Populist parties in Europe: From the margins to the mainstream


In a climate of lacklustre economic growth, unemployment and growing Islamophobia, populist and radical parties have been surging in popularity in many European nations, gaining legislative seats, enjoying the legitimacy endowed by ministerial offices, and striding the corridors of government power. Meanwhile, centre-left social democrats and centre-right traditional parties who have dominated national politics for many years are struggling to win elections. This trend has left Europe’s traditional parties and their more centrist leaders scrambling to survive — and in some cases tacking toward people they once considered extremists in order to do so.

© Lander Daniëls
© Lander Daniëls

1. Introduction

As the European leaders came together in Bratislava mid-September 2016 at an informal summit intended to map a new path for the EU in the wake of Brexit, the mood was sombre. At issue was the future of the EU’s so-called four freedoms – the free movement of goods, labour, services and capital. Meeting in the Slovak capital with the British conspicuously absent, the 27 other EU members unveiled a six-month “road map” of measures designed to restore public confidence in Europe’s ailing common project. But with anti-establishment sentiment rising, politicians do not regard trade as a vote winner. Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, shattered the facade of unity as soon as the meeting ended, underscoring how divided the bloc remains after years of economic crisis, a record influx of migrants and a series of deadly terrorist attacks.

Against this background, it is not a surprise that after decades at the margins of political life, European populist and radical parties are making a political comeback across the continent. These parties have steadily filled an electoral vacuum left open by social democratic and centre-right parties, who ignored voters’ growing anger over immigration – some of it legitimate, some of it bigoted – or simply waited too long to address it.[1]

As a result, parties such as France’s Front National and Germany’s anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland have established a clear presence in a diverse array of established democracies and entered coalition governments.

This development has occurred in both predominately Catholic and Protestant societies, in Nordic and Mediterranean Europe, as well as in liberal Norway and conservative Switzerland, in Western Europe and in Anglo-American democracies.[2]

In other countries – particularly the nations of southern Europe, which, with memories of fascism and dictatorship still very much alive, have proved reluctant to flirt with right-wing extremism – it is the far left that is advancing. While populists on the far right rail against migrants, their cousins on the far left join them in blaming globalisation for economic ills.

2. Populism

The agrarian Populist (or People’s) Party in the 1890s in the United States is often mentioned as the origin of what we call populism today. The party challenged the established two party system with its critique of the moneyed interests and ended up merging with, and somewhat transforming, the Democratic Party.[3]

In modern Europe, populist movements stoke public anxieties and resurgent nationalism by lashing out against the surge in refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, while portraying Brussels, the capital of Europe, as a bastion of the political establishment out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. These parties are poised to transform the European political landscape – either by winning elections or simply by pulling a besieged political centre so far in its direction that its ideas become the new normal.

According to Jagers and Walgrave populism always refers to the people and justifies its actions by appealing to and identifying with the people.
It is rooted in anti-elite feelings; and it considers the people as a monolithic group without internal differences except for some very specific categories who are subject to an exclusion strategy. Together, these three elements define populism”.[4]

Positions of mainstream and radical populist parties can vary substantially, especially on the nationalist side: from anti-establishment to neo-fascist, nationalist to anti-austerity, authoritarian to populist, libertarian to Catholic ultra-conservative. They are so varied that they cannot feasibly be grouped under the same label.

As Krastev has noted, “(t)he result is a new type of politics where the main structural conflict is not between the Left and the Right or between reformers and conservatives. The real clash is between elites that are becoming more suspicious of democracy and the angry publics that are becoming more hostile to liberalism.”[5]

Populism is seen as both a reaction to, and a product of, the growing distance between citizens and their institutions of governance, whether that is at state or European level. The frustration and disillusionment of ever-growing groups of Europeans is mostly caused by the behaviour of the European political elites, who, when their lofty ideals are confronted with concrete problems, quickly abandon their moral high ground and hide behind the alleged preferences of the populations.[6]

As a result, the EU’s compromise machine is increasingly perceived as an institutionalised grand coalition between the centre-left and the centre-right that routinely ignores opposing voices.

