided upset, the SPD-CDU coalition is almost certain to continue under the state’s minister-president since 2008, social democrat Erwin Sellering. Though the refugee crisis has dented Merkel’s popularity, the CDU holds a wide lead nationally over the SPD and Germany’s other parties, though the AfD is now winning the support of between 10% and 15%, which would be enough to make it Germany’s third-most popular party. Victories in a handful of states is a far different thing that sustaining support until next year’s election, especially as the AfD has suffered from a self-inflicted internal leadership struggle.
Though Merkel may have grown up in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the CDU has never particularly been popular in the east. In the last state election in 2011, the CDU struggled too, but it was instead against Die Linke (The Left). In fact, the hard left is set to lose even more support from 2011 than the CDU. Five years ago, the CDU won 23.1% of the vote, a standard it might well replicate this year. But Die Linke is forecasted to win far less than the 18.4% it won in the 2011 election. There’s no doubt that the AfD poses a direct threat to the CDU, both in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and nationally because so many conservative Germans worry about the effects of resettling nearly a million Syrian refugees. But the AfD, especially in the east, seems to be taking votes from nationalist-minded voters on the left too, especially from Die Linke, a party with its roots in East Germany’s Soviet-era Communist Party.
It took the counting of around 750,000 postal votes on Monday to settle what had been a too-close-to-call runoff to determine who would win Austria’s (mostly ceremonial) presidency.
The winner, by a very narrow margin, is Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old professor and, nominally an independent, though formerly a parliamentary leader of the Die Grünen (Austrian Green Party), and you could almost hear the palpable sigh of relief from across the European Union as far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer conceded defeat.
But it’s a hollow relief.
The result means that Austria’s hard right will not occupy the presidency and, therefore, will not be able to attempt to terminate the current government or try to wrest greater powers from Austria’s parliament. But given the tumult of the past month in Austrian politics, the hard right has clearly been emboldened by the presidential race, and it will now look to the next parliamentary elections to take real power.
The first-round, double-digit victory of Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old candidate of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), stunned not only Austria, but all of Europe. It represents the closest than any far-right party has come to winning power at the national level in the European Union since the 1930s.
Its success shouldn’t have been surprising. The Freedom Party has increasingly gained on the country’s mainstream parties, and it nearly toppled state governments in regional elections last autumn.
Despite its defeat, the FPÖ has been able not only to undermine a sitting chancellor, but to force his resignation. After social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann initially welcomed refugees to Austria last summer, he abruptly reversed course under pressure from the Freedom Party and angry voters, instead co-opting the rhetoric and the policies of the far right, complete with border fences and anti-immigration crackdowns.
But the candidate of Faymann’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) finished in fourth place, and shortly after the first-round vote, the Social Democrats essentially forced Faymann to resign, bringing to an end an eight-year tenure leading a grand coalition government with the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party). For its part, the ÖVP presidential candidate placed an even more disappointing fifth.
Faymann, to his credit, ably led Austria through the 2008-09 global financial panic and the 2010 eurozone crisis, and Austria and its banking system, moreover, helped stave off a broader crisis in central Europe and the Balkans. Instead of leaving office, having made the noble case for welcoming refugees, he left power earlier this month after capitulating to the hard right. Continue reading Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory→
On Sunday, Serbians will go to the polls nearly two years before the current government’s term ends.
The results are hardly in doubt.
Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić is basically guaranteed to return to power by a wide margin, according to nearly every poll taken since the last election. His party, the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), already leads a coalition that enjoys a firm majority in Serbia’s unicameral National Assembly (Народна скупштина).
Originally due by March 2018, Vučić called snap elections in March in a bid to build an even more powerful majority. Vučić argues that a fresh mandate will give his government the space to push Serbia ever closer toward European integration; critics argue that’s a fig leaf to disguise a Vučić power grab, an attempt to squeeze the Serbian political opposition into powerlessness.
Despite problems with self-censorship in the press, Reporters without Borders ranks Serbia 59th in its 2016 press freedom rankings — that’s better than EU members Croatia, Hungary and Italy. Neighboring countries fare far worse — Kosovo ranks 90th, Montenegro ranks 106 and Macedonia ranks 118, just higher than Afghanistan.
With increasingly illiberal figures like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán thumbing their nose at European Union leaders, Vučić’s rise isn’t without its anxieties.
