Still grappling with post-pandemic recovery, Europe takes a centre-left turn
As recent events in Germany and Austria suggest, there’s a perceptible wind blowing against centre-right governments in Europe.
Recent elections in a few European Union (EU) countries give the impression that voters in Europe are moving centre-left. The perceptible movement is, however, not a major swing. This leads to several interesting permutations in Europe, as it grapples with the post-pandemic recovery.
The major election was in Germany for the Bundestag. The ruling centre-right, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) suffered its lowest vote share since World War II. The centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD), which had been its coalition partner for 12 of the last 16 years under Angela Merkel, has declared itself a winner. It has indeed performed better since the last elections. At 25.7 percent it has the best performance since 1998. However, with 206 seats, it is barely 10 seats ahead of the CDU. Due to a fractious vote, and the rise of smaller parties, the Bundestag is the largest ever at 735. This makes a majority all the more difficult to cobble together.
With a marginal difference between them, the SPD and the CDU could either form the government provided they get the support of the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP) who have 14.8 percent and 11.5 percent of the vote, respectively. Between them, they have 210 seats and could control the coalition with either the SPD or the CDU.
The Greens have put up their best showing ever with 118 seats, but 14.8% of the vote is almost 10% below the trends that they were at four months ago. This will reduce their dominance in a prospective coalition, but they remain an important party of change. The FDP is a pro-business right-wing party. Thus, if the results of the SPD plus Greens are seen, it could be said that Germany has moved slightly to the left. However, to form a government, they would need one of the centre-right parties, probably the FDP. If coalition talks fail, as they did in 2017, then a grand coalition with the SPD-CDU may return.
What the Greens will do will perhaps make the bigger parties worry if they study what’s happening in Austria. The right-wing Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party (OeVP) was eased out under pressure from his Green coalition partners who think he ought to be clearing the allegations against him, and let governance not take a hit. Alexander Schallenberg, the former foreign minister, is chancellor now. The OeVP-Greens coalition has been in government since January 2020 and has strained ties from other corruption scandals and differences over refugee policy. As of 11 October, polls show a fall in OeVP score to 24 percent from 40 percent a year ago. The Greens too have fallen from 13 percent to 11 percent but the Social Democratic Party of Austria has gained from 21 percent to 24 percent. However, elections are sometime away.
This sort of assertiveness by the Greens can cause complications in coalition building in Germany, where the Greens have a clearly thought-out platform, but no clear mandate for it. The Greens will have to relearn the coalition dharma if they want the centre-left to become stronger in Germany and in Austria.
Within Europe, the Scandinavian countries have moved slightly to the left. All of them now have centre-left governments, though some are with marginal majorities. In the Netherlands, however, the March 2021 election returned Mark Rutte and his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The Greens and Socialist Party currently languish at 6+6 percent while the PPFD has 23 percent support currently.
The recent election to the parliament in the Czech Republic on 8-9 October, has thrown up a different result. The centre-right opposition group together has marginally gone past incumbent Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ centrist ANO party in a surprise result. The liberal-conservative three-party SPOLU coalition won 27.8 percent of the vote, while Pirates and Mayors, another opposition group, got 15.6 percent. Together they could win about 108 seats in the 200-seat parliament. This will allow them to have a majority. Since Babis ran a minority coalition of ANO and the Social Democrats, with the support of the communists, the lurch to the left is not perceptible here. The new Czech government will need to perform better on the pandemic and have a plan to spend the Recovery and Resilience Facility Funds from the EU.
In Romania, the December 2020 election results brought up no clear winner. The Social Democratic PSD won with 28.9 percent, but it was a sharp drop from the 45 percent it won in 2016. The liberal PNL gained from 20 percent to 25.2 percent and the USR-led Alliance 2020 gained 8.9 percent to 15.4 percent.
The challenge in Romania remains in dealing with the pandemic, and the public health system, as well as dealing with increasing costs of energy. The generous EU pandemic grants and loans, of which Romania will get approximately 30 billion euro, require reforms in Romania to obtain those funds. Under the Romanian Constitution, the President can make two appointments as Prime Minister. If both fail to obtain a parliamentary majority, a new election will be called.
The minority PM faces a tough call to balance a coalition and all the parties fear a snap poll as it may lead to an increase in vote-share of the right-wing Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) which secured 9 percent vote in 2020 but currently has 14 percent support. The centre-left has to perform better to meet rising post-pandemic expectations in Romania.
In April 2022, France will hold its presidential election. In 2017 Emmanuel Macron led in the first round with 24 percent over the right-wing Marie Le Pen at 21.3 percent and Fillon at 20 percent. In the runoff he won comfortably with 66.1 percent to Le Pen’s 33.9 percent.
Currently, Macron has low approval ratings but polls show he will still win the first-round next year with 24 percent vote share. In the runoff he is expected to beat Le Pen again, though with a reduced margin. Le Pen’s current ratings are sharply down to 17 percent, falling from 27 percent in June 2021. Thus, Macron may have more similar-minded centre-left leaders in several countries next year.
However, currently, electorates in Europe are looking for good governance rather than political ideology. They want public health, and pandemic emergencies to be better handled. The post-pandemic recovery is carrying the weight of expectations. This will make the European governments more introverted as they hear the call for domestic governance.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Germany. Views expressed are personal.
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