International Elections Digest: French left gets a lifeline as right’s candidate is hit by scandal

WorldFrance – Socialist Party presidential primary (Jan. 22 & 29); president (April 23 & May 7)

How can a presidential election featuring four left-of-center candidates yield any result other than a top-two runoff between the center-right and the far-right? The question haunted the French left for much of 2016. The events of the last month, however, offered an unexpected answer: an embezzlement scandal.

François Fillon, who unexpectedly won a primary to become the candidate of the right-wing Republicans party in November, has been at the center of dizzying revelations ever since Le Canard Enchaîné, a satirical/investigative newspaper, reported that his wife had received nearly $900,000 in taxpayer money as Fillon’s parliamentary assistant. On top of that, the paper alleged that this position was an entirely bogus job. The scandal has since worsened as Fillon has been unable to document the work his wife was supposed to have performed: Indeed, a 2007 interview emerged in which his wife declared that she’d never worked for her husband. The media has also focused on similarly questionable payments made by the candidate’s parliamentary office to his children.

As a result, in the space of 10 days, Fillon went from clear favorite to collapsing into third place in some polls, with support under 20 percent. And now he’s facing calls within his own party to drop out.

Fillon has resisted, but there’s no set procedure for the Republicans to choose a replacement if Fillon does bail. The most commonly named potential alternative for Fillon is Alain Juppé, who is comparatively more moderate and finished as runner-up in the party’s fall primary. Yet Juppé, who had dominated general election polls until his surprise loss to Fillon, insists he will not step in as a Plan B. Plan C has been marginalized as well. Last week, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who came in third in the primary, was ordered to stand trial over charges that he violated campaign finance regulations during his failed re-election bid in 2012.

It is also not clear whether a new candidate would even be able to make up the ground that Fillon has now lost to Emmanuel Macron, the centrist independent candidate who served as Socialist President Francois Hollande’s economy minister but has been inching rightward to take advantage of Fillon’s troubles. (At his first large rally earlier this month, Macron railed against the “left of egalitarianism.”) Fillon’s struggles open a clear path for Macron to make the runoff instead of him by gathering votes from relatively centrist voters on both the right and left.

While most polls show Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right extremist National Front, leading in the first round, those same surveys show Macron and Fillon crushing her in a runoff, with the biggest unknown right now being whether Fillon, Macron, or possibly even the nominee of the beleaguered Socialist Party earning the other runoff spot. Indeed, Fillon-gate has also given some unexpected new hope to the ruling Socialists, who held their own two-round primary in January.

Benoît Hamon, a former education minister who represents the Socialist Party’s left flank, emerged as the surprise victor. He led the first round with 36 percent of the vote, in front of Manuel Valls, who served as prime minister from 2014 to 2016 and took 31. Valls hails from the party’s right wing, and he represented continuity with Hollande’s presidency. Arnaud Montebourg, a former economy minister who had been expected to be Valls’s adversary in the runoff until Hamon’s surge in the campaign’s final weeks, came in a distant third with 17 percent of the vote. Hamon then easily won the runoff against Valls, 59 to 41.

Hamon was part of the Hollande/Valls cabinet in 2014 when he and Montebourg were dismissed for publicly criticizing the government’s austerity policies. As a result, Hamon and Valls’ primary battle unfolded along starkly ideological grounds: Valls ran as embodying a “realistic” left, while Hamon insisted on the need for a different economic orientation than the one Hollande had practiced since taking office in 2012. Hamon’s most emblematic policy proposal—universal basic income—was at the center of the campaign. Hamon and Valls also disagreed on issues relating to civil liberties and secularism. For instance, Hamon had opposed some French mayors’ ban on the “burkini,” unlike Valls.

Key to Hamon’s chances in the presidential election is a potential alliance with the radical Left Front’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Green Party’s Yannick Jadot. As long as each of these men is running, it’ll be difficult for any one of them to make the runoff. Yet their aggregate total in current polling is around 30 percent, far above where any other individual candidate is polling. After winning the Socialist Party’s nomination, Hamon quickly made gestures toward both Mélenchon and Jadot, but neither has appeared keen to the possibility of dropping out.