That’s especially true for the United States and Europe, both of whom have an interest in a country of 7 million that remains, economically and culturally, the anchor of the Balkans region, though Serbia itself shares an alphabet, similar language and a religion with Russia. Serbia is dependent upon Russia for natural gas, as well as a market for exports. In recent years, Vučić has shown that he’s willing to turn to Moscow and other surprising allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, for help when European leaders proved too slow.
That means that the European Union, despite its existential troubles, can’t afford to keep Serbians waiting indefinitely for membership.
Regardless, if polls are correct, Vučić will complete a four-year, three-election cycle that brings the SNS the most powerful domestic government in Serbia’s history following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Regionally, the Serbian vote takes place in the context of a year of explosive potential as Macedonia and Montenegro are also set to go to the polls amid tense political climates.
A pathway to Serbian political dominance
In July 2012, the SNS narrowly defeated the center-left, liberal Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) by a margin of 24.1% to 22.1%, following eight years of Democratic Party dominance in Serbia that smoothed the country’s transition from war-torn pariah to EU aspirant.
At the same time, Serbia’s two-term president Boris Tadić also lost his office to SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić. Once more sympathetic to Russia than to the rest of Europe, Nikolić and his acolyte, Vučić, quickly embraced the cause of EU accession. They made a deal with the nationalist, center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS) to take power, even though that meant making the SPS’s leader, Ivica Dačić, once a protégé of strongman Slobodan Milošević (who founded the SPS), Serbia’s new prime minister.
What is past is always present in politics. But that’s especially acute in the case of Serbia, because Nikolić, Vučić and Dačić all began their political lives on the ultranationalist right. Today, however, the three Serbian leaders have (so far, at least) transcended the bitter wars of the 1990s, using the reward of EU accession as a rationale not only to implement IMF-style economic reforms but to make genuine efforts to extradite suspected war criminals from the 1990s and to pacify relations with neighbors, most especially Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not recognize.
The government performed adequately, however. Neither Nikolić nor Vučić made a harsh turn away from the strong EU relations that the Democratic Party nurtured, nor did Dačić suddenly revert to 1990s era ultranationalism. Dačić led the push to open formal negotiations with the European Union for Serbian accession. However begrudgingly, the Dačić government engaged Kosovo over talks about the breakaway region’s international status.
In early 2014, Vučić, then minister of defense, saw an opportunity for the SNS to take power in its own right, and he essentially forced Dačić to call early elections.
It wasn’t a difficult decision, politically, because it instantly made Vučić the most powerful figure in Serbia.
The SNS won easily with 48.4% of the vote and 158 of the 250 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. The second-placed SPS, which would continue in coalition as a junior member, with Dačić serving as Vučić’s new minister of foreign affairs, won 13.5%. The Democratic Party, suffering from a divide between its new leader, former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas and Tadić, the future president, who ultimately left to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDS, Социјалдемократска странка). The divide was fatal to Serbia’s democratic center-left, however, because the Democratic Party won just 6.0% and the Tadić-led SDS won just 5.7%.
Bracing for an even larger mandate?
Again, for the next two years, the government performed adequately. Low GDP growth was still strong enough for the unemployment rate to continue declining (though it’s still precariously close to 20%), and Vučić nuzzled ever closer to EU advisors with the hope of advancing negotiations one step closer to EU membership. For now, Vučić hasn’t particularly weakened Serbian democracy on his own, with the kind of anti-liberal steps that Hungary or Poland have taken, though the internal troubles of the opposition may make it seem otherwise. Indeed, Serbia has welcomed refugees in the face of a deluge of Syrians and others on European shores, the largest wave of migrants to Europe since World War II.
It’s tempting to argue that results from three state elections in Germany on Sunday spell the beginning of the end for chancellor Angela Merkel.
In all three states, the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) won representation for the first time at the state level. That means that the AfD’s parliamentary presence will rise to eight German state assemblies, with the party poised to enter the Bundestag in the next federal election (after narrowly missing the 5% electoral threshold in September 2013).
It’s not the first time that radical parties have made minor gains in elections. In the 1992 Baden-Württemberg state elections, the hard-right Die Republikaner (Republicans) won over 12% of the vote, making it the state’s third-largest party. Hard-right parties have routinely won a small share of the national vote, though never enough to enter the Bundestag. Former East German communists founded what is today the radical leftist flank of Die Linke (The Left) and, despite a quarter-century from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the party (certainly not as hard-left as it was in 1989) is still controversial.
