Tag Archives: social democrats

Kraft steps down as NRW result gives boost to Merkel’s fourth-term hopes

Hannelore Kraft will step down as the regional leader of the Social Democratic Party in North Rhine-Westphalia after leading the state’s government for seven years. (Facebook)

There’s no way for the German left to sugarcoat Sunday’s regional election result in North Rhine-Westphalia.

It’s the clearest sign yet that after flirting with Martin Schulz earlier this year, German voters are coming back to Angela Merkel and the center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union).

North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany’s most populous state, and it’s one of the industrial and technological heartlands of Europe. It’s a relatively left-leaning state — since 1966, the only CDU leader to run the state’s government was Jürgen Rüttgers, from 2005 to 2010. Moreover, it’s the state where Schulz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate for this September’s federal elections, grew up. It’s home to 17.8 million of Germany’s 82 million-plus population. So four months before the national election, NRW has as more predictive power than you might typically expect for a state election, considering that its electorate equals just over one-fifth of the electorate that will decide the national government in September.

It’s too soon to guarantee that Merkel will win a fourth consecutive term, even with the decisive victory last weekend — the third and most important CDU win in three state elections this year. But the result is a clear sign that Schulz’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) is struggling to connect with working-class voters who are turning increasingly to alternatives from the anti-immigrant right to the protectionist left to the reassuring stability of the Merkel-era CDU. Indeed, the CDU campaigned throughout the spring on the notion that Merkel and her allies amounted to a ‘safe pair of hands.’ Continue reading Kraft steps down as NRW result gives boost to Merkel’s fourth-term hopes

Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a conservative Christian Democrat, won a second term as minister-president in Saarland on March 26. (Facebook)

No sooner than Martin Schulz seemed to have captured political lightning in a bottle, his party fizzled in the first state-level test in the leadup to Germany’s autumn federal election.

In the southern state of Saarland last weekend, chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) not only won the election, but improved its support since the last election in 2012, giving the state’s conservative minister-president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has served in that role since 2011, a second term.

Headlines blared that the narrow defeat somehow marked a defining moment for Schulz, the newly crowned leader of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), which has pulled into a virtual tie with the CDU in opinion polls for the national vote in September.

Don’t believe the hype.

It’s one of the smallest of Germany’s sixteen states, both in area and in population (996,000). Nevertheless, Saarland’s size isn’t the only reason its election results will have little impact on a federal election still six months away and even less predictive value. It’s true that the state election, the first of three such state-level votes this spring, showed that the CDU’s political power isn’t evaporating overnight. But Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose Christian Democrats led every opinion poll in the weeks and months preceding the vote, should have expected to win Saarland’s election.

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RELATED: As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives
Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

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Though the renegade Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine — one of the founders of what is today the democratic socialist Die Linke  ran the state government from 1985 until 1998, when he briefly became Germany’s finance minister, Saarland before 1985 — and since 1999 — has always been friendly territory for the Christian Democrats.

Far more consequential will be the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany (with around 17.8 million people) and one of its most wealthy, on May 14 — and in Schleswig-Holstein a week earlier.

In NRW, Hannelore Kraft, a pro-growth Social Democrat who has often been mentioned as a future chancellor, is hoping to win reelection to a third term (she assumed the office of minister-president in 2010). Though the state is historically competitive, Kraft is a popular official, and the SPD has recently taken a meaningful lead since Schulz — who grew up in Eschweiler, a city on the state’s western edge near both The Netherlands and Belgium — became the party’s chancellor candidate. If the Social Democrats fail to hold NRW, it will be a far more depressing harbinger, for many reasons (a fifth of the German electorate, a longtime bellwether, popular SPD incumbent, Schulz’s home state), than the Saarland result.

Continue reading Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

Across Europe, support for Trump-style populists is falling, even though many European populists were growing long before Trump entered the political scene. (123RF / Evgeny Gromov)

If there’s one thing that unites Europeans, it’s the concept that they are better — more enlightened, more cultured and more sophisticated — than Americans.

That was especially true during the presidency of George W. Bush, when France, Germany and other leading anchors of the European Union vociferously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2002, it sometimes seemed like German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was running against Bush, not against his conservative German challenger, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber.

Europeans might be leaning in a similar direction in the Trump era, even though it’s hardly been a month since Donald Trump took office. In the days after Trump’s surprise election last November (and after the Brexit vote last summer), populists like Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France had reason to believe that Trump’s victory would give political tailwinds to their own electoral efforts in 2017.

If anything, however, Europeans are pulling back from populism in the first months of 2017. As four of the founding EU countries gear up for elections in the coming months — the first will be The Netherlands in just nine days — the threat of a Trump-style populist surging to power seems increasingly farfetched.

Maybe Europeans simply outright disdain what they perceive as the vulgar, Jacksonian urges of American voters. Maybe it’s shock at the way Trump’s inexperienced administration has bumbled through its first 40 days or the troubles of British prime minister Theresa May in navigating her country through the thicket of Brexit and withdrawing from the European Union.

