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Is Fidesz weakening?

Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, noted across Europe for its nationalist-populist agenda, has suffered a surprise defeat in a local by-election ahead of the parliamentary elections, which will take place in April and May 2018.

Peter Marki-Zay, an independent candidate who gathered support from opposition parties and movements united against Fidesz, won the Hódmezovásárhely mayoral election with 57.5% of the vote, against 41.5% for the Fidesz candidate, Zoltan Hegadus.  The result came as a surprise as Hódmezovásárhely is typically a Fidesz stronghold.

Having reigned almost unopposed over Hungarian politics since 2010,  Fidesz have lost momentum in recent weeks.  A corruption scandal involving Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s son-in-law has made headlines, and a row over the alleged cover up of refugee numbers has caused problems for a leader who has made his name with a tough stance on immigration.  Although polls show that Fidesz are still on course to win around 50% of the vote, they no longer look unassailable.

In recent years, the Hungarian opposition has been weak and fractured, with morale low.  The Hódmezovásárhely result offers a psychological boost, and a hint of what can be achieved if they work together.  Depriving Fidesz of their super-majority, which has allowed them to make changes to the constitution over the last four years, now looks to be an achievable target.

Turnout in Hódmezovásárhely was also high by local election standards, with 62.4% casting a vote.  This is higher than the typical turnout in parliamentary elections.  Although it would be unwise to infer too much from a single local result, this could be a further early indication that opposition to Fidesz is stirring.





New Dutch coalition: What are the policies?

Almost seven months after the March 15th election, a new coalition has been formed to govern the Netherlands.  Mark Rutte, leader of the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) carries on as Prime Minister.  In government, the VVD are joined by the CDA (Christian Democrats), D66 (Liberals) and CU (Christian Union).  Cabinet posts are yet to be allocated.

The main plank of the coalition agreement is a radical overhaul of the taxation system.  Income taxes will be simplified by combining tax and national insurance with only two rates, 37% and 50%.  The new government estimates that middle income earners on €40,000 a year will be €1,200 better off.  However, they are giving with one hand and taking with the other, since the lower rate of BTW (sales tax) will rise from 6% to 9%.  This tax is added to day-to-day essentials like food and train tickets, so the cost of living will rise, which will hit lower earners.  That said, higher earners will lose out when tax breaks on mortgage interest are reduced.  An increase in affordable rental housing has been promised to help those struggling with the overheating housing market, though the details are vague.

Ambitious reductions in carbon emissions have been promised. Houses will no longer be built with gas connections.  By 2030, all coal-fired power stations will be closed and all new cars must be emissions-free.  Gas extraction in the Groningen area will be wound down further, and more space will be allocated for wind generation.

There will also be investment in education, some of which has a socially conservative twist.  It will be compulsory for pupils to learn the national anthem at school.  Trips to the Rijksmueum and Parliament will be organised for all and everyone will receive ‘The Canon of Dutch History’ on their eighteenth birthday.  The socially liberal D66 have, however, managed to negotiate a concession to their plans for expanding euthanasia, with a feasibility study planned into their voltooid leven (end of life) policy, under which over-75s could choose to end their life without the need to prove ill health.

Overall, the coalition agreement is a mash-up of conservative and radical policies befitting the unlikely alliance of parties forming the coalition.  Since the new Dutch government has a majority of  only one, it will be interesting to see if this eclectic fifty-five page document forms a stable basis for government.




Are the ‘dominos’ as vulnerable as they seem?

It has become common in the English-speaking media to hear that Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France are on course for victory in the forthcoming Dutch and French elections.  The idea that the individual nations of Europe are ready to rise up against the European Union is an oft-repeated trope from the far-right since Brexit, but are the Netherlands and France really on course for big political upheavals?

First, a word on opinion polls.  While it’s natural to view opinion polls with skepticism after their failure to predict Brexit and Trump in 2016, we should also remember that the polls in both cases showed very close and unpredictable races.  Final polls ahead of Brexit showed a 52%-48% victory for Remain; the final result reversed that.  In the United States, opinion polls correctly showed Hillary Clinton with a narrow lead in the popular vote.  They called the result wrong because they failed to pick up on her weakness in traditionally ‘blue’ mid-west states like Michigan, which cost her the election under the rules of the United States’ Electoral College.