In a bid to shore up European support amid populist gains, Mario Draghi, Donald Tusk and Christine Lagarde, three leading EU voices of economic liberalism, issued late September 2016 separate pleas to address the plight of those “left behind” by globalisation or risk a political backslash that could roll back competition and open markets. These interventions underline the degree of worry among EU policymakers about protectionism, populism and anti-establishment currents coursing through democratic politics.[7]

Populist parties share a distrust of those they perceive as elite policy-makers and a desire to reclaim national sovereignty from international institutions.

The rise of populism could have far-reaching consequences for trade and economic policy-making and the existing trade and broader economic architectures, as illustrated by the on-off talks over the European Union’s comprehensive economic and trade agreement (Ceta) with Canada. Some critics argue that the dominant Socialists in the Wallonian government used the issue to reinforce their position against hard-left rivals.

At member state level, populists blame the politicians of traditional parties of catering to unknown interests at the expense of their own people, and of inefficacy in a rapidly changing world.

Populists play on fear and demagoguery instead of engaging in constructive dialogue to help improve public life. They try to claim the mantle of democratic participation, while posing a most pressing and difficult challenge to democratic institutions.[8]

Added to these factors are rising fears of insecurity and less tangible threats from non-state actors, such as terrorist attacks, organised crime and uncontrolled immigration. Furthermore, the economic crisis, the constraints of Eurozone membership and economic fears about the cost of globalisation have opened up space for anti-establishment parties, mainly on the conservative nationalist right, to eat deeply into social democracy’s core electorate.


In Western Europe, there are several new right-wing populist actors who have begun to change the political landscapes and who, while in opposition and with limited electoral support, have influenced sitting governments’ policies.


The Austrian presidential election opened a new chapter in the story of European populism. There, Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green party candidate who ran as an independent, prevented Austria from becoming the first EU country to elect a far right head of state by narrowly defeating Norbert Hofer, the leader of Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), one of Europe’s longest-established nationalist movements.[9] The centre-right and centre-left parties barely polled 10% each.

A rerun of the presidential election was postponed after the adhesive seals on postal votes were found to have come unstuck. The rerun, which was ordered after complaints of anomalies in the counting of postal votes from the FPÖ, had been due to take place on 2 October. It will now be held on 4 December.[10]


In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National is experiencing steadily rising popularity as the country prepares for national elections next year. Ms Le Pen is expected to pull strongly in 2017, pushing socialist incumbent François Hollande out of the race. The party regularly issues statements lambasting the Élysée for its “huge disinterest” in France’s “industrial jewels”.

© Lander Daniëls
© Lander Daniëls

The FN has built much of its success over the past two years on an effort to win over working class voters. Nationwide, about 45% of blue-collar workers and 38% of unemployed people or youngsters looking for their first job say they are planning to vote for Ms Le Pen. These voters are disillusioned by the traditional left but attracted by others offering a break with the status quo.[11]

In an effort to create more jobs, Mr Hollande shifted towards the political centre over the past years by embracing supply side reform. But this has incurred the anger of the left.

The horrific Bastille Day attack on Nice, in which a Tunisian delivery driver killed 84 people when he drove a heavy lorry at full-speed into a crowd watching fireworks, will be a defining concern in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The Front National, which has accused the political class of failing to protect France, has already seen an increase in membership applications since the attack. Its key issues of security, immigration and national identity will dominate the debate.


In Germany, populist forces shook Europe’s pillar of stability, as an unprecedented defeat for Ms Merkel’s conservatives signalled more political tumult across Europe. For the first time in post-war history, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) finished behind a populist challenger to their political right in a regional election.

In the immediate aftermath, she urged politicians across the house to rein in the hostile tone of the debate over refugees and said traditional parties have a joint responsibility to tackle the rise of the right. Later that month, Ms Merkel was forced to change tack over her open-door approach to refugees after the CDU suffered another defeat in the Berlin regional elections.[12]

Although Ms Merkel successfully weathered crisis after crisis and contained conflicts by pragmatic compromise rather than dramatic intervention, the recent German election shows that that even in a state like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, largely insulated from the refugee crisis, many European voters do not at present have sufficient confidence in the government’s ability to resolve the current issues.

Feeding off widespread discontent over immigration, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was founded in 2013 at the height of Greek debt crisis. Frauke Petry and co-founder Bernd Lucke, an academic, transformed it from a small Eurosceptic party into the country’s most powerful anti-immigrant force. Its performance in the regional elections mid-March 2016 was the best by any populist right-wing movement since 1945. That said, the AfD attracted only 24 per cent of the vote, which is far less than France’s Front National gets in its strongholds.