It’s true that Merkel has taken a bold stand in welcoming refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, and that policy has left many German voters concerned that the rate of immigrants — over one million since the migration crisis swelled last summer — is more than Germany society can assimilate culturally, socially and economically.
It’s not an unfair concern, so it’s not surprising that the AfD’s popularity is rising. Since its creation in 2013 as a party of mildly eurosceptic academics, it has turned sharply right under a new more hardline leader, Frauke Petry, a 40-year-old chemist and businesswoman whose anti-migration rhetoric has attracted voters scared of the effects of so many new German refugees. The AfD’s turn was so hard that Bernd Lucke, one of the movement’s founders, quit the party last summer.
The migration crisis may have been the impetus for the AfD’s emergence, but it’s no surprise that a right-wing alternative to Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) is coming into view. She has become Germany’s most dominant politician in a generation by occupying virtually all of the ideological territory on the center-right and the center-left, leaving her right flank somewhat unprotected.
Hugging the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) into two grand coalitions since 2005, she’s shown a willingness to poach its most popular policies, including a raise in the German minimum wage. She’s been at the center of difficult battles to keep the European Union united, including last summer’s near-disastrous negotiations to keep Greece in the eurozone. The effect has been that more moderate voters have flocked to the CDU — so much so that she nearly won a remarkable absolute majority in the Bundestag in September 2013.
But it also means that voters who want change are turning not to the CDU’s junior coalition partner, the SPD, but to fringe groups, including the AfD. While the AfD’s gains are real, and they shouldn’t be ignored, neither should they be overstated. Far-right politics in Germany have existed for years, and while it’s true that the AfD clearly took votes from the CDU in Sunday’s state elections, it also appears that the AfD draws from far-left voters in eastern Germany and from disaffected SPD voters in western Germany.
The three states that held elections on March 13 couldn’t be more different, and it’s a risk to make blanket statements about the future of German politics through generalizing the results of Sunday’s elections.
The largest headline of Germany’s slate of state elections today will be the rising success of the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany).
But it really shouldn’t be.
Even at the height of anti-refugee sentiment, the AfD that won no more than 23% of the vote in any state, and it will not come close to holding power in any of those states.
Meanwhile, Winfried Kretschmann surged to what should almost certainly mean reelection as minister-president in Baden-Württemberg, a sprawling and prosperous state in southwestern Germany, home to 10.6 million people (Germany’s third-most populous). With a rich industrial heritage in and around Stuggart, the state is home to Daimler, Porsche and software manufacturer SAP, and it currently has Germany’s lowest unemployment rate (4.0%).
Kretschmann came to office in 2011 through something of a fluke, when his party, Die Grünen (The Greens), narrowly outpaced its center-left coalition partner, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party). Together, the two parties managed to win more support than the center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), the party of Germany’s powerful chancellor Angela Merkel, and a party that had long dominated a thrifty state of southern German conservatism, ruling almost without interruption for 60 years. The SPD may have withered to the point where Kretschmann will need to find a new governing coalition. But in 2016, for the first time in the postwar period, the CDU wasn’t the first-placed party, falling behind the Greens. That’s due in part to the AfD’s rise, siphoning votes from the CDU, but it also has to do with the wildly popular Kretschmann. Continue reading Kretschmann wins big in Germany’s prosperous south→
The headline from Sunday’s Portuguese parliamentary election results highlighted the fact that the country’s center-right government won despite the fact that it implemented an unpopular bailout program that entailed difficult spending cuts and tax increases.
That’s true, of course, and the electoral coalition of prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho did emerge with the largest share of the vote. Later this week, it’s expected that he will receive a mandate to form a new government from Portugal’s president Aníbal Cavaco Silva.
With neither of Portugal’s mainstream parties able to win a majority of seats in the country’s 230-member, unicameral Assembleia da República (Assembly of the Republic), early elections seem certain to follow in due course. Though it’s likely that Passos Coelho’s center-right coalition, Portugal à Frente (Portugal Ahead) will indeed form a minority government, it will need the support of its chief opponent, the center-left Partido Socialista (PS, Socialist Party) to pass next year’s budget and other key measures. With the country no longer subject to the term of its prior bailout program, and with the economy set to grow for the second consecutive year in 2015, the Socialists will almost certainly demand a high price in exchange for support, including some relief from the austerity measures of the past half-decade.
