As the year draws to a close, we’re reviewing some of the key political developments across 2017.
In this article, EUROPP’s editors Stuart Brown and Tena Prelec take a look at some of the major elections that took place in Europe over the last 12 months, and what they could mean for European politics in 2018.
Following the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, there was intense speculation over what the elections scheduled for 2017 might bring. Could Marine Le Pen follow Trump’s success in the French presidential elections? Would Angela Merkel manage to secure another term as German Chancellor? And would the much discussed ‘rise of populism’ that had characterised 2016 continue in countries such as the Netherlands and Austria? This article provides a review of some of the major contests, and assesses what their impact could be on European politics over the next 12 months and beyond.
5 February: The curious case of Liechtenstein
Although elections took place in the EU’s three largest states in 2017, the first election on the calendar was in one of Europe’s smallest countries, Liechtenstein. The result may not have made headline news, but the country is notable for its distinct political system, under which the Prince of Liechtenstein still retains a large degree of power over decision-making. The contest raised complex questions over whether a country can be classified as a democracy if its citizens voluntarily choose to assign important powers to an unelected ruler.
15 March: Rutte holds on to power as Wilders falls short in the Netherlands
Parliamentary elections in the Netherlands on 15 March were earmarked as a first test for whether the ‘populist surge’ would continue into 2017. Coverage of the early campaigning had been dominated by the substantial support enjoyed by Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), driven in part by the high levels of salience of immigration in the campaign. Although the possibility of Wilders’ success leading to a ‘Nexit referendum’ on the country’s EU membership remained unlikely, the PVV had managed to push immigration and Islam into the centre of the political agenda and it was anticipated that they could potentially challenge Mark Rutte’s VVD for the position of largest party.
In the end, the campaign produced less drama than had been predicted, despite a diplomatic spat emerging between the Netherlands and Turkey shortly before the vote. Wilders’ campaign was relatively low-key and he did not participate in two major debates. The final result saw Rutte’s VVD finish a clear distance ahead of the PVV, albeit having lost seats from the previous election, while the overall picture was one of fragmentation with several mid-sized parties gaining representation.
26 March: The status quo wins in Bulgaria
Bulgaria held parliamentary elections on 26 March, with GERB, led by Boyko Borisov, securing the largest share of support. The Bulgarian Socialist Party built on their success in the country’s 2016 presidential election, won by General Rumen Radev, to run GERB close. But the results showed the resilience of the status quo in the country. Two coalitions of anti-corruption movements, Yes, Bulgaria and New Republic, who were largely backed by urban, middle-class voters, won almost 6% of all ballots cast. But being unable and unwilling to unite in a coalition and running competing lists resulted in a failure of the two likeminded groups to clear the electoral threshold.
2 April: Vučić wins Serbia’s presidential election in the first round
Serbia held a presidential election on 2 April, with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić winning the contest in the first round. Support for Vučić was far from unanimous, however. In a EUROPP poll of diaspora voters, which we conducted prior to the election, there was strong support for new candidates, as well as criticism of barriers to voting experienced by the diaspora.
The result pointed to a deep level of polarisation between pro and anti-Vučić camps. With his victory, several observers noted that there was little left to prevent Vučić from pursuing the consolidation of a one-man regime in Serbia, and that the opposition’s failure to rally around a single contender had contributed to the final outcome.
2 April: The ruling Republican Party wins in Armenia
Armenia also held elections on 2 April, where the ruling Republican Party of Armenia maintained its position as the country’s largest party. There was nevertheless a breakthrough for a new opposition movement, the ‘Way Out Alliance’, which gained the third highest vote share. One of the key questions following the election was how civil society actors and democracy activists would respond, given they had been highly critical of the government.
23 April and 7 May: Emmanuel Macron clinches the French presidency
Arguably the most anticipated election of 2017 was the French presidential election. The campaign proved to be a rollercoaster affair, with multiple twists and turns before Emmanuel Macron, fronting a new centrist movement, finally secured the presidency in May.
Back in 2016, the race had expected to be won by the centre-right Les Républicains, led by either Nicolas Sarkozy or Alain Juppé, in a runoff against Marine Le Pen. In November, this narrative shifted as the (self-styled) ‘irreproachable’ candidate François Fillon managed to beat Sarkozy and Juppé to the centre-right nomination. But in February, Fillon’s campaign was dealt a heavy blow by the so called ‘Penelopegate’ scandal, leaving the door open for Macron to dramatically move into the second round and defeat Le Pen, having seen off a late challenge from the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who surged into contention in the final period of campaigning before the first round.