In Italy, recession, austerity and the migration crisis have strained Rome’s ties with Brussels, triggering criticism from the government of Matteo Renzi, the centre-left prime minister, and forcing him to adopt a much more confrontational tone in his dealings with Brussels.

Like many other Mediterranean countries, Italy is on the frontline of the migration crisis and Mr Renzi has faced political heat from the right-wing opposition, such as the Northern League party, which says he is not being aggressive enough in attempts to stop the flow of migration or deport undocumented migrants. Led by Matteo Salvini, the party is now challenging Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party for dominance of Italy’s right.

While Italy’s youth unemployment dropped under Mr Renzi’s government, many Italian youngsters channel their discontent by supporting the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which holds softer positions on immigration and the euro. The party adopts hard-line Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant positions designed to appeal to a right-wing audience across Italy. In the summer of 2016, the party scored major victories by winning mayoral elections in Turin and, more important, in the capital, Rome.

For the government of Mr Renzi, the landslide victory of M5S could not come at a worse time. Italy has been grappling with its troubled banks, whose problems have dominated the news all summer and have provoked worries of a major bank failure.

Another dominant issue in Italian politics will be the high-stakes referendum on constitutional reform set for 4 December, which could determine the fate of Mr Renzi.

The purpose of the referendum is to make the country more stable and easier to govern. The measures proposed by Mr Renzi would slash the power of the Senate, reduce the number of lawmakers and give the central government greater control over infrastructure projects than regional bodies.

Much like Brexit in the UK, this referendum is increasingly being seen as a way for Italians to air their general discontent with the establishment, in large part because Mr Renzi swore that he would leave politics if the referendum did not go his way. If he loses his gamble, the results of the referendum could have vast consequences for Italy and the whole of Europe. A defeat could potentially open the door to a new national election that could see the M5S push the ruling party out of power.[13]

The fear is that a No vote could plunge Italy back into a period of instability and embolden the country’s growing Eurosceptic parties. In such a scenario, it is not out of the question that Italy could end up exiting the EU or the euro.[14]

Central and Eastern Europe

In this part of Europe, people by and large do not feel represented by political parties. First of all, substantial parts of the leadership of post-communist political parties have participated in institutionalised corruption. Secondly, all of the parties have advocated the neoliberal capitalism most people have come to see as a political and economic system that makes their lives worse.[15]

In these post-communist EU member states a vulgar version of populism emerged, represented by new political leaders such as the Czech president Miloš Zeman, Hungary’s Victor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. In Slovakia, a neo-Nazi party made an electoral breakthrough by gaining 14 seats in the 150-strong parliament. These right-wing leaders are hostile to immigrants, while critics say the governments of these countries are also rewriting national laws to undermine democratic checks and balances.[16]

Early October 2016, almost all Hungarians who voted in the referendum rejected EU quotas for the resettlement of refugees. Mr Orbán’s aim in the referendum was to demonstrate that his brand of nationalism commands the enthusiastic support of Hungarian society. However, only forty per cent of those eligible voted, well below the fifty per cent threshold required to make the result legally valid, frustrating Mr Orbán’s hopes of a clear victory with which to challenge Brussels.

Academic criticism

High profile intellectuals, like Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, have already sounded the alarm on Europe’s post-democratic mutation, highlighting the need for European politics to return to the rough grounds of ‘the people’. While other authors claim to believe that the success and threat of radical right parties is exaggerated in the mass media, there is no doubt that far right parties have become a (and perhaps the) main political actor in some European countries.

“The success of populist parties in Europe is very problematic”, says Stefaan Rummens, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the KU LEUVEN. “These political groups indicate a deeper problem within our democracy. Both the symptom itself as the root causes are very serious and both (the symptom and the cause) must be addressed”

“I’m convinced that the root causes of populism is the rapid rise of the (neoliberal) technocracy which has gradually shrunk the power of traditional politics. As a result, traditional politicians at the national level lack the necessary tools for political decision-making. Basically, today’s socio-economic policies are determined on the European level rather than at the national level. European policymaking has become the preserve of technocrats and, also, it does not offer the possibility of a democratic opposition that could voice a different European policy. As such, public discontent against traditional political parties has risen, and at the same time there is a growing consensus for anti-establishment protest movements with populist undertone.”

