European Parliamentary Elections a Test of Populism, Legitimacy

More than 350 million Europeans are eligible to cast ballots in the world’s largest multi-country democratic exercise this weekend. Some of the European Union’s 28 (-ish?) member states began voting in European Parliamentary elections on Thursday, with results expected on Sunday. The vote will be a test of the power of populism, and whether a shrinking center can hold in Brussels.

Technically, any publication of results, or exit polls, is banned until all states have concluded voting. Public broadcasters have gotten rather creative in recent years, reporting the prices of certain foods, which happened to match the colors of parliamentary groups. However, preliminary results in at least two states have provided clues as to how the weekend might unfold.

Thursday was, apparently, a bad night for right-wing populists in the Netherlands, according to Dutch public broadcaster NOS. The long-suffering Labour Party is said to have topped the vote, with 18%, followed by the governing centrist People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. Thierry Baudet’s right-wing Forum for Democracy looks tied for third. Ireland appears to have seen a surprising surge to the Greens, particularly in Dublin, per an exit poll from RTE. The poll indicates an especially long count before any winners are known.

As for the rest of the continent, the traditional hegemony of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and center-left Socialists & Democrats is not under threat. Both will finish first and second, as they have in every election since 1979. Manfried Weber, of Germany’s conservative CSU, is expected to become President of the European Commission. What’s different this year is the blocs are not expected to account for a majority of the 751 seats between them. Both are expected to sustain heavy losses.

Picking up the slack will be the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, which could see their best showing in at least fifteen years. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has been campaigning vocally for “Team Europe.” He may or may not have help from the French President’s En Marche party. Rounding out the other groups, the left-wing European United Left—Nordic Green Left, and Greens—European Free Alliance, should stay roughly where they are seat-wise.

A trio of right-wing populist and Euroskeptic groupings are expected to perform anywhere from disappointingly to quite well. Between them, they could win more seats than the EPP. The European Conservatives and Reformists are expected to lose a dozen or so seats, in no small part due to the expected poor performance of its flagship party, the British Conservatives. By contrast, the entrance of the Brexit Party is expected to propel Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy to moderate gains. That could change, of course, when and if the UK ever leaves. A heretofore unlikely union of Europe’s nationalists, Europe of Nations and Freedom, could double its representation in Brussels, and finish as high as fourth.

These will be the ninth elections to the European Parliament; turnout has gone down each time. Not even half of registered voters have cast ballots since 1999. Few voters seem to know what the European Parliament actually does, and fewer than 1 in 10 Britons, for example, can name a single MEP. The ongoing, festering problems of democratic deficit have been met in this campaign by frustrations over immigration and climate change. External affairs will also be of acute concern for the new Parliament and Commissioner, as relations with Russia and China have become more challenging, and with the U.S. more uncertain.

In all, there are enough narratives in this campaign across the continent for a new HBO series. You’re going to need something else to watch on Sunday anyway.

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Robert Martin (CN Staff)

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