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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.





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.




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



Scottish Independence White Paper Offers Little Clarity for Frustrated Scots

The temperature of Scotland’s independence debate has finally started to rise, but sadly the argument continues to produce more heat than light.  Despite the publication of today’s White Paper on Scottish Independence, the narratives haven’t changed on either side: the SNP promises a land of milk and honey, while the Better Together campaign continues to warn that an independent Scotland would be isolated and poor.  Increasingly frustrated voters have resorted to sarcasm, with one joking that an independent Scotland could always use Irn Bru empties as a currency.

The promises in the White Paper largely fall into two categories: (1) things that the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) can already enact under the current devolution settlement; and (2) matters over which the SNP has little control.  Proposing universal childcare falls into the first category. The SNP clearly favours Scandinavian-style public services without Scandinavian levels of taxation.  But unless substantial changes to taxation are needed, there is nothing to stop the SNP, who have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, from introducing universal childcare tomorrow.  Have they been holding back their big announcement as a bribe for independence, leaving Scots to struggle with inadequate childcare in the meantime?  Or will the practicalities of such a scheme require more money than is currently available?

The list of matters over which the SNP has no control, or will have to negotiate, is extensive.  For example, Scotland wants to keep the pound, but this will rely on goodwill from the rest of the UK.  This is unlikely to be forthcoming without compromise from the Scots.  If the UK’s nuclear weapons, currently based on Clydeside, are ordered off Scottish soil immediately, it is hardly likely that a currency union will be forthcoming.  Realistically, an independent Scotland would end up trading these two priorities.

If the SNP’s practical case for independence has more holes than a Swiss cheese, the Better Together campaign is equally aereated.  The SNP have nick-named it ‘Project Fear’, and not unreasonably so.  Plenty of countries smaller than Scotland have forged happy and productive nations within the EU and NATO.  From Ireland in the west to Estonia in the east, none of these countries regret their independence, despite its challenges.

In the short term, all the ‘No’ campaign needs to do is plant seeds of doubt in the minds of undecided voters.  Better Together is in the lead, so there is no need to give hostages to fortune.  However, if they are to put the independence debate to bed, at least for a generation, they need to make a positive case for the future of the UK.  An apathetic discussion, followed by a close result, will only keep the issue of independence on the agenda, resulting in an indefinite limbo for Scotland and an ever more snarky relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.  That is in nobody’s interests.

Polling One-Off Events: How Reliable are the Polls on Scottish Independence?

The 24th of March 2016 could be Scotland’s Independence Day if Scots vote ‘Yes’ in next September’s referendum.  However, the skirling of bagpipes to herald the birth of a new nation can barely be heard in the far distance.  The most recent poll shows the ‘Yes’ campaign continuing to trail the ‘Better Together’ campaign by 9%, with 38% of voters intending to vote ‘Yes’, 47% inclined to vote ‘No’ and 15% undecided.   With almost half of voters remaining in the ‘No’ camp, the future of the union looks secure.   However, demographic complexities behind this once-in-a-generation referendum may make standard polling techniques unreliable.

The left-wing Radical Independence movement has presented the referendum as a ‘class conflict’ in which the rich promoted a ‘no’ vote to maintain their privilege.  In reality, the battle lines are less clearly drawn.  Research conducted by the eminent psephologist, Professor John Curtice, found that middle class people needed more reassurance than their working class compatriots that independence would not have an adverse effect on the country’s economy.  However, if citizens could be guaranteed that they would be £500 a year richer under independence, the results would be turned on their head.  If the ‘Yes’ campaign can make a better economic case for independence, or if fear of the UK leaving the EU becomes real, the economic calculus may change.

A further demographic curveball is the inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds in the franchise. Standard opinion polls do not include under-18s, and little is known about their voting intentions.  Traditional polling shows high levels of support for independence amongst 18-24 year-olds, but an Aberdeenshire Schools Referendum found that a large majority of secondary school pupils opposed independence.  It is unknown if these results would be replicated in other regions.  Overall, however, there may be one million people voting for the first time in the 2014 referendum, introducing an unprecedented level of uncertainty.

