Ukraine does well at the polls

Since we last looked at the war in Ukraine, a fortnight ago, things have continued to go badly for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Donbas offensive is falling well short of its objectives, with Ukrainian counter-attacks becoming more frequent and more ambitious; it’s more difficult than ever to see how the war can end with anything other than a major Russian defeat.

In strategic terms, however, Russia has already suffered a huge setback. The war was launched, at least in part, to halt NATO expansion, but NATO is now set to embrace both Finland and Sweden, thus at a stroke more than doubling the length of its frontier with Russia.

Finland announced at the weekend that it was officially applying for membership. Immediately afterwards, Sweden’s prime minister announced that her party would now also support membership – it has always been understood that the two were likely to stick together on the issue. There is no doubt that both will be accepted, perhaps as early as the end of the year.

No doubt the leaders of both countries are acting in what they see as the best interests of their countries’ security. But as politicians they are also mindful of public opinion, and would certainly be influenced by the fact that in both countries, support for NATO membership has risen sharply since the invasion of Ukraine.

Nor are they alone in that regard. There is every sign that Putin’s war, far from dividing European opinion (as he had evidently hoped), has bolstered support for the American alliance and for strong defensive measures, as well as support for effective and lethal assistance to Ukraine.

A further indication came yesterday with an election in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Heavily industrialised, the state is traditionally strong territory for the Social Democrats (SPD), but in the last election, in 2017, they were narrowly beaten for first place by the Christian Democrats (CDU), who formed a coalition government with the Liberals (FDP).

The CDU premier, Armin Laschet, went on to become federal leader and lose badly in last year’s federal election. He was replaced as premier by Hendrik Wüst, and yesterday his party again increased its vote, up 2.8% to 35.7%. But the government lost its majority, because the FDP had a very bad day, losing more than half its vote to fall to 5.9% and 12 seats, only just ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The real drama, though, was on the other side. The SPD, on top of its poor result last time, fell another 4.6 points to just 26.7% and 56 seats – the first time it has ever polled below 30%. But it could still end up heading a government, because the Greens almost tripled their vote, jumping to 18.2% and 39 of the 195 seats.

At federal level, SPD, Greens and FDP govern together, and one option is now to imitate that in North Rhine-Westphalia; the three combined would have 107 seats, a majority of 19. Alternatively, the Greens could team up with the CDU (as they do in neighboring Hesse) for a total of 115 seats, a majority of 35.

Either way, it can only add to the tension in Berlin, where SPD and Greens have not always been moving in the same direction over Ukraine. The SPD is traditionally friendly to Russia (a previous leader, Gerhard Schröder, is a long-time Putin ally), and prime minister Olaf Scholz has been one of Europe’s less enthusiastic backers of Ukraine – for which he has been under fire from the CDU.

The Greens, on the other hand, have a history of scepticism about NATO, but are also committed to a foreign policy based strongly on human rights, so Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has become a fierce critic of Putin and supporter of the war effort. It’s reflective of a broader debate in Europe about whether there is any scope for their former role of balancing between Russian and the United States, or whether new thinking is called for.

It’s also a debate with obvious resonance in Australia. Because the Greens are hostile to militarism and the American alliance, their critics on the right love to paint them as weak on security issues and even as pawns of China – whereas in reality, they have a much stronger record of standing up to China than the major parties.

In a dangerous world, some difficult balancing acts are going to be required. But if the voters in North Rhine-Westphalia are to be believed, the Greens seem to be doing something right.

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