It was a disorienting election: incumbency was obviously an advantage, and the yardstick of what ‘ought’ to happen in a ‘normal’ political cycle is less useful with a government that has branded itself the liberator of its people from European bondage, overseen a vaccination programme that eclipsed its culpable failures earlier in the pandemic, and not yet turned off the economic life support. None of these facts are discernible under Labour’s stagey embrace of sackcloth and ashes, and they have not yet troubled the party’s instinctive factional fighters, who scent advantage in the wind.
In a runoff vote on 15 November, Moldova elected its first female president, Maia Sandu. A graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and former World Bank adviser, she ran promising to fight corruption and poverty, and to take Moldova out of international isolation. The defeated incumbent, Igor Dodon, has been investigated by journalists for alleged human rights infringements, corruption schemes, the use of Russian funds in his campaigns (via offshore accounts in the Bahamas) and secret deals with Vladimir Plahotniuc, the tycoon who – informally, if not secretly – controlled the country between 2016 and June 2019, when he fled to the US, and then Turkey.
‘The elections in the United States have been watched with an interest rarely felt in the domestic concerns of a distant country,’ Walter Bagehot and Richard Holt Hutton’s National Review declared in 1857. ‘Not for the first time – perhaps for the last – the terrible problem of Slavery, long the secret haunt, has become the open battle-field of American politics.’ The 1856 presidential election had ‘emphatically declared in favour of extension of slavery’, with ‘disregard of positive engagements both national and international’. Armed bands in Kansas had carried the polling booths ‘at the point of the bowie knife’ and laws had been enacted ‘on behalf of slavery’, ‘suppressing all liberty of speech, of the press, or of political action’. The review feared that Europe (where slavery had come from) was unaware of the gravity of the situation: ‘this very hour’, a special committee was reporting on the ‘reopening of the African slave trade’.
Nobody expected this outcome, least of all Sinn Féin. The party leadership thought they’d struggle to hold onto some of the seats they won in 2016. Last year’s local and European elections saw Sinn Féin lose two of its three MEPs and nearly half of its councillors. Because of its defensive strategy, which seemed prudent when the election was called, the party won’t have a seat share that matches its vote: the Irish electoral system has multi-seat constituencies, and in many places Sinn Féin could have taken a second seat if it had run more than one candidate. They won’t make that mistake again.
Ghazouani travelled by presidential jet to Bir Moghrein’s airstrip, outside town; most of the time you wouldn’t know it was there, if it weren’t for a set of aircraft steps standing alone in the desert. Bir Moghrein is ‘only Mauritanian depending on the mood of the guard that day’, a European photojournalist who has worked there told me. Most of the cars in town have licence plates from the neighbouring Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. At the moment, though, conversation there is as much about the election as it is about the WhatsApp group for finding lost camels.
The race to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore as prime minister, is formally underway. Ten candidates passed the 1922 Committee’s nomination threshold, and now enter a series of ballots of Conservative MPs to whittle them down to two, who will face a ballot of around 100,000 party members with an average age somewhere around 65 (according to the Bow Group’s estimate). The rest of us can do nothing but watch with impotent horror.
Peter Mair once observed a curious paradox in European elections: people often use their votes to express their dissatisfaction with the fundamental nature of the European Union, despite that being outside an MEP’s purview – the Union is founded on treaties signed by national governments. Conversely, national governments are often elected to pursue policies that are properly the domain of the European Parliament, and so find themselves unable to deliver on their promises – an effect especially pronounced in the Eurozone’s smaller economies.
That Narendra Modi would win again was never really in dispute. The only question was whether the Bharatiya Janata Party would be forced to seek coalition partners in the Lok Sabha, or repeat its astonishing success of 2014 and govern alone. The main opposition, the Congress, turned the campaign into a referendum on Modi. Could the tea-seller’s son, they asked, an untutored, uncouth, bigoted, small-town petit-bourgeois (who can’t even speak English) be trusted again? India’s electorate has now provided the answer. They love their Modi.
