Voters prepare to punish their ruling parties in European Parliament elections

Voters prepare to punish their ruling parties in European Parliament elections
By bne IntelliNews May 22, 2019

This week's European Parliament elections have been framed by many politicians and commentators as a fight for the future of the EU, but following domestic scandals in several Central and Southeast European member states, a lot of voters just want to give their ruling parties a kicking. 

Recent polls show that in Romania and Slovenia the ruling parties are lagging behind the opposition, while in Bulgaria ruling Gerb and the Socialists are virtually tied. In Latvia, pro-Russian Harmony led recent polls despite being repeatedly excluded from government by other parties. Similarly, Reform is in the lead in Estonia, where the rival Centre party recently formed a government.

Ruling parties aren’t being punished everywhere. It’s a different story in Czechia where Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ Ano was clearly in the lead despite the premier being charged with EU subsidy fraud, as was SMER-SD in Slovakia even though voters in the country recently picked political outsider Zuzana Caputova over the ruling party candidate in the presidential election. In Croatia, the HDZ has so far managed to shrug off the impending bankruptcy of shipbuilder Ulcanij to remain ahead in the polls. And Hungary’s Fidesz is leaving its rivals in the dust as it heads for another election landslide. 

All change in Poland 

But a lot has changed in the final days before the election. In Poland, Law and Justice (PiS), which has been in government since 2015, was heading for a victory that would have set it up for the autumn general election. 

Everything changed with the release of the documentary film “Just Don’t Tell Anyone” two weeks before the vote. The film that exposes child abuse by Polish Catholic priests has gone viral, racking up 14.5mn views less than five days after its premiere on YouTube.

PiS has since announced plans for harsher jail terms for paedophilia, but it has avoided condemning individual priests shown in the film or their seniors, in a country where the Catholic church wields huge power. The rival Civic Platform's (PO’s) record is far from spotless either as it did little to address accusations against high-ranking clergy during its last term in power.

This has opened the field to smaller parties both on the left and the right, which are capitalising on the scandal by attacking PiS and PO for being too lenient on the Church. There is speculation that some PiS voters may transfer their allegiance to the far-right Konfederacja, while more liberal and left-leaning Poles could consider supporting Wiosna (Spring) and Lewica Razem (The Left Together). 

And in a separate story, the leading Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported on May 20 that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had used his personal ties with a key figure of the country’s Catholic Church and town hall officials in Wroclaw for a huge business gain that he kept away from the public’s eye. 

Nine days ahead of the vote, a poll carried out by the Institute for Research into Public Affairs (IBSP) for Newsweek and Radio Zet, had the European Coalition on 43.6% of the vote, a whopping 10.5pp ahead of PiS at 32.9%, although other recent polls give PiS a narrow lead. 

“Apartmentgate” takes its toll on Borissov

In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boyko Borrisov’s government has been tarnished by enough scandals that it was already unclear whether it would be able to beat the Bulgarian Socialist Party on May 26. 

Gerb’s popularity took a further hit with the still unfolding “apartmentgate” scandal — revelations that top politicians and state officials were sold luxury apartments for a fraction of their value — which disgusted citizens of the EU’s poorest country, many of whom struggle to buy their own homes or service their mortgages. 

Apartmentgate, and a related scandal over EU rural development funds allegedly used to build luxury villas, has already led to several resignations and investigations ahead of the European parliament election, and seriously destabilised Gerb, which lost support and, according to a recent poll, could gain less votes than the BSP in May. If this happens, analysts believe that Borissov’s government will collapse and the country will face its fifth consecutive early election, most likely in the autumn.

Still, the prime minister was holding his ground ahead of the vote, and said on May 20 that he will not resign if he loses the election. Instead, he called the recent string of resignations following the Apartmentgate scandal a “purification" of his party. 

In neighbouring Romania, polls indicate that the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) will be pushed into second place by the rival National Liberal Party (PNL). Voters appear to be fed up with the ruling coalition’s efforts to amend justice laws in what is seen as a fairly transparent attempt to change the rules for the benefit of political leaders that would otherwise face prosecution or prison sentences for corruption. 

Despite holding the rotating presidency of the European Council, Romania has come in for strong criticism from top EU officials including the European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who warned recently that Romania could face sanctions if it presses on with its justice “reforms”. Developments in the rule of law in Romania risk creating “de facto impunity” for official corruption, Timmermans wrote to Romanian officials. 

On the other hand, despite tensions within the PSD, claims by the PNL that it will “overthrow the government” after the European Parliament elections look far fetched since the PSD-led coalition still has a majority in parliament. 

