Confessions of a Political Animal

July 14, 2009

European Left Watch: Bulgaria, Albania…and Henin-Beaumont

Bulgarian Parliament, Sofia

Bulgarian Parliament, Sofia

What Harold Macmillan would describe as ‘events, dear boy, events’ have prevented me from catching up on two European parliamentary elections held in the past couple of weeks. One was disastrous for the European centre left, the other mildly encouraging.

Bulgaria went to the polls on 5th July to elect its 240-seat National Assembly, with 87% of the seats being awarded nationally through a new proportional system. The remaining seats are elected through plurality rule.

Until the elections, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) headed a coalition government with the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) under Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev. In common with many avowedly centre-left governments in the former Soviet bloc, the actual programme of the coalition took a decidedly rightwards slant, including the introduction of a 10% flat tax rate. Throughout its four-year term of office, Stanishev’s government was mired in allegations of corruption and entered the election very much on the back foot, trailing the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria(GERB) grouping – itself founded as recently as 2006 and led by Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov.

In the event, the result was about as disastrous for the BSP as it could possibly be, losing more than half its seats, taking it to just 40, and not winning a single one of the majoritarian seats. The seat tally leaves the BSP narrowly behind it’s former junior coalition partner, the DPS. From a base of zero, GERB ended up with an overall majority, obtaining 142 seats. Beyond the disastrous result for the Socialists, the 2009 elections seem to have confirmed the continuing instability of the party system in Bulgaria’s relatively young democracy, with a number of previously powerful parties suffering badly. These included the National Movement for Stability and Progress which had the unique distinction of being led by former Tsar Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was subsequently Prime Minister between 2001 and 2005. From such heady heights, the National Movement lost all its remaining seats in 2009, leading to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’s resignation as leader. Other centre-right parties have also been heavily squeezed by GERB’s new-found dominance.

Bulgaria’s results are sumarised below:

Party/Coalition Politics Vote share (Proportional section) Change from 2005 Seats Change from 2005
Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria Social conservatism 39.72% New party 142 New party
Coalition for Bulgaria (led by Bulgarian Socialist Party) Social democrat 17.70% -13.3% 40 -42
Movement for Rights and Freedoms Liberal/Turkish ethnic minority based 14.45& +1.7% 43 +9
National Union Attack Nationalist 9.36% +1.2% 21 +/-0
Blue Coalition Christian democrat 6.76% -7.3%* 15 -22*
Order, Lawfulness, Truthfulness Centre right/anti-corruption 4.13* New party 10 New party
National Movement for Stability & Progress Liberal conservatism 3.02% -16.9% 0 -53

*: Comparisons are with the United Democratic Forces coalition, which fought the 2005 election with a similar membership.

Albania held elections on 28th June, also under a newly introduced proportional system. The 140 seats in the Kuvendi are now divided between 12 regional constituencies, with between 32 and 4 seats in each.

Since 2005, Albania has been governed by the Bashkimi për Fitoren (Union for Victory), a grouping of centre-right parties overwhelmingly dominated by the Partia Demokratike e Shqipërisë (Democratic Party of Albania) – this followed eight years of socialist rule from 1997.

In the run-up to the 2009 elections, the centre-right coalition, led by Prime Minsiter Sali Berisha rebranded itself as Aleance e Ndryshimit (Alliance of Changes), composed of no fewer than 21 parties. The primary opposition coalition is led by Socialist International member Partia Socialiste e Shqipërisë, heading a slightly less unwieldy coalition of five parties (Bashkimi për Ndryshim – Unification for Changes), including Albania’s other SI member, the Partia Socialdemokrate e Shqipërisë. Two other smaller coalitions also contested the election, including the ostensibly more left leaning Aleanca Socialiste për Integrim, led by Lëvizja Socialiste për Integrim (Socialist Movement for Integration).

With previous elections being mired in controversy and apparent corruption, the conduct of the 2009 election was being widely viewed as a litmus test for Albania’s application for EU membership, which is supported by both major parties. Indications are that the elections process has, for the first time, been given a clean bill of health by international observers.