On 31 March, Ekrem İmamoğlu of the opposition Turkish Republican Party (CHP) was elected mayor of Istanbul at the head of a National Alliance coalition. He was sworn in on 17 April, but removed from office this week when the Supreme Electoral Council announced that the vote will be re-run on 23 June.
İmamoğlu and the CHP will not have been unprepared for the decision. In a city of more than fifteen million people, he defeated the AKP candidate, Binali Yıldırım, by 23,000 votes at first tally. The government ordered a recount. To protect against tampering, polling station officials – supporters not of İmamoğlu so much as of Turkish democracy – slept next to the sacks of ballots waiting to be recounted. İmamoğlu’s majority was reduced to less than 14,000. But he had still won
Before the local elections last week, the Conservative Party had said that losing a thousand councillors would be a disaster. In the event, the collapse of the Tory vote was more than three hundred seats worse than that. The wipeout in Chelmsford left the Tory MP, Vicky Ford, in tears; at a gathering of Welsh Conservatives, the prime minister was greeted with active heckling, a rare choice for the Tory grassroots, who generally prefer to dissent in truculent silence. Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip, was ‘surprised anyone was bothered to vote for us’. At the coming European elections, with the Brexit Party in contention, the faithful remnant may be yet further diminished.
The Israeli elections turned on the ‘ideological’ question of whether Binyamin Netanyahu should be prime minister or not. Other, less crucial topics – including the occupation of the West Bank, which has entered its second jubilee; the siege of Gaza, which has entered its 13th year; the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the status of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; the complete lack of negotiation with the PLO; the growing inequality in Israeli society; the deteriorating health system; the housing crisis and more – were all left largely undiscussed.
The elections in Mexico on 1 July returned a landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (a.k.a. AmLo). He took 53 per cent of the presidential vote, on a turnout of more than 60 per cent. His coalition, Juntos Haremos Historia (‘together we will make history’), now holds 312 of 500 seats in the chamber of deputies, and 70 of 128 seats in the senate. In both houses, the gender balance is close to 50-50. The coalition also did well in gubernatorial and local elections. The importance of the result for Mexican politics and society can hardly be overstated.
The date of the Russian presidential election last month was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the day Russia claimed Crimea, 18 March 2014. In the main streets of Sevastopol, loudspeakers blasted old Soviet songs. ‘Russia, better with you,’ the posters said. A young woman who sold me a sim card told me that the city had come up with the idea of giving a medal to people who had voted both in the referendum on joining Russia – which wasn’t recognised by Ukraine or most other countries – and in this election. ‘They say it’s to mobilise our moral spirit, so it will mobilise the moral spirit of pensioners. And because everything in this country is bullshit, they haven’t made enough medals,’ she said. ‘Will you get one?’ I asked. ‘Well, maybe,’ she said. ‘If I vote.’
The Italian general election has resulted in a hung parliament. There is already talk of a Third Republic, as the 'mainstream' parties have been swept aside by a populist wave, though it's worth remembering that the Partito Democratico was only formed in 2007, out of the remnants of the remnants of the parties that dominated Italian politics during the First Republic (from 1946 until 1994); that the current incarnation of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia dates from as recently as 2013; and that the Second Republic (1994-2018) was dominated by Berlusconi and his meretricious brand of soi-disant anti-establishment but ultimately self-serving politics. It's hard to mourn the passing of that era; or would be, if it were possible to believe that it had really passed.
Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old from Rome, left the rehab clinic where she’d been staying in the province of Macerata, in central Italy, on 29 January. Her dismembered corpse was discovered two days later, in two suitcases, in the countryside nearby. Innocent Oseghale, a 29-year-old Nigerian with an expired residency permit and a criminal record of drug dealing, was arrested almost immediately on suspicion of involvement in Mastropietro’s death.
Twenty-four people have been killed by police in demonstrations since the presidential election in Honduras three weeks ago. The centre-left Alliance, headed by Salvador Nasralla, appeared to be the clear winner after 57 per cent of votes had been counted, but a suspiciously dramatic late swing towards the incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernández, gave him a lead of 1.5 per cent when the final count was in. Protests against election fraud sprang up nationwide. Some police units initially refused to take part in repressing them, but they were bought out with pay rises and, allegedly, bribes to top police officers.
