Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Centre-Right Parties Make a Clean Sweep

Centre-Right Parties Celebrate Electoral Advances Across Europe
The European Parliament elections presented voters across Europe with their first opportunity to cast a verdict on how the EU has responded to the economic crisis that has gripped its 27 Member States. The result was a surprising endorsement of centre-right governments across Europe. Centre-left governments – particularly the Labour government in the UK - fared less well.

The elections should really be a vote on how well sitting MEPs have served their constituents and a mandate for another five years of scrutinising laws made in Brussels and Strasbourg. There is, however, always a temptation to present the European elections as a snapshot of public opinion across the EU 27 Member States. In many ways, that is understandable. Given that voters are not choosing or rejecting a European government, they will take the opportunity to register support or opposition to their own country’s leaders. The political parties’ European groups nevertheless promote pan-European manifestos that address issues such as immigration, climate change and unemployment.

Even though centre-right governments enjoyed a strong showing, there were no significant, pan-European trends to call. The extremist parties enjoyed a surge in support in some Member States but a slump in others. Even the lower turnout – a slip from 45.47% in 2004 to 43.09% in 2009 - can be attributed to factors that varied from country to country.

One clear pattern that has emerged is the consolidation of support for the centre right parties. In the “Big Five” Member States – Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain, the leading centre-right parties came top of the polls.

The Party of European Socialists (PES) will be dismayed by their poor results. Their share of the vote has fallen from 27.6% to just 22%. The PES had hoped that the centre-right parties who govern Germany, France and Italy would be punished for the economic downturn that has driven up unemployment. However, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi all saw their parties’ support hold up. In most cases, they faced divided and weak opposition.

In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and a regional sister party, the CSU, won a total of 42 seats. Their tally is down seven but the result puts the centre-right far ahead of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior party in the governing Grand Coalition. The CDU/CSU remains the largest party in the EPP. The CDU / CSU. With 20.8%, the SPD had its worst result in nationwide elections since the Second World War. This is huge blow to the SPD, which is gearing up for heavy losses in the general election on 27 September. Angela Merkel should be in a stronger position after the elections, not having to keep her opponents on board. Still, she may form a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats, following a surge in their support at the Euro-elections.

In France, the Socialists’ complacency led them to suffer a heavy defeat on Thursday. M. Sarkozy’s personal approval ratings have been in the low 30s yet his UMP won 30 seats – up by 13 from the 2004 elections. The Socialists lost 17 MEPs and ended up with just 14. Francois Bayrou, the centrist who came third in the presidential election of 2007 suffered a humiliating defeat. He tried to use the European campaign to attack M. Sarkozy and build support for another presidential bid in 2012. This seems to have run into the ground following his poor showing in the polls.

Martine Aubry, the new Socialist leader, admitted her party was no longer credible, that it needed to stop internal divisions and make some profound reforms. These elections might plunge the already weak party into further disarray. Many are already referring to the electoral earthquake in 2002 when the party's presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, failed to reach the second round.

The leader of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, Olivier Besancenot who achieved notoriety for leading a strong left-wing response to the economic downturn also failed to make any breakthrough in the election.

In contrast to M.Sarkozy, Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi could claim that personal popularity was enough to see off his opponents – even if his party, the People of Liberty Party (PDL) won a smaller share of the vote than expected. The fact that PDL did not reach the 40 per cent share Mr Berlusconi hoped for can be attributed to the ongoing scandal over claims of an inappropriate relationship with Noemi Leitzia, an 18 year old model. Mr Berlusconi won 29 seats compared to the 22 seats won by the centre-left Democratic Party (DP). He was helped by a strong showing from the Lega Nord, a right-wing party that forms part of the governing coalition.

Antonio Di Pietro, a former state prosecutor and fierce critic of Mr Berlusconi, saw his support almost quadruple compared to 2004 to 8%, which will give his party a total of eight MEPs.

The centre-right also made big gains in Poland. Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Platform party won 45.3% of the vote – twice as much as his 2004 results, giving him 25 seats. The nationalist and conservative opposition Law and Justice party was second with 29.5% (15 seats). The Law and Justice Party will join the UK Conservatives in a new political group in the European Parliament. The results confirm a clear trend in Poland towards the Centre-Right at the expense of both the far right and the far left.

United Kingdom voters turned on the governing Labour Party in spectacular style. Labour scored its lowest share of the vote since the days of Ramsay Macdonald.

Spain’s socialist prime minister, Jose Zapatero, seemed get off lightly compared to the drubbing that political commentators were expecting. The Spanish socialists slipped into second place, but they lost just three MEPs and their opponents, Partido Popular, lost a seat.

Fears that the eurosceptic parties would make further in-roads in the European Parliament were unfounded. Despite a strong showing from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which came second in the share of the overall UK vote, the Independence-Democracy group, lost votes and the threat from the anti-Lisbon Treaty party, Libertas never materialised.

The Greens say they ran an EU-wide and EU focused campaign but their results across the EU-27 were highly variable. In Germany, the Greens slightly improved on their result from 2004, winning 12.1% of the and gaining one MEP, for a total of 14, In France, the Green Party, headed by Daniel Cohn-Bendt surprisingly finished in third place – just 0.6% behind the Socialists. They won 8 new seats and now have 14 MEPs. Yet in Italy, all the Greens MEPs were defeated and in the UK Green Party didn’t make the gains in the UK as they had hoped.

The election of two British National Party MEPs sent political shockwaves through the UK. Yet the far-right fared even better in the Netherlands where the controversial Gert Wilders Freedom Party came second with 16.9% of the vote. The party is openly anti-Islamic, and Wilders has been refused entry to the UK because of his inflammatory views. The far right made significant gains too, in Austria, where it scored nearly 18% of the vote, and in Slovakia, Hungary and Denmark. However, again there was no pan-European trend since the National Front lost 3 seats in France, three were lost in Latvia and were wiped out in Poland.

The voter turnout across Europe, although generally lower than in 2004, cannot be attributed to any single factor. In some countries such as Poland, the fall in turn out (27.4% - up from 20.87% in 2004) can be attributed to general satisfaction of the EU. However, the proportions of voters in the UK (34.8%) Germany (43.33%), France (40.48%) remain stubbornly low, owing to the growing cynicism and lack of interest towards EU politics.

Even though the British Conservatives (with 26 MEPs) are leaving the centre-right bloc, the European People’s Party (EPP) remains by far the largest political group in the European Parliament, notching up a total of 263 against 163 for the Socialist Group, the PES. The latter won 54 fewer seats than in 2004. The Liberal and Democrat Group (ALDE) has lost 20 MEPs but remains the third largest political grouping in the Parliament with 80 members.

The EPP had been the predominant group in the last European Parliament with 284 MEPs (including 26 UK Conservatives) while the Socialist Group contained 215 members. However the gap has widened and the European People’s Party can expect the support of the UK Conservatives and its allies in the new right-wing grouping on many pieces of legislation going through parliamentary committees.

The strong showing by the EPP parties will change the nature of the European Parliament. There will be less consensus-seeking and a clearer demarcation between left and right. The president of the Parliament come from the EPP and centre right members will have first pick of the most powerful committees. The Commission president Jose Barroso, himself a former centre right prime minister of Portugal, will be relieved that he can push his post-2010 “competitiveness and growth” programme through the European Parliament, without being troubled too much by Socialist Group delays.

The 2009 election results mean that the centre-right will be the dominant force in European politics. The EPP has increased its lead in the European Parliament, Moreover, the collapse in the support for the centre-left in the major Member States such as France, Italy, the UK, Germany, Spain and Poland point to a European Council with a strong centre-right presence.

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