More likely though, it could be that Trump’s oft-stated criticism of NATO and praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin have finally shaken Europeans out of the fog that’s gathered for 70 years under the penumbra of pax Americana. Even as officials like US vice president Mike Pence and US defense secretary James Mattis reassure European allies that the United States is committed to the trans-Atlantic security alliance, Trump continues to muse about NATO being obsolete (as recently as the week before his inauguration). Furthermore, the America-first nationalism that emerged from Trump’s successful campaign has continued into his administration and promises a new, more skeptical approach to prior American obligations not only in Europe, but worldwide. Just ten days into office, Trump trashed the European Union as a ‘threat’ to the United States, only to back down and call it ‘wonderful’ in February. Breitbart, the outlet that senior Trump strategist Stephen Bannon headed until last summer, ran a headline in January proclaiming that Trump would make the European Union ‘history.’

All of which has left Europeans also rethinking their security position and considering a day when American security guarantees are withdrawn — or simply too unreliable to be trusted.

Arguably, NATO always undermined the European Union, in structural terms, because NATO has been the far more important body for guaranteeing trans-Atlantic security. Though Federica Mogherini is a talented and saavy diplomat, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is far less important to trans-Atlantic security than the NATO secretary-general (currently, former Norwegian prime minster Jens Stoltenberg). While the stakes of EU policymaking — trade, consumer and environmental regulation, competition law and other economic regulation and a good deal of European fiscal and monetary policy — aren’t low, they would be higher still if the European Union, instead of NATO, were truly responsible for European defense and security. That’s perhaps one reason why the European Union has been stuck since the early 2000s in its own ‘Articles of Confederation’ moment — too far united to pull the entire scheme apart, not yet united enough to pull closer together.

Perhaps, alternatively, it has nothing to do with blowback to Trump or Brexit, and voters in the core western European countries, which are accustomed to a less Schumpeterian form of capitalism, are simply more immune to radical swings than their counterparts subject to the janglier peaks and valleys of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It’s not too much to think that, possibly, in the aftermath of both Brexit and Trump’s election, core Europe, unleashed from the toxic dynamic of British euroscepticism and emboldened to forge new relationships from outside the American security aegis, may be finding a new confidence after years of economic ennui.

Nevertheless, populists across Europe who tried to cloak themselves in the warm embrace of Trumpismo throughout 2016 are increasingly struggling in 2017. A dark and uncertain 2016 is giving way rapidly to a European spring in 2017 where centrists, progressives and conservatives alike are finding ways to push back against populist and xenophobic threats.  Continue reading Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Martin Schulz, formerly the European Parliament president, has returned to German domestic politics in recent weeks. (Facebook)

For the past two elections, Germany’s center-left has tried to stymie chancellor Angela Merkel with two jowly, doughy figures compromised by high service in Merkel-led ‘grand coalition’ governments. 

And for the past two elections, Germany’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has won a smaller share of the vote than at any other time in postwar German history.

For months, it appeared that the Social Democrats were set to sleepwalk into making the same error in 2017.

With the federal election formally set for September 24, it seemed that the SPD would choose as its candidate for chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the economy minister who serves as vice chancellor in the current Große Koalition and who has served as the party’s official leader since 2009.

Though polls showed Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), in power since 2005, losing some ground to the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), they still maintained a consistent lead of anywhere from 11% to 17% against the Social Democrats. With Gabriel at the helm, the SPD seemed content to lose another election to Merkel, perhaps willing to suffer as the junior partner in her fourth-term governing coalition or otherwise in complete opposition.

So it was a surprise to see Gabriel on Tuesday bow out of competition to lead his party into the 2017 elections and instead endorse Martin Schulz, who stepped down as the president of the European Parliament just weeks ago to return to German politics. Continue reading As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton might find in German chancellor Angela Merkel a role model in the era of Trump (State Department)
Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton might find in German chancellor Angela Merkel a role model in the era of Trump (State Department)

In 2008, US president Barack Obama won the largest Democratic mandate in a generation, in part, by pledging to change the tone in Washington.USflag

But in 2016, after eight years of increasingly bitter and partisan posturing, it’s Obama’s one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, who now has the opportunity to transcend the hyper-partisanship that began with the divided government under her husband’s administration in the 1990s.

Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party laid bare the long-growing schism among various Republican constituencies. Currently, the two living former Republican presidents (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), the party’s most recent presidential nominee (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney), its one-time 2016 frontrunners (former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Florida senator Marco Rubio) and the Republican in the highest-ranking elected official — speaker of the House (Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan) — have all refused to endorse Trump.

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RELATED: That transcending ideology thing from 2008?
Merkel did it. Obama hasn’t.

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Despite the promise that the coming general election will be nasty, even by the recent standards of American politics, Clinton, if she’s nimble enough, can become a unifying and moderate figure who can work with both Republicans and Democrats. If Trump loses as badly as polls suggest he might, the Republican Party will be a shambles on November 8. The fight for Senate control was always a toss-up, and a Trump debacle could endanger even Republican control of the House of Representatives.

