Tuesday, May 28, 2019

European Elections 2019: A Preview of Europe’s New Political Order? (Andy Markovits & Zack Blumberg)

How should we interpret the results of last week's European Parliament elections?  In this hot-take assessment, my friend Andy Markovits, a prominent scholar and analyst of European politics and culture, and his co-author Zack Blumberg argue that these elections offer one more striking indication of an ongoing continent-wide shift in some fundamental structures of European politics.

For most of the period since World War II, the political systems of almost all European countries with democratic regimes were dominated by a hegemonic duopoly of center-left and center-right parties (with minor parties and social movements orbiting around them).  That "centrist hegemony" has been breaking down–spectacularly in some cases, less so in others–leading to a more fragmented and unpredictable party landscape.  The latest elections for the European Parliament both reflected and reinforced those tendencies.

Jeff Weintraub

May 27, 2019
European Elections 2019: A Preview of Europe’s New Political Order?
By Andrei S. Markovits & Zack Blumberg

Andrei S. Markovits, an Arthur Thurnau Professor and the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan, has written and edited books, articles, and other publications on a range of subjects including German and Austrian politics, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, social democracy, social movements, the European right and left, the historical sociology of American Jewish identity, and comparative sports culture in Europe and North America.
Zack Blumberg is a student of Political Science and Government at the University of Michigan and a columnist for the Michigan Daily

In American history classes, students frequently learn about America’s “realigning elections”; these are rare but periodically recurring elections which not only usher new leaders into office, but simultaneously reflect a major shift in the nation’s overall political structures. Above all, these elections re-arrange the constituencies and ideologies that the main parties held for the previous 30-40 years. Across the Atlantic in Europe, this week’s elections for the European Parliament felt a little like a continent-wide realignment.

Since World War II, parliaments in nearly every major European democracy were dominated by center-left and center-right parties which anchored their respective side’s governing coalitions. The divides between center-left and center-right electorates were largely contingent on class and socioeconomic status. Center-left parties, almost universally named some variant of "labor" or "socialist", represented the middle and working classes of their respective nations, supporting policies that favored strong labor unions, higher taxes, and increased government regulation. Opposite them, more conservative center-right parties extolled the values of the free market though they, too, accepted important roles for their countries’ respective governments. Typically, these parties’ constituencies comprised higher-status individuals who benefitted from limited regulation and greater economic freedom. Although every country had parties beyond these two, such as green parties, located to the ideological left of labor, or liberal democrats, who resemble what Americans think of as libertarians, those parties were bit-part players who did not exert any major influence on their nations’ political trajectories except for playing crucial roles in the occasional coalition. For decades, this duopoly defined politics across Europe. Between 1945 and 2010, the governing party in every United Kingdom government was either Labour or Conservative. In Germany, either the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) or the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) earned a plurality of seats in every election since the Bundestag’s creation in 1949. In other countries, from Spain to France, the distribution of power was similar. In some countries, like Austria and Germany, the two “bigs” ruled in a so-called “Grand Coalitions" for years, even decades.

However, this centrist hegemony appears to be ending across Europe. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s populist Lega party claimed 28 of Italy’s 73 seats in the European Parliament, 10 more than the center-left Democratic Party, which came in second. In France, Marie Le Pen’s National Rally narrowly beat out Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, winning 22 seats to his 21. Most strikingly, in the UK, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party won 29 of the available 73 seats, while the Conservative Party finished with only 4, good for 5th place.

No country represents the problems facing Europe’s centrist parties from the right better than the UK, where Brexit has shattered traditional voting blocs, showing new cleavages which the once-dominant Labour and Conservative Parties were woefully unprepared for. In recent years, the traditional, moderately conservative voting bloc which once dominated conservative British politics has been usurped by a fervent, populist, nationalist movement which cares more about sticking it to European elites than anything the Tories might have to offer. Simultaneously, this development forced young, educated, urban voters who believe EU membership is beneficial for Britain into a defensive stance which was amply captured by the Liberal Democrats' impressive showing in the European Parliament vote. As a result, the top two vote-getters in the elections were Farage’s Brexit Party, which lacked any real platform (other than "Brexit") and won by attracting disgruntled “leave” voters who were upset with Parliament’s inability to secure an exit deal, and the pro-business Liberal Democrats who primarily campaigned on holding a second referendum on Brexit. As Brexit created an increasingly polarized political atmosphere in the UK, voters seemed not to care about their traditional party allegiances. After all, why should they, since neither Labour nor the Tories emerged with a real stance Brexit?

In a less extreme example, the European Election results in Germany provide a more reasonable look at what a new, more fragmented political system could look like going forward. Although the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s traditional center-right party, won the most seats, it only claimed 29 of a total 96. At the same, the far-right Alternative for Deutschland won 11 seats, good for fourth place, despite being disliked by nearly every other party (German Chancellor and CDU leader Angela Merkel has continuously refused to form a coalition with them on any level of German politics, not to speak of the Bundestag). This likely proves that even if far-right populist parties aren’t overwhelming Europe, they also definitely aren’t going away. However, the most striking result of the German vote appeared on the left, where the formerly smallish Green Party beat out the center-left powerhouse Social Democrats by a considerable margin. Although not as intense as populism’s commandeering of the right, this is a clear sign that on the left, too, the old order is crumbling and  today’s left voters are moving into a different space of what it meant to be on the conventional left, with gender and environmental issues playing a much more important role.

Although this dissolving trend is far from universal (for instance, center-left parties still claimed pluralities in Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands, while center-right parties did the same in Austria, Sweden, and Romania), it still points to growing fragmentation across Europe. As the salience of new political cleavages emerge, such as immigration and climate change, traditional powers fragment as voters become drawn towards parties which address and represent these cleavages. To be sure: European voters have never regarded Europe-wide elections as truly important since they are fully aware of the European parliament’s limited powers. Thus, to most European voters, such elections have always served as proxies for their national contests, often as dry runs and tests for them. But precisely because strategic considerations have often taken a back seat for many Europeans in the casting of their ballots for the European Parliament, European citizens regarded Europe-wide elections as a free space to let their imaginations and feelings emerge unencumbered. This being the case, the feelings expressed this past week may not bode well for the continued staying power of the conventional party landscape that ruled the continent for 70 plus years.