International Election Digest: France and Europe breathe sigh of relief as far right gets crushed

France—president (April 23 and May 7) and legislature (June 11 & 18)

France’s wild presidential election, one of the most critical global elections to take place this year, has finally come to a close. According to preliminary results for the May 7 runoff, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron decisively defeated far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen by a margin of more than 30 percent. Macron’s win is a major victory for cosmopolitanism, European integration, and even liberal democracy itself, since the ultranationalist National Front was founded by Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1970s as a thinly veiled fascist home for Holocaust deniers and racists.

After taking over from her father in 2011 and even kicking him out the party, the younger Le Pen has tried hard to rehabilitate the National Front’s image. However, her core platform included an Islamophobic hostility to immigrants that makes Donald Trump’s policies pale in comparison; support for a referendum on leaving the European Union; and a call to realign France’s foreign policy closer toward Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who reportedly supported Le Pen’s candidacy. She did advocate for leftist economic policies … but only for non-immigrants, a form of “welfare chauvinism” that looked like little more than a cynical ploy to win over native-born working-class voters who had long supported the center-left Socialists. Needless to say, the faux makeover was not a success.

By contrast, President-elect Macron is a former investment banker who left the Socialist Party to become an independent in 2009 and served as a business-friendly economy minister in the outgoing Socialist administration until he launched his presidential campaign by forming his own party, the centrist En Marche! (yes, complete with exclamation point), last year. Macron campaigned on a strongly socially progressive platform, but he has advocated for more market-oriented economic reforms that have drawn the ire of organized labor and many on the left who see him as a neoliberal threat to the welfare state.

Polling leading up to the runoff showed Macron winning by a little over 20 percent, thus understating his support by a non-trivial margin. The polls were actually more off here than in either the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom or the U.S. presidential election last year, but since the ultimate predicted outcome was correct, this “miss” will probably receive much less coverage. The difference might have resulted from late voter movement (polls are banned after midnight on Friday before the Sundayelection) in the wake of a presidential debate where Le Pen struggled, or sympathy in response to the last-minute revelations of Macron’s campaign getting hacked by entities linked to—you guessed it—Russia.

Despite never before holding elected office, Macron thus becomes the first president since the founding of France’s so-called Fifth Republic in 1958 who doesn’t belong to either the Socialists or one of the main center-right parties. At age 39, he is also the youngest president elected in French history. He’ll now head the EU’s second-most populous nation, home to 67 million people, and its second-largest economy, trailing only Germany on both counts.

It’s possible that Macron could reshape what French progressivism stands for to focus on issues of cosmopolitanism and globalism rather than support for a strong welfare state, much like America’s Bill Clinton and the United Kingdom’s Tony Blair did with their own center-left parties in the 1990s as part of the “Third Way” movement. However, by forming a separate party from the Socialists, Macron might yet chart a different course by allying more closely with dissident conservatives, and it remains to be seen just what policy agenda he will actually be able to accomplish.

So how did France get here, and what comes next? We’ll detail all this and much more below.

French politics have long been dominated by the center-left Socialists and various center-right “Gaullist” parties that were modeled on the conservative ideals of Charles de Gaulle, who was president from 1959 to 1969 and a key World War II leader before that. However, the Macron-Le Pen matchup was the first time in the Fifth Republic that both the center-left and center-right failed to make a presidential runoff.

This shakeup of the party system came about for two key reasons. First, incumbent President François Hollande’s five years of unified rule under the Socialists have been so disastrous that he has become the most unpopular president in the country’s modern history. Austere fiscal policy that failed to resolve France’s chronic high unemployment, pro-market labor reforms that angered his working-class and leftist base, the Europe-wide refugee crisis, and repeated horrific terror attacks all combined to leave Hollande with an approval rating near single digits.

Mercifully, Hollande announced he would not run again late last year, and one of his top anti-austerity critics, former education minister Benoît Hamon, won the Socialist nomination in a rebuke to Hollande. However, the Socialists faced mass defections from both the left and the center, with radical-left stalwart Jean-Luc Mélenchon once again running under a separate banner, while Macron decided to launch his own party to run toward the center.

France holds a runoff between the top two finishers if no one wins a majority in the first round. Consequently, the Socialists’ implosion and the left’s division among three major candidates—Mélenchon, Hamon, and Macron—should have been a massive boon to mainstream conservatives. Indeed, polls for much of the race showed the nominee of the center-right Republicans party, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, making the runoff against Le Pen and handily trouncing her in the second round, while the left would get entirely shut out.