● Germany – parliament (Sept. 24)

Since we last checked in on Europe’s largest economic power, two important events have unfolded. Firstly, Germany set Sept. 24 as the date for the upcoming federal election. Second, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) chose former EU Parliament President Martin Schulz as its candidate for chancellor. Schulz was selected after the party’s previous leader, Sigmar Gabriel, stepped down and announced he would not contest the election. Gabriel was plagued by poor poll numbers and the uncomfortable reality that by serving as a leading voice in a grand coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD, he couldn’t very well turn around and run against those same policies. (Merkel announced she would seek a fourth term late last year.)

Schulz’s nomination gave the SPD a bump in the polls and, if it sticks, we could see a much more competitive election than we expected weeks ago. Greens and Die Linke (a far-left party whose name translates as, simply, “the Left”). If Merkel were to lose, she would become the fourth major European head of state to depart from office in just over a year (the others being David Cameron in the U.K. and Matteo Renzi in Italy, who both resigned after losing referendums they’d pushed, and Francois Hollande in France, who decided not to run for re-election on account of his deep unpopularity).

● Italy – parliament (TBD)

Last month, Italy’s highest court issued a critical ruling regarding the proportional representation election system used in the country’s powerful lower house of parliament. The judges threw out former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s recent reforms that required a runoff between the two parties that earn the most votes, but they left in place a provision that guarantees a majority of seats in parliament for the largest party if it wins 40 percent of the vote or more. The ruling could clear the way for possible early elections in 2017, well ahead of the regularly scheduled date of May of 2018.

Renzi resigned in late 2016 following the defeat of a referendum that he had called to reform Italy’s constitution and remove key powers Democratic Party lacks a majority. However, he is still widely expected to lead his party in the next election. The former prime minister favors early elections this year, as does the main opposition leader, Beppe Grillo, whose big-tent populist party, the Five Star Movement, polls neck and neck with Renzi’s Democratic Party at roughly 30 percent each—well short of the new 40 percent threshold that would give either of them an automatic majority.

So if Italy does head to the polls in 2017, the outcome could lead to messy coalition negotiations, just like in 2013. The Democratic Party currently governs in an alliance with a few minor center-right parties, and that formation could struggle to retain its majority, particularly in the Senate, where it is more loosely organized. Grillo’s party hopes to ride the anti-establishment tide that is sweeping Europe, but it eschews traditional coalition-building. Meanwhile, far-right party Lega Nord has roughly tripled its support since 2013, but both it and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s mainstream conservative party, Forza Italia, still lag far behind with roughly 13 percent support each.

● Liechtenstein – parliament (Feb. 5)

This tiny Alpine microstate of 37,000 people recently held elections that resulted in little change from 2013 in the country’s proportionally elected parliament. The two main right-of-center parties that dominate Liechtenstein’s political scene won an overwhelming majority of seats, just as they always have. Prime Minister Adrian Hasler’s national-conservative Progressive Citizens’ Party lost one seat but maintained its plurality with nine total, while the relatively more centrist and Christian democratic Patriotic Union was in close second with eight. The two rivals currently govern together in a coalition, giving them a 17-seat majority in the 25-member chamber.

The right-wing populist Independents improved on their 2013 debut with 18 percent of the vote and a gain of one seat for five in total, but they remained a distant third. The center-left green Free List, which is the only party that supports significantly curtailing the authority of the country’s relatively powerful constitutional monarch, won just three seats and 13 percent of the vote, which roughly matches their all-time record.

● United Kingdom

A few unexpected elections will be taking place in the United Kingdom in the next month. In Northern Ireland, as we covered previously, snap elections for the country’s parliament are taking place March 2, in the wake of Sinn Fein’s withdrawal from the government. The makeup of the parliament is not expected to change significantly, so the likely question will be whether the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein can find a way to start working together again. If not, the parliament risks being suspended, with governance of Northern Ireland returning to London as it has during similar episodes in the past.

Meanwhile, two by-elections (special elections) will be held in England on Feb. 23, both previously held by Labour MPs (members of parliament). The two seats are Copeland (a mostly rural district in the far north of England) and Stoke-on-Trent Central (a small city in the English Midlands). Labour is facing heavy challenges in these two historically friendly seats, both of which voted strongly to leave the EU in last year’s Brexit referendum.

