Articles by Roberto Robles on the GC Blog and GC analysis
Signs are clearly pointing to the two winners of Italy’s 4 March election – the Five Star Movement and Lega – being able to work together, and it is looking increasingly likely they will seek to reach some sort of governing arrangement. But, despite successfully reaching an agreement on the speakers for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate last week, they will find that agreeing on a common policy programme will prove significantly more tortuous, and involve compromises between often conflicting and contradicting positions.
After the withdrawal of the liberal FDP from coalition negotiations, German politics is faced with a similar dilemma to Spain in 2015-2016: an inconclusive set of elections, the unwillingness of the centre-left to support the incumbent centre-right Prime Minister, and ultimately the possibility of another set of elections. In both instances, it was up to social democrats to resolve the stalemate; what lessons can the German Social Democrats (SPD) learn from the Spanish experience?
Last Sunday’s regional elections in Sicily were the last major electoral test ahead of Italy’s general elections next spring, and they do not bode well for the Five Star Movement. The party had high hopes of winning the contest, in a region that saw the party’s best results in the 2013 general elections. After its victories in Rome and Turin in 2016, winning Sicily’s regional government would have been the party’s highest elected office, demonstrating not only that the party could win a serious contest, but also show “proof of concept” of what it would do once having control of the sort of domestic policy levers available to autonomous regions like Sicily. Instead, the Five Star Movement was defeated by a greater than predicted 5-point margin, a result that will likely demobilise a party’s base that had believed that the party could win and be a serious electoral force.
Sunday’s Italian municipal election results demonstrated one of the golden rules of Italian politics – never underestimate Il Cavaliere. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia and its ally, Lega Nord, had a string of very good results in some of Italy’s largest cities, with victory in the erstwhile left-wing stronghold of Genoa being the most symbolic.
At the start of the election campaign, 2017 was meant to be the election that delivered Theresa May a strong mandate for Brexit as both Leave voters and pragmatic Remainers trusted her to get on with the job of implementing the referendum result. Meanwhile, Labour was supposed to be headed for a 1983-style defeat under the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, losing Remain voters to the strongly pro-EU Liberal Democrats. The outcome of course was very different.
Northern Ireland’s Assembly election on 2 March has come close to delivering a political earthquake, with the nationalist Sinn Fein coming within 1,200 votes of beating the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to first place, while the Assembly could for the first time lack a unionist majority. Arguably the most consequential election since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the election will have important ramifications for both the future of devolution and Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland.
A poll this week shows French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron for the first time making it to the second round of the elections. It also suggested that he would easily defeat Front National leader Marine Le Pen. Previously dismissed, the former investment banker and minister under François Hollande, has now become the unexpected frontrunner in France’s most open election in decades.
The upcoming Dutch parliamentary elections on 15 March are the first test in a year that will see populist parties perform strongly in elections in France, Germany, and probably Italy as well. Earlier this week, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte ruled out any coalition with Geert Wilders, leader of the populist right Party of Freedom (PVV). Wilders’ agenda goes further than Marine Le Pen’s by unequivocally pushing for EU withdrawal and a ban on all Muslim migration. While Rutte’s statement on the PVV may come as a relief for many in the European mainstream, the key lesson from the Netherlands will be that populists can have an impact on the political process and debate even when they are unable to enter government.
Once again, much of the European mainstream was relieved on Sunday evening, when – against expectations - the far-right FPŐ candidate was defeated by a 46-54 margin by the Green-backed independent Alexander Van der Bellen in the re-run of the second round of the presidential elections. Following the UK vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency, the Austrian result has been hailed as a rare victory for liberal internationalism. However, this relief may be premature, as attempts to use this wealthy, Central European country as a proxy for balancing North, South, East and Western European attitudes work both ways. The FPŐ may not have won the presidency, but their candidate still came very close and won 46% of the popular vote, up from 21% in the 2013 parliamentary election and 15% in the 2010 presidential election.
The Spanish parliament’s vote earlier this week to raise the minimum wage from 655 to 800 euros a month - despite the opposition of the governing People’s Party (PP) - highlights the unusual situation that the PP finds itself in, of having to govern in a parliament where a hostile opposition has a majority.
Discussing Italy’s constitutional referendum with people in Milan this week, I was struck by the parallels with the UK, and the ways Matteo Renzi risks falling into the same traps as former UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Though a victory for the ‘Yes’ side led by Matteo Renzi cannot be ruled out given the large number of undecided and abstaining voters, Renzi now seems to be heading for a narrow referendum defeat. The latest poll shows his side being defeated by a 52-48 margin. This seems ironic given that the reforms, which seek to streamline the Italian political and legislative process, are broadly popular. Individually, the measures enjoy support from between 82% to 50% of Italians; they seek to reduce the size and power of the Senate, and clarifying the division of responsibilities between the regions and the centre.