Increasingly, the debate in world politics is tilting away from traditional left-right discourses, replaced by a much darker fight, for the first time since the 1930s, between populist nationalism and globalist internationalism — and not just in the United States, but everywhere from the Philippines to the United Kingdom. In that fight, Ryan (and Bush and moderate Republicans) have much more in common with Clinton and the officials who will lead a Clinton administration than with Trump.

Make no mistake, if Clinton wins the presidency in November, she’s not going to form a German-style ‘grand coalition’ with Ryan and leading Republicans. Postwar German politics operates largely on consensus to a degree unknown in American (or even much of European) politics. Still, German chancellor Angela Merkel has already paved the way for how a successful Clinton presidency might unfold, and Clinton advisers would be smart to figure out, as the campaign unfolds, how to position Clinton as a kind of American ‘Mutti.’ Clinton is already reaching out to moderate Republican donors, but the challenge goes much deeper — to become a kind of acceptable figure to both blue-state and red-state America.

It’s not clear that Clinton has the same political skill to pull off in the United States what Merkel has done in Germany.

But it’s a rare opportunity, nonetheless, if she can.  Continue reading Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria's presidential election. (Facebook)
Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election. (Facebook)

On a day when Serbians reelected their pro-European government in landslide, the spotlight suddenly fell on Austria instead.austria flag

Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the anti-immigrant, far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election, while the candidates of the two governing parties fell to fourth and fifth place.

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Hofer’s first-round lead of more than 10% shocked not only Vienna, but the entire European Union.

At age 45, Hofer is not nearly as well known as some of the Freedom Party’s top officials, including its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. But his fresh-faced appeal might have improved the party’s chances, in contrast to one of the FPÖ’s more established figures. Austria has admitted more refugees, on a per-capita basis, than even Germany, and Hofer spent much of his campaign trashing Austria’s willingness to pay more into the European Union than it receives in return, stoking anger over bailouts to Greece and other member-state with crippling debt. Continue reading Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Reform-minded ‘MOST’ party set to play kingmaker in Croatia

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Croatia’s social democratic prime minister, Zoran Milanović, will now look to lead a second consecutive government. (Facebook)

Until this summer, the conservative Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (HDZ, Croatian Democratic Union), fresh off a convincing victory in the December/January presidential election, seemed assured of its victory in Croatia’s parliamentary elections, enjoying a lead of more than 10% in most polls.croatia

Then something changed.

But it wasn’t that the HDZ was losing votes. Instead, leftist voters were abandoning their flirtation with a new left-wing party, Održivi razvoj Hrvatske (ORaH, Sustainable Development of Croatia), formed in October 2013 by former environmental minister Mirela Holy. At the height of its popularity in autumn 2014, ORaH was winning nearly 20% of the vote in polls, most of which came at the expense of the governing Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske (SDP, Social Democratic Party of Croatia).

Over the course of 2015, as ORaH’s support plummeted, those voters returned to the SDP and its governing allies that comprise Hrvatska raste (‘Croatia is Growing’) coalition, the largest member of which, by far, is the SDP. In Sunday’s election, ORaH’s vote share collapsed so completely that it failed to win a single seat in Croatia’s unicameral parliament, the Sabor.

That, in part, explains why the SDP did so well on November 8. Nominally, the SDP won just 56 seats, while the HDZ won 59 seats. But three of the HDZ’s seats come from Croatian voters abroad, many of whom are ethnic Croats living in Bosnia and Herzegovina or elsewhere in the Balkans. Moreover, the SDP’s governing coalition can informally rely on a small regional party, the Istarski demokratski sabor (IDS, Istrian Democratic Assembly), which holds three seats, as well as eight additional legislators who represent national minorities, bringing the governing SDP to a more realistic base of 67 seats (just nine shy of the majority it would need for a new term in the 151-member Sabor).

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Not atypically, the Social Democratic Party performed best in the Croatian heartland and in Istria in the north and the west, while the Croatian Democratic Union did best along the Dalmatian coast stretching southward and in the far eastern Slavonia.

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The HDZ (blue) triumphed in the south and in the east; the SDP (red) triumphed in the north and the west.

Ironically, it was the unexpected rise of a reform-minded centrist party, Most nezavisnih lista (Bridge of Independent Lists), that probably hurt the HDZ by drawing away reform-minded centrists. Barring the unlikely formation of a ‘grand coalition’ between the HDZ and the SDP, two parties with very different cultural and political traditions, it will be Most, a new party that formed only in 2012, and its 19-member caucus, that will now decide which of Croatia’s two dominant parties will form the next government.  Continue reading Reform-minded ‘MOST’ party set to play kingmaker in Croatia

Anti-migrant mood brings record win for Swiss People’s Party

Toni Brunner, the leader of the Swiss People's Party, will celebrate his party's best-ever result in October 18 elections. (Keystone)
Toni Brunner, the leader of the Swiss People’s Party, will celebrate his party’s best-ever result in October 18 elections. (Keystone)

Amid dual concerns about rising immigration and creeping concerns about the reach of the European Union’s writ in non-member Switzerland, today’s Swiss national elections are further evidence of a rightward shift that could complicate governance in a country with a long tradition of consensus-driven government.
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Though Switzerland hasn’t received the deluge of refugees as neighboring Austria and Germany, fears about the largest number of refugees arriving in Europe since World War II, boosted the anti-immigration, right-wing Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP, Swiss People’s Party), which won a record 65 seats in Switzerland’s 200-member Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of the bicameral  Bern-based Bundesversammlung (Federal Assembly) — more seats than any other single party has won at any election since 1917. Those gains follow the successes of the far-right Freedom Party in two state elections in the past three weeks in neighboring Austria.