However, the second major reason why the French party system completely shook up is that the Republicans suffered a catastrophe when their nominee, Fillon, became embroiled in a major embezzlement scandal shortly after winning the party’s nomination over a much more moderate candidate. Fillon openly likened himself to Margaret Thatcher and could have been the most right-wing French president in the modern era had he made it to the runoff against Le Pen, but his stench of corruption around him was so strong that many in his own party unsuccessfully tried to get him to drop out.

In first round late last month, it was instead Macron who came in first with 24 percent, followed by Le Pen at 21, Fillon at 20, and Mélenchon at just under 20, while Hamon earned a measly 6 percent. Macron and Le Pen thus advanced to the runoff, resulting in the first instance in which the mainstream right failed to move on to the second round. In fact, Mélenchon’s late surge at Hamon’s expense raised the prospect that he might go to a runoff with Macron, which would have shut out both the right and the far-right, a prospect that came quite close to happening.

Viewing Le Pen as an almost existential threat to France and even the European project, both Fillon and Hamon immediately endorsed Macron for the second round, as did many of their parties’ key members, while Mélenchon told his supporters not to vote for Le Pen but refused to outright back Macron. Macron ended up winning far more support from the voters of those three defeated candidates than Le Pen did, although many voters simply abstained.

According to the exit polls, Macron won all age groups and did best with younger voters and the elderly, the latter of whom typically vote for mainstream conservatives. Macron similarly performed his strongest among those with higher levels of educational attainment, but he still managed to win among voters who would be equivalent to those who have not attended college in the U.S. He did exceedingly well among the affluent, but also did well with relatively low-income voters, thanks in part to dominance among typically mainstream conservative-voting retirees. However, Le Pen did manage to win among blue-collar workers.

While Macron’s 30-point landslide is the third-biggest margin of victory in any post-war French presidential election, it doesn’t mark a total defeat for the extreme right. Le Pen’s estimated vote share of around 35 percent is still by far the best performance for a far-right candidate in French history, nearly doubling the record that her father set when he shockingly made the runoff for the first time in 2002. That event prompted a massive outcry from the French public and international media, with nearly all other political factions uniting around conservative President Jacques Chirac, even the Socialists. Chirac trounced the elder Le Pen 82-18, but fast forward 15 years, and Marine Le Pen’s loss with nearly twice the percentage of the vote has nevertheless been greeted as a relief. While far-right populism failed to win, 2017’s results demonstrate it’s a force that’s grown and become normalized over the long term.

The first critical test for Macron’s infant presidency will be National Assembly elections on June 11 and 18. France operates under a hybrid constitutional system known as semi-presidentialism where the president has more powers than those with that title typically have in a traditional parliamentary regime, but he lacks a strong veto power of the sort that you see in American-style full presidential systems.

Typically, if the opposition holds a parliamentary majority, the prime minister calls most of the shots, particularly on domestic policy. This arrangement is referred to as cohabitation, and has happened on three occasions in the Fifth Republic. However, this outcome often occurred because presidential terms used to run seven years and parliamentary terms five, meaning the elections often did not coincide, and midterms, in France as in the U.S., tend to be unfavorable to the president’s party. Subsequent reforms shortened the presidential term to five years in 2002, meaning parliamentary elections take place shortly afterward, and the president’s party or coalition has since always won control.

Macron’s En Marche! and Le Pen’s National Front currently hold a mere three of 577 National Assembly seats between them, but as noted, presidential results have proved to heavily shape the outcome in subsequent legislative elections. These elections use a two-round system where any candidate who earns the support of more than 12.5 percent of all registered voters in the first round can choose to advance to the runoff, where the top vote-getter wins. In practice, that usually means a threshold closer to 20 percent thanks to non-voters and those who abstain in protest.

With the left’s divisions, it’s uncertain if left-leaning voters will gravitate toward candidates of Macron’s new party or stick with the Socialists or even the radical left. Meanwhile, many parties have historically united around whoever stands the best chance of beating the National Front in the runoff, but it remains to be seen if conservative voters will do so this year.

Recent polling has been relatively scant, but one survey showed En Marche! surging to a strong plurality or even majority at the Socialists’ expense. If that happens, it would put Macron in a strong position to form a favorable coalition, ensuring he can pick his preferred prime minister and essentially get to head the government. However, if mainstream conservatives and the National Front perform better than expected, Macron could have a tough time putting together a stable governing majority.

In sum, Macron’s victory is a shot in the arm for mainstream forces in Europe after years of seeing the anti-immigrant right-wing populists surge in support. However, the political problems facing France and the EU itself extend far beyond the radical right, refugees, and immigration. While Macron handily defeated Le Pen, she proved that far-right ultra-nationalism isn’t a deal-breaker for one in three voters.

