Europe’s Super Sunday Provides Few Clear Answers So Far

Yesterday saw a vertiable smorgasbord of elections from across Europe, with high profile elections in Greece and France potentially marking a watershed both for those countries and Europe as a whole. Elections in Serbia and Armenia were no less vital for the future of two of the poorest countries in Europe, while voters in the Germany’s far northern state of Schleswig-Holstein had much to say about the future of Angela Merkel and the possible emergence of the Pirate Party as a serious player. Even voters in parts of Italy, like their counterparts in parts of the UK last Thursday, were electing councils and mayors.

This Super Sunday was democratic politics’ equivalent of the final week of World Cup qualifying. Let’s travel around the continent to survey the results.

Although media attention was focused on France, the real story of the night was in Greece where months of wildly swinging opinion polls prefigured an election whose result read like something straight out of the Weimar Republic, not least because of the 21 seats in parliament won by Golden Dawn, probably the most overtly neo-Nazi and flat-out scariest political party elected to any old-EU parliament since the War.

The reigining coalition, a grand coalition of Greece’s traditional big-two parties – PASOK on the left and New Democracy on the right – will fall two seats short of an overall majority in Greece’s 300-member parliament. Every party outside these two is opposed to the current bailout; there is no credible anti-bailout coalition that could bring the ex-New Democracy populists of the Independent Greeks into government with all of the far-left, let alone Golden Dawn.

Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, which emerged as the largest party yesterday, has already said that he is prepared to lead a government of national unity based on a renegotiation of the bailout and Greece remaining in the Euro. If Brussels is willing to play ball, that is a possibility as several anti-bailout parties remain strongly committed to Euro membership. If a government of national unity does not prove possible, the existing coalition could reach a comfortable working majority by forming a coalition with either the Independent Greeks, who are more-or-less the anti-bailout splinter of New Democracy anyway; or perhaps the rather Guardianista populists of the Democratic Left.

The big winner of the night was the Radical Left group of parties led by Alexis Tsipras, which had a near but clear miss for first place overall but swept the board in every major city; ignoring them in negotations towards any government
of national unity might prove impossible. Then again, so might finding working terms with a movement whose component ideological fragments contain everything from moderate Green Socialists right through to overt Trotskyites and Maoists.

At first glance, this is an existential crisis for the Euro and for Greece. In practice, it might instead mark the end of Angela Merkel’s fiscally cautious approach to the Euro crisis. The Economist’s columnist Charlemagne, hardly a radical leftist, notes that the Brussels bureaucracy has been preparing itself for the arrival of M. Hollande for some weeks, and that there is sufficient wriggle-room to bolt a “growth compact” on to the fiscal compact.

Hollande’s victory in France came pretty much as the polls had predicted, with Hollande’s lead steadily but slowly eroding over the last week for a final result of 51.7% for Hollande, 48.3% for Sarkozy. with the regional pattern being much as it in most French elections; Hollande was a rare Presidential candidate of the left to win the City of Paris, which he managed with a whopping 10%+ margin. But then again, Hollande is only the second Socialist to win the Presidency during the Fifth Republic.

Sarkozy’s dilemma was apparent from the first opinion polls conducted after the first round. While Hollande was comfortably mopping up those who had voted for other left-wing candidates initially, Sarkozy (who, remember, is not exactly “Français de souche” himself) was struggling to mop up the first round votes of Marine Le Pen. As Sarkozy tacked to the right on identity issues in the final week to attract National Front voters, he drove the upper-middle class centrists who had voted for François Bayrou in the first round into Hollande’s hands.

Hollande’s election must mark some sort of shift from austerity in the Eurozone, and I am sure many others would like to join me as a fly in the wall at the first Merkel-Hollande bilateral. Hollande, despite playing to the base at his victory rally, was generally in conciliatory mood last night.

Angela Merkel yet endured another tough night in a German regional election – the voters of Schleswig-Holstein ditched the incument centre-right goverment. What commentators are calling a “Danish traffic light” government of Social Democrats, Greens and the Danish minority party could form a government with a one seat majority; it would be an ideologically coherent government and with a diverse and moderate opposition could well govern comfortably for a full term. The alternative is a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democracts, but that would probably mean the Social Democrats ceding the state presidency to Frau Merkel’s party.

The Pirate Party achieved its third breakthrough at state level in six months. After winning representation in Berlin and Saarland, it polled 8.2% on a platform that has spread well beyond free downloading to major on general civil liberties and privacy issues, always a concern with the German chattering classes. It may be a flash in the pan, but it’s starting to look like it has at least the potential to become something more permanent. It polls particularly strongly with voters under 30, especially men, and now claims 28,000 members across Germany. If it can maintain its current level of support, polls show it is on course to comfortably enter the German Federal Parliament at the next election and become a potential kingmaker. It remained just a few thousand votes short of being a kingmaker in Schleswig-Holstein last night.

Merkel faces another tough election next week in Germany’s most populous state, Northrhine-Westphalia, home to over a fifth of Germans. Popular Social Democrat State President Hannelore Kraft is on course for victory, and if she and her Green coalition partners win big, she will emerge as the strongest Social Democrat candidate with a credible chance of taking on Angela Merkel in national elections due in Autumn 2013. Germany might see the first all-female contest for the leadership of a major rich democracy.

While the fall out from these three elections have important implications for the Irish bailout referendum, two non-EU countries also saw vital national elections take place yesterday.

In Serbia, for the third time in succession, centre-left President Boris Tadić will face off against moderate nationalist Tomislav Nikolić in a second round run-off in two weeks time. Only 0.1% seperated the two in yesterday’s first round. It should be advantage Tadić, though. He has picked up considerably more second-round voters from minor candidates than Nikolić in their two previous encounters, and parliamentary elections also held yesterday saw strong performances for pro-European, liberal and democratic socialist parties in Serbia. I’m not sure if Tadić and Nikolić are the Boris and Ken of the Balkans, or the other way around.

The other big story in Serbia’s parliamentary elections was that the Radical Party lead by Hague War Crimes Tribunal indictee Vojislav Šešelj lost all its seats in Serbia’s parliament, a futher sign of the Serbian electorate’s dramatic turn to the centre over the past decade.

In Armenia the incumbent centre-right government of Serzh Sarkisian won a crushing victory in a campaign dominated by voters’ desire for political stability, after 2008’s election saw widespread street violence. The opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian have alleged fraud and are planning a big street demonstration in Yerevan on Tuesday night. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitoried the poll, will report today.

Finally, in a big week of elections across Europe, in Italy, about a quarter of the electorate is voting in council and mayoral elections held over two days, yesterday and today. These will be a test of Italian voters’ tolerance of the austerity policies of Prime Minister Mario Monti.

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