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When one party wins an election in Switzerland, it doesn’t mean that the party controls government. Instead, under the Swiss ‘concordance’ system, the four major parties of both left and right share membership on the Federal Council, a seven-member executive board that governs Switzerland and that is indirectly elected by the Federal Assembly. Historically, the Federal Council prides itself on collegiality and compromise. The Swiss presidency rotates annually among the seven members, though the presidential role is chiefly ceremonial. Furthermore, there’s no equivalent of a ‘prime minister,’ and the strong regional government of Switzerland’s 26 cantons means that executive power in the country has always been particularly weak, dating to the federal system agreed in 1848.

But Sunday’s result is prompting calls for a Rechtsrutsch — a move from a grand-coalition government to a more clearly right-leaning government on the basis of the SVP’s superior result.

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RELATED: Swiss immigration vote threatens access to EU single market

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Both houses of the Federal Assembly will determine the Federal Council’s composition in a secret ballot on December 9. The SVP’s rising strength means that it will take a much more aggressive stand toward shifting the Federal Council to the right, tightening Swiss policy on immigration and the European Union.

In addition to the National Council, Swiss voters were also electing all 46 members of the upper house, the Ständerat (Council of States). Continue reading Anti-migrant mood brings record win for Swiss People’s Party

Eight things Americans should know about the Danish (and Nordic) welfare state

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Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate had barely started when the two leading contenders, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and US senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont immediately clashed.USflagdenmark flag

Over Denmark.

That’s right. Before Iran or Cuba, Syria or Russia, the US Democratic debate began with a minor tussle over a small Nordic country that’s home to just 5.614 million people.

From the beginning of his campaign, Sanders has called for a Nordic-style state that pays for single-payer health care, free education and other state-provided benefits, and he defended the Nordic model as a lodestar for US policy-making on Tuesday night:

Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.

Clinton, for her part, argued that the Danish model wasn’t particularly well suited for the United States:

But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.

Neither candidate necessarily went beyond a surface-level comparison with the Nordics, though.

When Sanders — a self-described ‘democratic socialist’ — refers to the Nordic model, he’s referring to a generic set of policies that describe a typically high-tax, high-services government that provides health care, education, child care, ample family leave, copious unemployment benefits and, in some cases, up to five weeks of annual vacation time for workers. It’s often described as a kind of hybrid system that melds elements of socialism and capitalism. Denmark proportionately spends more than 150% on social welfare spending than the United States — 30.1% of GDP, compared to the US standard of 19.2%.

Increasingly, however, across the Nordics, the rise of center-right and sometimes far-right groups have succeeded in reforming that understanding of the welfare state by trimming benefits and reducing taxes, all while pushing for policies that encourage innovation and easing business regulation. Today, there are center-right governments in four of the five Nordics (Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark), and an eight-year, reformist center-right government ended just last autumn in Sweden under the still-popular former prime minister Göran Persson. In three of those countries, governments rely on hard-right and often anti-immigrant parties to support their policy agendas.

Taken together, the Nordics — and that includes Denmark — are generally some of the happiest, wealthiest, most productive and surprisingly competitive in the global marketplace.

But the story of the Nordic model is much more complex and nuanced, and there are reasons why it might work better in northern Europe than elsewhere, including the United States.

Here are eight features of the Danish system, in particular, that help explain some of that context — both good and bad.

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1. Denmark has been ranked the ‘happiest country in the world’

In Danish culture, there’s a concept called hygge, and it’s said that there’s really not an English language translation for it — warmth, coziness, contentment.

It’s one of the elements that motivates the Danish welfare state, and it explains why, for many Danes, consumerism isn’t as important as spending time with family, working reduced hours and using more free time to pursue individual hobbies and non-professional lives.

That explains, perhaps, why a couple of years ago, Denmark was ranked the happiest country in the world.

But it also explains why peculiarly Danish or Nordic or European cultural features do not easily translate in a country like the United States, and why policies based on Danish cultural attributes might not be nearly as popular in the American context.

2. Its reformed welfare state is actually pro-business

The fact of a strong welfare system isn’t necessarily incompatible with a pro-business orientation. As Marian Tupy wrote earlier for the Cato Institute, Denmark today is ranked as an easier place to do business than the United States, boasts a freer trade regime and slightly outpaces the United States on economic freedom.