After 10 months of political uncertainty and two general elections, Spain will now get a government, but one that will be severely constrained. Incumbent interim centre-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will now face, and win, an investiture vote in the Congress of Deputies at the end of the week. This follows the decision by the centre-left Socialist Party at the weekend, who held the balance of power, to reluctantly abstain in the vote. Faced with the possibility of a third round of elections, the Socialists decided to unilaterally abstain, without any negotiations or policy concessions from the governing People’s Party. While Mariano Rajoy will now govern as a minority – with nearly 50 seats fewer than his party had when it governed as a majority – the prospect of significant policy change remains unlikely.
The UK referendum vote on leaving the EU is reverberating across EU politics in a range of ways. Economic and market volatility has brought to the boil a simmering banking crisis in Italy. The huge implications of British exit for the Republic of Ireland have triggered a febrile debate on Ireland’s ability to insulate itself from the implied economic disruption. In the UK itself, the political settlement of the British union has been called into question by the apparent divergence of Scots and English on the question of continued EU membership. These are all clearly material and important examples of ‘contagion’ from the vote. In the Italian case, they have potential wider implications for the stability and political and policy consensus of the EU.
The story of Spain’s December 2015 general election was fragmentation. I made the case myself here. Spain’s historic two main parties – the centre-right PP and the centre-left PSOE – fell to just above a combined 50% of the vote in that election.
Friday saw the close of nominations to be Labour’s candidate for the new posts of metropolitan mayors of Greater Manchester, West Midlands, and Liverpool City Region. The choice by an important Labour figure such as former Secretary of State Andy Burnham to throw his hat into the ring for Mayor of Greater Manchester reflects the authority and influence that these new positions are expected to carry, not only in their respective regions, but also within the Labour Party and the broader national policy landscape.
The European political establishment breathed a sigh of relief when the former Austrian Green leader Alexander Van Der Bellen won that country’s Presidential election by a razor-thin 0.7% margin a couple of days ago. Although Van Der Bellen is himself an outsider, he was more palatable to the mainstream, and his victory prevented FPO candidate Norbert Hofer from becoming the EU’s first far-right head of state.
The SNP have unexpectedly lost majority power in Scotland – what does this mean for the Scottish independence movement? Is it a sign of reversion to the pre-independence referendum status quo? Or are there signs that the SNP have actually helped drive a bigger shift in Scottish politics?
Europe is in the midst of a crisis over migration. But how worried are Europeans about immigration? The answer depends on whether you look at Europe as a whole, or individual countries. And it may matter is thinking about the impact in the EU of a Brexit in June.
The defeat of centre-right governments in Portugal, Ireland, Poland, and Spain despite favourable economic statistics highlights the difficulty for European governments to earn a political dividend if growth is not increasing living standards. Voters are more willing to support political parties outside the mainstream - which is taking a particular toll on the centre-left - though in the case of these four countries this is not being driven by migration or Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, these new policy revisionists are far from winning office, limiting the prospect for a rollback of structural reforms.
At the end of 2015 the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy will face re-election. Andalusia’s regional elections last week provided further evidence that this will not be a two, but rather a four party contest. Rajoy’s government already faces a big problem of converting a creditable economic record into electoral success and encouraging abstaining Partido Popular voters back to the polls in November. The emergence of a new centrist challenger compounds this problem. This has interesting and important implications for the formation of the next Spanish governments and reflects a wider European drift in the authority of European mainstream parties – even when they are able to deliver economic growth.
Three years ago, the Spanish two-party political system looked comparatively stable. Now, and with three major electoral contests scheduled in the Spanish calendar for 2015, everything looks very different. At the heart of this is a dramatic collapse in the Spanish political mainstream, fuelling separatist campaigning in Catalonia and creating a gap filled by the Podemos party. This political fragmentation makes the prospect of a weak minority government in 2015 look like a very real possibility. Given that Spain has traded heavily with the EU, the Troika and the markets on the stability promised by the PP’s sweeping electoral wins in 2011 and Spain’s consequent ability to deliver structural and fiscal reform, 2015 now looks like a key year for Spanish sentiment.
The rise of the UK Independence Party over the last two years, driven by support from older, lower income voters, signals the beginning of truly multi-party politics in Britain. UKIP makes the outcome of the May 2015 UK general election very hard to call, even if the party may not achieve its ambition of being kingmaker and there is a ceiling to its rise. UKIP is also powerfully shaping British policy on both migration and Europe. For the Conservatives and Labour, UKIP’s rise is making it very tough to build broad electoral coalitions to secure a parliamentary majority.
Six months from today voters in Scotland will be waking up to discover their collective answer to the question “should Scotland be an independent country?” For now polls indicate that answer is likely to be no, but that is unlikely to be the end of the story. In the last two months a noisy debate has made the choices facing Scotland a lot starker and raised questions about how ‘independent’ an independent Scotland would, or indeed could, be. With six months to go it is increasingly clear that Scotland’s real choice may be between ‘independence lite’ and ‘devo more’.