If the radical right can make further inroads with blue-collar voters, particularly if Macron’s fiscally conservative economic policies further alienate them, politics could continue to realign around a nationalist/globalist axis rather than a class-based struggle between the traditional left and right. Meanwhile, the National Front’s continued strength has already seen the mainstream right drift closer towards authoritarian nativism in an effort to woo their voters, and their refusal to work with the far-right might not last forever.


South Koreapresident (May 9)

South Korea will soon head to the polls to select its next president following the biggest political scandal the country has seen since the return of democracy three decades ago. Disgraced conservative ex-President Park Geun-hye was removed from office in March and subsequently arrested after a huge corruption and influence-peddling scandal sparked mass street protests and left her with an approval rating in the single digits. Her ouster subsequently moved up the date of the next presidential election from December to May.

Park’s Saenuri Party had been South Korea’s only major conservative party, but her implosion prompted a small anti-Park center-right faction to split off and form the Bareun Party, with the larger and more right-wing Saenuri becoming the Liberty Korea Party. Both are running separate presidential candidates, making the already dire odds of electing another conservative even slimmer since all it takes to win is a simple plurality. The biggest beneficiary from the right’s meltdown is unquestionably the main opposition Democratic Party (a center-left party sometimes known by the name Minjoo), which runs the legislature with the smaller and more centrist People’s Party.

Democratic Party nominee Moon Jae-in has led nearly every poll for months, and he currently maintains a double-digit edge over People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, who had previously supported Moon in his narrow 2012 election loss to Park. Liberty Korea nominee Hong Jun-pyo is an extreme hardliner in his approach to North Korea, and thanks to a late surge, he could come in second, but unless there’s a massive polling misfire, Moon appears to be the heavy favorite to finally win the presidency.

A victory by Moon, or even by Ahn, would lead to a marked shift away from Park’s hardline approach in favor of renewed diplomacy to resolve tensions with South Korea’s increasingly bellicose and unstable neighbor to the north. Moon has campaigned in opposition to the deployment of the U.S.’s missile-defense system called THAAD, which the Trump administration controversially activated mere days before the election over the objections of North Korea’s all-important regional ally China. On the domestic front, Moon would also seek more progressive economic policies and take a harsher line against the close ties between big businesses and government that have long been a feature of Korean politics.

Middle East/North Africa

Iran—president (May 19)

Iran’s presidential election kicked off last month when the country’s Guardian Council, a powerful body of clerics and jurists that oversees Iran’s elections, produced a list of six candidates permitted to run for president. The council rejected a record 1,630 candidates, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who long ago lost favor with hardline conservatives and is now a man without any base of support. The six candidates include three moderate reformists and three hardline conservatives, though only one reformist and two conservatives look like possible winners.

President Hassan Rouhani is the leading candidate of reformists, centrists, and some moderate conservatives, as he was in 2013. His first term has generally been a success, marked most notably by a nuclear deal with Western nations that included the lifting of sanctions and an improved economic situation for the country. However, he’s made little progress on increasing political and social freedoms, leaving many supporters disappointed at the pace of progress. Despite this, he remains the favorite, particularly as no incumbent Iranian president has ever lost re-election.

Rouhani’s two main conservative challengers include Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who came in a distant second in 2013, and Ebrahim Raisi, a former attorney general and close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Raisi is a possible successor to Khamenei, which makes his entry into the race somewhat surprising. A victory or a good showing could make him Khamenei’s presumptive heir, but a poor performance could torpedo his chances of becoming Supreme Leader, the country’s highest-ranking religious authority.

One of the other reformist candidates is actually Rouhani’s first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri. Jahangiri, though, appears to be more of a decoy to draw fire away from Rouhani, who might otherwise get ganged up on by his opponents in three scheduled live television debates. Jahangiri is also entitled to the same amount of television time as the other candidates, which is a further opportunity to tout the Rouhani administration’s successes. As in many European countries, television time for candidates in Iran is strictly regulated and equal time for all candidates is required.

Jahangiri therefore will almost certainly drop out of the race and endorse Rouhani before the first round on May 19. It’s also possible that either Ghalibaf or Raisi could drop out and endorse the other, though that’s far less clear. If no one wins a majority in the first round, as Rouhani did in 2013, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff one week later. That would almost certainly feature Rouhani against either Ghalibaf or Raisi.

Turkeyconstitutional referendum (April 16)

As Turkey continues its bleak slide towards authoritarianism, conservative President Erdogan’s constitutional referendum remaking the Turkish state squeaked by under dubious circumstances, “winning” by a 51-49 margin. Despite extensive state suppression of the “no” campaign and accusations of ballot stuffing and election fraud, referendum opponents came closer to winning than many expected, though it’s fair to wonder whether Erdogan ever would have allowed the referendum to fail.