Companies like Mærsk dominate global shipping, and Danske Bank is a key financial operator throughout northern Europe. But Denmark’s system has also unleashed as much creativity as commercialism. LEGO is a Danish concept, and the country spawned an entire school of designers in the mid 20th century Denmark, most notably the architect Arne Jacobsen. Today, there’s no more cutting-edge trend in cuisine than the ‘new Nordic’ cuisine, and its hub is Copenhagen, which is home to several Michelin-starred restaurants.

It’s true, however, that the Danish welfare state isn’t your father’s Nordic welfare state. Since the 1970s, successive center-right governments, including that of prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the 2000s, have tried to freeze tax increases or even lower taxes in certain cases, especially for business. Despite the enduring popularity of the Danish welfare state, Danes are increasingly aware of the demands that an aging population will make. So far, reforms include an increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67 gradually over the next eight years, a decrease in the limit for unemployment benefits from four years to just two and certain limits on grants provided to students.

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3. It gets nearly 50% of its electricity from wind power

Environmentalists also take much delight with Denmark. It was a leading developer of wind power as a renewable energy source in the 1980s, and today wind power amounts to 39% of Denmark’s total electricity consumption — and that’s set to rise to 50% within five years. On some particularly windy days, Denmark meets up to 140% of its total electricity needs.

Though the results of Denmark’s renewable energy program give heart to environmentalists, they should also perk up capitalists as well. Wind power is now big money, at least for Denmark, despite the highly subsidized start-up costs of building offshore wind farms. Moreover, its push to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels resulted from a sense of conservative prudence from the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks.

4. Education, even for adults, is an important public value

One of Denmark’s national heroes is the 19th century philosopher Nikolaj Gruntvig, who is credited with formulating Denmark’s national education theory. That translated, from the 1840s onward, a dedication to the value of public education in Denmark. Even today, Denmark has a tradition of the folkehøjskole, or ‘folk high school,’ where adults can return to education to obtain new skills for their careers or even just for fun or for post-retirement intellectual stimulation.

That’s one of the reasons that free education is such a cherished value in Denmark. But it also shows that the roots of the Nordic welfare system are often centuries in the making. Unlike, say, in the United Kingdom, where universal government-run health care was a postwar phenomenon, the ingredients of the Danish welfare system lie in the rise of social democratic and agrarian political movements in the 19th century, and the communal spirit of compromise and reform goes back to the 18th century of beyond.

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5. Freedom of information is key to government transparency

Scandinavian countries were some of the first countries to enact freedom-of-information laws. Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act dates back to 1766, for example, and Nordic countries have generally pushed to expand the European Union’s freedom-of-information directives more widely. Denmark’s most recent law, the Access to Public Administration Files Act, even includes certain private and public energy suppliers in the scope of what’s covered.

That comes with its own benefits. Denmark ranked first in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruptions Perception Index — the United States ranked just 17th, far behind Denmark, Finland (3rd), Sweden (4th) and Norway (5th). The ethos of good government and transparency infuses every level of government (and it’s one of the motivating themes of the hit television series Borgen, a three-season show about the personal and professional lives of Danish politicians and journalists).

The perception that the Nordics are an essentially corruption-free zone are another reason why businesses are so keen on relocating there.

But it’s also the kind of place where an official like Clinton would never be able to get away with keeping a secret server, unbeknownst to the Obama administration, to conduct official and unofficial state business alike.

6. Family leave policies are quite generous

In Denmark, parents receive a full year of maternity and paternity leave — mothers are guaranteed 18 weeks and fathers are guaranteed two weeks, with a further 32 weeks to be split up as between the two parents as they see fit. That’s aside from a guarantee of up to five weeks of vacation time annually for workers.

Though no one expects Sanders (or anyone else, for that matter) to introduce single-payer health care to the United States, there is a growing sense that the United States should offer at least some basic parental leave. American workers currently have no federal guarantee of maternity or paternity leave nor do they have a right to vacation leave — something that makes the United States an extreme outlier throughout the developed world.

This is one area where there’s cause for optimism. If Clinton, as widely expected, wins the Democratic nomination, she will be well-placed as the first female nominee of a major party to make this a chief policy priority. There’s a great symbolism in the notion that the first American woman in the presidency will also implement the first universal maternity leave policy.

But it’s an issue that could resonate with conservatives as well. In the United Kingdom, prime minister David Cameron and the Conservative Party campaigned on extending tax credits for child care. Though he ultimately abandoned it, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, also a conservative, campaigned in 2013 on expanding paid parental leave. Certainly, social conservatives and Christian voters who value strong families might also champion a policy. It’s one area where, in an increasingly polarized political scene, both Republicans and Democrats might come to agree.

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7. The population is more homogeneous —
and far less welcoming to immigrants

One of the theories behind the Nordic model’s success is that countries like Denmark have greater civic trust because they have small and, on the whole, homogeneous populations. That’s one of the reasons that critics say a Nordic-style approach would never work in such a sprawling and heterogeneous place like the United States.

