S Qamar A Rizvi
EVEN after going through too many political vicissitudes via far right populism-cum-left wing polpulism (post-partisan pragmatism), the Europeans yet seem divided or gravitated towards the right and left wing orientations seemingly ingrained by Euro scepticism. This observation has been vindicated by the recently held elections in Netherlands, casting a blow to the far right populist Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders. The European political picturesque reflects shift in its political and strategic trend. The year 2017 can be pivotal for Europe. France is holding national elections on May 7, and most importantly, Germany’s Angela Merkel might be facing a tough task in the coming polls, this summer.
The EU’s compromise machine seems establishing an institutionalised grand coalition between the centre-left and the centre-right that routinely ignores opposing voices. Certainly, some cross-national trends are changing political parties in all Western democracies. Many of these changes provide fruitions for those at the top of their parties, who have been gaining more popular legitimation and exercise more powers than they were in the past. Indeed, if party leadership selections used to be an oligarchic intra-elite selection procedure, now an increasing number of parties allow members to participate directly in the selection of the party leader. Moreover, the process of presidentialisation of democratic government brings about a shift of power and responsibilities from the collective to the monocratic feature. Because of short and long term factors, such as the mediatisation of political life, as well as to charismatic appeal of single presidents, party leaders seem to be assuming the role of the protagonist in the democratic world. Therefore, examining party leaders has become an endorsed fashion- not only a way of analysing one of the most relevant actors in representative regimes, but also an opportunity to observe the ways in which democracy itself is departing from its traditional form.
As richly reflected in the aftermath of the current financial crisis, voters now seem to be particularly attracted to the political rhetoric of the extreme right, which often attributes blame to minorities or foreigners. On average, extreme right-wing parties increase their vote share by 30% after a financial crisis. Importantly, we do not observe similar political dynamics in normal recessions or after severe macroeconomic shocks that are not financial in nature. The drive about civil activism— run by volunteers— is not confined to EU countries. In early 2016, Swiss students from Fribourg University set up a progressive liberal movement, Operation Libero, to fight populist demands for borders and tighter rules on immigration and Islam. The students have chalked up remarkable successes already, twice defeating the far Right in sensitive nationwide referenda. This model has inspired other Europeans to set up open and cosmopolitan campaigns, too. Some of them come to little or nothing, others flourish. Some focus on specific issues, others have broader political aims.
Apparently, all seek to give a voice to citizens who feel that the European project is under threat from calls for EU powers to be renationalised or for member states to exit the union. In the Netherlands, several citizen groups that support the EU have become active over recent months. In the UK, the organizers of last year’s Hug a Brit initiative, which encouraged Europeans to embrace Brits and urged them to vote to stay in the EU in the UK’s June 2016 referendum, plan to set up a new pan-European project to promote European togetherness.
Notably, some politicians have appraised that countering populism with a cosmopolitan approach creates an electoral potential. Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor who was elected Austrian president in December 2016, relied heavily on grassroots supporters. France’s Macron, who doesn’t belong to an established political party (although he has served as a minister in a Socialist government), also enjoys support across the board thereby seemingly taking supremacy over Len Pen on May 7. He is an ardent advocate of fostering change in the European project. Like Van der Bellen was, Macron is also a convinced European who faces a Euroskeptic populist as his main opponent. “For those who want Europe to be open and forward looking, Macron is the only choice,” said Jean-Louis Bourlanges, formerly a French centrist member of the European Parliament.
The politics of EU members do not move in lockstep as shown by the fact while Britain has sidled right as it contemplates exiting the EU, Greece has run in the other direction, with the far-left Syriza party taking control of the government. Generally, most parliaments tend to hover near the centre, with occasional surges to the left or right. Consequently the French, who have in the past few years been Germany’s partners in leading the E.U., even when it came to austerity, certainly have plenty of fodder for their diatribes. But as the beleaguered Germans are noticing as well, the French aren’t the only ones raising objections to the German-led Union. Since continent’s problems can only be addressed through increased cooperation; European electorates refuse to endorse any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.
The political typology of the European system represents a considerable simplification of a complex political reality. Without wondering, the continental systems at the bottom of the Nordic and Catholic lists—Germany, Austria, France, and the Netherlands—seem to have drawn a parallel line with each other than with the paradigmatic Nordic and Catholic systems, Sweden and Spain. Meanwhile, the post-communist label obscures some significant variation along the same lines evident in Western Europe, with the Czech Republic and Bulgaria sharing features of the Nordic system and Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia tend tilted toward the Catholic pattern.
As for the changing strategic trend of the European countries, the winds are blowing in different directions, however, and each of the borderlands countries— which include the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the countries of the Caucasus – is seen reacting to the shifting geopolitical circumstances differently. Some are trying to pursue closer ties to Russia, others are doubling down on their bets on Western integration; while some of them are attempting to walk a tightrope between Moscow and the West. Understandably, what each country is doing to adapt to the fast-evolving geopolitical conditions and determining where they are headed requires examining the context of geography and national strategy across the region.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Karachi, is a member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies.