Austria, Portugal, Poland, Romania: A preview of upcoming elections in Europe

, by Alexis Vannier, Translated by Juuso Järviniemi

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Austria, Portugal, Poland, Romania: A preview of upcoming elections in Europe
Photo: CC0

While new faces are entering European institutions, several national elections also await Europe in the autumn. After high-stakes elections in the German states of Brandenburg and Saxony, and in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg, national polling stations will be open in Austria, Portugal, Poland and Romania. Alexis Vannier gives an overview.

Slight turbulence on Kurz’s journey back to the Austrian Chancellery

For a change, Austria will open the new electoral season. After the scandal involving the former far-right FPÖ party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, and the no-confidence vote made the following morning, after the European elections on 27 May, Austrians will be invited to elect a new Nationalrat on 29 September. Yet another corruption scandal around the former Vice-Chancellor has been revealed this month, which further complicates the party’s efforts to clean its tarnished reputation.

Ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz confidently went on the campaign trail, given his centre-right ÖVP party’s strong results in the European elections where they won 34.5% of the vote. The latest polling places Kurz’s party well ahead of the social democrats and the FPÖ, while the Greens are in the fourth place and are making minor gains.

Without the constraints (and the advantages) linked to the post of Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz is free to campaign and hone his image, while the immigration question is still at the heart of debate. His repeated attacks against his former far-right allies, now necessary because of the corruption scandals, reduce the possibility of a new ÖVP-FPÖ coalition and pave the way for arduous negotiations for forming a stable government after the elections.

The conservative Sebastian Kurz tried to change Europe’s migration practices during the Austrian presidency of the EU Council in 2018. This summer, his party gave its support to Ursula von der Leyen in the vote on her candidacy to be the next European Commission President.

Portuguese happy with their left-wing government

One week after the Austrian elections, Portuguese voters will renew their Assembleia da Républica on 6 October. Since 2015, the Lusophone country has been led by António Costa’s left-wing government. The prime minister, representing the Socialist Party, enjoys a great deal of confidence from the Left Bloc and the communist Unitary Democratic Coalition so as to form a majority in the parliament.

Despite the fears of international creditors in 2015, when austerity plans prescribed by the Troika perfused the country, the socialist government has a rather good record. The unemployment rate has fallen by six percentage points since 2015, and the growth rate has stabilised around 2%, while investors and tourists have returned to Europe’s south-western tip.

The European elections gave an encouraging signal for the outgoing government. The Socialist Party won a third of the vote, while the centre-right opposition party got 22%. The turnout, at 32%, reached a historic low. Current polling for the October legislative election has the social democrats at 38%, against 23% for the centre-right PSD. The question, therefore, isn’t who’s going to win the election, but rather whether the social democrats will win an absolute majority or whether they will once again depend on support from leftist parties.

With Portugal praised by Brussels as a model example of a Southern European country getting out of the economic crisis, the country’s finance minister Mário Centeno is the current Eurogroup President.

A disunited front against the Polish government

The Polish President Andrzej Duda recently announced the date of the autumn legislative election as 13 October. Seats will be up for election in both the lower chamber (Sejm) and the upper chamber, both by direct universal suffrage.

The current government’s European policy has been characterised by armwrestling with Brussels over topics like the country’s highly controversial justice system reform. At the same time, the national-conservative government has been under fire for discrimination of LGBT people in Poland, as well as the government’s restrictive policy towards abortion rights. The judicial somersaults and the violence engendered by the government’s attacks against fundamental liberties have distilled into a climate of hatred that reached its peak this January when the Gdansk mayor Paweł Adamowicz was assassinated at a charity event.

Poland has been leaning right for the past 15 years, and in 2015 Polish voters booted all left-wing forces out of the parliament. However, Robert Biedroń decided to face the odds, as he launched his Wiosna (Spring) party that is centre-left, anti-clerical, and progressive in ecological, LGBT and women’s rights. In other words, an antithesis of the ruling PiS party. However, the Wiosna party didn’t join the grand coalition formed around the centre-right Civic Platform, the main opposition party, for the May 2019 European elections. Though the turnout doubled from 2014 and reached 45%, the PiS party came out as the winner with 45% of the votes, while the coalition got 38% altogether.

The government’s most recent scandals include the personal use of government aeroplanes, which led to the resignation of the parliament speaker. Another one concerned a campaign of online harassment against judges opposed to PiS’s reforms, and led to the resignation of the interior minister. In October, Poles will assess to what extent these affairs affect their confidence in the government. Current polling gives an advantage of more than 10 percentage points to the outgoing government.

The idea of making EU aid funding conditional on respecting rule of law is making Warsaw tremble. At the same time, the Polish government has recently expressed support for certain ambitious European projects like a European industrial policy, as it hopes to improve its image in Brussels.

Saving President Iohannis

In the Carpathians, the ‘cohabitation’ between a centre-right President and a social democratic government may be the most acrimonious in Europe. The centre-right already faced a big battle to have Klaus Iohannis elected as the Romanian President. Overcoming the negative polling figures in 2014, Iohannis won the election thanks to an electoral coalition against the social democratic candidate Victor Ponta.

The scandals that have been spinning around the social democratic PSD for more than ten years are numerous. They include the controversial judicial reform that includes the lowering of penalties against corruption, which provoked immense demonstrations. The corruption row is a key reason why the Romanian government opposes the Romanian Laura Codruța Kövesi’s nomination for leadership of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

President Iohannis has perfectly filled his role of counterweight. For example, when Viorica Dăncilă’s social democratic government announced its support for moving Romania’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem following Donald Trump’s model, President Iohannis used his veto power and thereby preserved the cohesion of the EU’s foreign policy.

It was also on Iohannis’s initiative that Romania held a referendum the same day as the European elections, on 26 May. The two questions put to a vote asked for the public’s opinion on the government’s infamous judicial reforms, and more than 85% of Romanians expressed their opposition. This was the second referendum that weakened the government’s position: last autumn, the government’s plan to inscribe a heterosexual definition of marriage in the Romanian constitution failed because only 20% of voters turned out, below the required 30%.

The setbacks for the governing PSD party are increasing. The centre-right PNL party got 27% of the votes in the European elections, while PSD came second, trailing by more than five percentage points. Though once tipped to be the next President of the European Council, Klaus Iohannis preferred to re-run for Romanian President. He will face the current Prime Minister, Viorica Dăncilă, who was nominated by the social democratic party in July.

Though polls place him on top with 42% of votes in the first round, Klaus Iohannis can’t afford to rest in the battle he has been fighting ever since his election in 2014. The President has been elevated to the guardian of democracy against a party whose anti-democratic schemes are no longer a mere scare story. Stay tuned for 10 November and the first round of the presidential elections.

In each of these four elections, Europe is at the heart of debate, and the EU will be holding its breath for each of them. Even more so if there is a new election in Italy where the far-right is going strong in the polls.

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