Monday 21 October 2019

Stakes extra high as all 28 EU nations go to the polls

Europe at a crossroads as new right parties battle traditionalists for 751 parliamentary seats

All smiles: Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of Austria’s Social Democrats Party (SPO), poses yesterday for a selfie during a campaigning event ahead of the European Parliament elections in Vienna. Photo: REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
All smiles: Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of Austria’s Social Democrats Party (SPO), poses yesterday for a selfie during a campaigning event ahead of the European Parliament elections in Vienna. Photo: REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Karel Janicek

Voters in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Malta and Latvia cast ballots yesterday in the European Parliament elections in which resurgent nationalists are challenging traditional parties that want closer ties among EU countries.

The stakes for the European Union are especially high in this year's vote, which is taking place in all of the EU's 28 nations on different days from last Thursday to today. Voters are electing 751 lawmakers, with each nation apportioned a number of seats based on its population.

Anti-immigrant and far-right groups are hoping to gain ground in the European Parliament and use it to claw back power from the EU for their national governments. Moderate parties, on the other hand, want to cement closer ties among countries in the EU.

"We stand at a crossroads - that is, whether the EU is going to be stronger and more integrated or, quite the contrary, a process of its weakening is to begin," said Zuzana Caputova, Slovakia's president-elect.

A Slovak far-right party that openly admires the country's wartime Nazi puppet state could win seats in the European Parliament for the first time. Its members use Nazi salutes, blame the Roma minority for crime, consider NATO a terror group and want to leave the western military alliance and the EU.

Polls in Slovakia favour the leftist Smer-Social Democracy party, the senior member of Slovakia's current coalition government, to win the most votes. But the polls also suggest that the far-right People's Party Our Slovakia will win seats in the European legislature for the first time.

In neighbouring Czech Republic, a centrist party led by populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis is expected to win the most votes, despite the fact that Babis is facing fraud charges involving the use of EU funds. Babis wants his country to remain in the bloc but is calling for EU reforms.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic's most ardent anti-EU group, the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, is predicted to capture its first seats in the EU legislature.

Britain and the Netherlands have already voted, and the rest of the EU nations will vote today. Official results will be released tonight after all polls close.

The legislature affects Europeans' daily lives in many ways: cutting smartphone roaming charges, imposing safety and health rules for industries ranging from chemicals and energy to cars and food, supporting farming and protecting the environment.

Voting in the Netherlands may have already produced a surprise. An Ipsos exit poll forecasts a win for the Dutch Labour Party, and predicted that pro-European parties would win most of the Netherlands' seats instead of right-wing populist opponents.

In Germany, Angela Merkel is facing a battle to serve out her fourth and final term. Her chosen successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has pressured the chancellor to consider making way if her Christian Democrats lose more support in the European vote. The bigger risk may come from the Social Democrats. A poor result could push Merkel's reluctant coalition partner to bring down the government, especially if the party loses control in the city-state of Bremen - a traditional SPD stronghold - where voters are also selecting a new administration.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron faces a tight race with nationalist Marine Le Pen in a rematch of the 2017 presidential race. If he loses, it could undermine his grand plans for tighter EU integration. More than six months of Yellow Vest protests have pushed Macron to backtrack on key reforms and offer tax cuts and subsidies in an effort to appease protesters. A bad result tonight may further push him toward even more expensive concessions.

And in Spain, Pedro Sanchez's Socialists have a chance to grab control of Madrid's regional government for the first time in 24 years, a feat that could help propel the acting prime minister toward a second term and make him a political force beyond Spain. A win today would also play into a broader plan by Sanchez to leapfrog Italy in Europe's pecking order. The euro area's fourth-largest economy has traditionally lacked the political clout in Brussels of number three Italy, but Sanchez and some of his aides think Rome's euro-sceptic turn means it's time for Spain to punch above its economic weight.

Austrian voters get their first chance to weigh in after Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's government toppled following a lurid video that compromised his nationalist coalition partner. A strong showing would bolster Europe's youngest leader as he faces the risk of a no-confidence vote tomorrow. For the embattled Freedom Party, the ballot will be a test of their ability to deflect the scandal by blaming the video on a conspiracy by foreign operatives.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is projected to dominate the election just as he has done with every ballot in the past decade. The real question is what happens afterwards. If the illiberal leader formally joins the far-right, he may feel emboldened to remove the remaining checks on his power to create the closest thing to authoritarian rule inside the EU.

Overall, the European Parliament's traditional political powerhouses are expected to come out with the most votes. But the centre-right European People's Party and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats look set to lose some clout and face their strongest challenge yet from an array of populist, nationalist and far-right parties.

Those parties hope to emulate what President Donald Trump did in the 2016 US election and what Brexiteers achieved in the UK: to disrupt what they see as an out-of-touch elite and gain power by warning about migrants massing at Europe's borders ready to rob the continent of its jobs and culture.

The traditional parties warn that this strategy is worryingly reminiscent of pre-war tensions, and argue that unity is the best buffer against the challenges posed by a world in which China, the US and Russia are all flexing their economic and military prowess.

Sunday Independent

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