Tag Archives: runoff

Austria – Green candidate Van der Bellen beats far-right Hofer in repeat of runoff election

On Sunday, 4 December, Austria finally held the do-over of the second round of presidential elections after the constitutional court voided the first attempt due to irregularities. Green party veteran Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, had won the first run-off on 22 May with only a razor-thin margin of 31,000 votes, but was now able to claim a more decisive victory. While national and international observers may be relieved by the fact that controversial far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) was defeated, the election has already spelled an end to business as usual in Austrian politics and may even have greater signalling power for (presidential) elections across Europe next year.

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The Austrian presidential elections 2016, more precisely its runoff, will likely go down in history as an example of all the things that can go wrong when organising an election. The Constitutional Court found numerous violations of procedures in its ruling on the first runoff elections, ranging from the deliberate destruction of unaccounted ballots, early opening of postal ballots and the accidental inclusion of 14 and 15 year-olds on the electoral register. The do-over of the election – first planned for 4 October – was riddled with problems, too, and had to be postponed due to faulty glue application on envelopes for postal ballot.

The subsequently stretched out electoral campaign showed great variations and intensity and approval for the two candidates which can otherwise only rarely be observed (hardly any country around the world leaves more than one month between first round and runoff). At first, these variations and particularly the voiding of the first runoff seemed to play in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer whose approval ratings put him several percent ahead of his challenger. Nevertheless, while politicians from the dominant parties SPÖ and ÖVP (whose candidates failed to enter the runoff for the first time since the end of WWII) were still reluctant to declare their support for either candidate in anticipation of a FPÖ victory and the need to form a coalition after the next general elections, the vast majority of public figures and intellectuals now supported Van der Bellen (a fact criticised by Hofer’s campaign as a conspiracy of the establishment). Yet Hofer also fell victim to his aggressive rhetoric and his failure to criticise the vicious attacks on Van der Bellen by his followers via social media.

Hofer also continued to advertise his vision of a more active president who would make more frequent use of the ample constitutional powers of the office which include dismissal of the Chancellor at will (see also Robert Elgie’s interview with Die Presse here). The prospect of a new government and/or early elections – which may still happen – may have turned voters towards Van der Bellen who promised to continue within the current political practice and limit his activism to more frequent interpellations and statements in political debates.

Increased international attention and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, has been another factor working in Van der Bellen’s favour. Similarly to the French presidential election in 2002, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen surprisingly relegated Social Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to third place and entered the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, the potential of a far-right victory and subsequent ‘slide to the right’ mobilised voters for the left-centrist Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, the stark difference between electoral results (Chirac beat Le Pen with 82:18 margin), highlights the considerably greater support for the far-right in Austria (although the French presidential contest 2017 may change the perspective on this).

The latter example naturally leads to the question of what consequences the Austrian elections have nationally and internationally. The result of the first round already led to the resignation of Werner Faymann as Chancellor and SPÖ leader. Both SPÖ and ÖVP have lost greatly in public support, whereas the FPÖ – which already governs some of the Austrian federal states – is now on track to become the strongest party in the next election. Although a continuation of the grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP may remain arithmetically possible, politically it will be difficult to exclude the FPÖ from government much longer – an option which will likely find the same amount of resistance among Austria’s neighbours as when it was first part of a coalition government with the ÖVP 1999-2003. The election has rung in the end of the traditional dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP and highlighted their eroding support in the electorate. The fact that Hofer still won the first round of presidential elections and received more than 35.1% of votes in the run-off, will have encouraged far-right leaders across the European continent and may – as mentioned above – have signalling effect for the French presidential elections. Looking towards elections in other European countries, the influence of the result is less clear. Hofer’s FPÖ is a long- and well-established far-right party and panders quite openly to those with questionable views of the Nazi-regime and Austrian involvement in it. In Germany, where general elections will be held in October 2017, the challenger from the far-right comes in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’. Although it only narrowly missed the 5% threshold in the 2013 elections and has recently won mandates in the European Parliament state legislatures, it is far from being as deeply anchored and widely accepted in society as the FPÖ.

Last, the Austrian elections highlights a potential emerging trend in (presidential) elections – the rise of establishment figures running anti-establishment campaigns. Despite being clearly part of the political establishment, Hofer (deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament) and Van der Bellen (former leader of the Green party and long-standing deputy) presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates. One could argue that support for Miloš Zeman (also a former party leader and Prime Minister) in the Czech Republic as well as for long-time senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election elections are expressions of the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this means that (far-right) populists can only be defeated by other (centre or left-wing) populists, or if there is another way in which established parties can counter the erosion of their support.

Romania – Astonishing turnaround in presidential runoff, cohabitation continues

The second round of the Romanian presidential election was held on Sunday. The incumbent prime minister, Victor Ponta, ran against Klaus Iohannis, the ethnic German mayor of Sibiu.

After the first round held on November 2, when the Social Democratic prime minister came first with a ten-point lead over the centre-right candidate, everybody expected Victor Ponta to win the runoff comfortably. After all, he topped opinion polls for months before the electoral campaign had even started. He won the first round categorically and second ballot polls have been showing him beating Klaus Iohannis by up to 55-45. Apart from Monica Macovei, who won less than 5% in the first round, no other candidate called on their supporters to vote for Iohannis. The leaders of the Hungarian minority party decided to stay neutral after the far-right came out in support for Ponta.

Overall, the electoral campaign generated little voting enthusiasm for a presidential race. Anti-corruption efforts and the conditions under which the national anti-corruption agency (DNA) will be able to pursue its targets in state institutions and political parties under a new head of state was one of the most hotly debated topics. However, the runoff campaign lacked a grand presidential debate aired on national television, like in 2004 and 2009. Instead, two semi-improvised debates were hosted by commercial broadcasters.