But that also points to one of the darker sides of Danish policy.

Only recently, Denmark’s center-right government made global headlines for its unwelcoming attitude to mostly Muslim refugees arriving on European shores. It went so far as to take out Arabic-language advertisements in Lebanese newspapers noting that family reunification might not be possible and that public assistance for immigrants is now lower.

The message is clear — Denmark is not a particularly welcoming place for immigrants. Denmark, notably, opted out of the migration quota system agreed among the vast majority of EU nations earlier this year. In early December, Danes will vote in a referendum that could see the country ‘opt-out’ of certain justice and home affairs standards.

The anti-Islam and anti-migrant Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) won more votes in the recent June 2015 snap elections than any other party, with the exception of former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s center-left Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats). As the Social Democrats’ left-wing allies lost votes, it remained for the third-placed center-right Venestre to form a minority government under current prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who depends on the People’s Party as well as other smaller center-right parties to govern.

The rise of the Danish far-right (and the Scandinavian far-right in general) has pushed both of the major parties toward less migrant-friendly positions. Even Thorning-Schmidt tried to co-opt that message earlier this year with billboards proclaiming that migrants to Denmark would have to find work.  One of Rasmussen’s first actions as prime minister was to enact, in August, on a highly divided vote, a measure that cuts benefits by 45% for immigrants who have not lived in Denmark for seven of the last eight years.

Sweden, which remains far more welcoming of migrants, especially Syrians and others from outside the European Union, has not responded to the refugee crisis with the same level of closed-mindedness as the Danish. Nevertheless, growing antipathy toward immigrants (in Denmark and Sweden alike) and increasingly multicultural Nordic populations will certainly test the ‘homogeneity theory’ in the years ahead.

8. There’s not just ‘one’ Nordic model

Generally speaking, it’s a mistake to refer to a single Nordic model, because the five countries that comprise the Nordics are actually very different. Denmark and Sweden, on one hand, spent much of the past half-millennium as colonial powers. Norway, Iceland and Finland, on the other hand, spent much of the past half-millennium as subjugated colonies — Iceland won its independence from Denmark only in 1944, and Norway won its independence from Sweden in 1905. Today, that filters through culture and geography — Stockholm and Copenhagen are imperial cities, while Oslo and Helsinki are not.

Norway’s vast oil wealth, in particular, makes it a special case that has elements of other Nordic states, but also the problems that many petrostates face. Finland’s longtime relationship with Russia gives it a certain sensibility in European geostrategic matters (and that explains why both it and Sweden are still not members of NATO).

Neither Iceland nor Norway are members of the European Union, lest their rich fish stocks be subject to competition from Spanish and Greek fishermen. While Finland is a member of the eurozone, both Denmark and Sweden have retained their own national currencies and control over their monetary policy.

All of which is to say that even Scandinavians can’t agree on which ingredients are most key to their ‘model’ — and that makes its export outside the northern European context all the more difficult.

Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Vienna's Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)
Vienna’s Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)

Sometimes, what doesn’t happen in an election matters more than what does happen.austria flag

So it was in Vienna on Sunday, when Michael Häupl, the longtime center-left mayor held onto power. That’s not so surprising, because his Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) has controlled Vienna’s state government in every election in the postwar era.

What’s more, though polls showed that the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) was trailing the Social Democrats by just 1% in the week before Vienna’s elections, the Freedom Party actually lost by nearly 10%. Though the Freedom Party’s result marks a gain against its prior result in 2010, and its strength is growing amid the backdrop of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis, its failure in Vienna is notable.

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After an election campaign that pitted Häupl in competition directly with the Freedom Party’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the far right’s failure to break through should come as a relief to Austria’s entire political mainstream, of both right and left. Had Strache won the election, it would have shaken the foundations of the grand coalition that governs Austria under Social Democratic chancellor Werner Faymann.

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Vienna, aside from being Austria’s capital, is also the country’s largest state, with 1.8 million of Austria’s 8.6 million people, so elections for the Landtag invariably influence the national political climate. Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative), the third-placed party, won enough seats to give the SPÖ-led coalition a majority in the state assembly. Continue reading Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

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.

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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.

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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

Center-right looks to minority government after Danish election

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In an election race that finished as closely as polls predicted, the broad center-right ‘blue’ bloc won 90 seats in Denmark’s Folketing, while the broad center-left ‘red’ bloc of prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt won just 89.denmark flag

Though that’s a stupendous effort for Thorning-Schmidt and, especially, her Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats), which actually gained seats and finished with the highest share of Denmark’s many political parties. Since winning the 2011 election, polls consistent showed Thorning-Schmidt’s coalition trailing by double digits, so the election result represents something of a comeback for the Danish left in general and for Thorning-Schmidt in particular.

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Her coalition partners didn’t manage as well, though, so Thorning-Schmidt will not serve a second term as prime minister and, despite her success, she stepped down as the Social Democratic party leader after the narrow loss.

