EU Elections: Background and Results

Europeans went to the polls from May 23-26 to vote for a new European Parliament and, indirectly, European Commission President. At stake is the role of the EU and its response to issues like the climate crisis, economic policy, and migration.

Results

All 2019 results and statistics based on the numbers listed at election-results.eu as of 5/27/19.

  • The two largest groups in the European Parliament–European People’s Party (EPP) and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)–are projected to have lost ground to the Greens, liberal parties, and the far-right.
  • Average voter turnout was the highest since 1994 at 50.9%, up from 42.6% during the last election in 2014.
  • EPP is projected to have won 180 seats, remaining the largest party in parliament despite losing 41 seats compared to 2014. Lead candidate Manfred Weber has suggested that this gives him the authority to be the next European Commission President.
  • S&D has won an estimated 146 seats. The center-left is projected to have gained in Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, but saw disappointing results in Germany, France, and the UK.
  • The centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), in combination with French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list, have taken 109 seats, up from 67 in 2014. How the ALDE might change with the addition of Macron’s allies, and what other national parties might join a reshaped group, remains to be seen.
  • The Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) are projected to win 69 seats, adding 19 compared to 2014. The Greens in Germany won second place after the governing Christian Democratic Union, beating out the Social Democratic Party. Similarly, in France, the EELV party placed third, higher than any other party on the left. The Greens-EFA presented a platform emphasizing the need for the EU to address the climate crisis, and co-leader Bas Eickhout has said he will push for “climate action, social justice and democracy” in negotiations to determine the next Commission President. An AFP article notes, “[w]ith the two main traditional EU blocs… projected to lose ground, the Greens could end up as kingmaker in the European Parliament.”
  • The far-right group including the Lega party in Italy and the National Rally in France will win an estimated 58 seats, while the group including the new Brexit Party in the UK and the Five Star Movement in Italy is projected to take 54 seats. Matteo Salvini’s Lega party handily won the most votes in Italy, with 34.3% and 28 seats out of 73. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party narrowly beat the Renaissance list backed by Macron, taking 22 of 74 seats.
  • In Hungary, the far-right Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won a majority of votes and 13 of 21 seats. In Poland, the far-right Law and Justice Party won 26 of 51 seats, while the European Coalition list took 22.
  • The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) both had disappointing results–ECR is estimated to have won 59 seats and the GUE/NGL 39.
  • In the UK, the election serves as further evidence of how divided politics has become following 2016’s Brexit referendum. On Friday, as voters in the UK went to the polls, Prime Minister Theresa May announced her plan to resign after three years of being unable to negotiate a deal to leave the EU. The results of the election indicate that many are willing to leave even without a deal–Nigel Farage’s Brexit party won the most seats with 29 out of 73, 31.7% of the vote. However, parties that strongly support remaining in the EU also performed well. Running on the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit,” the Liberal Democrats won the second most seats with 16, and the Green Party jumped from 3 to 7 seats. The Green Party will be joined by three representatives from the Scottish National Party and one from Plaid Cymru in the Greens-EFA parliamentary group. Despite leading the country, the Conservative Party won only 8.7% and 4 seats, while the Labour Party took 10 seats.
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The structure of the European Union. In the EU elections, the European Parliament and European Commission are in play. (Image by Ziko van Dijk via Wikimedia Commons)

Context

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey from spring, 2018 provides an idea of Europeans’ attitudes about migration (of immigrants and refugees) and the economy. A median of 51% of respondents across ten EU countries said “their country should allow fewer immigrants into their country or none at all” compared to only 10% who favored greater immigration (35% said “about the same” number). However, a median of 77% support “taking in refugees from countries where people are fleeing violence and war,” with only 21% opposed. According to the Missing Migrants Project, 7,101 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe since 2015. Yet, the trend in European countries over the same time period has been toward shutting people out.

A median of 50% surveyed across the ten countries said “compared with 20 years ago, the financial situation of average people in our country is worse,” versus only 31% who said it was “better” and 15% who observed “no change.” The three countries where respondents had the worst outlooks were Greece (87% “worse”), Italy (72%), and Spain (62%). These southern European countries were hit the hardest by the 2008 financial crisis and then by EU-mandated austerity measures.