Rummens also argues that populism as a ‘symptom’ should be dealt with by imposing a ‘cordon sanitaire’ policy. “These groups often defend extremist (and undemocratic) ideas and should therefore be excluded from power. Meanwhile, the populist voter itself must indeed be taken seriously and must be addressed respectively. Our response should not be based on the (often) extremist proposals of the parties, but rather by reforming our democratic system so that once again it can truly meet the demands and the needs of the voter. This is, however, not an easy task. First of all, the extent of technocracy has to be reduced. Also, our elected politicians must regain some power over the socio-economic policy decision-making. As mentioned in my book, this will only be possible if we democratise the European Union itself. Europe is still primarily an economic project that, by liberalising the market, has severely put pressure on a number of social benefits. A strong, democratic Europe should be able to give its citizens the feeling that they can rely on the EU for social and economic protection.”

“As long as the root causes of populism (the ‘symptom’) have not been removed, its success will only continue to increase. The problem and the danger of populist parties have been underestimated for many years”.[17]

Also Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics at Princeton University, argues that the tragedy of European politics today is a polarisation between technocracy and populism.“Populists, when in power, will always pretend that they are merely implementing what the people have told them to do, rendering any opposition by definition. Technocrats claim that they merely bow to necessities; hence any opposition is plainly irrational. Neither really takes responsibility for political decisions.”[18]

In short, populism and technocracy are two sides of the current crisis of European democracy. The separation between the forum of political decision‐making (reduced to mere administration) and the place of mobilisation causes populist and ideological turbulence.

Social scientists Giorgos Katsambeki and Yannis Stavrakakis argue that, ultimately, it would be more beneficial to critically engage with both populism and the current post-democratic and increasingly anti-democratic malaise in an effort to re-activate the pluralist and egalitarian imaginaries lying at the heart of political modernity.


Two core issues lie at the root of today’s rising populism in Europe: the challenge of migration and the lingering euro crisis. Identifying the problem, however, is not the same as overcoming it. And here, Europe faces a dilemma. The continent’s problems can only be addressed through increased cooperation, but European electorates refuse to authorise any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.

Too many commentators have underestimated the depth of discontent, as happened in Britain before the EU referendum. The task ahead, in terms of research (and, why not, political) strategies, would be to register the development in Europe of inclusionary populisms, reclaiming ‘the people’ from extreme right-wing associations and re-activating its potential not as a threat but as a corrective to the post-democratic mutations of the democratic legacy of political modernity.

[1] Sasha Polakow-Suransky (01.11.2016). “The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right”, (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/the-ruthlessly-effective-rebranding-of-europes-new-far-right).

[2] Pippa Norris (2006). “Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market”, Massachusetts: Harvard University.

[3] Thomas Greven (05.2016). “The Rise of Right-wing Populism in Europe and the United States: A Comparative Perspective”, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[4] Jan Jagers and Stefaan Walgrave (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium. European Journal of Political Research, 46 (3), pp. 319-346.

[5] Krastev, I. (2007). “The populist movement”

[6] Mudde, C. (2016). “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe”. Routledge.

[7] Claire Jones and Alex Barker (14.09.2016). “Draghi makes appeal for those ‘left behind’”. Financial Times, p. 2.

[8]Hedwig Giusto, David Kitching and Stefano Rizzo (2013). The Changing Faces of Populism. Systemic Challengers in Europe and the U.S. Lexington Books.

[9] Ralph Atkins (23.04.2016). “Austria’s main parties face electoral rout”, Financial Times, p. 4.

[10] Kate Connolly (12.09.2016). “Austrian presidential election postponed due to faulty glue”, (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/12/austria-presidential-election-rerun-to-be-postponed-faulty-glue-ballot-papers).

[11] Gérard Courtois and Jean-Baptiste de Montvalon (26.09.2016). “Sarkozy rattrape Juppé, Macron bouscule le paysage politique avant la présidentielle”, (Le Monde: http://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/article/2016/09/26/sarkozy-rattrape-juppe-macron-bouscule-le-paysage-politique_5003430_4854003.html#kAoq9JQdvQLcgcfi.99).