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RELATED: How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

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The center-right’s victory means that former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the leader of Denmark’s chief center-right party, Venestre, will once again return to power as head of a minority government, according to reports on Sunday. But Thursday’s vote is still something of a Pyrrhic victory for him, because his party finished with 19.5% of the vote, about 7% less than the Social Democrats and, more significantly, about 1.5% less than the anti-immigration, eurosceptic  Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party).

While the DF’s leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl (pictured above) didn’t demand the premiership, he will now be the chief driver of Danish government. Rasmussen is an amiable figure, but he’s been damaged by an expenses scandal and his party is now returning to power, despite the fact that it lost more seats (13) than any other party in the Folketing. Though the Danish People’s Party will conceivably his government from outside any formal coalition, there will be no doubt that Thulesen Dahl’s agenda — a populist approach to pensions and welfare spending, rolling back immigration (especially Muslim immigration), and chipping away at the free borders of the European Union’s Schengen zone (the party wants Denmark to leave the Schengen zone altogether) — will figure high on Rasmussen’s priority list. It also means that the Danish government will strongly back British prime minister David Cameron’s push for EU reform, in advance of a 2017 referendum on British membership in the European Union.

More thematically, the success of the Danish People’s Party is part of a broader story about the rise of the alternative right across Europe, especially throughout Scandinavia in recent years:

  • Norway’s anti-tax Framskrittspartiet (Progress Party) had a breakthrough performance in the 2009 election, winning 22.9% of the vote and becoming Norway’s second-largest party. In the September 2013 elections, it still won 16.6% of the vote, and its leader, Siv Jensen, serves as finance minister in Erna Solberg’s conservative minority government.
  • Last September, Sweden’s far-right Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) won 12.9% of the vote to become the third-largest party in the country. Just one month into the premiership of center-left prime minister Stefan Löfven, the Sweden Democrats caused a political crisis that brought the country to the brink of a fresh snap election.
  • The similarly far-right Perussuomalaiset (PS, Finns Party) finished in third place in Finland’s elections with 17.6% of the vote in March 2015, and its leader, Timo Soini, a skeptic about future Greek bailouts, is now Finland’s foreign secretary.

It’s clear that the message of parties like the DF resounds with a significant portion of the northern European electorate, including in the United Kingdom and France, and immigration — from both inside the European Union and from Muslim emigrants from beyond — has a growing resonance. Even Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats felt like they needed to take a harder line on the issue, with advertisements proclaiming that Danish immigrants should be working.

It’s not clear yet which parties Rasmussen will seek to form his minority government, but Thulesen Dahl’s tone seems to indicate that it won’t include the Danish People’s Party. But Rasmussen’s Liberals have just 34 seats — with support from the Liberal Alliance (13 seats), the Konservative Folkeparti (Conservative People’s Party (six seats), it gives Rasmussen just 53 seats.

Vestager’s profile hangs over Danish election

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She’s not running for anything in Denmark’s parliamentary elections on Thursday, but even from Brussels, Margrethe Vestager, the country’s European commissioner for the high-profile competition portfolio, looms larger than just about anyone on the Danish political scene — included prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and her main challenger for the premiership.European_Uniondenmark flag

Less than a year into her tenure as the EU’s top cop on competition law, Vestager has moved forward with narrow charges (in the Commission’s parlance, a ‘Statement of Objections’) against Google for allegedly prioritizing search results from its own Google Shopping program over other results. Hardly a week later, she filed charges against the Russian state energy company, Gazprom, for anti-competitive behavior that the Commission argues resulted in higher prices in the Baltics, Poland and Bulgaria. In recent weeks, Vestager also open an investigation into whether Amazon was abusing its dominant market position to restrict innovation and competition in the e-book industry.

That’s made her, increasingly, a bête noire in the powerful Silicon Valley. Mike Honda, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives for a California district representing Silicon Valley, denounced the charges in April, arguing that Google was instead one of the most ‘innovative and life-changing technologies in human history.’

It’s not just American and Russian companies — Vestager is also looking into allegations that Luxembourg’s aggressive tax deals with companies violated European Union state aid rules, even though most of the tax decisions came during the administration of Luxembourg’s prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, now the president of the European Commission and who nominated Vestager for the role last autumn. She’s also investigating several European governments for providing assistance to their respective utilities industries.

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RELATED: How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

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Not since Mario Monti took on General Electric’s Jack Welch and Microsoft’s Bill Gates has an EU antitrust enforcer taken such an aggressive tone with companies operating in the EU marketplace. It’s certainly a more direct, even transparent way of proceeding that her predecessor, Spanish commissioner Joaquín Almunia, who preferred negotiating closed-door settlements — a tactic that did not work, so far, with Google. In a throwback to the Monti days, Vestager last week threatened to block GE’s bid to acquire the French energy business Alstom without further modifications to the proposed merger — and that’s after the French government last year stepped in to demand a better deal.  Continue reading Vestager’s profile hangs over Danish election

How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

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Not so long ago, British prime minister David Cameron suggested that his Danish counterpart, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, would make a good alternative candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.denmark flag

Thorning-Schmidt (pictured above) demurred the speculation. Ultimately, European leaders embraced former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and instead of seeking a safe job in Brussels, Thorning-Schmidt became increasingly convinced that she could lead her center-left government to reelection in a vote originally expected in September.

