Europe’s first wartime elections

Last week we wondered whether the South Australian election represented a move into a post-Covid electoral era. Yesterday posed the same question in Europe, with the first elections – both national and state – since the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Both were big wins for the centre-left. In Malta (previewed here) the Labour Party government of prime minister Robert Abela has won another decisive victory. Counting is still in progress, but the centre-right opposition has already conceded defeat, with Labour leading by about 40,000 votes (up from 35,000 last time).

That is expected to yield an 11-seat majority, up from nine at the 2017 election. Once again, only Labour and the Nationalists will win seats, although by Maltese standards the third-party vote is quite high: APDP, a Green party, has about 1.3% of the vote.

The other election was in the small state of Saarland, in Germany. Last time it voted, five years ago, it was a good result for the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), who retained the premiership but strengthened their position vis-a-vis their coalition partners, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). The only other parties to win seats, both well back, were the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the far-left Left party.

That turned out to be a good omen for the CDU in the federal election held later the same year. But in last year’s federal election it was the SPD that came out on top, and yesterday that was reflected in the Saar as well: its vote jumped by a whopping 13.9 points, taking it to 43.5% and an absolute majority, with 29 of the 51 seats. (Official results here; they are provisional and could still change slightly.)

The Left, which had split, lost three quarters of its vote and dropped out of parliament; AfD held its three seats, while the CDU fell from 40.7% and 24 seats to 28.5% and 19 seats. The SPD’s two federal coalition partners, the Greens and the Liberals, both gained slightly but not enough to reach the 5% threshold – although in the Greens’ case they were incredibly close, winning 4.995% of the vote and falling short by just 23 votes.

No-one else was close to the threshold, but as in Malta there was a rise in the minor party vote, with the Animal Rights party collecting 2.3%, Free Voters 1.7% and the anti-vaxers 1.4%. Both elections also saw a sharp fall in turnout: Malta from 92.1% down to 85.5%, and the Saar from 69.7% down to 61.4%.

What does it all mean? We know that Covid-19 was generally good for incumbents, but that there had been a sense in recent months that that effect was waning. The uncertainty induced by war might be expected to have a similar impact, and the Maltese result is clearly consistent with that.

In the Saarland, on the other hand, an incumbent went down badly, but it can also be interpreted as an endorsement of the incumbent federal government, which has been very much put in the international spotlight during the last month.

And both results, of course, were good for the mainstream centre-left, which plumbed the depths of electoral misfortune in Europe in about 2017-18 and has still managed only a shaky recovery. (It is headed for disaster, for example, in France next month.) That could be just coincidence, but it could also be that the invasion of Ukraine by the patron of Europe’s far-right parties will shift momentum towards the left.

Next Sunday the electoral focus moves to the eastern half of the continent, with vitally important elections in Hungary and Serbia. We’ll have a look at them later in the week.

4 thoughts on “Europe’s first wartime elections

  1. Really hoping for some good news from Hungary. If Orban goes, the pressure on Law and Justice to return Poland to the EU mainstream (already heavy thanks to Putin) will be almost irresistible. And when (OK, if) US democracy ends in 2024, a strongly democratic and united Europe will be our only hope.

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  2. The French disaster doesn’t reflect an electoral repudiation of the (centre) left. It’s the combination of a dumb electoral system, the failure of the left parties to adapt to it, and the sui generis appeal of Macron, who draws more support from the left despite pursuing neoliberal policies.

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    1. Perhaps not, but it certainly represents the electoral collapse of a traditional centre-left party. The fact that other countries haven’t yet found a Macron doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t. (And of course I don’t see any particular contradiction in drawing support from the left and pursuing “neoliberal” policies.)

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