[12] Philip Oltermann (05.09.2016). “Angela Merkel’s crown slips after party’s local election defeat” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/05/angela-merkel-germany-mecklenberg-vorpommern-election-analysis).

[13] Stephanie Kirchgaessner (6.08.2016). “Will Italy be Europe’s next casualty as Renzi risks all on referendum?” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/06/matteo-renzi-italy-referendum-banks-brexit).

[14] James Politi (17.03.2016). “How Italy fell out of love with the EU”, Financial Times, p. 7.

[15] Jakub Patočka (15.09.2016). “Miloš Zeman makes Nigel Farage look like a nice guy. It’s even worse than that” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/15/milos-zeman-czech-republic-president-populists-post-communist).

[16] Jim Yardley (24.06.2016). “Populist Anger Upends Politics on Both Sides of the Atlantic” (New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/25/world/europe/brexit-eu-politics.html).

[17] Stefan Rummens, (personal communication, 12.09.2016).

[18] Jan-Werner Müller (05.10.2016). “Genuine political choice provides the best antidote to populism”. Financial Times: p. 15.


2016 US elections: Trump and Sanders win New Hampshire primary

Thomas Thielemans
Lander Daniëls (illustration)

The first two tests of the 2016 presidential race, in Iowa and New Hampshire, demonstrate how polarised and volatile American politics has become. The electorate’s choices bear out early indications that they are rejecting the “establishment” on their respective sides. In the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist senator from Vermont, is against Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State. Mrs Clinton leads Mr Sanders among African-American and Hispanic voters but Mr Sanders is starting to make inroads among new groups of supporters.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Donald J. Trump, the bombastic billionaire, dominates the Republican race. His decisive win in the New Hampshire primary has underscored the extent to which the 2016 race for the White House has made a mockery of conventional wisdom. Beyond Mr Trump, four mainstream Republicans were clustered together, each receiving less than 20 per cent of the vote. Unless one or two of the establishment politicians abandon their presidential ambitions, Mr Trump, who has solidified his frontrunner status, will continue to benefit from a fractured opposition.


Meanwhile, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg lifted his head above the parapet as he confirmed plans to enter the race as a third-party candidate.

Every four years, presidential candidates compete in a series of state contests during the winter and spring before the general election to gain their party’s nomination. Many presidential candidates begin campaigning informally in early-voting states like Iowa, the 30th most populated state, and tiny New Hampshire more than a year before their primary events.

At stake in each contest – either a primary or caucus – is a certain number of delegates, or individuals who represent their states at national party conventions. The candidate who accumulates a majority of his or her party’s delegates during the months-long process wins the nomination.

Iowa caucuses

This year, the primary calendar kicked off on the first of February, when both the Republican and Democratic parties held their Iowa caucuses. Senator Ted Cruz, the maverick Texas senator, beat property tycoon Donald Trump into second place in the Republican race. Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, narrowly won the Democratic race over Bernie Sanders.

His success exposed a difficult and possibly intractable problem for the Democrats: their frontrunner and establishment favourite is an accomplished individual but a vulnerable candidate as a large share of the electorate find her untrustworthy and hard to relate to.

New Hampshire primary

The second major test of the 2016 presidential race, the New Hampshire primary, drew a huge turnout across the Granite state. Trump ran strongest among voters who were worried about illegal immigrants, increased economic turmoil and the threat of a terrorist attack in the US.


Meanwhile, Sanders, the first Jewish American to win a presidential primary in US history, was able to draw support from a wide cross-section of voters despite being largely written off by both the media and Democratic leaders.[1]

© Veto

The American voters have delivered a rebuke to US political establishment in both Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Bart Kerremans, Associate-Professor of International Relations and American Politics at University of Leuven, Belgium.

Sanders appears to have won substantial backing from New Hampshire’s independent voters but also from the left-wing of the Democratic Party as he emerges as an alternative to Senator Elizabeth Warren.”

Young Democrats are hungry for a more left-wing, more ideologically rigorous Democratic Party, but after eight years of Barack Obama the general public is not. This is a problem, and one the Sanders campaign has not yet offered a particularly compelling or detailed response to.

Over the last few years more and more Americans have been losing faith in their government. Wages are stagnant, economic inequality is growing, student debt is growing and money in politics is at an all-time high.

