Analyzing Twelve Months of Western Elections
Over the twelve months from June 2016, a series of elections in several Western countries tested their electorates’ approval of their governments’ performance. Moderate political parties surrendered followers to extremes of the right and left. Criticism of globalization and the decline in industrial activity arose from both extremes. Opposition to the power of elites and mainstream political parties, support for the common citizen, defense of country over international cooperation and job-destroying trade policies were rallying cries. The sequence began with the decision by the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron to submit continuing membership in the European Union to a popular vote.
June 23rd, 2016: The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union by a vote of 52% to 48%. The so-called Brexit vote was a surprise to most observers. The result was a protest against governing by an unelected elite at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in general, and migration rules in particular.
November 7th, 2016: Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Pre-voting polls indicated that the vote would not go to Trump, and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, won the populat vote by 2.1%. However, via the Electoral College process, delegates cast their states’ votes for Trump. The combination of the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory were viewed as a harbinger of world-wide popular attitudes toward globalization, and a possible swing toward the right in elections.
December 4th, 2016: In a vote for president of Austria, Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigration Freedom Party lost by 53% to 47% to Alexander Van der Bellen, who campaigned on a pro-European stance using the Brexit decision as a warning. By the time of the Austrian election, many in the UK were questioning the wisdom of their decision. The EU breathed a sigh of relief.
March 15th, 2017: Netherlands’ general election was seen as another test of populist sentiment in Europe. The anti-immigrant candidate Geert Wilders’ party won 20 seats in the 150 member House of Representatives, while Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal party won 33 seats, another apparent defense of the existing order.
April 18th, 2017: United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May called for a “snap” general election, less than two years after the previous one in May 2015. A regularly scheduled election was not due until May 2020. May’s Conservative party was riding a wave of popularity in April, and she expected an early election would boost her party’s seats in Parliament and strengthen political support in negotiations leading up to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. The date of the election was confirmed for June 8th, 2017.
May 7th, 2017: Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France in elections that swept aside both of the traditional parties. In the final run-off, Macron defeated the far right candidate, Marine LePen, who was compared to and supported by Donald Trump. Trump’s election had given encouragement to the French far right that victory was possible. Macron professed to be neither right nor left. He proposed an easing of stringent labour laws, reform of an unwieldy pension system, and unwavering support of the EU. His movement became La République en Marche! (LRM).
May 7th & 14th, 2017: Elections in two German states brought victory to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), building momentum prior to Federal elections scheduled for September 24th.
June 8th, 2017: The UK “snap” election blunted the Conservative party’s drive to strengthen its position in seeking a “hard exit” in the Brexit negotiations. The election resulted in the Conservatives losing 13 seats and their majority in Parliament, making it necessary to seek a partnership with a minor party, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, in order to achieve a majority of seats. The opposition Labor Party gained 30 seats. According to an exit poll, only 28% of voters believed Brexit to be the most important issue in the election, as national security concerns were heightened following terrorist attacks in London and Manchester preceding the election.
June 11th, 2017: The first round of France’s National Assembly elections demonstrated that the election of Emmanuel Macron as president on May 7th was not only an anti-Marine LePen vote, but also a rejection of both traditional main parties. LRM received 32% of the vote; LePen’s National Front received 13%.
June 18th, 2017: Votes in the second round of France’s National Assembly elections were being counted as this post was being written. Macron’s newly formed LRM party had been projected to win about 400 of the Assembly’s 577 seats. BBC reported that traditional parties were urging voters to back Macron’s rivals to stop a monopolization of power. After all votes were tallied, France 24 TV reported 350 seats won by LRM and its centrist ally Modem. LePen’s National Front had 8 seats. Voter participation was an historically low 42%.
The first two elections, Brexit and Trump, appeared to be setting a tone: Western democracy was swinging to the right. Voters were turning away from globalization and limiting international migration. Although later elections in Austria, the Netherlands, and France brought defeat for far-right candidates, those losing candidates’ parties increased their positions.
As The Economist wrote in its May 24th edition, “Don’t write off the populists just yet.” Support in Western countries is still strong for saving jobs and opposing a globalization that benefits only corporate and political elites. A political “strong man” who promises to right all wrongs has great appeal, and Trump initially looked like he would play that role. Western Europe took note. His subsequent lack of success may have served as a warning for later elections.
This play is not over. The next act features Germany’s Federal election scheduled for the 24th of September, 2017 to select members to the Federal Bundestag. The election will determine Germany’s next chancellor. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel, a strong supporter of the EU, is widely favored to win a fourth term. Germany’s far-right party, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), has had success in local elections, but has barely double-digit polling numbers nationally.
A recent Pew Research Center poll in 10 European Union countries found public approval of EU rebounding strongly compared to a year ago. The trend comes as unemployment in Europe is falling amid a broad economic recovery. There was a caveat however. Poll respondents believe their national governments should control trade and immigration policy, two key functions assigned to the EU by treaties.