A Rorschach test for EU economic policy?

Thorning-Schmidt called snap elections for June 18, hoping to take advantage of a growing sense of momentum. Indeed, she may have taken a different sort of comfort from Cameron, who last month won an even stronger mandate for a second term in his own general election. After a period of GDP contraction and fiscal tightening, Thorning-Schmidt is betting that nascent economy recovery and the promise of greater welfare spending in the years ahead will be enough to replicate Cameron’s feat in Denmark.

If she succeeds, both sides on the European debate over economic policy will try to claim victory. For the European center-right, a Thorning-Schmidt victory would provide more evidence that an electorate is willing to reward a government’s hard grind to demonstrate fiscal stability. For the European center-left, it would show the way forward for social democrats struggling to salvage, reform and reinvent the welfare state in an age of austerity.

Furthermore, as the second-most populous Nordic country, Denmark (with 5.7 million people) is a weathervane of all the recent political, cultural and economic trends across northern Europe — and where the region may be headed.

How Helle turned a near-certain defeat into a dead heat

Thorning-Schmidt is the leader of the Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats), the largest party on the Danish left, and she leads an informal ‘red’ coalition of parties that may be willing to join forces for a broad leftist government after the election. Not surprisingly, she won sympathy from voters in the wake of a radical Islamic attack on a Copenhagen cafe and synagogue in February. Moreover, she is hoping that forecasts of 1.5% or greater GDP growth will overshadow the GDP contraction and fiscal contraction that marked the first half of her government. Continue reading How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

Finland election results — and what they mean for Europe

sipilaPhoto credit to Jari Laukkanen/Suomenmaa.

As expected, the liberal Suomen Keskusta (Centre Party) won the largest share of the vote in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Finland after a campaign dominated by Finland’s flagging economic recovery.finland flag

That means Juha Sipilä, a former telecommunications executive who entered Finnish politics just four years ago, will become the country’s next prime minister, and he will prioritize an agenda of economic reform that includes personal and business tax cuts, further budget-trimming and steps designed to increase the competitiveness of Finnish industry.

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The Centre Party led Finland’s government most recently between 2003 and 2010 under former prime minister Matti Vanhanen, who also emphasized tax cuts and promoted innovation — Vanhanen’s government was the first in the world to introduce a legal right to broadband internet. Olli Rehn (pictured above), who from 2004 to 2014 became the European Commission’s chief official for economic and monetary policy, won a constituency in Helsinki to return to the Finnish parliament, where he’s expected to play a leading role in the new government — quite possibly as Finland’s next finance minister.

But the Centre Party’s narrow victory wasn’t the most convincing — it only defeated the governing center-right Kansallinen Kokoomus (National Coalition Party) by just over 3%. Another two parties, the far-right Perussuomalaiset (PS, Finns Party) and the center-left Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue (SDP, Social Democratic Party) weren’t far behind.

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Each of Finland’s four major parties won between 17% and 21% of the vote, hardly a ringing endorsement for anything other than the traditional moderation and consensus that has marked past Finnish governments. For now, the Centre Party’s victory will end talk of Finland’s potential accession to NATO, a position that outgoing prime minister Alexander Stubb favored and that Sipilä (along with most Finns) opposes.

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RELATED: Who is Juha Sipilä?
The man who wants to become CEO of Finland, Inc.

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But it also means Sipilä’s government will almost certainly depend on the Finns Party in some form. Throughout the Finnish election campaign, that has caused trepidation throughout Europe for two reasons. First, the eurosceptic far right will now hold the balance of power in Finland, a scenario that’s becoming increasingly common in the Nordics as anti-EU nationalists continue to gain support throughout all of Europe. Second, because the Finns Party are opposed to future Greek bailouts, Finland’s new government could complicate efforts to reach a new deal on Greece’s financing that will allow it to remain in the eurozone.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Sunday’s vote was the strong showing of the Vihreä liitto (Green League), which gained five seats (for a total of 15) in the 200-member Eduskunta, the unicameral Finnish parliament.

Sipilä hopes to avoid the same unwieldy coalition that hampered the National Coalition-led government since 2011, first under Jyrki Katainen and under Stubb for the past 10 months after Katainen joined the European Commission (where he currently serves as vice president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness). Katainen was disappointed in his plan to enact deeper reforms, in part because he was forced to balance an unwieldy six-party coalition that included not only the center-right National Coalition, but the Social Democrats, the Green League and the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto).

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Sipilä starts out with less than half the seats he needs for a coalition. If Sipilä includes the conservative Kristillisdemokraatit (Christian Democrats) and the Svenska folkpartiet i Finland (Swedish People’s Party), a small party devoted to the interests of Finland’s Swedish-speaking population, he’ll have just 63 seats.

Continue reading Finland election results — and what they mean for Europe