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 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.