While Brexit reminds us of the importance of ‘margin of error’ in polls, the American presidential result speaks to the importance of electoral system effects.  In both the Netherlands and France, electoral systems hinder the ability of an extremist party taking power.  Here’s why:

The Dutch Election, 15th March 2017

It is true that Geert Wilders’ PVV is on course to be the largest party in the Dutch Tweede Kamer (lower house) following next month’s elections.  However, their most favourable polls give them 28 out of 150 seats.  On a good day, they might manage 30 seats, but that’s still 45 seats away from being able to form a government.

Other Dutch parties are reluctant to work with the PVV, partly because of their extremist positions, but also because they proved unreliable partners in the Rutte-I  government of 2010-2012.  Thus, the search for coalition partners to fill those 45 seats is likely to be fruitless.

The Netherlands’ Domino Potential: Low.  The most likely outcome in the forthcoming Dutch elections is a liberal/centre-right coalition.

The French Presidential Elections, 23rd April and 7th May 2017

Marine Le Pen’s Front National stands a good chance of being the biggest party when french votes are counted after the election on the 23rd April.  Current polls put her support at 25%, ahead of her nearest rivals, pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron (22%) and conservative François Fillon (20%).  The French race has so far been volatile – until recently François Fillon was the frontrunner – and with three months to go until polling day, there will be many twists and turns to come.  However, unless one candidate achieves the rare feat of winning the first-round vote outright,  the top two candidates will compete in a ‘run off’ vote on 7th May.

And in this second round, Marine Le Pen is likely to struggle.  According to polls, a direct choice between conservative Fillon and Nationalist Le Pen would result in a 60/40 split in favour of Fillon.  The centrist Macron polls slightly better than Fillon, with a run-off against Le Pen expected to split 65/35 in his favour.  A stable 60% of the population seems prepared to vote for ‘anybody but Le Pen’ in a Presidential run-off vote.  This coalition of resistance has defeated the Front National in previous presidential run-offs, and currently looks to be holding.  Significantly, this ceiling has been stable over a number of years; even terrorist attacks have not moved the needle in the direction of Le Pen.

France’s Domino Potential: Moderate to Low  With France’s two main ‘traditional’ parties in the doldrums, and the country still reeling from terror attacks, this election has the potential to be volatile.  However, long-term opinion polls suggest a 40% ceiling on Le Pen’s support.  Unless polls begin to show this ceiling breaking, then we should treat reports of Le Pen’s imminent ‘victory’ with some skepticism.

In conclusion, while it is symbolically significant if Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands and Le Pen’s FN in France win ‘biggest party’ in their respective countries, neither side currently looks able to draw on wide enough support to allow them to form a government.  The fact that Dutch and French parties are explicitly forced to build a coalition of support is a fundamental difference from the British and American electoral systems, which function according to majoritarian ‘winner takes all’ rules.




How to run TV debates in a multi-party system

Today, the people of the Netherlands vote for their provincial governments.  On face value, the Dutch middle legislative tier has limited powers.  However, the results of these elections will also determine the composition of the Eerste Kamer, the Netherlands’ legislative upper house.  Elections are also simultaneously held for the Water Board, arguably the most important institution in the Netherlands given its responsibility for water levels, dyke planning and maintenance and other such responsibilities that keep the population’s feet dry.  All in all, it’s an important day at the polls.

According to modern conventions, important elections require a TV debate between party leaders, but this is easier said than done in a political system where eleven parties (plus an assortment of regional parties and independents) are represented in the political system.  The Dutch have arrived at an innovative solution, running a series of one-on-one mini debates featuring two party leaders at a time.

Last night’s ‘TV debate’ featured nine debates in total, each discussing a different topic, and each lasting a little less than ten minutes.  The leaders of the six ‘main’ parties (VVD, PvdA, CDA, D66, SP and PVV) each had two opportunities to debate, while the leaders of the six ‘small’ parties (Green Left, Christian Union, 50+, Party for the Animals, Reformed Political Party and Independents) each had the chance to debate once.  Topics debated ranged from energy policy to health insurance.

The format was interesting to watch, being much more focussed on the topics themselves than the ‘ya boo’ point scoring that often dominates debates in two-party systems.  The format made it possible to get a good feel for all twelve party leaders without being confusing or cluttered.  That, in itself, is no mean feat.  The main down-side is that each leader only had the chance to debate two topics.