Opinion polls in the run-up to the election predicted a very close result, with the centre-left coalition polling very similar numbers to the governing coalition. The final result was indeed tight, with the government edging ahead by less than 1.5% of the vote and 3 seats. In terms of individual vote shares, the Socialists were the largest party, taking 40.84% of the vote, compared with the Democratic Party’s 40.00%. However, the sheer weight of the other twenty parties in the centre-right coalition pushed this grouping ahead over all, despite the fact that just four of them achieved over 0.5% of the vote.

Whilst the centre-left advanced, it wasn’t quite far enough. With 70 seats (out of 140) for the centre-right, the parliament was perfectly tied, the other 70 seats being divided 66/4 between the two left-leaning lists. The Democratic Party could have attempted to govern alone with its coalition in a minority scenario. However, it instead took the interesting step of successfully concluding coalition talks with the Socialist Movement for Integration. Indeed, so successful were they that the leader of the Movement, Ilir Meta, has now leftthe party and joined the Democratic Party, in order to ‘avert a political crisis’. After such a controversial move, and with such a slim majority in parliament, it remains to be seen just how strong or long-lived Sali Berisha’s second government proves to be.

Full results are below – due to the shift from a partly to fully proportional electoral system, it is not feasible to compare vote shares between 2005 and 2009. Only those parties which hold seats in the new parliament are included.

Party/Coalition Politics Vote share Seats Change from 2005
Aleanca për Ndryshim (Alliance for Change)
Partia Demokratike e Shqipërisë Liberal conservative 40.00% 68 +12
Partia Republikane e Shqipërisë National conservative 2.10% 1 -10
Partia për Drejtësi dhe Integrim Ethnic minority based (Cham Albanian) 0.95% 1 New party
Bashkimi për Ndryshim (Unification for changes)
Partia Socialiste e Shqipërisë Social democrat 40.84% 65 +23
Partia Bashkimi për të Drejtat e Njeriut Ethnic minority based (Greek) 1.18% 1 -1
Aleanca Socialiste për Integrim (Socialist Alliance)
Lëvizja Socialiste për Integrim Social democrat 4.82% 4 -1

Henin-Beaumont – I don’t normally cover local elections here, let alone local by-elections, but the recent results in the northern French town of Henin-Beaumontare worth noting, particularly in the light of BNP advances in Britain, if only to prove that no matter how dark things look, the anti-fascist majority is there to be mobilised.

Henin-Beaumont is a highly depressed, former coal-mining centre in the Pas de Calais, registering high levels of unemployment and economic inactivity. Following the imprisonment of the Parti Socialiste mayor Gerard Dalongeville for the embezzlement of around 4 million euros, the town faced a difficult series of municipal by-elections, which could have passed control to the far-right Front National, the first time they would have won a municipality since 1995. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen has been courting France’s ex-industrial north for several years, believing – probably with some justification – that any new breakthrough for the struggling party would come here, rather than in its traditional south-eastern strongholds. Henin-Beaumont provided the perfect storm for her – economic despair combined with massive corruption in the ‘establishment’ parties. Marine Le Pen was placed second on the FN’s list for the elections.

It was no great surprise that in the first round of voting on 28th June, the FN topped the poll. The shock, rather, was by how much, with the party taking almost 40% of the vote, only very slightly less than twice the 20% share of independent left-wing candidate Daniel Duquenne. In a former stronghold, the Parti Socialiste scored just 17%. In a two-round electoral system, a candidate taking 40% of the vote in the first round would seem almost certain of victory in the second. Indeed, the FN leadership made no secret of the fact that it considered Henin-Beumont in the bag, particularly as talks faltered between the other parties over how many, and which, candidates should go forward to challenge the FN list.

Thankfully, despite the early difficulties, a ‘Front républicain’ was formed behind Duquenne, with the PS, the far left and Sarkozy’s UMP all calling for a vote for him against the extreme right. Astonishingly, given the first round figures, it worked, and on 5th July Duquenne was elected Mayor with 52.3% of the vote. Too tight to take much comfort, granted, but an important lesson in the need for unity in extremis. With any luck, this narrow defeat will prevent a domino effect in northern France for the FN and their message of division and hate.

1 Comment »

  1. […] rather tarnished looking) right-wing coalition. The centre left was also heavily defeated in Bulgaria and Macedonia and failed to break out of opposition in Albania. Positives included victories in […]

    Pingback by European Leftwatch: The year to come « Confessions of a Political Animal — January 13, 2010 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

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