21 May and 4 June: Croatia’s right-wing cements its hold on power
A potential general election was narrowly avoided in Croatia, where the financial troubles of the business giant Agrokor precipitated a political crisis. The local electoral ballot, a two-round contest held on the national stage, provided a sense of the electorate’s mood: with the left-wing in disarray, some voters expressed preferences for newly-formed parties and independent candidates. Overwhelmingly, however, the right-wing party HDZ confirmed itself as the dominant political force in the country. In November, the nationalist overtones of the leadership caused a stir in international media, after many leading politicians contested the ICTY’s ruling convicting six Bosnian Croat generals.
8 June: The UK’s early general election spectacularly backfires for the Tories
Prime Minister Theresa May called an early general election to secure a stronger mandate with which to conduct the Brexit negotiations. The decision backfired spectacularly, with the Conservatives losing their majority and having to form a government with Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative DUP (a decision that has already created issues in the Brexit negotiations over the Irish border).
The Tories’ setback was underpinned by a weak campaign, with the PM being mocked for repeating the slogan ‘strong and stable’ without adding much substance. Conversely, the campaign led by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was widely praised, especially in the digital space. Youth turnout was high, partially as a consequence of the disappointment many young voters felt after the Brexit vote – and it bolstered Labour’s result. In Scotland, the SNP won 21 fewer seats than it had won in 2015, going from 56 seats to 35. Both Labour and the Scottish Conservatives – led by their charismatic leader Ruth Davidson – made a good showing north of Hadrian’s wall.
11 June: Anti-elite sentiment grows in Kosovo
A fragile government coalition was pushed into early elections as a consequence of a failure to ratify a border agreement with Montenegro (set as a prerequisite by the EU for the longed-for visa liberalisation agreement). The grand coalition between the League of Kosovo (LDK) and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), seen as sworn enemies, was widely considered “unnatural” and it is likely that the anticipated ballot would have happened anyway.
The June election was won by a coalition led by former PM Ramush Haradinaj with around 35% of the vote, while the left-wing party Vetevendosje and the coalition associated with outgoing Prime Minister Isa Mustafa each held around 25%. The election happened against a backdrop of adjudication over war crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army: politicians with a background in the KLA were arguably keen to secure a government position to protect themselves from charges. In this light, the surge of Vetevendosje – a fiercely anti-elite party – was a significant development in a country whose ruling elites have not changed since its inception.
11 and 18 June: A huge majority for Macron in the French legislative elections
Following his victory in the presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron saw his movement, La République en Marche! (LREM), gain a huge majority in the country’s legislative elections. Despite the lopsided nature of the result, doubts were nevertheless raised over the low turnout, with abstentions in the second round reaching record levels. With his majority secured, Macron made clear his intention to pursue a reform agenda, not only within France but also by pushing for reforms across the rest of the EU.
26 June: Edi Rama’s Socialists score a convincing victory in Albania
At this year’s parliamentary election, Prime Minister Edi Rama took full control in Albania, leaving an open question – who will keep his party in check? The charismatic former artist and basketball player has been in power since 2013. After the controversial June election, his party achieved an outright majority and the possibility to form a single party government: a development last seen in 2001.
The country had been locked in a political crisis since February, when the opposition Democratic Party pitched a tent in front of the parliament to protest against an increase in cannabis cultivation, high level corruption, and alleged links between public officials and organised crime. Rama accused the opposition of blocking a judicial reform, seen as key in Albania’s EU accession process. The deadlock was eventually broken and elections were held a week later than initially foreseen.
11 September: Norway’s election goes to the wire, but Solberg wins a fragile victory
Norway had been ruled by a minority centre-right coalition of Høyre (Conservatives) and the populist Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party) prior to parliamentary elections on 11 September. Prime Minister Erna Solberg faced a strong challenge from the opposition Norwegian Labour Party, which had held a consistent polling lead in the runup to the vote. In the end, the Labour Party won the largest number of seats, but lost support in the latter stages of the campaign and fell short of the mark required to regain control of the government. Solberg’s fragile victory may have been enough to retain her position as Prime Minister, but she will face some important decisions in the coming years, not least over setting a course to reduce the country’s high dependency on the oil and gas sectors.
24 September: Merkel loses support and coalition negotiations collapse in Germany
The 2017 German federal elections were far from the ‘boring’ contest some had predicted. Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU maintained their position as the largest grouping in parliament, against a faltering challenge from the Social Democrats (SPD), but support for the two largest parties was greatly reduced as the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won over 12% of the vote.
The country was then plunged into uncertainty by the collapse of negotiations aimed at establishing a ‘Jamaica coalition’ between the CDU/CSU, Greens, and FDP. Negotiations subsequently began over a renewal of the grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD, but a minority government or further elections remain possibilities. Meanwhile, the rise of the AfD has prompted much soul searching over the nature of German politics, with some arguing the principle of ‘consensus building’ that lies at the heart of German political culture can no longer survive against the adversarial approach of the AfD.
