Can Europe Make It?

Euro-election results 2019: a wake-up call to traditional parties

“The vote starkly demonstrates… the splintering and polarization of the electoral base across Europe. However, it also indicates a new, if disruptive, re-engagement by citizens in politics.”

Terri E. Givens
3 June 2019
Opening the European election campaign of the Greens, Berlin. April, 2019.
Opening the European election campaign of the Greens, Berlin. April, 2019.
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Paul Zinken/PA. All rights reserved

With the highest turnout in 20 years, European voters had a chance to express their support for a broad range of parties in the recently completed European Parliament election. The increased turnout is an indicator of the fraught political environment and high level of interest for many voters. It was clear that one of the reasons for the high turnout was to send a message to politicians in power. This was most clearly the case in the United Kingdom where Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party won the most seats with 30% of the vote, followed by the Liberal Democrats with 20% of the vote. Labour (~14%) was barely ahead of the Green Party (~12%), and the Tories had a devastating result with only 9% of the vote.

Given the strife around Brexit, this outcome is not surprising. The result is part of an electoral meltdown that is likely to continue into the next election for the mainstream parties in the UK. Overall, the results of the election across Europe met the expectation of a changing electorate. As Kathleen R. McNamara wrote in her blog post for the Monkey Cage, “while the election did not produce any real consensus, its outcome is important. The vote starkly demonstrates the limits of traditional European parties and their policies – and the splintering and polarization of the electoral base across Europe. However, it also indicates a new, if disruptive, re-engagement by citizens in politics.”

While it was clear that concerns over climate change had led to a surge in support for Green parties, results for radical right parties were not as strong as expected. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally won the most seats with 23% of the vote in France, edging out President Macron’s Renaissance group, with 22% of the vote. The ongoing success of nationalist and populist parties is a clear sign that voters on the right and left are continuing to abandon mainstream parties. The results for social democratic parties indicate a continuing decline in support. However, there were some cases where radical right parties also did not perform as well as they had in national elections. The Austrian Freedom Party was only able to win 17% of the vote after a major scandal and a collapse of the coalition government. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany won 11% of the vote after having won nearly 13% of the vote in the 2017 Bundestag election. (Full election results are available here.)

My research on the radical right in the late 1990s focused on the impact of national electoral rules and coalition signaling on strategic voting. European Parliament elections were an opportunity for radical right parties to show their strength in elections with proportional representation, versus the varied electoral systems with rules that negatively impacted votes for these parties. As noted in my 2005 book:

“In some cases, support may be evident in elections for the European Parliament because it is a pure PR system and surveys have shown that voters don’t take the election as seriously as national elections (and are thus willing to “waste” their vote on a most-preferred party). European and local elections are valid indicators of potential radical right support that can reveal if potential radical right support isn’t being translated into real support in national elections.”

It will take the next round of national elections to determine if the hit taken by the mainstream parties will continue, but it is clear that the political terrain hasn’t shifted that much since the late 1990s. As these elections results from my 2005 book indicate, there was already a downward trend for social democratic parties, moderate support for Green parties, and the most important change seems to be support for conservative parties:

The end result is that populists will continue to play an important role in EU level politics, conservative parties will need to work more closely with liberal and social democratic parties, and the Green parties will be able to claim support for policies related to climate change, in particular. How this election will impact policy, at both the EU and national levels remains to be seen, of course. It is very possible that it will lead to more gridlock given the increased seats for parties on the extremes. Brexit will continue to have an impact as the UK grapples with its ongoing political chaos.

As I noted in a February blog post, in this election and upcoming national elections, there are a variety of developing trends which will impact immigration policies and support for refugees, as conflicts continue in Africa and the Middle East. For those studying populism and the politics of immigration, we continue to live in interesting times.

Visit the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (#CARR)

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