A disagreement, however, could lead the country to a snap vote, perhaps as soon as next summer. While no new elections can follow for six months, no minority government since the end of the Salazar-era military dictatorship in 1974 has been able to hold onto power for a full four-year term.
In truth, no one won Portugal’s elections, and turnout dropped from 5.59 million (around 58%) in 2011, then a record low since the return of democracy, to just 5.38 million on Sunday (around 57%). The center-right’s ‘victory’ is as Pyrrhic as they come, the center-left’s modest gains belie doubts about past performance, and radical leftists haven’t received the same welcome as in crisis-struck Spain or Greece. Continue reading Why no one actually won Portugal’s parliamentary elections→
Portugal might be the only place in crisis-plagued Europe where politics still feel like they’re stuck in the year 2000.
There’s no virulent anti-austerity party like Podemos (the far-left movement of indignados in neighboring Spain) or the plucky SYRIZA of Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras.
There’s no citizen’s movement of the kind that powers Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement in Italy or Czech finance minister and businessman Andrej Babiš’s ANO.
There’s no anti-EU group like Nigel Farage’s UKIP or the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany.
There’s not even an anti-immigrant force like the far-right parties of Scandinavia or Marine Le Pen’s Front national in France.
It’s still a country that only last year returned to GDP growth after four years of recession in the past half-decade, a country with a 13% unemployment rate, a country that has hemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of educated graduates to jobs elsewhere in Europe and the Lusophone world. Portugal concluded its €78 billion bailout in May 2014 ahead of schedule (and without needing a second bailout) after a program of income tax and VAT increases and cuts to social spending, wages, benefits, unemployment benefits and public-sector jobs.
Still, no one seems incredibly angry in Portugal about any of this.
That’s perhaps one reason why the current center-right government, headed by prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho, has such a good chance of at winning reelection on October 4, when voters will elect the 230 members of Portugal’s unicameral Assembleia da República (Assembly of the Republic). Polls show that his center-right electoral coalition, anchored by the Partido Social Democrata (PSD, Social Democratic Party), will win the largest share of the vote. That’s probably only because Passos Coelho was smart enough to join forces with his junior governing partner, the more socially conservative Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular (CDS-PP, Democratic and Social Center — People’s Party).
Together, the coalition now holds a narrow lead over the opposition center-left Partido Socialista (PS, Socialist Party), led by the charismatic former mayor of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, António Costa, who has served as a minister in several administrations, most recently as interior minister in the cabinet of now-disgraced former prime minister José Sócrates.
Although the forces of the united Portuguese right will likely fall far short of their 2011 electoral victory, the Socialists will likewise not achieve the same clear victory of the 2009 election. While that means the newly united Portuguese right is favored to win a narrow victory, it also means that no single party will have a majority in the National Assembly.
Another explanation for the election’s conundrums?
In the span of six days, German chancellor Angela Merkel has made a teenage Palestinian refugee cry with her government’s stand on refugee and immigration policy (then tried to pet her, in what must be one of her most cringe-worthy moments as chancellor), reiterated her increasingly isolated position in Europe in opposition to LGBT marriage equality and almost allowed her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to force Greece out of the eurozone, in the process undermining Merkel’s authority both at home and within the wider eurozone.
Merkel, who won a narrower-than-expected victory in the 2005 election, reached the apex of her political power in September 2013, when her governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) nearly won an absolute majority in the country’s parliamentary elections. Despite being forced back into a ‘grand coalition’ with the rival center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), Merkel’s popularity crested. At long last, she had won a clear personal mandate for her cautious, seemingly ideology-free leadership.
But when faced with policy issues — like Greece, LGBT rights and immigration — featuring such sharp contrasts, Merkel’s popularity was always going to fall from those stratospheric levels.
The crisis over Greece’s future highlighted the limits of Merkel’s conciliatory governing style — to sit back, wait for a consensus to emerge and follow public opinion, even (or especially) if it means co-opting a rival party’s positions. That’s how Merkel has handled everything from nuclear power to raising the minimum wage. But there’s a limit to that kind of governance. Continue reading Has Germany (and Europe) reached peak Merkel?→
When a country’s prime minister is targeted in a corruption inquiry, you’d expect him to protest vigorously, using every political and governmental lever to bolster his support.