At the time of writing, the United Kingdom, increasingly a multi-party system, is wrestling with competing ideas about how to organise the leaders’ debate in advance of the May 2015 election.  While the Dutch formula is eminently fair, David Cameron would surely be alarmed to see how Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, was relegated to a bit-part player.  Such an outcome is consistent with Dutch political culture, where the PM’s job is to bring about consensus, but is out of step with the winner-takes all culture that has traditionally dominated in Westminster.

Westminster Must Unite, Not Divide

To the ears of comparative political scientists, the idea of an ‘unwritten constitution’ sounds like a bit of an oxymoron.  While it is possible to argue that vagueness and flexibility of Britain’s founding documents have served the British Isles well over the years, the resulting constitutional hodge podge of an ‘asymmetric unitary state’ is starting to look unsustainable.  Over the next few years, it is likely that the limits of the current system will be tested by the diverging ambitions of Scotland and England.

The devolution settlements of the late 1990s led to the establishment of legislative assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with differing powers. No equivalent legislative body was set up in England (or in the English regions) leaving the Westminster Parliament as the main legislative body for England. This situation is becoming untenable as the Scottish Parliament (already the most powerful of the devolved assemblies) demands the delivery of promised extra powers, while the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has played to the discontent of English voters by suggesting that Scottish MPs should no longer be able to vote on legislation that applies to England only.

Cameron is right to point out the unfairness of Scottish MPs voting on matters that do not affect their constituents.  However,  the paradox of the West Lothian Question has only haunted the legislative process in the United Kingdom for the last forty years because of the contradiction inherent in current legislative arrangements.  Westminster increasingly acts as a quasi-federal assembly for the people of Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales and Northern Ireland), but remains the primary legislature for the people of England.  Attempting to solve this contradiction purely by excluding Scottish MPs from much of the work of the Westminster Parliament would be the political equivalent of two cyclists attempting to ride a tandem bicycle in opposite directions.

In advocating ‘English votes for English laws’, David Cameron is essentially proposing that  Westminster move further towards being a dual English and a British legislature.  This is a terrible idea.  If Westminster is not free to focus on matters that unite England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, instead becoming a source of further division, then we cannot be surprised if the home nations drift further apart in the coming years.   Surely a more logical solution would be a devolution settlement for England that meets the ambitions articulated by David Cameron, combined with a Westminster Parliament that is designed to bring the four nations together in a common purpose.

Why the UKIP Problem Will Get Worse Before it Gets Better

imagesIt’s official.  The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has arrived as a presence in British local government.  Elections last night saw a dramatic increase in their number of council seats; of the results so far announced, they have successfully defended two seats and gained 155.  Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, conceded that Britain was entering an era of ‘four party politics’.

From a wider European perspective, anti-EU, anti-immigration populism has been relatively slow to make an impact in Britain.  Such parties are already well-established in most western European party systems.  The process has taken longer in the UK because the first-past-the-post electoral system strongly favours established parties at the expense of newcomers.    However, the sociological bases of right-wing populist support have much in common across western Europe.

It is usually well understood that anti-EU, anti-immigration populist parties gain support from ultra-conservative voters, many of whom favour a very tough stance on law and order and immigration, and have strong and traditional views on national identity.  Such voters have always existed in small numbers in the UK.  The more moderate stance of UKIP (compared, for example, to the BNP) casts a wider net around the far right of the political spectrum.

Less well understood, however, is the increasing number of former Labour voters who are turning to UKIP.  This is a product of the interaction between de-industrialisation, which has led to an increasing scarcity of skilled working class jobs across north-western Europe, and immigration, which is perceived to create increased competition for those scarce jobs.

Put simply, globalisation and neo-liberal policies, which have dominated economic and political thinking across western Europe since the 1980s, have created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  The ‘winners’ are the most educated and those who already have capital: these groups can take advantage of the increased opportunities to work, travel and conduct business across borders.  At the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, life has become harder.  Mines close because they are no longer efficient.  Factories move to Romania or China.  Tasks formerly carried out by skilled manual workers are now completed by computers or robots.

For the most part, these problems are not caused by the European Union.  Successive British governments have chosen to embrace neo-liberal reforms.  Globalisation and automation would happen whether or not Britain was a member of the EU.