‘Just wait till next year’ is the perennial cry of the disappointed sports fan, particularly in the US, where all the big sporting events – bar the Olympics – are annual ones. In the major American sports there’s no relegation or promotion, so year on year the same contests recur, and next time really could be different. It’s the glory – and the horror – of international sport that it doesn’t operate to that comforting rhythm. If you blow a World Cup, it will be at least four years till you get another chance. If you lose an Ashes series before we even get to Christmas, it won’t be next year’s Christmas present to have them returned.
A week after apparently losing an election in which he was constitutionally barred from standing, the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, now seems to have carried out a coup (‘autogolpe’ in Spanish) to keep himself in power.
Six days after the vote in Guinea’s second democratic election, the Electoral Commission in Conakry announced that Alpha Condé, the incumbent president, had won decisively, with 58 per cent. The runner-up, Cellou Dalein Diallo, trailed with 31 per cent. In 2010, when Condé first came to office, he lost to Diallo in the first round, and only pinched it in the run-off. Diallo, the leader of the opposition UFDG, said the vote was rigged. He has repeated the allegations this time, pulling out of the race the day after ballots were cast and saying he does not recognise the results.
A large majority of students across the UK may not be registered to vote on 7 May. Most of the students I’ve spoken to in the last week said they wanted to vote but had no idea they weren’t automatically registered. Until last year, when voter registration was done by household, they would have been: students living in university accommodation were enrolled en masse to vote in local and national elections. The coalition government’s policy of individual voter registration, which received royal assent in early 2013, came into force last summer. It has resulted in a nationwide drop in voter registration levels, especially in cities with large numbers of students.
I was sitting behind my folding table in the polling station – usually a bingo hall – when I saw the elderly couple come into the sport club's lobby, hesitate and walk through the wrong door into the bar. I hurried across to help them. ‘Excuse me, are you looking to vote?’ ‘No, no. I have a vote but I'm not going to use it this time because I don't agree with these police whatsits. Thanks though.’ ‘They just out for a pint?’ the presiding officer asked when I got back. ‘Yes.’ ‘Can't blame them.’
The European elections in France have produced an ‘earthquake’ outcome, according to the new prime minister Manuel Valls, who stepped in after the recent municipal vote gave the Parti Socialiste the drubbing it deserved. Nine weeks later here’s another humiliation, despite President Hollande’s efforts to assure the French they’re heading for terra firma. Turns out there’s no such thing: the whole continent, according to Valls, is trembling in the aftermath; he clearly thinks the epicentre was somewhere in France, perhaps the Front National headquarters in Nanterre, where Marine Le Pen and her party broke out the champagne on Sunday night. The results: 25 per cent of the vote to the Front National, and 25 MEPs; 21 per cent to the right-wing UMP and 20 MEPs; 14 per cent for the Parti Socialiste and its campaign partner the Parti Radical de Gauche, which equals 13 MEPs. Where I live – a moderate, steady-eddie electorate – the FN came in on top with 30 per cent of the vote, followed by the UMP. Well behind both came the Union de la Gauche.
A hallucination, or maybe the nearest thing in politics to the pathetic fallacy: you come back after two weeks to a country where there’s just been an election – the extreme right has made a fair showing – and at once you read changes into the landscape. From the window of the train, ramshackle, low-income farmsteads that you’ve passed a hundred times take on a forbidding quality: there are voters in there, along with the livestock. The moribund hotel at the station where you’re waiting half an hour for a local connection now looks like it was requisitioned long ago as an HQ by sinister people who’ve been plotting for years, right under your nose. How come you never noticed?
One of the parties contesting Sunday's election in Honduras has seen 18 of its activists murdered in the last 18 months. The LIBRE party’s presidential candidate is Xiomara Castro, the wife of the former president Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in the military coup of July 2009. Despite the intimidation, LIBRE shows signs of breaking the cronyism of Honduran politics. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1982, the National Party and the Liberals, both products of the traditional oligarchy, have traded the presidency without disrupting the dominance of the 13 families that run the country. (Zelaya was a Liberal; the incumbent, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, is a Nationalist.) The current Liberal candidate is well behind, but the last opinion poll (they are banned in the month before polling day) gave the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernández a one-point lead over Castro. The oligarchy is clearly rattled.