Regardless, Erdogan claimed victory in his drive to turn Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance into an executive system dominated by a supercharged presidency. The new changes abolish the position of prime minister; allow the president to directly appoint and fire cabinet ministers without any parliamentary input; and gives him the power to pick many key members of the judiciary. No wonder Donald Trump, alone among Western leaders, called Erdogan to congratulate him on this “victory.”

The new system will come into full effect after the next election, which is now scheduled for November 3, 2019 for both president and parliament. Assuming Erdogan wins that election, he would then be able to serve two five-year terms, potentially extending his rule all the way until 2029. And with likely parliamentary majorities for his Islamist Justice and Development Party, Erdogan will essentially be able to govern the country as he sees fit, without any resistance from either the opposition or the bureaucracy.


Albaniaparliament (June 18)

The small Balkan nation of Albania is set to hold parliamentary elections in June, but the opposition conservative Democratic Party announced in April that it would boycott the vote unless the current Socialist Party-led coalition resigns in favor of a transitional government to oversee the election. The opposition claims that Prime Minister Edi Rama’s cabinet will rig the vote, but they have also been boycotting parliament itself since February, partly in an effort to block key legislative reforms to the judiciary that are needed for Albania’s European Union membership bid to proceed.

The Democratic Party is a member party of the transnational European People’s Party, which is the European Parliament’s main center-right faction, but even the EPP’s president (a French politician) called for the boycott to end to protect Albania’s fragile democracy. The Democratic Party was previously in power in a coalition with the small center-left Socialist Movement for Integration, but it lost in the 2013 elections to a coalition of the two socialist parties in what many observers saw as a positive sign for democratic consolidation. However, like many post-communist regimes in the region, corruption is a major problem that crosses party lines and could be a potent election issue.

Germany: North Rhine-Westphaliastate parliament (May 14)

Germany’s largest state goes to the polls next week in what could be a key preview of the country’s nationwide federal election coming in September. North Rhine-Westphalia, which is home to nearly twice the proportion of Germany’s total population as California is in the U.S., borders Belgium and the Netherlands in the northwest of the country. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has historically dominated the state, winning all but one election since 1966, and it will be looking for a strong re-election result to invigorate its challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) later this year.

The state is currently governed by a coalition of the SPD and the center-left Greens, but it’s unclear if the two parties will together win a majority in this election. Both parties are down a few percentage points in the polls from their 2012 results, while CDU is up a bit, putting them within single digits of the SPD. If the SPD and the Greens fall short, they could bring the far-left Die Linke (literally “The Left”) into their coalition. While Die Linke didn’t win enough votes to cross the 5 percent “threshold” necessary to earn seats in the state parliament in 2012, they’re now consistently polling in the high single digits. The only other likely arrangement would be a grand coalition between SPD and CDU, with whichever party comes in first claiming the top leadership post, called “minister-president.”

The classically liberal center-right Free Democratic Party (FDP) and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are also expected to enter parliament, taking about 10 percent of the vote each. FDP is traditionally a coalition partners of the CDU, but the rise of AfD and FDP’s poor showing in the wake of the lengthy financial crisis that began with the Great Recession has made right-of-center coalitions difficult. In particular, with AfD eating into their vote on the right, CDU-FDP coalitions have often not been able to reach majorities in many state parliaments. That’s typically forced the CDU, even when victorious, to reach out to the SPD to form grand coalitions (or, occasionally, to partner with the Greens). Only one German state, Bavaria, does not include at least either the SPD or the Greens in its governing coalition. Meanwhile, the FDP is not a member of a single coalition anywhere.

Elections in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which we previewed last month, also took place on Sunday. Early results indicate a win for the CDU and a disappointing loss for the SPD, which had been governing in coalition with the Greens and a small Danish minority party. We’ll cover the full results of both that election and the election in North Rhine-Westphalia next month.

Macedonia—government formation

Macedonia held parliamentary elections last December that produced no clear winner, though the opposition center-left Social Democratic Union eventually reached an agreement in February with several parties representing the ethnic-Albanian minority to finally form a coalition and oust the right-wing nationalist VMRO-DPMNE bloc from power. However, VMRO-DPMNE politicians, including the mostly ceremonial president, have steadfastly refused to allow the opposition to form a government, sparking a major crisis.

That emergency dramatically escalated after VMRO-DPMNE spent weeks inflaming ethnic resentment by claiming that the Social Democrats would allow ethnic Albanians, who make up between one-fourth and one-third of the population, to run roughshod over the country’s Slavic majority. In late April, scores of rioters stormed the parliament building and brutally attacked several opposition members of parliament, including Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev. This violent attack took place shortly after the new coalition elected Macedonia’s first ethnic-Albanian speaker of parliament, who will soon