Swiss, Polish elections show malaise of Europe's establishment

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In the past month Europe has seen two national elections, in Switzerland and in Poland, that stand out for their results. Both votes yielded ‘surprises’ that were nonetheless half-expected. The Polish elections followed the trend against establishment parties seen in a number of European countries, while Switzerland’s ballot marked ‘a return to normal,’ according to the Neue Zuercher Zeitung.

In the Swiss elections, the two centre-right parties, the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), increased their share of vote at the cost of the centre-left, the social democrats and the greens, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

The liberal FDP abandoned its flirtation with non-liberal ideas and thereby was able to re-connect with its core electorate. The SVP, for its part, clearly stated its aim to advance Swiss national interests rather than adhere to European Union requirements. It was thus able to win back voters who had bolted the party during an earlier split.

The xenophobic tinge of some SVP propaganda gave rise to a widespread interpretation that a ‘Rechtsrutsch’ – or move to the radical right – had taken place. This line of argument was a favourite excuse put forth by the losing parties, whose main problem was the lack of any conviction in their own policies.

It is true that the SVP is sceptical towards many measures requested by the EU. Right or wrong, however, this scepticism is far from ‘radical.’

An echo of the same argument can be heard regarding the outcome of the Polish elections. The Law and Justice party was supposed to win, but its unprecedented attainment of an outright majority led many to claim it will now feel free to follow radical, right-wing policies.

But while Poland’s new government may well take a tougher line towards Brussels, play on anti-Russian sentiment and move closer to the US, this can hardly be considered radical.

Some promises made by Law and Justice, including lowering the minimum retirement age and protecting the coal mining industry, are clearly populist in tone and will probably hurt Poland’s economy. But that does not differentiate Mr Kaczynski’s party from its European peers, whether they be social democrats, Christian democrats or conservatives.

Poland’s former ruling party, Civic Platform, boasted a good track record on the economy over the past eight years, but its leadership was uninspiring and its campaign fell flat.

An especially interesting development is that the entire left side of Poland’s political spectrum, including the dominant Democratic Left Alliance, was swept out of parliament altogether. The social democrats were supplanted by two newcomers. Kukiz’15, led by rock singer Paweł Kukiz, attracted the anti-systemic and nationalist protest vote, while Nowoczesna, led by a former bank economist and aide to Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, captured pro-business modernisers, fed up by the ruling party’s timidity.

Both Poland and Switzerland show the general impatience in Europe with the shallow, uninspiring politics of the established centrist parties, and especially the social democrats.

What is more astonishing is that some of Europe’s biggest Christian democratic parties have also begun to lean left, evolving towards their failing social democratic opponents. This trend has opened up space for so-called right-wing parties, such as Law and Justice in Poland, which also have populist and left-wing economic agendas.

The opportunistic moves made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel are a good illustration of this phenomenon. She used the 2011 Fukushima disaster to hijack the main issue of her country’s greens: opposition to nuclear energy.

The decision to phase out nuclear power hurt Germany’s greens and helped Ms Merkel’s Christian democratic coalition win the 2013 elections. Ms Merkel also borrowed from the social democrats, instituting a higher minimum wage. The main loser in both cases was the German economy.

Chancellor Merkel’s appropriation of her opponents’ losing policies may be a short-term recipe for political success. In the longer term, it is a portent of disaster.

Decrying a pan-European ‘Rechtsrutsch’ is missing the point. What really ails Europe is the pompous, unconvincing and frequently populist policies of the established centre-right and centre-left parties. Their lacklustre performance has turned non-voters into the largest electorate in most EU countries. That is a bad omen for representative democracy.

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