'Omer Post Office – For Omer Residents Only!' says the headline in a pamphlet distributed by a party running in the local elections in the rich southern suburb near my hometown, Beer-Sheva.
The Palace of Culture in Tirana has housed Albania’s national library, opera and ballet companies for almost 50 years. Khrushchev laid the first stone, in May 1959, during what one American newsreel described as a ‘lengthy visit with mysterious overtones’. These days the ground floor of the opera is a count centre during national and local elections. At around 10 p.m. on Sunday, 23 June, three hours after polls closed in parliamentary elections, a queue of officials carrying clear plastic ballot boxes snaked up the steps outside the opera. Policemen in wide-brimmed hats formed a porous cordon around the votes. Party loyalists, with pens and notepads to tally the votes as they were counted, hovered on the terrace, waiting for the lobby to open. Counting had been scheduled to start at eight.
By-elections seldom mean that much. The idea that they matter a lot is an illusion jointly propagated by party hacks, to whom they do matter a lot, and press hacks, whose job is to make them look as if they matter. Party candidates, ventriloquised by their minders, are egged on to terrorise hapless local voters with the prospective death of Nato or the EU, communist invasion, or droves of dark immigrants if they stick their cross in the wrong box. Journos generally play ball. They roll out their watersheds, such as the 1962 Orpington by-election, ‘credited’ with springing the old Liberal Party from the morgue gurney (and, one might add, much good that’s done us).
One of Mario Monti's least popular reforms among Italian property owners is the introduction of a new property-based council tax (IMU) to replace the one that Silvio Berlusconi scrapped in 2008. On Wednesday, everyone on the electoral register was sent a letter with 'Avviso Importante: Rimborso IMU 2012’ printed on the envelope. The two closely printed sides of A4 inside explained how people could get last year's council tax refunded, either by bank transfer or in person at the post office. The letter was signed by Berlusconi: all people have to do to qualify for the rebate is vote for him in next week's elections. But not everyone read that far; apparently hopeful queues formed at post offices within hours. They'd have done better to mob Mediaset's headquarters.
This is the way the results of the elections are being presented in the Israeli press: Centre Left Bloc Right Bloc Other, perhaps more accurate ways to present the election results:
Yesterday's three by-elections are, as by-elections go, interesting. They point, first of all, to widespread electoral disengagement. Even by traditional by-election standards, turn-outs were low – which confirms the pattern of this parliament. Even in by-elections which were thought to be really significant, like Corby (turn-out 45 per cent), most people don’t turn out. The figure for Rotherham (34 per cent) – which was surrounded by publicity – is telling.
I spoiled my police commisioner ballot in North Yorkshire. I wrote: 'This is a very ill-advised idea borrowed from the US and not wanted by the public.' So the results declare it to have been. The primal fault lies in a belief that voting and democracy are the same thing and that more of one means more of the other.
With Hugo Chávez’s election victory, the uncertainty that had built up about Venezuela’s future, sloppily fostered by the media in Europe and the United States, was swept away at a stroke. Venezuela enjoyed one of those great explosions of popular joy and excitement on Sunday night that occur just occasionally in Latin America, and of which I have been privileged to watch not a few. It may not survive – the euphoria created by Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution may evaporate as quickly as it began – but it should be enjoyed while it lasts. Chávez is the most popular figure not just in Venezuela but throughout Latin America, and it is high time that this was more widely recognised. Where in Europe can a politician achieve such popularity? On polling day I went to Zulia, a state in the far west that borders with Colombia.
They called him the 'spare tyre', but he may become the next president of Egypt – the first president of the post-Mubarak order. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, is a charmless man, doctrinaire in disposition and impatient with the reform-minded currents in his party. He became its candidate only after its more appealing first choice, Khairat El-Shater, was disqualified from running by the Presidential Election Commission; hence the nickname. (The commission cited a Mubarak-era rule that those who have been in prison in the last six years are ineligible to run; El-Shater was released only in March 2011.) Yet Morsi had behind him the electoral machine of the Muslim Brotherhood, still the country's most significant political movement.
