The 5th and 7th largest EU countries held key elections yesterday. Spaniards repeated once more parliamentary elections, while Romanians voted in the 1st round of presidential elections. While the topics of the electoral campaign were quite different, the overall trends in the redesign of the political party systems are similar.
The trends of fragmentation and polarization are expanding in Europe, as the political brands arising since the economic crisis are now fighting on equal footing the old, established parties. The result is weaker and less stable (while more representative) coalition governments, which makes it much harder to predict the policies of the national governments, but also the positions of these governments (and their MEPs) in Brussels. This is not good news for stakeholders that need policy predictability to be able to plan in advance, but chances are that this will be the “new normal” for many years to come, hence stakeholders need to upgrade their tools to cope with their new (and ever changing) environment.
What happened this weekend?
In Spain, the repetition of the elections did not change much the balance of power between the political blocs, as parties find themselves back at square one, i.e. having to form a coalition government. Unlike in Austria in September, the decision of the incumbent Spanish prime-minister to hold early elections did not pay off for the governing party. Sanchez’s PSOE (S&D) came at the top, but lost seats, while the main rival, the PP (EPP) has gained. The biggest gain is, however, that of Vox (initially a splinter of PP which is now a member of the ECR group in the EP), which has doubled its parliamentary force compared to the previous elections 6 months ago and turns into the 3rd largest Spanish party. Bad news for Macron, as his allies, Ciudadanos, lost 80% of their seats and are reduced to a minor force in Spain.
All in all, the old traditional parties PSOE and PP have recovered over the past year and are back at the top of electoral preferences, but their share of votes is still much smaller than it used to be and they are now fighting on a similar footing with the newcomers like Vox and Unidas Podemos. Now, there are roughly two alternatives for Sanchez: agreement with Unidas Podemos on the left (with the support of separatist parties), or agreement with their old rivals, the PP.
The first option (PSOE+ Unidas Podemos) would ensure some predictability of economic and social policies, while it will pose challenges on how to handle the situation in Catalonia and on Spain’s positions on important EU projects, like Eurozone projects such as the banking union and trade agreements with third countries (where PSOE and Unidas Podemos disagree). Quite importantly, their need to rely on Basque and Catalan separatist parties (which have been steadily growing in strength over the past couple of years) would make this coalition rather shaky domestically, also because a more conciliatory approach towards the Catalan separatists might undermine the support for PSOE in the rest of Spain.
The second option (PSOE+PP) would clarify Spain’s positions for the EU projects like banking union in the immediate period, while it would be a risky endeavor for both of the parties from the electoral perspective, as it will provide (very) fertile ground for growth to both Unidas Podemos on the left, Vox on the right and further fuels the strength of the separatist forces. A potential combination of events that would include the continuation of the tensions in Catalonia + economic recession under a PSOE-PP governing coalition in the coming years would be catastrophic for both of these parties and would strengthen substantially Vox, Unidas Podemos, and the separatists.
What would this mean for the EU? Unidas Podemos supports EU’s immigration policy, while it wants more regulation of the economy and increased public spending, hence it opposes EU’s (perceived ultra-liberal) trade and economic policies. Vox, on the other hand, supports EU’s internal market, wants public debt reduction and is generally favorable to deregulation, while it is very critical of EU’s immigration policy. Vox’s positions on some of the concrete EU economic integration projects are not yet fully crystallized (this party has only recently gained MEP seats), but its leaders have indicated they want to engage European partners in horse-trading negotiations.
At this point, the immediate concerns for stability are likely to outweigh longer-term electoral risks, hence the PSOE-PP combination looks the most likely. However, taking into account that their voters find it hard to swallow the other party as an ally, both of them (and especially the PP) will play “hard to get” and negotiations are likely to take some time.
In Romania, new parties have challenged the established ones to the extent of threatening to replace one of them in the second round of presidential elections. Romanian politics has been dominated by the “all mighty” social-democratic PSD and its center-right counterpart, the PNL. However, the new political brands like USR-PLUS (the coalition of the Renew Europe chair, Dacian Ciolos) have broken this political oligopoly and the competition is now much fiercer.
Incumbent Iohannis (supported by PNL, which is a member of EPP) came a distant first, but PSD struggled to secure the second spot in the final, being under pressure from the newer parties. Iohannis will have no doubts of being mandated to preside over the country for the next 5 years (after which he would be a strong candidate to represent the East in EU’s top positions, which will be reshuffled just at the right time in 2024).
From the perspective of the impact on EU policy making, the weakening results of PSD will help improving Bucharest’s relations with Brussels, as PSD’s recent leaders had become critical of some of EU’s positions. By holding the PM seat through the newly-appointed Ludovic Orban (not to be confused with Viktor Orban) and continue to hold the Presidency seat with Iohannis, PNL looks in very good shape to increase its role in EU policy making. A first victory in this respect was the (last-minute) placing of one of their long-standing party members and MEP, Adina Valean, in the seat of Commissioner for Transport and Mobility. PNL is supportive of most EU on-going integration projects and plays an increasingly influential role in the EPP.
However, the PNL runs a minority government that depends on the support of many small factions and even independent MPs, which makes it fragile internally. Romania will hold parliamentary elections next year, but, assessing by the electoral trends confirmed yesterday, fragmentation is likely to remain. PNL’s newer competitor is the USR-Plus coalition (member of Renew Europe), which threatens to grow while in opposition and is always looking to unseat the PNL at first chance they’d get. USR-Plus is also supportive of most EU projects, broadly speaking, but this is a force built mainly on utilising the anti-corruption enthusiasm and appetite for the new of the youth. As such, it yet to clarify its positions in many policy areas, especially on the economic and internal market regulation side (remarkably, this coalition is formed of factions that have diverse views, some closer to those of the Greens, others closer to the EPP). Notably, this political force too has already registered a major success when placing their own Dacian Ciolos at the helm of the Renew Europe group in the EP, hence its development is worth keeping an eye on.
The continuously evolving political spectrum in both Spain and Romania mirrors what we observe almost everywhere else in Europe, including in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Czechia or Slovakia (in addition to countries that have had a traditionally fragmented political spectrum like the Netherlands, Belgium or in Scandinavia). In the UK, we witnessed a similar phenomenon at the 2019 European elections, where a party who was built ad-hoc managed to win the elections against the strong emotional background of the Brexit stalemate. However, this is a development impossible to repeat at the general elections in December due to the very different electoral system that favors the big, established parties in the UK.
Interestingly, one country where we are witnessing the slower emergence of new parties that would challenge the old ones is Portugal, where the political landscape hasn’t changed that much in the last decade. Lastly, in Hungary and Poland the opposite occurs, i.e. increasing hegemony of one party (on the conservative right side) and, as a response, the coagulation of many smaller forces (on the center and left) to counter-balance this hegemony.
All in all, brand loyalty in politics continues to diminish and the pace of renewal of politicians is accelerating, as the citizens have more access to information and in some cases they are bombarded with contradictory political information daily, which shapes and then reshapes their views.
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