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After Brexit rattled the European Union in 2016, a string of high-stakes elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands – along with possibly Italy – could bring even greater uncertainty to the bloc in the year to come.
Buoyed by a year of electoral revolts on both sides of the Atlantic, Eurosceptic parties will be more confident than ever as they bid to stage further upsets over the coming months. The Netherlands, France and Germany – all founding nations of the EU – head to the polls in 2017 with issues of security, migration and sovereignty looming large. They could well be joined by a fourth founding member, Italy, where the anti-establishment mood is fuelling calls for a snap election.
Joining US President-elect Donald Trump’s headline-grabbing coif and British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s blond bombshell, enter the bleach-blonde plumage of Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party. The Dutch politician may haunt EU leaders as they brace for the Netherlands’ general election on March 15. Wilders, who was found guilty of inciting discrimination earlier this month, has called for a Brexit-style referendum on quitting the EU and a ban on immigration from Muslim countries. Polls suggest his anti-EU, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam party could take the election – carried by the same anxious, rebellious mood that underpinned the Brexit and Trump victories.
The Netherlands’ fragmented political system means a broad coalition of mainstream parties is still likely to shut Wilders out. But with left-wing parties in disarray and conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte locked in a two-way fight with Wilders, the country looks set for a sharp right turn. The result may well be a departure from Dutch politics’ consensus-building tradition, and a more confrontational attitude in relations with its EU partners.
Brussels has reason to be concerned. In a referendum earlier this year, Dutch voters rejected a landmark EU trade deal with Ukraine, dealing a blow to European unity. That is likely to happen again, with a new law successfully pushed by Dutch Eurosceptic lawmakers requiring the government to hold a referendum on any new legislation (including on new EU rules) if 300,000 citizens request it.
France’s presidential election
Another country almost certain to shift to the right is France, where the April-May presidential vote has been billed as the critical electoral rendez-vous of 2017. Just over a month ago Nicolas Sarkozy was brushed aside in a conservative primary, and incumbent François Hollande subsequently ruled himself out amid record-low approval ratings. Hollande’s bruised and bitterly divided ruling Socialists are yet to pick a candidate, but their ratings are so poor they are unlikely to reach the second round at all.
Instead, polls suggest that conservative candidate François Fillon – of Sarkozy’s rebranded Les Républicains party and an admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – is tipped to beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the May 7 run-off. Both have argued that France is not a multi-cultural nation, and both are seen as pro-Russia. Fillon’s sudden surge from outsider in the conservative primary to hot favourite for the Elysée Palace has cast a spotlight on the role played by anti-gay marriage movements in drumming up support for his socially conservative platform. That has opened up a middle ground, which former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, a darling of the media, is hoping to tap into with his socially liberal, pro-business agenda.
A former investment banker who is fond of blasting France’s mainstream parties, Macron is vying with Le Pen for the “anti-establishment” mantle, although his similarities with the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic National Front leader end there. Such is the volatility of France’s current political landscape that pundits are refusing to write off a shock win for Le Pen in May. The far-right leader has pledged to junk the euro currency, renegotiate the terms of France’s EU membership, and then organise a referendum on whether to leave the union. If she managed to clinch the presidency in one of the EU’s founding nations, it would make Brexit look like a walk in the park.
France’s parliamentary election
The French Republic’s political system is so fashioned that parliamentary elections tend to be seen as a sideshow to the all-important race for the presidency. Under the Fifth Republic, they have generally handed the newly elected president a majority in parliament, and thus a chance to form a like-minded government. That pattern would be disrupted should the presidential election offer a surprise in May. While an upset by Le Pen or Macron cannot be excluded, neither would command a natural majority in parliament: the former because her National Front party has no chance of winning a majority of seats, the latter because he doesn’t even have a party.
The prospect of a “cohabitation” between a president from one party and a prime minister from another is generally viewed negatively in France, leading to fears of gridlock. But most French people now have fond memories of the last left-right “cohabitation”, between 1997 and 2002, when the economy was growing, unemployment was low and France’s multi-racial football team won the World Cup.
A date for Germany’s parliamentary election, when voters will elect members of the Bundestag (lower house), is yet to be determined, but German law requires that it be held by October 22. The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union or CSU, are widely tipped to win the largest share of seats, handing Chancellor Angela Merkel a fourth term in office. But they are unlikely to match the 42% of votes won in 2013, since the winds of rebellion that have swept across the Western world are also lashing at Europe’s bastion of stability.
Merkel, 62, is broadly respected at home and abroad, where she is regarded as the most experienced leader in the West. But her “open door” refugee policy and a heightened terrorist threat have exposed her to unprecedented criticism, including from within her own ranks. A survey carried out in the wake of the December 19 truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, in which 12 people were killed, showed that support for the anti-immigration AfD party – which blamed Merkel for the attack – had soared to more than 15% nationwide.
While Germany’s federal election is still a long way away, recent regional polls point to a relative weakening of the country’s traditionally dominant parties: the CDU/CSU and its current centre-left coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party. Analysts say this could complicate efforts to form a stable coalition, giving greater clout to fringe parties and undermining a consensus-oriented political culture. Current trends suggest the next Bundestag is likely to be more fragmented than at any time the German post-war period.
Uncertainty in Italy
One country that is well accustomed to fragmented parliaments is Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy after Germany and France. Sergio Mattarella, the country’s president, is not required to call an election until May 2018, but he may find himself compelled to call a snap poll much earlier. That is what most parties are calling for – chief among them the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement of comedian-turned-political firebrand Beppe Grillo and the anti-immigrant, Europhobic Northern League, a key ally of France’s Le Pen.
Italy’s latest bout of political instability was triggered earlier this month by former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s crushing defeat in a constitutional referendum, on which he had staked his political future. As Renzi promptly resigned, Mattarella called on his ally Paolo Gentiloni to form a cabinet with roughly the same ministers and the same centre-left coalition in parliament.
With a festering banking crisis and a continued migrant problem, Gentiloni has more than enough on his plate. But he is expected to work urgently on a new electoral law, after which a snap election could be triggered at any time. Renzi, who remains in charge of the ruling Democrat Party, is already rumoured to be preparing a comeback. Opinion polls suggest his party holds only a wafer-thin lead over Grillo’s Five-Star Movement, which has promised to hold a referendum on leaving the euro and to renegotiate the country’s staggering public debt – either of which could plunge the eurozone back into crisis.