Faced with his own troubles and an investigation by Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (known by its Romanian acronym DNA), prime minister Victor Ponta has apparently done the opposite — citing the need for recovery from a knee surgery, Romania’s prime minister notified the country that he would be stepping down on an interim basis of up to 45 days. For now, deputy prime minister Gabriel Oprea is now the acting prime minister while Ponta remains in Istanbul recuperating.
It’s an odd decision, though, and Ponta’s decision to leave the country within days of corruption charges could embolden his political enemies, though his center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party) and its allies have a strong majority in Romania’s parliament.
The National Anti-Corruption Directorate alleges that while working as a lawyer in 2007, Ponta (pictured above) received €40,000 for legal work that he didn’t perform from another attorney — who Ponta later appointed to his cabinet. For now, Ponta’s parliamentary majority refuses to lift his immunity, and his allies are even threatening to weaken the anti-graft laws under which the DNA has stepped up its scrutiny of the entirety of Romania’s political elite. The country consistently ranks among the most corrupt countries in the European Union alongside Bulgaria, both of which joined the European Union in 2007. Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis, a political rival who faced off against Ponta in last year’s presidential election, has already called on Ponta to step down. That’s unlikely — and fresh parliamentary elections in Romania aren’t due until 2016.
The chief prosecutor of the DNA, Laura Codruța Kövesi, has empowered the role of an institution that was founded only in 2002 — under her watch, the office won a conviction against Adrian Năstase, Romania’s prime minister between 2000 and 2004, on corruption charges, among many others.
With the world’s attention on a political assassination in Moscow, voters in the former Soviet republic of Estonia go to the polls tomorrow, March 1, with the threat of Russian aggression looming on its eastern border.
Three days ago, US troops, as part of NATO exercises, paraded in Narva, one of Estonia’s largest cities, resting on the Russian border, and Russian troops reciprocated with a similar show. Though it felt like a Cold War throwback, the demonstration highlights just how seriously Estonia, a member of NATO since 2004, and other NATO allies are taking the possibility of a Russian incursion in the Baltics.
Under that tense penumbra, voters will elect all 101 members of Estonia’s parliament, the Riigikogu, where the center-right Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party) currently controls the largest bloc of seats and governs in coalition with the centrist Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond (Social Democratic Party).
Some polls show, however, that the center-left Eesti Keskerakond (Estonian Centre Party) narrowly leads the Reform Party, with the Social Democrats and the conservative opposition party, Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit (IRL, Pro Patria and Res Publica Union), trailing close by in third and fourth place.
It’s the first time that Estonia’s youthful new prime minister Taavi Rõivas (pictured above) will lead the Reform Party into an election. When longtime prime minister Andrus Ansip stepped down in March 2014 after nine years in office, the idea was that he would switch jobs with former Reform Party leader, prime minister and European commissioner Siim Kallas. That worked out for Ansip, who’s now Estonia’s representative to the European Commission with a ‘super-portfolio’ for the digital single market.
Kallas, however, was tripped up by a scandal dating to his days as Estonia’s central bank president in the 1990s, and he stepped out of consideration for the premiership. Other heavy hitters like former foreign minister Urmas Paet also demurred. That meant that the challenge fell to the 35-year-old Rõivas, whose government experience included just two years as social affairs minister. Married to pop singer Luisa Värk, Rõivas has been a member of the Estonian parliament since 2007 and is generally seen as close to Ansip.
It’s becoming a more German Europe in more ways that one.
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→
Stefan Löfven should have savored Sunday night — as Sweden’s election results came in, his center-left Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti (Swedish Social Democratic Party) emerged as the top vote-winner by an 8% margin, and Löfven is the overwhelming favorite to become Sweden’s next prime minister.
Monday morning was a different story.
Despite winning the election, the Social Democrats won just 31.2% of the vote, a relatively low total for the party that dominated Swedish government throughout much of the 20th century. In the last two elections, in 2006 and 2010, when outgoing prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt routed the Social Democrats, the party still won 35.0% and 30.7%, respectively.
The last time they won an election, under Göran Persson in 2002, the Social Democrats won 39.9% of the vote. The results from September 14, however, leave Löfven (pictured above) with just 113 seats in the 349-member Riksdag, Sweden’s unicameral parliament.
