Two elections on Saturday, and two dramatic results: both in the direction that was widely predicted, but of much greater magnitude than expected. And in both cases it was the left that lost out.
Now, first up, let’s admit that comparing him to Robert Fico is unfair to Bernie Sanders. Fico’s government has been increasingly authoritarian, and the popular reaction against it was driven by suspicion of his complicity in the murder of an investigative journalist. No-one expects anything like that from a Sanders presidency.
Nonetheless, both men have been regularly given the label “populist”, and there’s a certain similarity in the way they demonise their opponents. The constant refrain of the Sanders camp that he can appeal to the supporters of Donald Trump produces the same discomfort – albeit in a lesser degree – as does the sight of European leftists who seem more comfortable with the far right than with the liberal centre.
But first to Slovakia. It was a given that Fico’s party, Smer-SD, in power since 2012, would lose votes. Most polls, however, had said it would remain in the lead or close to it. Instead it lost ten points and 11 seats, falling to 18.3%, a full 6.7% behind the leader, the anti-corruption party Ordinary People. (Official figures here.)
With 53 of the 150 seats, Ordinary People will seek to form a government with Freedom & Solidarity (liberal Eurosceptic), which won 6.3% and 13 seats (down 5.8% and eight seats) and the new party For the People (liberal pro-European), 5.8% and 12 seats. It may also try to attract We Are Family, a right-wing conservative party, which placed third with 8.2% and 17 seats (up 1.6% and six seats).
The only other party to win seats was the neo-fascist People’s Party, with 8.0% and 17 seats (down 0.1% but up three seats). The more mainstream far right party, SNS, which had been part of Fico’s coalition, dropped below the 5% threshold, to 3.2%. There had been some concern beforehand that Fico would be willing to partner with the neo-fascists to retain power, but the results removed that option, even if We Are Family were to join as well.
The other major surprise was that the centrist ticket Progressive Slovakia – Together failed to enter parliament. It finished fifth, ahead of both Freedom & Solidarity and For the People, but fell victim to a provision that sets a higher threshold, 7%, for coalitions of more than one party. It fell agonisingly short with 6.97%, missing out by less than a thousand votes.
The Christian Democrats, another component of the anti-government alliance, also fell just short with 4.7%. The Party of the Hungarian Community was further back on 3.9% and Good Choice, a breakaway from Smer-SD, had 3.1%.
So the opposition has had a big win, and there’s no doubt that Ordinary People’s Igor Matovič will be the new prime minister. But it would have been even bigger without the electoral system working against it. Smer-SD and its three conceivable far-right allies only had 37.7% of the vote between them, but they won 48% of the seats.
And while all of this was emerging on Sunday afternoon (Australian time), observers could also follow the count in the Democratic Party’s South Carolina primary. It was a big win for former vice-president Joe Biden, who resurrected his campaign by winning with 48.4% of the vote, almost thirty points ahead of Sanders on 19.9%.
The thresholds were even more stringent in South Carolina than in Slovakia, with 15% required (either statewide or in any congressional district) for winning delegates. No-one else cleared that mark; billionaire Tom Steyer could manage only 11.3%, followed by Pete Buttigieg on 8.2%, Elizabeth Warren 7.1% and Amy Klobuchar 3.1%.
Steyer promptly withdrew from the race, followed by Buttigieg and Klobuchar; the latter two have both endorsed Biden. Warren is still running, at least for now – as is Mike Bloomberg, who has not yet appeared on any ballots.
Sanders actually narrowed the gap slightly as the votes came in: he did worst on the pre-polls, which are counted first. On the early figures Biden was beating him by about three to one. And since very few people follow the whole count, perceptions tend to be shaped by the first reports, making it even worse for Sanders than it actually was.
Sanders still has a narrow overall lead in delegates chosen so far, and is well placed in the polls for many of the big states – particularly California – voting tomorrow, Super Tuesday. Nonetheless, South Carolina was a big setback for him, not least in the way it seems to have solidified the Democrat establishment behind Biden.
Like the Republican opponents of Donald Trump in 2016, the anti-Sanders camp has been plagued by uncertainty about who to back. That uncertainty now seems to be coming to an end, reflected in the fact that Biden has taken over as favorite in the betting market, slightly better than 5-4 against Sanders at about 6-4. Bloomberg has dropped sharply to 11-1.
But all this is still on the strength of just four small and not very representative states. Tomorrow we’ll see what much larger numbers of Democrat voters have to say about it.