1 October: Portugal’s Socialist Party gets a vote of confidence in local elections
Portugal held local elections on 1 October, which were viewed as a key test for the country’s government, led by António Costa. The results saw Costa’s Socialist Party (PS) receive the largest vote share, while the opposition PSD experienced a loss of support.
This was the first major electoral test for the government since it came to power. Following an inconclusive result in elections in 2015, the Socialist Party was able to sign an agreement with two radical left parties – the Communists (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE) – who subsequently gave their parliamentary support to a minority socialist government headed by Costa. The alliance was a major watershed moment in the evolution of the Portuguese party system, given that the two radical left parties have always played the role of anti-government forces.
15 October: Wunderkind Kurz rallies a revived Austrian People’s Party to power with a nod to the hard right
That the centre was squeezed in Austria was all-too-evident at the December 2016 presidential election, which saw the two mainstream parties, the Social Democrats (SPO) and the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), excluded from the run-off for the first time ever. On that occasion, Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen scraped through to victory against Norbert Hofer, the friendly face of the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ). The FPÖ was however soaring in the polls, representing a distinct threat in this year’s parliamentary election.
This prompted a race to the bottom to get hold of the votes that had shifted towards the Freedom Party, in part as a reaction to the migration crisis. The ÖVP’s young Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Kurz, understood this, and used his credentials as the broker in closing the Balkan route to establish himself as the fresh leader of a now stale political option – even initiating a rebrand by altering the party’s name to ‘The New People’s Party’. The strategy worked: the ÖVP was the leading party in the polls, though without enough support to form an outright majority. Kurz has indicated that a coalition with the FPÖ will be formed before Christmas.
20 and 21 October: Andrej Babiš completes his rise to power in the Czech Republic
Coverage of the Czech Republic’s legislative election was dominated by the campaign of Andrej Babiš, whose ANO movement won the largest share of seats. Babiš and ANO have defied categorisation, with some observers drawing parallels with the rapid rise of Donald Trump, while others portrayed the result as the Czech Republic shifting decisively toward the Polish and Hungarian models of politics against the backdrop of the migration crisis. Babiš has nevertheless faced a challenge forming a government and will likely have to survive a vote of confidence, which is expected to be held in early January.
15 and 29 October: The newly-formed Macedonian government sees off the challenge from the right wing in local elections
The local elections held in Macedonia were significant as they legitimised the new government – led by the Socialist (SDSM) in coalition with ethnic-Albanian parties – that was finally formed at the end of May after a protracted political crisis. The resolution of the long-term grid lock has arguably represented the brightest political development in the Balkans this year.
In February 2015, the uncovering of illegal government-sponsored wiretapping and endemic corruption occurring under the watch of the previous administration, led by the right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE, prompted mass protests. The EU weighed in to help manage the crisis and a parliamentary election was held in December 2016, with the right-wing losing ground and failing to form a government. On 27 April this year, VMRO-DPMNE supporters stormed the parliament to prevent a left-wing government being formed, ostensibly in protest against the concessions to Albanian parties. The violence represented a major shock, prompting harsh condemnation, and the SDSM-led government was finally sworn in a month later.
But it wasn’t until the municipal elections in October that the new government received a convincing vote of confidence from the electorate. The result represented a blow for the VMRO-DPMNE, which had previously been in power for over a decade. In December, former prime minister Nikola Gruevski – himself under investigation in several cases – resigned from the leadership of the party.
22 October: Slovenia’s incumbent President wins against a former political satirist
The incumbent, Borut Pahor, secured his second mandate in the run-off of the Slovenian presidential elections with 53% of the vote. The social democrat ran against Marjan Šarec, a small-town mayor who has a past as an actor and was previously best known for impersonating famous Slovenian and international politicians.
28 October: Snap elections in Iceland lead to defeat for the ruling party
Iceland held snap elections in October, just a year after the previous election in 2016. The governing coalition called the elections following a scandal involving Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson’s father. Benediktsson’s Independence Party remained the largest party after the election, but lost support, opening the door to a new Left-Green led government.
What lies in store for 2018?
The number of high profile elections held in European countries in 2017 was unusual: indeed, the elections are not yet over, with a key vote due to take place in Catalonia on 21 December. Barring potential early elections in countries like the UK and Germany, 2018 is unlikely to produce the same number of major contests as the last 12 months. Those that do lie on the horizon, however, include parliamentary elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, and Sweden, as well as a large number of presidential elections. In spite of the lower hype, 2018 may well not be immune from 2017-style drama.
About the authors
Stuart Brown – LSE
Stuart Brown is the Managing Editor of EUROPP and a Research Associate at the LSE’s Public Policy Group.
Tena Prelec – LSE / University of Sussex
Tena Prelec is a Doctoral Candidate at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology of the University of Sussex, a Research Associate at LSEE-Research on South Eastern Europe (LSE European Institute) and Editor of British Politics and Policy at LSE.