All three ruling parties, PiS, Gerb and the PSD, have had a longish stint in office. By contrast, several countries in the region have recently held elections, among them Slovakia (presidential), Estonia and Latvia (both general), or are in the midst of voting (Lithuania, presidential). 

The upcoming European vote is seen as a test for the new president of Slovakia, Caputova, who swept to power on an anti-corruption mandate. Caputova’s Progressive Slovakia party is not represented in the current parliament.

However, not long after voters turned away from established parties to give Caputova her election victory, polls by the AKO agency showed that Smer-SD is still the strongest political force in Slovakia, putting it on 19.1%. Support for Marian Kotleba’s far-right LSNS (People's Party - Our Slovakia) has increased from 11.5 to 13.9% which makes the party the second strongest in the country. The coalition of Progressive Slovakia and Spolu (Together) would have ended up third with 13.7%. 

Turmoil in the Baltics

In Lithuania, the defeat of the incumbent Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis in the first round of the presidential vote on May 12 has thrown the country’s politics into turmoil. Skvernelis did not make it to the run-off vote, in which first and second place candidates MP Ingrida Simonyte and economist Gitanas Nauseda will face each other in a vote held simultaneously with the European Parliament poll.

Skvernelis said he would step down in July if his party – the Greens and Farmers Union (LZVS) – also loses the election to the European Parliament — and polls indicate this is a likely outcome. That is fuelling speculation in the Lithuanian media that the general election will take place early, or the country will stumble forward under a minority or interim government.

“Prime Minister Skvernelis’s failure was influenced by the residents of the bigger cities, whose votes for Simonyte were also ‘against Skvernelis’; he came in for criticism for his arrogant manner and lack of knowledge of English,” wrote Joanna Hyndle-Hussein, senior fellow at the the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), in a recent comment on the election. 

Estonia’s government is even newer than Latvia’s, having come to power at the end of April. Polls indicate the liberal Reform party is in the lead; Reform also took the largest share of the vote in the March general election, but failed to form a government, as second-placed Centre banded together with conservative Fatherland and far-right EKRE.

This ensured Centre’s Jiri Ratas remained as prime minister, but his new government never had a honeymoon period, as the very day after it took office IT and foreign trade minister Marti Kuusik of EKRE resigned after allegations surfaced linking him to domestic violence.

EKRE has since fallen into further controversy after one of its members, Ruuben Kaalep, posted a picture of himself with French far-right politician Marine Le Pen making an “ok” hand gesture that has been associated with the white supremacist movement.

In Latvia, the pro-Russian Harmony party has years of experience of winning elections but failing to form a government. The upcoming election will be an early test for the five-party ruling coalition (again excluding Harmony). 

Despite the corruption scandal surrounding Harmony leader and recently dismissed Riga mayor Nils Usakovs, who heads the party’s EP candidate list — which many speculate is an attempt to gain parliamentary immunity from prosecution — “bar some major upset, [Usakovs] will be moving to Brussels,” says an LSE European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) blog from Licia Cianetti, a Leverhulme early career fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Ryo Nakai an associate professor in the Department of Policy Studies at the University of Kitakyushu, Japan. 

Fidesz heads for another landslide

The most secure of the CEE ruling parties, if the polls are correct, is Hungary’s Fidesz. Pollsters anticipate a landslide victory for the ruling Fidesz-KDNP. The party’s popularity seems to be growing with the election’s approach, most likely due to its extensive, effective mobilisation in the final days before the vote. Government funded think-tank Szazadveg puts the party’s support at 54% among decided voters. Zavech Research – one of last year’s most accurate predictors – reports just one percent lower. Other pollsters predict a similar outcome. This is expected to give Fidesz two-thirds of Hungary’s allocation of 21 seats with 14 mandates.

On the opposition landscape, the left-wing Socialist-Dialogue and right-wing Jobbik are polling above 10%, competing for the title of the most popular opposition party. Meanwhile, the Democratic Coalition is close to the 5% threshold, and could secure a couple of mandates. 

“The European parliamentary election campaign brings limited excitement and little novelty in Hungary as the governing Fidesz party is set to win the majority of the country’s European Parliament seats on an anti-migration and anti-Brussels ballot. This prospective outcome, however, is not congruous with anti-EU sentiments in the population but is rather the result of domestic political factors — which influence the European elections just as much as they did the national ones in 2018,” says a comment from the Netherlands Institute for International Relations (Clingendael).

Turnout is expected to be higher this year than in previous EP elections, says the Clingendael comment, “at least in part — due to the unprecedented thematisation of the election by Fidesz and its ability to mobilise its voter base. The polarisation of the political scene this time could also help anti-government turnout — as the anti-Brussels messages of the government could also give a push to the more pro-EU opposition base to show up. The governmental dominance on the public and private media landscape and advertising market, however, undoubtedly hampers the chances of opposition parties.”

