In the United States, we think of elections as ending major conflicts and producing outcomes that everyone has to then accept and move forward.
Or rather, we used to think that way. Now, with the rise of the Tea Party and extreme polarization, we find that winning elections does NOT settle arguments. No matter that Obama was re-elected in 2012; Congressional Republicans still felt it was perfectly fine to try to overturn that victory in practice by attacking the President’s policies, blocking his appointments, and seeking to repeal his health care program. In other words, the Republican Party may have lost the race for President, with their candidate Mitt Romney being soundly defeated. But no matter — their zeal was undiminished, their determination to reject Obama’s policies only strengthened.
The United States used to be an exception in the world in the amount of faith we put into fair elections to settle outcomes. Now we have joined everyone else, for in much of the world we find that elections are not the conclusion of a political struggle; they are just one more thing over which to fight.
This week saw a large number of significant elections around the world. Field Marshall Sisi is running for President in Egypt, a position he is in because his military overturned the previously elected President, Mohammed Morsi. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, was elected prime minister of India, with his Hindu nationalist BJP party winning national elections. Everyone in India is now waiting to see who they have elected: the hard-line Hindu nationalist who did little to help Muslim victims of hate crimes and who will polarize India, producing new conflicts, or the open-minded economic pragmatist who will help India resume rapid economic development? In Ukraine, a national election was held wherein anti-European forces prevented people from voting in two eastern provinces. Meanwhile Thailand sank deeper into a military coup that stepped into the power struggle between an popularly-elected government whose election was declared invalid and a conservative opposition who refuses to tolerate the outcome of recent elections.
Still, perhaps the strangest elections this week were those for the European Parliament. I tend to think that people believe the EU Parliament has so little real power that their votes are just symbolic, and won’t actually affect the conditions under which they live. This is wrong; but the results seem to me to be mainly a protest vote in which voters wanted to send a signal that they disliked the EU’s advocacy of austerity policies, of open immigration within the union, and expensive EU mechanisms that they do not understand. I do not believe European voters really want to give up the freedom to travel without restrictions within the EU, all the advantages of a unified free trade zone, and the environmental and safety legislation and the agricultural payments that the EU has provided for decades (and which voters now take for granted).
Otherwise, it is very hard to understand these results, with anti-EU parties winning the elections in several countries — elections to represent their countries in the very EU institutions they wish to dismantle. This is rather like having advocates of dog-fighting defeating all comers in elections for leadership of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), or creationists winning elections for leadership of the National Science Foundation.
While election returns are still being counted, it appears that in France, the extreme right-wing National Front party has defeated both mainstream parties (Socialists and center-right UMP) for the first time since the NF was formed; in Britain the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party outpolled both Tories and Labour (the first time since 1910 that one of these parties did not win a nationwide election); in Italy the Five-Star party led by comedian Beppe Grillo will likely come a close second to the ruling Democratic Party; and in Denmark the euro-skeptic Danish People’s Party looks to emerge the winner.
Far-right parties, though not emerging victorious, still did better than previously even in Germany, whose policies toward immigrants are far more friendly and supportive than a decade ago. The new, anti-EU Alternative for Germany party won 7% of the vote, and even the neo-Nazi party won a seat in the EU Parliament for the first time ever. In Austria, the populist FPO party increased its support from 13% to 20%, and in Greece the extreme nationalist Golden Dawn Party won over 9%. Only in the Netherlands did a far-right party do worse than in the previous election, with Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PPV) getting only 13% of the vote.
Altogether, Euroskeptic parties will have the largest single bloc of delegates in the EU Parliament of any political grouping, with about 30% of the total. So this election surely looks to begin a struggle over the existence of the EU; it will be amazing to see how this plays out. Is this just a protest vote for what voters see as a meaningless body anyway (the EU Parliament?) Or is it really a portent of how they will vote in meaningful national elections, when these anti-EU and far-right parties will field candidates for leadership of their own nations? That may not be clear for several years, but the future of Europe hangs in the balance.