By John Lavelle
To say 2022 was a monumental year for Europe would be an understatement. The war in Ukraine is still raging on, inflation and fuel prices are rapidly rising, the Euro fell below $1 for the first time in twenty years, and the United Kingdom has had three Prime Ministers. Even while all these events were prevalent, seven European nations had general or presidential, elections, a list which includes France, Italy, and Sweden. What did the people of Europe express with their ballot?
There was only one absolute seen through the seven (and a half) elections that have completed their cycle (Bosnia and Herzegovina have a three membered presidential body, Denmark’s is on November 1st, and the second round of Slovenia’s is on November 13th): polarization. Most regions have either voted for the more extreme left or right candidate and were abnormally swayed towards one candidate. There were also some other noticeable trends seen in these elections. For one, the incumbents and incumbent parties have won all elections except for Sweden, Italy, and the Bosniak section of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The other observable patterns are that right-wing parties have made serious gains in all nations except for Austria, which saw The Greens win 56% of the vote and Alexander Van der Bellen retain his ceremonial presidency (Bundespräsident) , and less overall voter turnout (sans a slight increase in Serbia).
An excellent microcosm of these patterns can be seen in the first major European election in 2022: France. The April election was dominated by the race between the incumbent moderate Emmanuel Macron and the conservative Marine Le Pen, who also faced each other in 2017. The first-round elections were extremely close, as Macron won 27%, Le Pen won 23%, and in a surprise Jean-Luc Melenchon of La France Insoumise had 22% of the vote. However, Macron and Le Pen were first and second in the polls and moved onto the second round, were Macron won by seventeen points. Although a relatively comfortable win, Le Pen increased her share in the second round by seven and a half points to 41.45% and winning new counties in Central France. The voter turnout was lower in both rounds, with only 72% voting in the second round, the lowest since 1969.
The similar broad strokes of this election can be seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia (so far), and Serbia* with the incumbents winning comfortably, while conservative members and parties have gained more popular support. However, it seemed as if the summer and early autumn had changed Europe, as Italy and Sweden would swiftly break this trend.
Many expected Magdalena Andersson to keep her seat as Prime Minister of Sweden; however, this was not the case. Despite of winning 30% of the vote and an extra seven seats in the Riksdag, this would prove to not be enough to form a coalition due to the strong performance of the far right-wing Sweden Democrats (especially in Bergslagen) and the Tido Agreement, which formed a minority government under the moderate Ulf Kristersson. For reference, this is the first time the Sweden Democrats will have official influence in Sweden’s government policy. This election has also been described as the most polarizing in the nation’s history, as large cities and towns saw overwhelming left-wing support while the right-wing had uncharacteristically great support in rural regions.
Two weeks later and a couple hundred kilometers south, Italy held their 2022 elections to see who would replace Mario Draghi’s government. The opinion polls projected a victory for the Brothers of Italy, the right-wing populist party led by Giorgia Meloni, despite only winning a 4% share in the 2018 elections. These polls came to fruition and the Brothers of Italy won 26% of the popular vote themselves and quickly formed a center-right coalition with League, Forza Italia, and Us Moderates that will hold an absolute majority in Italian Parliament with Meloni as Prime Minister (which has not officially happened yet). Interestingly, the center right coalition only won 44% of all votes, but won 83% of districts, which allowed them to form an absolute majority (similar to the 2016 USA Presidential election). This was driven by the Brothers’ major increase mainly coming at the expense at the decline of the League and Forza Italia and less so of the left wing parties. This election was also the lowest voter turnout in Italian history, with only 63.8% of the population voting, a 9% decline from the 2018 general elections.
Politics in Europe are clearly becoming more polarized and right leaning, a process that can be observed over the past decade, even well before Covid. There are many theories to why Europe, and perhaps even the world, is shifting in this direction, however, most can be simplified to anger and frustration at the current system and governments. In which case, voters turn to more extreme ideologies as ‘the normal and stable are no longer working’ and become more desperate to have improvements in quality of life, which have been either stagnant or falling since 2020 primarily due to Covid and its aftermath. Inflation, unemployment, crime, and the wealth gap are rising while real wages are falling. No wonder centrism is being abandoned during socioeconomic downturns. Unfortunately, polarization and adversity go hand in hand in the history of Europe. The interwar period saw the continent in the grip of communism and fascism and the aftermath of World War II saw a literal split between capitalism and communism.
As for the tilt towards the right, that reasoning is more difficult to decipher. It could be due to the natural ebbing and flowing of generations shifting from left to right and right to left, as more European governments were led by center left and left-wing leaders in the late 2000s and early 2010s than now. It could also be from Eastern Europe’s and the former Soviet Bloc’s distrust of more left-wing parties due to the horrors and hardships they faced under the Soviet Union’s leadership and rule. Right-wing ideas and philosophies have also been increasingly normalized, especially nationalism and EU-skepticism, in the past decade as question about nations and their role within Europe are being analyzed more and more. Most likely it is all three and specific and localized factors, such as farmers in the Benelux and France struggling to adapt to the European Union’s emission cuts and lower skilled workers fearing that immigrants might away employment opportunities.
Paradoxically, with this increased polarization, voter turnout has decreased significantly on the continent. Although nothing can be confirmed about the 2022 elections, there are two main reasons why less people are voting: disillusionment and apathy, both stemming from the same causes of polarization. More and more voters believe that their parties are no longer representing their best interests and beliefs and that their time and votes would be wasted in safe seat districts. People cannot relate to politicians and are forced to make a choice between the lesser of two evils or extreme. When this occurs, voters either wholly follow one extreme or completely remove themselves from the equation. Moreover, snap elections are rising in Europe, like in Italy and the United Kingdom, which is causing widespread voter fatigue and frustration. The most terrifying possibility for the lack of turnout is simply because voters are unable to vote, whether it is due to financial or accessibility concerns. At the end of the day, less people are voting, which is not good for democracy nor the citizens. After all, if the silent majority is silent, does it even matter that they are a majority?
There are few avenues for Europe and its citizens to travel from here: it can either stay the course, do a complete reversal, or something between the two. More will be known after the upcoming elections in Demark, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic (January 2023). All of these elections serve to see which way Europe is leaning when the 2024 Parliamentary elections commence and as foreign policy decisions in Ukraine and the world become increasingly urgent and decisive. Europe stands at many crossroads internally and externally, and it is up to the heads of state and the people to make sound and sensible decisions about the future of not only Europe, but the world.
*Serbia’s ruling party, SNS, has been described both a catch-all party and a popular right-wing party. Although they have a greater margin of victory in 2022 than the last election against a right-wing party, many of their members can be described as conservative, hence why they are included in this group.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
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