On 6 May, I went with my father to vote at our local polling station in Maroussi in north Athens. The anger in the queue was palpable. It was unsurprising that the centre-left Pasok had its parliamentary majority wiped out, coming third with 13 per cent of the vote and winning a mere 41 seats out of 300. Pasok’s former coalition partner, the centre-right New Democracy, came top, but with less than 19 per cent of the vote and only 108 seats, couldn’t form a government. The left-wing anti-austerity party, Syriza, came second, with just over 16 per cent of the vote and 52 seats (taken together, the various far-left parties won about a third of the vote). And the overtly fascist Golden Dawn received nearly 7 per cent of the vote, gaining 21 seats. The result may have been unclear, but the message was not: a total rejection of the EU, ECB and IMF’s bailout plan, and of austerity.
In round one of the French presidentials the argument was about the new, dirty style of global capitalism. Could you talk to it or propitiate it or were governments now defenceless creatures in the wild, whose only option was to stay on the run? Once the fringe candidates who wanted France to turn and face it were eliminated, the debate should have moved on to France’s debt. Instead, Sarkozy and Hollande fought about the moral tone of Sarkozy’s presidency (money, friends, influence), ‘Republican values’, nuclear energy, immigration, identity and the ritual preparation of meat. With Hollande’s investiture next week, we’ll be back to the debt. We’re there already.
In last week’s local elections only 32 per cent of the registered electorate voted – a striking measure of how unimportant local government is to most people and a reasonable judgment on the authority of municipal government. The powers of the local state have been inexorably weakened over the last century: a process only speeded up in the 1980s. Despite the importance of local government to the Lib Dems the present government has further accelerated it. Furthermore, 32 per cent is a small and unreliable sample on which to make judgements about national politics. But here goes.
Sunday: by noon on voting day, the national turn-out promised to be even higher than it was in the first round. But it looked much slacker at the two polling stations I visited in Bordeaux, side by side, in separate classrooms at an elementary school in a modest part of town. At 7 p.m. there were still a few stragglers. By eight, when the clock stopped, there were only the officials and the volunteers for the count. One of them was keen to be in on the kill. She’d waited five years, she said with a broad smile. For what? To be heard, she said.
Provincial life begins where Paris ends. Beyond the provincial town is the green belt and beyond that the deeper countryside. The nation’s ailing villages, hundreds of them, stipple the hinterlands. I live in a sparsely populated rural area sustained by a firm that produces industrial valves and pumps (for ships, waste, petroleum, nuclear reactors and desalination plants). It has four branches in China. There are goats on the hillside just above the company premises, cattle in the meadows below.
Wednesday, early p.m.: New emails arrive from the UMP, asking for support. (I’ve been on various party mailing lists for a while.) Here’s one just in from Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Sarkozy’s spokesperson, a note about the rally in Paris on May Day. ‘It was a great, a beautiful day, thanks to you all.’ Now she wants us to tweet the televised debate – Hollande v. Sarkozy – which starts at 9 p.m. She signs off: ‘I’m counting on you.’
The Front National use May Day to commemorate Joan of Arc, a zealous patriot. In Paris they like to lay a wreath at the foot of a gilt bronze statue of the Maid on horseback in the place des Pyramides. For French politicians it pays to have Joan in your church and the FN were especially touchy this year about Sarkozy’s attempt to drag her away from the Le Pen ‘clan’ in January. I arrived in Paris moments too late for the wreath-laying yesterday. Not that it mattered: anyone who wants to see a far-right politician laying a wreath in honour of Joan can watch propaganda footage of Pétain in the bombed city of Rouen – hit by British and American ‘terrorist raids’ – a few weeks before D-Day.
A.J.P. Taylor memorably remarks in The Course of German History, written to mark the centenary of the failed 1848-49 revolution, that with the Frankfurt Parliament, ‘German history reached its turning-point, and failed to turn’. A similar non-moment in the UK’s constitutional history now lies before us, in the form of the alternative vote referendum on the voting system.
