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2017: Testy Political Calendar in Europe

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2016 will definitely be a year to remember because of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. These 2 events will certainly shape the world for years to come. Over the last few months, speculation has been growing about what 2017 may hold or as some have put it, which countries in Europe will be the next domino to fall. According to a number of surveys anti-EU populist sentiment both on the right and on the left is rising rapidly. A survey by the Eurasia group found that in almost half European countries (especially in the south) voters feel disappointed at how democracy works in their countries while another survey by JP Morgan Asset Management showed a decrease in the support for the Euro in many southern European countries.

In this context, we will take a look at a number of elections that will take place this year and analyse their possible outcomes.

The first significant date in our European electoral calendar is the 15th of March, when the Dutch general election will be held. There are a large number of candidates and political parties running in the election but most probably only two will shape the outcome. One is the right wing populist Freedom Party (PVV) and the other one is right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), whose leader Mark Rutte has been the Prime Minister of the country for over six years and who currently runs a coalition government together with the left-wing Labour Party. Mr. Rutte’s Party has relied on PVV’s votes in the past but this time has ruled out any form of cooperation with it. Opinion polls currently put the PVV ahead in the election with 20% of the popular vote (10% more than the last election) while the VVD comes second with 16%.

It is highly unlikely that Mr. Wilders will become Prime Minister as a number of other parties have ruled out forming a coalition with him. However, another coalition headed by the liberals would include no fewer than five different parties this time, according to Rem Korteweg, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER). This would make any future government potentially weak and unstable. Despite the outcome of the election being relatively certain, the Netherlands are a good example of a European country where anti-EU right-wing parties are on the rise, in light of the continued discontent with EU policies and its response to the migrant crisis in particular.

Another more important election that will take place this year is the French presidential election on the 23rd of April (with a runoff on the 7th of May). Here we have five main candidates. Starting from the left, we have Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a veteran left-wing candidate supported by the Communists and Benoît Hamon, a former cabinet minister in François Hollande’s government who resigned as Minister of National Education in 2014 in protest to what he saw as a progressive abandonment of socialist policies from the President. He won the primary in the socialist party against more centrist former Prime Minister Manuel Valls in what appears to be a rejection of current government figures. Polls suggest that neither candidate from the left stands a chance of making it to the second round. In the center we have former Finance Minister and relatively newcomer in politics Emmanuel Macron, whom with his brand new party En Marche! has so far successfully managed to appeal to voters both on the right and on the left.

However, there are many question marks as to how he will position himself when he finally sets out his election manifesto. Many reproach to him lacking clarity in his economic program and not giving voters a clear vision as to what his presidency would actually look like. For the Republicans we have François Fillon, a former Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy and veteran figure in the French right. Until a few weeks ago, he was the favorite to win the final round of the presidency but a scandal involving misuse of state funds that were given to members of his family for work they allegedly did not do has greatly damaged his campaign. Fillon is proposing what many in France would define as a shock economic program involving a 500,000 reduction in the number of civil service jobs, scrapping the limit on weekly working hours and some employment benefits as well as raising the retirement age. Despite scoring low in the polls for the last few weeks he has now recovered a little.

The likely winner of the first round is far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who heads the anti-EU, anti-immigration Front National. Le Pen has based her campaign on a promise to take France out of NATO and the EU, although she claims she would attempt to renegotiate France’s membership terms first. She also pledged to implement a series of measures to fight against globalization and what she describes as “Islamic fundamentalism”. Since becoming leader of the party, she has sought to rebrand what has been long known as an anti-Semitic alt-right party as less right-wing one, in a clear attempt to sway the middle classes. The extraordinary popularity of the National Front also falls into a wider form of discontent towards globalization and the EU that is now engulfing the West.

While Le Pen will almost certainly win the first round of the election with a comfortable majority, her chances of winning the runoff are extremely low since other political parties will likely team up together to campaign against her, as they have done in a series of elections in the past. Despite this, after the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US, some now see her victory as possible. In the last week, polls suggest she has increased her vote share in the first round both towards Emanuel Macron and François Fillon. They remain at 22.5% and 20.5% respectively against 26.5% of Marine Le Pen. If Macron manages to get to the second round, he has an advantage that, for instance, Hillary Clinton did not have last year: he is also an outsider who hasn’t been involved in politics for long, which may make him more acceptable to voters wanting change. Moreover, he is the only candidate who wholeheartedly supports the EU while all other candidates have been critical towards it.

The last significant election that will take place this year will be in Germany on the 24th of September 2017. There another anti-EU party, the AfD (alternative für Deutschland), is likely to score its highest ever result but probably the government will be another coalition of Angela Merkel’s CDU, the Cristian Social Union of Bavaria and the Social Democrats.

Ms. Merkel’s popularity has been decreasing over her handling of the migrant crisis and a string of attacks that took place in Germany last year, but the real threat for her is the very popular former President of the European Parliament and Social Democratic candidate Martin Schultz who according to some recent polls might even overtake her. Over the last few months, Angela Merkel has sought to retake some of the right-wing votes she lost in last year’s local elections by hardening her position on immigration and, in Bavaria, where the Cristian Social Union is in power, by banning the burqa in schools and public buildings in the name of “Christian Values”.

Other elections will take place amongst others in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bulgaria and the UK (Assembly elections in Northern Ireland and local elections in the rest of the country). The latter will be a test for Theresa May’s Brexit stance but opinion polls suggest over 50% of people support her Brexit strategy while she remains by far the most popular politician in the country. Add to this a stunning by-election victory yesterday in Copeland, a parliamentary seat not held by the Conservatives since the 1930s.

2017 could very well be the turning point of centrist politics in Europe.




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