However, the ‘losers’ of globalisation are a large sociological group, and one that has felt entirely unrepresented since the mid-1990s, when the Labour Party distanced itself from the unions and staked out new territory in the political centre.  During the same period, the European Union has expanded both its powers (particularly post-Maastricht) and size (following the 2004 and 2007 expansions).

In the absence of proper representation, debate, and recognition of their concerns, the ‘losers of globalisation’ have become increasingly disenfranchised, and thus ripe for mobilisation by anti-immigration, anti-European populists.  The economic crisis of 2008-2012 fuelled this already-toxic mix.

Britain’s traditional political parties miss the point when they decry UKIP as ‘racists’ and ‘scare mongerers’.  By huddling in the centre/centre-right, and focussing on media-management at the expense of formulating original policies, or building links with society, Britain’s ‘traditional’ political parties have left both the right and the left of the political spectrum wide open, a situation that is ripe for what the eminent political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, termed ‘centrifugal competition’.   Until mainstream political parties recognise the extent of the sociological change that has occurred in Britain, and the new demands that this creates, support for protest parties and populist parties is likely to continue to grow.

Dr Alison Smith holds a DPhil from St Antony’s College, Oxford.  She teaches Comparative Government, European Politics, Politics of the EU and Russian Politics.  You can follow her on Twitter @AliFionaSmith



Hungarian Election: Ruling Coalition Retains Two-Thirds Majority


Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, celebrated a historic victory today after his right-wing Fidesz/Christian Democrat coalition retained its two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament, winning 133 out of 199 seats.  Fidesz’s nearest competitors, the centre-left alliance, Unity, secured just 38 seats, while the far-right Jobbik won 23 seats.  Full results are available here.

The Hungarian election of April 6 2014 was the first to be held under the new electoral system, which almost halved the available number of seats from 386 to 199.  The electoral system remains an ‘unlinked’ (non-compensatory) mixed system, but 106 seats are now allocated through single member districts (SMD), while 93 are allocated through party lists.  The new system is less proportional than the old system (which allocated half the seats through party lists and had smaller single member districts); thus Orban was able to retain his two-thirds majority despite winning 800,000 fewer votes than in 2010.

There are few real checks and balances in the Hungarian political system, which is unicameral and has an indirectly elected head of state.  Concerns have been already raised about judicial independence and media freedom.  Securing a two-thirds majority in the parliament allows the ruling party to engage in a further bout of constitutional tinkering.

Decapitated in Kyiv, Lenin finds safety in the bosom of capitalism

The decapitation of the Lenin Statue in Kyiv on December 8th 2013 was a visible symbol of the current tensions in Ukraine, where young pro-EU protestors continue to demonstrate against the recent decision of President Yanukovych  to abandon an Association Agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.

However, it might equally be asked how this relic of the Soviet era lasted for so long.  There are few more tangible representations of the transition away from communism than the removal of Soviet-era statues. Kyiv’s protestors argue that Lenin has long been squatting, given that former President Yushchenko signed a decree ordering the removal of the statue in 2009.


Protestors in Kyiv decapitate the Lenin Statue on Shevchenko Boulevard

Ukrainians are far from the first in the former Soviet sphere to face dilemmas over the fate of Soviet-era statues.  The Estonian have shown little appetite for keeping souvenirs of this difficult period in their history.  Monuments to Lenin, Stalin and Stakhanovite ‘comrades’ were quietly rounded up and unceremoniously dumped in the back garden of the Estonian History Museum.  There they lie, forgotten and unloved, reflecting the sentiment of a country that is so keen to forget about its long occupation that it won’t even organise a formal disposal for Lenin and his cronies.


Soviet-era statues abandoned in the back garden of the Estonian History Museum in Tallinn

However, the transition away from communism also heralded the beginning of a period of vigorous capitalism.  In Lithuania, one canny entrepreneur realised that, while the local population would rather forget about the Soviet-era, there was money to be made from curious tourists.  The statues were collected and displayed in a theme park, where tourists can gawp for a charging a basic entry fee for 20 litas (€5).  A further 26 litas buys an audio guide,


Lenin sits comfortably in the Grūto Parkas, Druskininkai, Lithuania

While protestors in Kyiv continue to hack away at a statue that has out-stayed its welcome, it is ironic that Lenin’s safest and most comfortable resting place has been within the very bosom of capitalism.