The almost certain victory in the referendum of Conservative self-interest through financial overkill should not be the end of the matter. The retention of First Past the Post has been won by rich men spending deep, as they spent deep at the last election. Why should they be allowed to? Why should the party of the right go into every election with an advantage that wins it all but those to which it comes massively unpopular? The response is simple: a hard, low limit on what may be spent by private individuals and corporations in respect of all votes, electoral or consultative. Avoidance would be pre-empted by very heavy fines for all attempts to subscribe through nominees, individual or corporate. Preventing elections from being bought would make far more difference than changing the voting system.
Mid-April, and Britain attends to the 5 May referendum on the Alternative Vote with all the rapture of a gutted cod. Voters will be asked: ‘At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?’ This version of the question is a redraft, made at the Electoral Commission’s bidding. When the government published the original, one-sentence version last year, which rendered MPs in unabbreviated form, the commission worried that people would be too thick to understand it. Now campaigners merely worry that people are too thick to understand AV itself.
In 1972, the former Home Office minister Dick Taverne was deselected by the Lincoln Constituency Labour Party for being too pro-European. (The party had been out of office since June 1970, and parts of it had drifted as far to the unreal left as others would later move to the amoral right.) Taverne resigned, stood as an independent 'Democratic Labour' candidate and won a smashing victory. He now sits on the Liberal Democrat benches in the House of Lords. With the coalition closing down hospital wards, refuge centres, public libraries, lavatories and employment, the Liberal Democrats have suffered a reversal in Barnsley which may be called historic – near total desertion by their former voters. There are plenty of Liberal Democrats, including MPs, for whom accepting the Osborne budget and cuts is a bitter reversal of a lifetime conviction.
Large-scale electoral meltdowns are relatively rare. In Italy in 1994 the Christian Democrats went from having been the biggest party in every election since the late 1940s to virtual wipe-out. In Spain in 1982 the Union of the Democratic Centre, which had dominated the first parliament after the transition to democracy, fell from 168 seats to just 12, and effectively ceased to exist. The biggest single defeat for any party was probably that of the Progressive Conservatives in Canada in 1993, who fell from 151 seats to just two, though they later recovered. By all accounts, Fianna Fáil, the ruling party in Ireland, is facing electoral meltdown on Friday.
The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was pretty good for Labour, better than it might have been for the Lib Dems and not very good for the Tories. Labour’s vote was up 10 per cent, which is more or less exactly the figure represented by the national polls. It probably represents a flow of ex-Lib Dem voters who went to Labour as soon as the coalition was formed. But the result tells us less about the composition of the coalition vote. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lib Dem vote was bolstered by tactical Tory voting – Tories who took their cue from a prime minister worried that the Lib Dem vote would collapse. It is less likely, though not impossible, that the same thing would happen in a general election. In any case, the Lib Dem vote in any by-election is usually not representative of the Lib Dem vote in a general election. The politics of the by-election, however, point to the coalition’s longer-term problems.
So the centre-right candidate easily won the run-off for mayor. (Is it just me, or is it the case that there's very little that's centrist about the so-called centre right, just as the so-called centre left seems to have very little of the left about it?) The town hasn't had a right-wing mayor since the end of the Second World War. Posters have sprung up everywhere, emblazoned with the logo of Berlusconi's Popolo della Libertà, saying a big thank you to voters and announcing that the town is changing, though without specifying how. It's all rather sinister. But then the losing centre-left candidate's runner-up prize is to be the majority leader on the town council, so what we probably have to look forward to, rather than the threatened change, is five years of stalemate.
Any self-respecting electorate in an EU member-state prefers a presidential to a European parliamentary. In France, enthusiasm and interest were at fever pitch. The challenger to the incumbent looked impressive. According to Le Figaro, he was a winner with younger voters, and an instinctive liberal in ways that matter – an aerosol solution to the fug in the country's political institutions and the clammy hold of the Republic on the lives of its citizens. His wife was said to be 'a star' in the political firmament. If the French had been eligible to vote in Iran, they'd have turned out in force for Hossein Mousavi and his non-singing, non-dancing not Carla Bruni. And they'd have wanted to be on the streets of Tehran denouncing the rigged results.