In Copeland, the main challenge is from the Tories; if they’re successful, it would be the first time since 1982 that the party in control of government has won a seat from the official opposition. In Stoke-on-Trent, the xenophobic UKIP is Labour’s main opponent, with UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, standing as his party’s candidate. Losses in either seat would reflect Labour’s broader struggles in the wake of the Brexit vote that has left the party divided.

Sub-Saharan Africa

● The Gambia – legislature (April 6)

The small West African nation of The Gambia has experienced what looks like a remarkable transition toward democracy after the country’s longtime dictator, President Yahya Jammeh, miraculously lost re-election to challenger Adama Barrow last December. Jammeh had refused to step aside, but thanks to peaceful military intervention by the regional inter-governmental organization ECOWAS, he eventually ceded power to Barrow in late January and agreed to go into exile.

Jammeh had ruled The Gambia since taking power in a 1994 military coup. Although he still held elections, his APRC party always won nearly every seat in the unicameral National Assembly. With Barrow’s election marking a turning point in the country’s transition, away from authoritarianism and toward freer and fairer elections, April’s legislative races could see the coalition of parties that supported the new president win a majority now that there is no longer an autocrat able to use the state to brutally suppress dissent.

North America

● Canada

During his successful campaign to topple Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau unambiguously vowed that 2015 would be the last federal election in Canada conducted under the country’s first-past-the-post system. This was a particularly exciting prospect for progressives and soft supporters of the left-wing New Democratic Party, who were horrified to see Harper’s Tories seize control of Parliament in 2011 despite winning less than 40 percent of the nationwide popular vote. While Trudeau kept the exact nature of the change vague, some hoped that Canada would embrace a system of proportional representation, while others speculated that a ranked-ballot or transferable vote system was more likely to be in the cards.

However, almost as soon as Trudeau swept into power with a surprisingly large parliamentary majority, observers began to doubt that the Liberals would feel much incentive to restructure the very same electoral system that allowed them to form a majority government with only a plurality (39.5 percent) of the popular vote.

As it turns out, the skeptics and cynics were proven completely right, as earlier this month, Trudeau pulled the plug on any changes to Canada’s electoral system, despite a parliamentary committee recommending moving ahead with proportional representation. While Trudeau was said to have been fearful of the possibility of reform enabling fringe right-wing parties, his complete reversal of an unequivocal promise is nothing short of bitterly disappointing for reformers.

South America

● Ecuador – president and legislature (Feb. 12)

Outgoing President Rafael Correa could soon find the reign of his leftist PAIS Alliance coming to an end as the country goes to the polls to elect its next president and a new legislature. Correa’s coalition has dominated national politics since his initial election in 2006, when he allied himself with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and other regional left-wing populists. However, Ecuador’s oil export-dependent economy has suffered a recession following the steep global decline in commodity prices since 2014, leading Correa to impose unpopular austerity policies.

And making matters worse, former Vice President Lenin Moreno, Correa’s preferred successor, has seen his campaign rocked by recent allegations that his running mate played a key role in corruption at the state oil company. While polling in Latin America can often be unreliable, some surveys show Moreno possibly winding up in a runoff (he would need to obtain at least 40 percent of the vote and a 10-point advantage over his nearest opponent). If there is a second round, Moreno could lose to either CREO party candidate Guillermo Lasso or Social Christian Party candidate Cynthia Viteri, if either of these two conservative opponents can unify the opposition in a runoff.

Grab Bag

Democratization: The Economist has published its 2016 Democracy Index, which rates every country’s government on a scale from “authoritarian regime” to “full democracy.” Ominously, they downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy,” yet noted that this was not a consequence of Donald Trump’s election, but rather reflected the conditions that helped him win the first place, such as an unfair electoral system, among other factors. The report includes a useful interactive map of their assessment for every nation, including scores going back several years, so you can see how democracy has trended worldwide over the last decade.

The Daily Kos International Elections Digest is compiled by Stephen Wolf and David Beard, with additional contributions from James Lambert, Daniel Nichanian, and Daniel Donner, and is edited by David Nir.

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