Many young people in the US are worried about unemployment when they leave college,” Alex Gimbel, student of University of Florida, said. “We have seen our parents get poorer as the wealthiest people in the country get richer. Sanders represents a lot of hope, he’s held his positions for a really long time which makes him uniquely genuine among American politicians. Young Americans are worried about economic and social justice, and money in politics. Sanders has been talking about this issues not just his entire campaign but his entire career.”

The US presidential nominating process in the US is one of the most complex, lengthy, and expensive in the world. Like many good dramas, it is also episodic: the Iowa caucus; the New Hampshire primary; Super Tuesday; the conventions; the presidential debates; then, finally, the denouement of election night. For international spectators, it can seem freakish and bizarre: a long-running farce populated by demagogues and populists, which works as entertainment but is a poor advertisement for American democracy.

Modern-day campaigns in the US have become almost two-year marathons: Senator Ted Cruz, the first candidate to declare his candidacy, announced his intentions on 23 March 2015. As campaigns have become so elongated, money has become even more important.

Mr Obama and Mr Romney, as well as their respective allies, spent a record-breaking $2bn in the 2012 presidential contest. This year’s race could cost $5bn, much of that money coming from Super-Pacs (political action committees), which can raise unlimited funds.

The US presidential race will end at the national conventions in July, when party delegates officially select their nominee. However, since the parties made the process more transparent in the 1970s, presumptive nominees have often emerged much earlier, sometimes only after a few weeks of voting.[2]

New Hampshire’s failure to impose any clear resolution on this year’s nomination races means that South Carolina, Nevada and the Super Tuesday states will take on greater importance in choosing the nominee.

[1] Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin, “Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Win in New Hampshire Primary”, New York Times, 9 February 2016.

[2] “The U.S. Presidential Nominating Process”, Council on Foreign Relations.


African Ownership Over Conflicts And Elections: The Beginning of a New Era?

As elections approach in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda and Rwanda, the entire Great Lakes Region is bracing itself for a potential of election-related violence. At a time when Western policies towards Africa are largely preoccupied with halting the expansion of Islamist terror groups, fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia and combatting against North African people-smugglers, there is a feeling of déjà vu and perhaps intervention-fatigue. In Burundi, the EU already has suspended its observer mission due to the crackdown on the opposition and the media, after violence broke out late in April 2015, after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term. As the Great Lakes Region and its electoral processes reach the agendas of the international community, many observers argue that international engagement is essential to monitor – and possibly tame – any outbreak of violence. This article critically evaluates the state of the current democratisation processes in Africa and in particular the Great Lakes Region.


In any democracy, elections are a ‘viable means of ensuring the orderly process of leadership succession and change and an instrument of political authority and legitimation’. Yet elections are also and more importantly an institutionalised attempt to actualise the essence of democracy: rule of the people by the people. However, in contexts where the power of a state is viewed as a prize to be won, and a vehicle for the primitive accumulation of national wealth and resources for private gain, elections become a means to legitimise political governance by ‘political entrepreneurs’. Accordingly, elections may not necessarily democratise the polity but legitimise autocratic regimes.

Political transitions, including electoral processes, present a major source of instability, particularly in the Great Lakes Region. Elections are necessary for democracies to function, yet political leaders and parties too often will manage them via corruption and violence, in a context often marked by decisive electoral contests and polarised politics. As a result, the role of elections in the democratisation process has been the subject of debate in recent years. A growing number of scholars have argued against the importance of elections and have criticised the current international emphasis on electoral practices.

Despite the growing amount of debates and published articles, the number of literature on contemporary elections and democratisation in Africa is still relatively thin compared to that of southern Europe and Latin America. Some efforts to understand issues like party systems have suffered from methodological problems undermining findings (e.g. Mozaffar and Scarritt 2005) but that is to be expected when new ground is being broken. Nonetheless, we are in a very dynamic period of academic research on Africa and as always scholars differ in their conclusions on where countries are heading, if things are getting better or worse, and to what extent the developments they see fits various theories.

© Thomas Thielemans
© Thomas Thielemans

Africa is a large continent, not only geographically but in numbers too. About a quarter of all the world’s states are found on the continent and it accordingly has produced a wide variety in terms of political institutions and outcomes. Africa had its first wave of democratisation in the late 1950s as countries engaged in struggles for national independence. But the history of elections and political participation in Africa started even before that. Already from 1848, a few “assimilated” Africans in Senegal were able to vote for a député. From 1946, Africans in the French colonies voted, both in elections to assemblies in France and to local government councils. Interestingly, these initial elections were generally carried out in a peaceful manner; they were fairly free and fair; and the outcomes were never generally disputed.