The far-right has capitalized on this sentiment to become a dangerous and influential force. But they are in no position to take power at the EU level. As of Friday, Politico.eu predicted that a new EU parliamentary group led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini would win 73 seats, with a group combining the British Brexit Party and the Italian Five Star Movement taking 48. That’s significant, but only 121 out of 751 seats in total.

There is also reason for optimism at the grassroots level. On Friday, the second Global Strike for Climate hit cities in Europe and around the world, the latest in a series of school walkouts and demonstrations led by young people calling for climate action. At the final debate between candidates for the presidency of the European Commission, the topic of climate change and the environment was introduced with reference to the walkout movement and 16-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who began the movement last year.

Rules

An idiosyncrasy of EU elections is that while the share of the vote to each parliamentary group will determine the balance of power in the next EU Parliament, each voter will actually cast their ballot for a national party. Most of these national parties are allied with a parliamentary group. So, for example, a vote for the Social Democratic Party in Germany will go towards sending representatives of that party to parliament to form part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. However, it is possible for representatives to be unaligned with a parliamentary group.

The official procedure for selecting the next European Commission President is that EU member states nominate someone for the job, and that nominee must be approved by a majority of the new Parliament. According to Politico, beginning with the last EU elections in 2014, a system was adopted which encourages the lead candidate of “the party that wins the most seats in the European Parliament” to become president of the Commission. However, that ideal is non-binding. It is foreseeable that a coalition could be formed between parties that did not win the most votes but were able to cobble together a 376-seat majority. In that scenario, the lead candidate of the largest party in the coalition could become European Commission President. It is also possible that someone else altogether will be chosen as the next Commission president. For example, Emmanuel Macron has said that Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator of Brexit, should be considered. The EU is an unwieldy institution that is constantly in flux, and the procedure for determining the Commission President reflects that.

Note: A previous version of this post omitted the role of EU member states in nominating the European Commission President.

U.S. Midterms: Dems Take House, Dividing Control of Congress

Democrats will control the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010; Republicans retain their Senate majority

Americans went to the polls on November 6 after days marked by terror and uncertainty. Anti-Semitic and racist killings, as well as an attempt at political assassinations, have dominated the headlines. President Trump incited hate before and after the violence, his fearmongering over a “migrant caravan” the closing argument of a midterm election campaign that has stretched on for many months.

Many Democrats ran on bread-and-butter issues like healthcare and opposition to the 2017 Republican tax law. But I think many people went to the polls on one or another side of the deep divide that exists in this country. It’s a divide, as Rebecca Solnit puts it in an excellent article, between an exclusive “us” and an inclusive “we.” Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot, but he has said very clearly that he wanted this election to be about him. And, as he is the most powerful proponent of the politics of exclusion, how could it not be?

The vote is a blunt tool. I haven’t seen a sufficient vision from Democrats on many key problems facing this country, and especially on global issues, which have not been seriously addressed during the campaign. But I voted for the Democrats anyway, in the hope that they will slam the brakes on the Trump agenda. The Democrats need to fight for climate action in the vanishingly few years that we have left, affirm the human rights of oppressed communities in this country, stitch together an effective social safety net, and stop the country’s drift into authoritarianism. Now that they’ve taken the House, they’d better put their foot down.

Here are a few key results from last night, including some historic victories (also see wall-to-wall coverage from CNN, The Guardian, and NPR):

  • A record number of women will serve in congress (118 as of Wednesday afternoon).
  • Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Sharice Davids (D-KS) are the first Native American women elected to congress. Davids will also become Kansas’ first openly LGBTQ member of congress.
  • Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) will become the first Muslim women to serve in congress. Tlaib will also become the first Palestinian-American in congress.
  • Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) will join Bernie Sanders as the only democratic socialists in congress. Cortez and Tlaib both belong to the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that also made significant gains in state elections last year. Ocasio-Cortez becomes the youngest woman ever elected to congress.
  • Good news from Florida: “Floridians approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions once they complete their sentences, a historic move expanding the right to vote to about 1.4 million people and reverses a state policy rooted in the Jim Crow South.”
  • And bad news from Florida: Ron DeSantis (R), a reactionary candidate who closely linked himself with Donald Trump, has been elected governor over progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum.
  • Jared Polis (D-CO) is the first openly gay person to be elected governor in the United States.
  • Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) will become the first black congresswoman from Massachusetts.
  • Ted Cruz (R-TX) has held off a challenge from Beto O’Rourke to remain in the Senate.
  • Brian Kemp (R-GA) is leading Democrat Stacy Abrams in a Georgia gubernatorial race that has been marked by voter suppression led by Kemp himself. Georgia law requires the winner to receive over 50% of the vote, and Abrams has said she will not concede until all votes are counted.
  • In one of my hometown districts, NY-19, Democrat Antonio Delgado has unseated John Faso. Faso had attacked Delgado, who is black, for lyrics in a rap album that he released in 2006.
  • NPR reports that Laura Kelly (D-KS) has defeated the racist Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to become the next governor of that state.
  • Tony Evers (D-WI) is projected to become the next governor of Wisconsin, unseating Scott Walker.
  • Democratic Senators in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri, all states won by Trump in 2016, have been defeated by their Republican challengers.

