Pundit: With general elections due next year, this is a sober awakening for the ruling parties

Viktor Daněk

Citizens around Europe are taking stock of the outcome of elections to the European Parliament. How may the results change the direction and policies of the EU? And what do they signal about the domestic situation? I spoke about the outcome of the elections in Czechia and the EU with the deputy director of the Prague-based Europeum Institute  Viktor Daněk.

“If we look at the election results in the Czech Republic, there are many interesting aspects. The success of the opposition ANO party, which won the election, was widely expected. The second place for the Spolu (Together) coalition of the ruling parties is not so bad, I think, given that it is quite normal in European elections that voters tend to punish the ruling parties. Then, we saw the very surprising success of various far-right and far-left parties. The success of the Oath and Motorists coalition is very shocking I would say, because the leader of the coalition had some issues and trouble in the course of the campaign with his connection to the neo-Nazi movement. He was seen doing the Nazi salute on a photograph and he had a swastika in his home as we could see in one of the live streams, so all this is very troubling.”

So what do you attribute their success to?

Robert Šlachta,  Nikola Bartůšek,  Filip Turek and Petr Macinka | Photo: Michal Krumphanzl,  ČTK

“I think two things combined here. First of all, in European elections it is easier for new movements, and quite unorthodox movements, to be successful, especially in Czechia where there is quite a low election turnout. It was record-high this year, but compared to other EU countries it is still very low. So mathematically, it is easier to be successful, compared to national elections. That is one aspect. The second one is that I think this is the result of a very complicated Czech debate revolving around EU membership. In the campaign, even mainstream parties portrayed the Green Deal as a bad thing that needs to be fixed. So if the campaign –even of the mainstream parties – is set at this tone then some of the voters have trouble finding someone to vote for. They ask themselves – well, if the Green Deal is so bad, why should I vote for someone who has a soft stand on it? And they pick someone with a hard stand. This was precisely the momentum, I think, for the Oath and Motorists. They were very strict on the Green Deal and, as we see, it was a successful tactic.”

The prime minister said that these elections reflect the mood of the society and there was a lesson to be learnt for the ruling coalition. What lesson do you think that is?

“Well, I think that the Together coalition aimed higher. Even some polls before the elections suggested that they had a chance of winning – and this type of election is one that they are supposed to win, because mainly pro-European voters come to the polls. But, if we look at the results of the whole coalition – together with the poor showing of the Mayors and Independents and the Pirate Party – then the result is actually very bad for the government. As I said, it is quite normal that voters tend to punish the ruling parties, but we have national elections in a year and a half and this result is a very sober awakening for the ruling parties because it suggests that nothing good can be expected from the general elections.”

Press conference of the SPOLU coalition | Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

So what lesson was the prime minister talking about?

“I think that the ruling parties, at least some of them, depend on the assumption that most voters, even if they are not happy with the government’s policies in the last couple of months or years , will still prefer to support them rather than to vote for ANO which they see as a threat, as a populist movement. But we saw in these elections that this feeling is not as strong as many of the ruling parties had hoped. So I would say that a positive aspect was missing in the campaign –and this, I think, is the lesson that needs to be learnt. Not enough results and the lack of a positive message in the campaign. It is not enough to rely on the contempt that some voters have for ANO.”

If we look at the results on the European scale – what will the outcome mean for the future direction of the EU – how may it change the Green Deal, the Migration Pact and support for Ukraine?

Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

“Well, we didn’t see any revolution, it was more of an evolution, I would say. So the next European Parliament will be slightly more right-wing, but not as much as expected. We saw a rise of some far-right parties, but definitely not as much as we expected. Of course, there were exceptions such as France or Austria, but looking at the European level, the traditional pan-European parties still have a clear majority – the Socialists, the EPP and Renew, have a clear majority, so definitely no dramatic difference in the way European policies will look like in the next few years. And speaking about support for Ukraine, well the parties that are supporting Ukraine have an overwhelming majority, so definitely no change on this front.

"What is maybe more important from this aspect are national elections. European elections can show us –a little bit – what national elections may look like in the foreseeable future. And we now expect national elections in Austria and also in France, because, given the election result in France, President Macron decided to call snap elections to consolidate power after the damaging loss of his party and the surprisingly good result of the nationalist party of Marine Le Pen.”

And is that cause for concern as you see it –this trend in Europe?

“I would say that it is. Because if we were to see more leaders like Viktor Orban around the table in the European Council then we could be in trouble. For instance facing the Russian aggression, but not only that, there are going to be many other challenges that the EU will need to solve in the next five years. So that would be troubling. I see it as a trend.

"Germany is much more passive, I would say, than it used to be. It used to be one of the main leaders setting the tone for European integration and that very much changed with the departure of Angela Merkel and the rise of Olaf Scholz who has a very complicated situation in his coalition.

"Now a similar thing has happened in France, when Emmanuel Macron is trying to consolidate his power after his loss. He is now in his second term and there was already the risk that as a lame duck president he would be a little bit weakened and with this loss he would be weakened even more so. I think it is a risky tactic, calling snap elections at this time, but it is the only possible way to consolidate power and emerge from this political crisis as a victor and stay strong in the European debate.”

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