Furthermore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael MP, has warned that there are large numbers of undecided former Labour voters in the “urban post-industrial belt of Scotland”.  This group of voters became dissatisfied with the Westminster government during the Thatcher era, felt forgotten by New Labour, and voted Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) en-masse in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.  Their loyalties to Labour, and possibly also the UK, have loosened over time, but this phenomenon may be under-represented in the polling data, which has focussed on voters who claim that they will definitely vote.  As acknowledged by the polling company Panelbase, “all pollsters are in pretty unchartered territory.”

Tomorrow the Scottish Government will publish its long-awaited White Paper on Independence.  Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, has promised to “answer a range of detailed questions that we have been asked.”  However, many of the biggest questions remain unanswerable.  How would the rest of the UK react to a ‘yes’ vote?  Would they agree to the high levels of cooperation proposed by the SNP?   And what of the forthcoming ‘in-out’ referendum on European Union membership, which may result in the UK leaving the EU against Scotland’s wishes?  And most importantly, do Scots believe that they would thrive, rather than simply survive, outside the UK?

At the current time, many Scots are simply hoping that the quality of the debate, which has so far been pitiful, will improve.

Alison Smith is a Tutor in Comparative Government at the University of Oxford.

Follow her on twitter @AliFionaSmith

The Return of Local Democracy to Russia?

Today’s news (10th September 2013) has reported promising developments in Russia, where an opposition candidate, Alexey Navalny, won 27% of the vote in Moscow mayoral elections.  An anti-drugs activist, also without Kremlin approval, won 33% of the vote in Ekaterinburg to become the new mayor.  The Kremlin’s tentative steps towards restoring elements of local ‘democracy’ are not going entirely to plan.

Although some news outlets, including the FT, have hailed the ‘return of real politics in Russia’, no-one underestimates the scale of the task ahead.   Through the combined use of patronage and coercion, the Kremlin’s ‘power vertical’ remains very much in-tact.  It does not hesitate to use repression, making it very difficult for genuine oppositionists to organise.  Obstacles stand in the way of coordinating public gatherings, registering political parties and nominating opposition candidates. Without access to the mass media, opposition parties must win 7% of the vote across Russia in order to gain representation in the Duma.  That would be a formidable task even if the votes were counted fairly, which they often are not.

Therefore, while Putin’s grip on power looks shakier than it has done in the past, it is still a force to be reckoned with.    The Kremlin has tended to respond to challenges to their power by increasing repression.  In the worst case scenario, the minor breakthroughs of these local elections may point to even more challenging times ahead for Russian democrats.

What Next for Britain’s Pro-Europeans?

One of the problems with political science is that publishing books and articles takes time, but events move quickly.  In 2005, Stefano Bartolini wrote an influential monograph, Restructuring Europe, which  argued that the ‘Europe issue’ had complicated the internal politics of Member States, but had not yet fundamentally changed party competition.

Cameron’s ‘Europe speech‘, finally delivered on 23rd January 2013, and the anaemic response of Britain’s other major parties, whose leaders ostensibly support the EU but are not willing to expend any political capital making a positive case, have finally forced the issue.  Polls show that, while 40% of the British population would vote to leave the EU, 37% would vote to stay.

Britain already has an influential anti-European party, UKIP.  Having, until now, benefited from the tacit (if unenthusiastic) support of the existing political elite, the pro-European lobby has had less incentive to create a formal political movement.

The first-past-the-post electoral system inevitably acts as a straitjacket during Westminster elections.  However, if the anti-European jungle drums continue to beat louder, it seems only a matter of time before the pro-Europeans organise, perhaps in advance of the June 2014 European elections.

Alison Smith is a lecturer in Comparative Government and tutor in European Politics at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.  You can follow her on twitter @AliFionaSmith.

Czech Presidential Election: The Count is Almost Finished

With more than 90% of the vote counted, it now looks certain that the second round of the Czech Republic’s presidential election will be a battle between the veteran leftist, Milos Zeman, and the country’s aristocratic foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg.  Zeman currently has 24.67% of the vote. Schwarzenberg is hot on his tail with 22.12%.  Former Prime Minister, Jan Fischer, who was long tipped to make the run-off against Zeman, but had a torrid final week after poor debate performances, trails with 16.72%.

The run-off will be held on 25/26 January.

The Race for Prague Castle Heats Up

For months, the Czech Republic’s first presidential election looked like a straight fight between two former Prime Ministers, Jan Fischer and Milos Zeman.  However, the field has opened up in the final week.

While Zemen, a veteran leftist, looks certain to make it through to the final round, Fischer, a technocratic former statistician, has looked lacklustre, spectacularly underperforming in the public debates.  As one commentator put it, ‘emptiness surfaced behind trained gestures‘.

The Czech Republic bans opinion polls in the closing days of the campaign, making predictions difficult.  However, the final poll on Monday suggested that Fischer’s support had fallen to 16.2%, while the support of Karel Schwarzenberg, the country’s aristocratic foreign minister, had risen to 14.2%.

Although still in third place, Schwarzenberg’s campaign has gained momentum, having picked up support from two quarters: those who like neither Zeman nor Fischer; and those on the centre-right who now doubt whether Fischer will be a viable candidate against Zeman in the second round, which is due to be held on 25th-26th January.

Political Developments will keep you informed as the results come in.

Campbell’s Queensland Cabal: Is it ever OK to hire your mates?

Imagine the scenario.  You’ve just started new job as leader of Australia’s most decentralised state. You’ve promised to make a difference within 100 days, and everyone is watching.  But there’s just one problem.  Hiring and firing is notoriously bureaucratic in the public sector.  Before you know it, your 100 days will be over and you’ll barely even have a team.

That’s the dilemma facing Queensland’s new Liberal-National Party (LNP) Premier, Campbell Newman.  During his election campaign, he presented himself as an efficient manager, Mr ‘Can-Do’, someone who can get things done.  The LNP’s main election document reads more like a business plan than a manifesto, with highly specific targets for the first one, seven, thirty, fifty and one hundred days in government.

Naturally, the regional media provides daily updates on whether Mr Newman’s targets are being achieved, including a nifty interactive graphic from the Courier Mail.  Apparently, Mr ‘Can-Do’ has already missed four of his first week targets, including a pledge to begin a full audit of Queensland Health’s notorious payroll system.

Given time pressures, it is not surprising that Mr Newman chose to eschew the conventional public service recruitment process during his first days in office.  However, he has come under fire for some of his choices, including former Federal treasurer, Peter Costello, and David Edwards, the son of a former State treasurer who served under Joh Bjelke-Petersen.  The latter is a particularly sensitive appointment, since the Bjelke-Petersen era is seen by many Queenslanders as a by-word for corruption and authoritarianism.

If Mr Newman can be forgiven for hiring long-term allies to help him through the crucial first days of government, his public comments about the matter suggest a negative attitude towards conventional recruitment in general.  According to The Australian, he did not call for open applications because ‘we’ve been processed to death’.  This reflects a lack of understanding of the sensitivity of public service appointments, which may spell trouble for Mr Newman in the future.

It is a natural instinct for humans to trust people that they know.  However, open recruitment has become the norm in public sectors across the democratic world for good reason.  Recruiting from a narrow social pool eventually leads to stagnation.  Talented people are overlooked in favour of others with less ability but the right contacts.  Although swift and easy in the beginning, the closed approach usually leads to poorer performance in the long run.  It is also terrible for social mobility and, in the public sector context, that matters a lot.  The public owns the public services, and it is important that everyone gets a ‘fair go’.

Moreover, all governments make mistakes, but failures are particularly toxic if they are seen to result from nepotism.  Public sectors are rarely as efficient as voters would like, but transparency and accountability are not negotiable where public money is at stake.