Brazil’s Far Right Threat

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via Wikimedia Commons

On October 7, far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, came within a few percentage points of becoming Brazil’s next president. In a race with many candidates, Bolsonaro advanced with 46% of the vote, just shy of the majority needed to avoid a second round, two-person runoff. Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party–a last minute stand-in for former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who was barred from running–also advanced, with 29% of the vote. (Full first-round election results here)

This election is crucial. Bolsonaro is akin to Donald Trump in his misogyny, racism, and homophobia (see here and here), while his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 suggests that his presidency could see the return of authoritarian government. Bolsonaro’s running mate, ex-general Hamilton Mourão, said of the dictatorship, “[e]xcesses were committed, heroes kill…”

In 2017, the decisive defeats of Marine Le Pen (France) and Geert Wilders (The Netherlands), suggested that the rest of the world might not jump aboard the far right Trump train. But then, presidential term limits were abolished in China, Vladimir Putin ‘won’ another six-year term in Russia, a nationalist government was formed in Italy, and now Brazil is at risk of joining a growing list of newly illiberal states.

While there are global causes for the rise of Bolsonaro, there are also important local factors. Eliane Brum describes his bases of support as those who hope to benefit from development in the Amazon, anti-same-sex marriage evangelicals, and critics of the Workers’ Party (PT):

These people hate the PT for many reasons. Some because under former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rousseff, the party reduced poverty, widened university access to black students, and strengthened rights for housemaids – for a long time, a form of modern slavery in Brazil. Others because they cannot forgive a party that rose to power promising change, only to become corrupted and aloof.

Bolsonaro is a political outsider at a time when the ‘Operation Car Wash’ corruption scandal has tarnished the image of Brazil’s major political parties. Although politicians of both the right and the left are alleged to be corrupt, the Workers’ Party has borne the brunt of the fallout. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and Lula, Rousseff’s predecessor and founder of the Workers’ Party, faces twelve years in prison and was barred from running in this election. Fernando Haddad carries the institutional weight of the Workers’ Party and the endorsement of Lula–both a blessing and a curse–while Bolsonaro joined the minor Social Liberal Party only this year as a vehicle for his presidential run.

A Bolsonaro presidency would have grave environmental impacts. He has pledged to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate agreement, which would make Brazil only the second country, after the U.S., to declare its intent to leave the vital global accord. And Bolsonaro’s proposed domestic policy would accelerate the deforestation of the Amazon, limiting the giant rainforest’s ability to absorb CO2. An article in Grist explains,

As the global fight against catastrophic climate change ramps up, forests are a necessary front of the action. According to a dire, new report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), halting deforestation could play a vital role in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as forests have a significant capacity to absorb and store carbon.

Of course, in addition to the global threats posed by a potential Bolsonaro presidency, there are numerous threats specific to Brazil. Authoritarianism ultimately jeopardizes all Brazilians, while the candidate’s bigotry threatens marginalized communities in much the same way that Trump’s actions and rhetoric threatens marginalized communities in the United States. Bolsonaro’s promise to gut environmental protections also intersects with his disregard for human rights: “[h]e has criticized the Brazilian government’s commitment to preserving vast swaths of the Amazon for Indigenous people, promising that he will ‘not to give the Indians another inch of land.'” (Grist).