Circumstantial evidence suggests the traditional left is alive and well in Berlin. My neighbourhood is full of posters printed with Marx's picture and slogans such as 'Marx is Back' and 'Permanent Crisis: we're not paying!' Thanks to the recession, Kreuzberg's May Day demonstrations were livelier than they've been for some time: more flaming mattresses, more paint-bombed buildings, more arrests. And at the Freie Universitaet the only party with any discernible campaign presence in the run up to the European elections was the uncompromisingly anti-capitalist Die Linke, a part-successor to East Germany's old SED.
There seems to be one clear message from last Friday's voting in Ireland: people liked their Celtic Tiger, and now that it's gone, they want somebody to pay. Elections for the European Parliament were held alongside local council polls, and there were a couple of Dublin by-elections thrown in for good measure, so the opportunities to stick it to the ruling coalition were delightfully varied. Fianna Fáil had an awful day, their worst since the 1920s. They were overtaken by Fine Gael on a national scale, but the details of the defeat must have made it particularly galling for Ireland's one-time vote-harvesting machine.
There wasn't much excitement about the European elections in Spain. A couple of vans with loudspeakers came round my district advertising the main parties, the PSOE (left) and the PP (right), but they caused far less interest than others announcing vegetables, wine by the litre and cheap trousers. I went down to the local polling station at eight, when it was supposed to open. It was indeed open but the police informed me that no one could vote before nine. At nine I was leaving town with a party of friends from my mineral club. And so I spent most of election day en route for the tiny mountain village of Navajun, in the Rioja region. I once saw two pensioners, one of them disabled, get into an undignified physical fight in a village bar over a general election. Local elections, too, can cause feelings to run high. Europe is a different matter.
Sweden starts to wind down about now, preparing for the short – but glorious – summer. So, not much excitement over the European elections here. The quality dailies carried some serious articles on them, of course, but that's just the political class. A few party posters appeared, very late, all almost identical (just faces), and in pastel shades. Swedes have always been ambivalent, at best, about the EU, joining it very late (1995), resisting the euro, and endlessly carping about the way Brussels seems to want to interfere with their cherished customs, like the state liquor-store monopoly, snus (vile little cushions of tobacco you put between your bottom lip and your gum), paying immigrant workers decent wages, and – well – democracy generally.
Like a complete idiot I assumed that informing the ufficio anagrafe I'd changed my address would automatically mean the electoral register would be updated too. Residency is a big deal here: the police are supposed to come and check that you live where you say you do before the town council will update the official record, and all sorts of things – from being taxed and getting an ID card to buying a car or paying lower (domestic rather than business-rate) electricity bills – are dependent on it. I thought the right to vote was one of them. By the time I learned a couple of weeks ago that the ufficio elettorale is distinct and down the hall from the ufficio anagrafe, it was too late to register for the weekend's ballot. (I'd have been just as stuffed in the UK, where the deadline was 7 April.) Even for the local elections? Even for the local elections. Oh dear.
Maybe one should be tremendously worried about the electoral victories of the British National Party. Maybe not. 'Leading historians' say there's no reason to panic. Still, worry seems to characterise some of the reaction. Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling both say that their party is responsible because – oh no! – the Labour Party has let these voters down, though only Labour, they also insist, can now rescue them from the clutches of the wicked Nick Griffin.
Now it looks likely that a vote will take place next year which will decide whether the Labour Party has a future. But this is not the general election, which however bad for Labour is unlikely to kill it off altogether. The vote that has the potential to change the entire dynamics of British politics is the referendum on Scottish independence, promised for the second half of 2010. In all the torrents of speculation about Brown and his future, no one south of the border seems to be giving the possibility of the SNP actually winning this referendum a second thought. The Labour hierarchy, traumatised by their drubbing in England in the European and local elections and their embarrassing loss to the Tories in Wales, seem remarkably complacent about their equally catastrophic showing in Scotland, where the SNP beat them by 9 per cent and increased their share of the vote by 10 per cent. It has been widely noted that parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy); governing parties of the centre-left (Spain, England) got hammered. But there is one striking exception: Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely. The Labour government in Westminster should be terrified.