If the big loser of the election was Reinfeldt’s center-right Moderata samlingspartiet (Moderate Party), which lost 23 seats, the big winner was the far-right, anti-immigrant Sverigedemokraterna (SD, Sweden Democrats), which gained 29 seats on a platform of limiting Sweden’s generous asylum policy that in 2014 is expected to welcome more than 100,000 refugees to the country, many from war-torn Syria and Iraq. It’s a point of pride for Reinfeldt, presumably, that he spent much of the campaign extolling the compassionate values of his government, even if those costs limited his ability to promise greater welfare spending.
The rest of Sweden’s parties all made relatively small gains or losses — no other party gained or lost more than five seats in total.
Those dynamics, however, leave Löfven in an unenviable position. Though the Sweden Democrats have clearly made the greatest gains in this election, neither the Reinfeldt-led center-right nor the Löfven center-left are willing to bring the anti-immigrant party into government, despite the efforts of its boyish leader, Jimmie Åkesson, to moderate the party’s harder nationalist (and sometimes neo-nazi and xenophobic) edges. One marvels to wonder his well his party might have done had it not been dogged by scandals that forced eight candidates out of the race after news outlets revealed their racist online commentary.
A hung parliament — and no majority for Sweden’s left
But that’s left the Riksdag without a clear majority. After the 2010 elections, the Moderates and their three allies, which together constitute the Alliansen, formed a minority government with 172 seats. Unofficially, the Swedish Democrats often delivered enough votes for Reinfeldt to fill the three-vote gap that his government needed. Löfven cannot count on the unofficial support of Åkesson’s right-wingers. Moreover, after the stunning results for the Sweden Democrats, there are now 49 seats, not 20, that are politically untouchable.
Löfven’s most natural allies, the Miljöpartiet (Green Party), actually lost a seat, falling to 21 seats. Together, with 134 seats, that leaves the Red-Green coalition 41 seats short of a majority.
When Swedes finish voting on Sunday in general election, they might find that, to their astonishment, the only party with the seats to deliver a majority coalition is the one that both the right and left have treated as politically radioactive for years.
In the final days of the campaign, the race has tightened between the four-party center-right alliance headed by two-term prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt (pictured above) and the loose confederation of social democrats, greens and socialists that would rally behind Stefan Löfven, the former labor union leader who now heads Sweden’s center-left Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti (Swedish Social Democratic Party), which essentially created the Swedish social welfare state in the 20th century.
If the results are close, it could leave the balance of power in the hands of the far-right, anti-immigrant Sverigedemokraterna (SD, Sweden Democrats), even though the party entered the final week of the campaign crippled after news reports revealed racist online commentary of several of the party’s candidates.
Though Löfven’s Social Democrats (and the left, generally) have held a polling lead for much of the the past year, a September 1-4 Sifo poll from showed the left’s generic lead falling to less than 4.9%. A more recent September 8-9 Sifo survey showed the left recovering a greater margin of 7.8%. But up to one-third of the Swedish electorate may still be undecided going into the election on Sunday, making predictions difficult.
Despite Löfven’s lead, many voters approve of Reinfeldt’s performance over the past eight years, most especially as his record relates to the Swedish economy. Sweden has emerged from both the 2008-09 global financial crisis and the 2010-12 eurozone crisis with stronger economic growth than much of the rest of the European Union. While unemployment is still probably too high at around 8%, the rate is slowly declining. But Swedes don’t dislike Reinfeldt. It’s that that Swedes are ready for a change, and Löfven’s moderate social democratic approach would bring more continuity than rupture.
Though the two Sifo polls this month showed support for the Sweden Democrats dropping from 10.4% to 8.9%, even a ‘poor’ showing would eclipse their previous high point in the 2010 election, when they won 5.7% of the vote. The 2010 breakthrough was a watershed moment for Sweden’s far right — much to the dismay of the rest of the political spectrum. Suddenly, a far-right party that had never held any seats in the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, now held 20.
So even if the Sweden Democrats under-perform in the 2014 election (they won around 9.7% in the May European elections), they could still hold a large enough bloc of seats to deny either the Reinfeldt-led right or the Löfven-led left a majority.
Though the current center-right government has only a minority in the Riksdag, it has often unofficially leaned on the Sweden Democrats for support, though it’s also turned to the Miljöpartiet (Green Party) as necessary on issues like refugees and asylum.