Election epic offers test for European incumbents

Europe is braced for an election bonanza this weekend that will determine the politics of the increasingly contested campaign to save the single currency and drag the European Union out of the economic doldrums.

There are the presidential runoff in France, which looks likely to leave Nicolas Sarkozy a crushed one-term president; a crucial general election in Greece as the first popular chance there to deliver a verdict on the country’s financial collapse; local elections in Italy that will also gauge the climate there as acting Prime Minister Mario Monti struggles to reform the country’s finances and deeply ingrained labour practices; and an important regional election in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein that may dent Chancellor Angela Merkel’s power despite her personal popularity and domestic reputation for competence.

Finally, outside the EU but hoping to snatch a starting date for negotiating entry this year, Serbia is staging presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Nato troops and international election organisers are pouring into the breakaway country of Kosovo amid tensions and arguments over whether and how the ballot should be conducted for its Serbian minority.

A highly varied palette of voting from the Baltic to the Balkans will produce contrasting outcomes. But the likely pattern is a large kick in the teeth for incumbents as Europe’s voters vent their frustrations in the most uncertain of times.

Hotly at odds
France’s second-round decider is the biggest election in Europe this year. Sunday’s runoff has gained in significance because European leaders are now hotly at odds over the best policy options for charting a path out of 30 months of crisis. The outcome in the race for the Élysée Palace could tip the balance in that argument, pitching François Hollande, the Socialist frontrunner, into a new role as leader of an emerging bloc seriously challenging for the first time Berlin’s domination of the response to the euro crisis, austerity.

The Greek political scene has fragmented under the weight of the country’s debt burden and Pasok and New Democracy, the centre-left and centre-right parties that have run the country for decades, have imploded after years of corrupt mismanagement. They are haemorrhaging support to the hard left and the extreme right. Both major parties look likely to be the big losers. The question is one of scale and who will be able to cobble together a parliamentary majority. Chances are the election will produce an unstable and weak government in Greece’s most pressing hour of need.

The Schleswig-Holstein poll will be watched closely as a bellwether for the German government because the state has been governed for three years by a coalition of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Free Democratic Party liberals, mirroring the national coalition in Berlin. Opinion polls indicate a defeat for Merkel and a victory for the opposition Social Democrats and Green Party. But the Social Democrats’ chances of mustering a majority are also being imperilled by the rise of the upstart Pirates party, which looks likely to coast into the regional parliament in Kiel. A week later Merkel faces a much bigger test in early elections in North-Rhine Westfalia, Germany’s most populous state.

Mixed and confusing outcome
The first batch of local elections in Italy on Sunday and Monday may deliver a mixed and confusing outcome. Although they cannot supply a first electoral verdict on Monti since he took over as provisional prime minister in November, they look likely to cheer him by inflicting big losses on his bitterest opponent, the europhobic Northern League, which has been engulfed by a flood of sleaze scandals. Mayors and councils in about 800 Italian towns are at stake.

In Serbia, whose economic hardship is biting at least as much as in the eurozone, most attention will be focused on Kosovo, where Serb-Albanian tensions have been soaring in recent months. The broadly pro-Western and pro-EU president, Boris Tadic, is fighting for his political life in what looks like a tight battle with his more nationalist challenger, Tomislav Nikolic. The good news is that this is Serbia’s first “normal” election since the wars of the 1990s turned it into an international pariah, featuring a conventional contest between the centre-left and the centre-right.

With two EU summits expected next month to decide the next steps in Europe’s debt quandary, the French and Greek outcomes will shape and probably shift the agenda for the policymakers meeting in Brussels. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

Ian Traynor is the Guardian’s Europe editor



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