Fidesz’ future position in the European Parliament is unclear as the party was recently suspended indefinitely from the centre-right European People’s Party, pending a report by a three-member committee tasked with determining if the party conforms to EPP values. The suspension entails no attendance at any party meeting, no voting rights, and no right to propose candidates for positions.

Deepening the rift, in early May, Orban announced that Fidesz no longer supports the EPP's candidate for European Commission president, Manfred Weber. The Hungarian prime minister recalled statements by Weber, who indicated he did not want to become European Commission president if it required votes from Fidesz.

Orban continued to burnish his right wing populist credentials with his much publicised meeting with US President Donald Trump in the week before the vote. 

“For now, Prime Minister Orban still tries to keep his options open by arguing for cooperation among the EPP and [Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo] Salvini. …The party’s future affiliation will be decided in light of the overall election results, and while consequently external dynamics will have a major say in this, the final decision will have a fundamental impact on Hungary’s overall standing in the European Union,” says the Clingendael comment. 

Indeed, Orban has been looking beyond the Hungarian electorate to frame the election as a vote on the future direction of Europe, and specifically on migration. He has previously expressed his hope that anti-migration forces would get a majority in all EU institutions after the vote. 

This has led Orban to look away from the EPP to fellow right-wing populist politicians for allies, notably Salvini. At a meeting on May 2, the two agreed to defend EU's borders and to stop migration to the continent. Orban has described Salvini as a “hero" for his efforts to stop illegal immigration. 

Following the meeting, Orban urged the EPP to be open to cooperation with parties to its right, such as Italy’s League party. When asked about his party's future in the EPP, Orban said it will depend on which direction the conservative group turns after the May 26 election. “If the EPP ties itself to the European left, that’s a cooperation where we have a hard time finding our place,” he said.

Reshaping Europe 

This is in keeping with the general trend for change within the European political scene. The election on May 26 is the world’s second largest democratic vote after the Indian elections, as around 374mn people are eligible to vote. They will elect 751 MEPs to the European Parliament for a five-year term, in the first major milestone for the union in a year that will also see the appointment of a new European Commission and new Council president. 

Polls show that the centre-right and centre-left parties that have held a majority in the parliament for four decades, are on course to finally lose this majority, as anti-EU populists are set to make gains — though not enough to take control of the parliament. 

European political leaders have stressed the critical importance of this year’s vote to determine the future of Europe. While those on the populist right, notably Orban and Salvini, have framed it as a fight between pro- and anti-migration forces, those that see themselves as defenders of the bloc like France’s President Emanuel Macron have also said the vote will be decisive at a potentially dangerous time for the bloc, not least because of the as yet unresolved issue of Brexit.

Two experts from Carnegie Europe predicted at the end of last year that the European Parliament elections would “change the EU’s political dynamics” by ending big party dominance.

“Over the last several decades, a broad alliance of big parties has called the shots in the EU,” wrote Stefan Lehne and Heather Grabbe, but, they added, voters are now turning instead to “anti-establishment parties that promise change”. 

“[T]his era could come to an end with the next EP elections in May 2019, following waning support for mainstream parties, rising populists on both the radical right and left, and emerging new political players,” they wrote. “If the existing power balance changes, a complex constellation of forces could develop with more ad hoc coalitions across traditional party divides.”

Reshaping CEE 

The elections also come at a time of increasing divisions between the “new” eastern and “old” western members of the EU. From the battles over migration quotas to the resentment at being seen as second-class members — as with the scandal over multinationals selling inferior versions of branded products in eastern EU members — the interests of states to the east and the west have increasingly diverged.  

From a regional perspective, Hungary is not the only country from CEE that has clashed with Brussels over migrant quotas, though it is the most vocal. And for a few years now, the new member states – Poland and Hungary in particular – have grown ever more critical of the EU, accusing Brussels of usurping too much power from the national governments on the one hand and pushing for greater integration only of selected member states on the other.

At the summit of 13 mostly Central and Eastern European states in Warsaw on May 1 — the 15th anniversary of eight states’ from the region’s accession to the EU — Poland led the CEE charge against a “centralised” and “multi-speed” EU. Poland wants the EU to devolve more powers to national governments and opposes deeper integration of some – mostly Western – member states in specific policy areas, Morawiecki said on May 1 at the summit of 13 mostly CEE states in Warsaw.

And for the member states from the eastern part of the bloc, most of them having marked the 15-year anniversary of their accession on May 1, they no longer see themselves as “new”, and are looking to reshape their position within the union.