Brazilian democracy is in the fight of its life, but it’s worth ending with a positive. A wave of women-led, anti-Bolsonaro resistance has formed, and similarities with the popular opposition to Trump in the U.S. are clear. Brum again:

In August, Ludimilla Teixeira, a black anarchist born in one of the poorest communities of Salvador, Bahia, created a Facebook page: Women United Against Bolsonaro. The page, which accepts only female followers, now has almost 4 million of them. A movement grew out of this group… [on September 30] spurring hundreds of thousands of women – and men – on to the streets of Brazil and around the world. Many carried banners with the slogan and hashtag: #EleNão – #NotHim. It was the biggest demonstration organised by women in Brazil’s history.

The election’s second round will take place on October 28.

Why the Russia Story is Significant

Since Donald Trump became president of the United States, you’ve probably noticed the media attention devoted to his possible (is it confirmed now? I’ve lost track!) collusion with Russia during the campaign, and Russia’s efforts to swing public opinion in his favor ahead of the election. Chances are you also know that Trump strongly dislikes it. In large part, this antipathy probably stems from a sense that the focus on Russian interference tarnishes his (electoral college) victory. But there are other implications, such as that Trump is in some sense a puppet of Putin. Critics of Trump have told the story in various ways, emphasizing different elements to make several distinct points. Trump himself has tried to bat away the story by calling it “fake news,” but as the Mueller investigation continues, it won’t go away.

While most left-wing critics of Trump have been among the most vocal in sounding the alarm on Russian influence, some on the left have criticized the media’s focus on this topic. An internal debate among writers for The Nation, a left-wing magazine, has taken place about their coverage of the Russia story. I’ve heard the case that focus on the Trump-Russia connection, and the broader story about Russia’s use of propaganda to influence global public opinion, is a distraction from Trump’s devastating policies. The American media undoubtedly prefers an exciting story about Russian influence to dry articles about policy, but the Russia story is much more than a distraction. Left commentators who entirely dismiss this multifaceted story are either missing or willfully ignorant of some of its most important aspects.

I’ll start with one of the most often mentioned points: Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin says a lot about the kind of leader he is. Praise for authoritarian leaders elsewhere means that Trump will continue to stretch the limits of what an American president can say and do. And of course if there are tangible ties between Trump and the Russian state, that’s deeply concerning. Less discussed are the effects of Russia’s propaganda.

Russia-supported propaganda bolsters the racist right. A Politico Magazine story about a dashboard monitoring Russia-backed Twitter accounts notes that “[f]or three consecutive days in August, the most retweeted Russia Today stories recorded by the dashboard involved scaremongering videos appearing to show refugees swarming into Spain, as well as a story alleging that the German government is suppressing news of refugee crimes.” The alt-right’s authoritarian ideology meshes well with Putin’s attack on the usefulness and efficacy of democracy. Russian state media has also offered support for racist movements throughout Europe, such as the French National Front.

Crucially, Russia’s misinformation supports its geopolitical agenda. Russian government news outlets and Russia-promoted content attempts to mold opinion on international issues, especially Syria and Ukraine, in line with its interests. According to the Politico Magazine piece,

One of the most prevalent themes pushed by RIOT [Russian Influence Operations on Twitter] is the promotion of conspiracy theories that muddy the waters regarding any wrongdoing by Russia or its allies, particularly the Syrian regime. This material is significantly promoted over social media, with occasional help from the attributed outlets. Examples over the past year include conspiracy theories seeking to discredit Bana al-Abed, a young girl in Syria who tweeted about the civil war with assistance from her mother, and reports of chemical attacks by the Syria regime

Some writers on the left have participated in this conspiracy commentary. It is unclear whether there is a connection between a group of left-wing pro-Assad bloggers and Russian state media, but there clearly is a symbiosis. Russian state media and commentators from other platforms are spreading lies in real time, with the practical effect of discouraging international action to protect civilians under attack by the Syrian and Russian governments. The consequence of a post-truth, “alternative facts” politics is that the global public is cross-pressured between reading calls for solidarity from survivors of war crimes and seeing propaganda outlets deny that the crimes ever happened.  Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes about denialism and “moral atrophy” here.

In the U.S., the biggest counter to propaganda is political education and news literacy. If Russia wishes to discredit democracy, the U.S. needs to respond by deepening democracy and making it more participatory and inclusive. And the left needs to develop an internationalism that emphasizes solidarity with people, not states, to flip Sam Hamad’s summary of Jeremy Corbyn’s stance.

The Russia story, and Russian propaganda, should be taken seriously. While Trump-Russia ties are being investigated, we should recommit to seeking the truth and educate each other on how to ignore propaganda.