News Comment

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Portrait of the Week - ‘Moderation’ is the word as politics shift in Europe

'People want profound changes but also want to keep what is working, like the welfare system, a productive economy, the Constitution, Europe or the Euro'

Portrait of the Week

Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30

AFTER THE ELECTION: A supporter takes a selfie of himself and Centre Party chairman Juha Sipila in Helsinki last week
AFTER THE ELECTION: A supporter takes a selfie of himself and Centre Party chairman Juha Sipila in Helsinki last week

A millionaire former telecoms executive touted as a technocrat capable of rescuing Finland from economic slump won Sunday's parliamentary election, but he will likely need coalition support from a second-placed Eurosceptic party critical of any more Greek bailouts.

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Opposition Centre Party leader Juha Sipila, who advocates a wage freeze and spending cuts to regain Finland's competitiveness, beat pro-EU and pro-NATO Prime Minister Alexander Stubb after four years of policy stagnation and a bickering coalition.

"Three years ago, we were seen as a sunset movement, but not anymore," Sipila said in a speech to his cheering party members. "Finland is in a very difficult situation. We need exceptional degrees of cooperation so that we can overcome the difficulties."

He may depend on the Eurosceptic Finns Party, formerly known as the True Finns, to form a government. If so, the resulting coalition could increase Finland's hard-line stance over bailouts in the eurozone just as the battle for Greece's future in the bloc nears a climax.

What should have been Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's finest hour may be becoming his darkest.

Investors are turning positive again on Hungarian assets, vindicating Orban after years when the International Monetary Fund, Brussels, and international financiers lined up to warn that he was going to destroy Hungary's economy.

He proved them wrong, but at the same time his popularity with voters, which stayed resilient even when the economy spluttered, is ebbing.

A survey by Ipsos last month put Orban's Fidesz party on 21pc, still the poll leader, but with the far-right party Jobbik at 18pc, its highest-ever score. In a by-election last weekend, Jobbik won a parliamentary seat previously held by Fidesz.

It is a bitter irony for a right-wing leader who fought fierce battles with critics over his stewardship of the economy precisely because, he said, he was determined to give the Hungarian people the prosperity they deserve.

People walking in central Budapest said if the economy was improving, they were not feeling the effects themselves. Instead, they said, they see a ruling class serving its own interests.

Albert Rivera, the 35-year-old leader of upstart political party Ciudadanos, has become Spain's best-rated politician by cutting through his country's increasingly volatile politics with a simple message: moderation.

Though it was founded nearly a decade ago, Ciudadanos ("Citizens") has in recent months risen quickly to the top of opinion polls ahead of a general election that many see as Spain's most important in 30 years.

A dire economic crisis and corruption scandals that engulfed both the business and political elite have encouraged new entrants to Spanish politics over the past couple of years. One such is the leftist Podemos party that caught international attention with radical anti-austerity slogans similar to those of Greek's ruling far-left Syriza.

Rivera, however, wants to infuse Spain's politics with more transparency, accountability and meritocracy through what he calls "sensible change".

He calls for dialogue among parties, business leaders and unions and pledges moderate free-market policies, including tax policies to encourage entrepreneurship and more spending on research and development.

"People want profound changes ,but they also want to keep what is working, like the welfare system, a productive economy, the constitution or Europe and the euro," Rivera said in an interview.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday everything must be done to prevent Greece running out of money before it reaches a cash-for-reform deal with its international creditors, amid heightened concern that Athens is nearing the brink.

Merkel, Europe's pre-eminent leader, was speaking after a meeting she called "constructive" with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on the side-lines of a European Union summit in Brussels. She said they had agreed to keep the contents of their discussion confidential.

Asked how great the risk was of Athens running out of cash before any agreement was reached with its official lenders, she told a news conference: "Everything must be undertaken to prevent that."

Tsipras told reporters they had noted significant progress had been made in the negotiations and added: "We have covered a large part of the distance."

He said he was very optimistic and that they had moved closer to a deal on an economic reform program that would unlock frozen bailout funds. A Greek official reported "convergence" with Merkel on some issues including a lower budget surplus target for Greece.

However, EU officials cautioned that wide differences remain over reforms of the labour market, pension system, taxation and public finances, and much work remained to produce a binding, detailed agreement.

Sunday Independent

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