In spite of a good reputation as a successful municipal leader in Transylvania, the mayor of Sibiu could hardly claim nationwide popularity. His unusually reserved style of running a presidential campaign meant that that the masses were rarely mobilised. As a representative of both ethnic and religious minorities, few expected Klaus Iohannis to win.

Moreover, Iohannis could hardly count on local administrative support for voter mobilization. An emergency ordinance issued by the government in August 2014 gave mayors and councillors 45 days to join a different political party from the one from which they had been elected without running the risk of losing their seat as the current law stipulated. As a result, a massive migration of local administrators from the national-liberals (PNL) and the democrat-liberals (PDL), the two parties supporting Iohannis, to the social-democrats (PSD) was registered.

The result took everybody by surprise:

  • Klaus Iohannis (PNL-PDL Christian-Liberal Alliance) – 54,5%
  • Victor Ponta, (PSD-UNPR-PC Alliance) – 45,5%

Voter turnout reached 64%, one of the highest participation rates in Romania’s post-communist electoral history. Commentators have been raving about the impact of turnout on the election outcome. A quick look at previous presidential contests in Romania reveals why a high voter turnout was so unexpected.

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Presidential Elections in Romania, 1992-2014

Apart from 1990, when Ion Iliescu topped the polls with over 85% of the votes in the first round, a runoff was organized for each presidential election since 1992.

As shown in the table above, high voter turnout is not unprecedented in Romania’s presidential races. However, a similarly high level has not been reached since 1996. Moreover, the difference between the two rounds is truly exceptional: voter participation increased by 11% in the runoff. This is highly unusual in Romania, where turnout has generally been lower in the second than in the first presidential round.

As far as the results are concerned, the 2014 presidential election stands out for two reasons.

First, the gap between the front-runner and the runner-up in the first presidential round was the largest since 1992. Second, the increase in voter participation in the runoff, both within and beyond Romanian borders, hit an absolute record.

Indeed, Iohannis’ only chance in the runoff depended on the mobilization of undecided voters. But the spark that lit up the mobilization fire and gave two more million people the motivation to cast their ballots was the government’s own making and had little to do with party mobilization.

Romanians living abroad faced unprecedented difficulties in casting their ballots on 2 November. Protests broke out in front of many Romanian embassies when thousands were not allowed to vote after queueing for many hours. Romanians at home also took to the streets numerous times ahead of the runoff vote, calling on the government to increase the number of voting sections abroad.

Apart from firing the foreign minister one week after the first-round vote, PM Ponta did little to improve voting conditions abroad. He chose to find excuses elsewhere for the alleged impossibility of opening new voting sections. During the first presidential debate, Ponta even rebuffed Iohannis’ criticism about the government’s attempt to restrict voting abroad by saying that the right to vote is a mere ‘catchphrase’.

In this context, more and more anti-government rallies broke up in Bucharest and in many other cities as the runoff vote approached, calling on the government to respect the right of the Romanians abroad to cast their votes. The new foreign minister’s defiant statements on the voting day and the government’s refusal to extend the voting time after 9 p.m. fuelled even more protests. Voting participation just kept rising throughout the day.

In the end, the votes cast by about 400,000 Romanians expatriates may not have tipped the scales this time around as in 2009. But they did much more than that by generating an incredible level of solidarity of Romanians abroad and at home, as a reaction to the government’s apparent attempt to limit the full exercise of a basic democratic right. For example, the Hungarian minority participated in greater numbers in the runoff than in the first round, when they could choose between two Hungarian candidates, and overwhelmingly voted for Iohannis despite their leaders’ self-proclaimed neutrality. Ironically, many have noticed how Victor Ponta’s nationalistic campaign message – “The President Who Unites” – had the perverse effect of bringing together Romanians across borders against the concentration of power in the hands of a single political party.

What next?

On the right, Klaus Iohannis’ imminent resignation as leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL) will soon raise a succession question. He is unlikely to tip a successor, given the short period of time he has spent as a party leader. The new National Liberal Party is the result of the merger between the PNL and the PDL, which was decided in July 2014. The two parties run the presidential campaign under the Christian-Liberal Alliance formula as there had not been enough time to register the new party. The internal elections scheduled for 1 January 2017 will now have to be called earlier, stirring up old leadership rivalries within the two parties.

On the left, many social-democrats are asking for an extraordinary congress to be called and some would even like to see PM Ponta and his cabinet step down. Thus, the reorganization of the strongest Romanian party after letting the presidency slip through their fingers for the third time in a row looks imminent.

Finally, given the impact of civic activism on the election outcome, this year’s presidential race may trigger the formation of new grassroots political organisations. Monica Macovei, who ran in the first round as an independent candidate and capitalised on the success of the anti-corruption institutions she helped establish, announced the setting-up of a new political party. Her ability to obtain about 5% of the votes as an independent was put down to the active campaign run by volunteers on social media.

Klaus Iohannis will formally take over the presidency from Traian Băsescu on 22 December. The cohabitation between a centre-right president and the centre-left prime minister that started in May 2012 is bound to continue, unless a new majority is formed in the parliament or early elections are called before 2016.

In this context, many will be interested to see how the new head of state will approach the presidential role, especially since President Băsescu has often been criticized for a high level of activism. Apart from playing an important role in foreign affairs and defence, the Romanian head of state appoints the prime minister; may refuse once the appointment of an individual minister; can return bills to the parliament and/or ask the Constitutional Court to verify their legality once before signing them into law; appoints three of the nine Constitutional Court judges; and can call a referendum on matters of national importance.