East-West Divide within Ukraine Mirrors EU-Russia Tug-of-War

The 2004 Orange Revolution, and the current EuroMaidan protests, have been widely reported in the European media as symbolising the will of the Ukrainian people to overthrow an autocratic government in favour of a democratic future within the European Union.  However, the reality is more complex.  Ukraine is a country divided.  Citizens of the Russian-speaking south and east strongly favour the current president Viktor Yanukovych, while citizens in the north and west favour a future within Europe.

The political divide in Ukraine is demonstrated starkly by the the results of the 2010 election, which are represented in the map below.  The brown, red, orange and yellow areas show strong support for the former Prime Minister and (now imprisoned) Orange Revolution leader, Yulia Tymoshenko.  The blue areas support the current President, Viktor Yanukovych, with equal fervour.

2010 Presidential Election Results:

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 19.24.26

The geopolitical tug-of-war between the European Union and Russia is mirrored by a cultural conflict within Ukraine itself, a country with a turbulent history.  The far west of the country, where support for Tymoshenko is strongest, was Polish territory until 1939.  Given its history, it is hardly surprising that this region is most hostile to an orientation towards Russia.   However, in his recent decision to ally  with Russia, President Yanukovych has played to his core support in the east, a constituency that is equally powerful.

Of course, the situation is not quite so clear cut.  Yanukoych himself talked up the benefits of signing the EU association agreement before abruptly bowing to Russian pressure, and many Ukrainians in the south and east favour improved links with the west.  As relevant as language and culture are other demographic factors, most notably age: across Ukraine, young people are significantly more likely than older people to support links with Europe.  Indeed, it is Ukraine’s millennials that have led the charge against Yanukovych’s decision to reject a future in Europe.

A New Global Strategy for Europe?

Review of the ECFR Briefing ‘Why Europe Needs a New Global Strategy’

In the decade since European leaders approved the first ever European Security Strategy (ESS) in 2003, the world has changed dramatically and a re-think is now essential.   Policies that were once central to the ESS’s success are now holding Europe back.  That is the finding of a new European  Council on Foreign Affairs policy brief, a copy of which can be found here.

The ECFR identified six main changes since 2003.  They are:

1.  EU soft power as a wasting asset: Europe’s commitment to liberal values and human rights often conflicts with public opinion within the country that they seek to influence.  Nowhere is this seem more clearly than in the southern Mediterranean countries, where there is little desire to sign up to European norms.  Elsewhere around the world, the EU faces geopolitical competition from Russia and China.

2.  ‘Effective multilateralism in a neo-Westphalian world’: Rising powers have increasingly used the UN and other institutions as a means to counter Western ambitions.  As a new ‘multipolar environment’ takes hold, the report recommends that Europeans may have to go ‘forum shopping’ when the UN is gridlocked over crises.

3:  The death of liberal interventionism: Austerity has led to cuts in defence spending, while the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in conflict-aversion.  The US is pivoting towards Asia and now expects Europeans to take the lead on conflicts in their own back yard.  The report argues that Europe must develop its own capabilities.

4.  Rising influence of Asia: Over the last ten years, trade links between Europe and Asia have boomed.  China’s influence now reaches far beyond Asia.  EU Member Sates must craft a joint approach towards China.

5.  Economic interests and the failure of convergence: Although the eurozone has restored some credibility since the summer of 2012, it is increasingly clear that economic interests will continue to vary from member state to member state.  Europe is increasingly divided into surplus countries and deficit countries.  The report argues that top-level political direction is needed to make the strategic case for cohesive defence efforts.

6. The necessity of choice: European nations must choose between pooling capabilities and losing them.  Despite the fact that different member states have different economic and security interests, the report concludes that ‘it is past time to get Europeans thinking strategically again’.

The ECFR’s report is thought provoking, and makes valid observations about the the changes in the strategic environment since 2003.  It is no doubt correct to conclude that the European Security Strategy must evolve if it is not to be of any value at all.  However, can the European Union rise to the challenge?  With anti-integrationist sentiment rising in many parts of the European Union, it remains to be seen if the collective action problem can be overcome.

The full report can be found here:  http://ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR90_STRATEGY_BRIEF_AW.pdf

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @AliFionaSmith