The first wave of electoral democracy in sub-Saharan Africa was short-lived, however. Once in power, the political leaders of the new nation-states approached the double tasks of national development and national integration by insisting on national uniformity, which set in motion a reversal towards autocracy across the continent that lasted for almost three decades. Between independence from colonial rule in the early 1960s and the end of the Cold War in 1991, not a single African ruler was peacefully ousted at the ballot box, except in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.

The Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), for instance, like many other ruling parties in Africa, became virtually synonymous with the state, such that it views its political survival as that of the state and any opposition to it as a threat to the national security. The more competitive the political struggle for power in Zimbabwe, the more unfair and violent means President Mugabe and his regime applied. In general, only a few African countries continued multiparty elections from independence: Botswana, Mauritius and Senegal. [1]

In the short term at least, autocracy does not always seem to curb economic growth. Some anti-democrats – Ethiopia’s late ruler, the authoritarian Meles Zenawi, is a favourite example – have seen their economies increase faster than those of their more democratic neighbours. The increasingly ruthless Paul Kagame has made Rwandans a lot better off. Thanks to oil, Equatorial Guinea and Angola are among the fastest-growing countries in the world.[2]

Today we see that free and fair elections are becoming increasingly common. The 2015 election vote in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous nation, has been described by African Union observers as ‘calm, peaceful and credible’ and that ‘it provided an opportunity for the Ethiopian people to express their choices at the polls’. According to official results, Ethiopia’s ruling party, the EPRDF, and its allies have won every single parliamentary seat. The EPRDF has been in power since the overthrow of the military government in 1991.[3]

In late April 2015, Togo returned President Gnassingbé yet again for a third term, thanks to his own amendment to the constitution that in the past had restricted a president’s tenure to two terms. Yet stability and the absence of electoral violence in this country can be chalked up as positive signs. In neighbouring Benin, parliamentary elections took place largely without incident, but deficiencies in the distribution of electoral cards and other technical difficulties triggered violent clashes.

According to Lindberg’s findings in Democracy and Elections in Africa, more countries are holding elections with an increasing share of elections achieving a minimum standard of democratic fairness. South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Namibia for example, all have stable one-party dominant systems even if they are (at least electoral) democracies. To a more pessimistic observer, a legitimate question mark still remains as to whether ruling elites in countries like Tanzania, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, Niger and Zambia will actually accept to step down if and when it becomes reality.[4]

Whereas several African countries have made steady progress in terms of infrastructural development, there still are obvious gaps to be filled. Worse still, many elections in Africa have been characterised by various forms and degrees of fraud, gross human rights violations and mass violence. Nigeria’s politics is so corrupt that it gives the D-word a bad name. Other examples are Kenya, Cameroon, Zimbabwe and Côte d’Ivoire, inter alia.

These countries all epitomise the effects of flawed electoral systems that, far from expressing the popular will, engendering political changes and the legitimation of political regimes have become a means of legitimising authoritarian governments while delimiting political space for the incumbent.[5]

Although this article focuses on election violence in Africa, the problem is not limited to this continent. It is not uncommon in some Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Philippines and Malaysia. In the Philippines, 75 people were killed prior to the May 2007 elections, while 80 others were wounded in election-related violence.

The resultant upsurge of electoral violence in these and other sub-Saharan countries but also the intensity of political polarisation have raised concerns over the militarisation of politics and the role of regional multinational organisations in guaranteeing a political transition to democracy and safeguarding the integrity of electoral processes.

Power politics

For decades the sight of gunmen arriving on motorcycles and in pick-up trucks at the gates of an African presidential palace spelled disaster. From mass pro-democracy revolts in North Africa to post-electoral disputes in the Sahel and in sub-Saharan Africa, the dominant role of the security sector has become increasingly visible both as ‘enablers’ and ‘spoilers’ of democratic political transition, illuminating the weakening role of elections as a legitimate basis for change of government. In most cases, regional and multinational institutions have been unable to resolve electoral disputes and ensure a democratic change of government, leaving African multinational institutions on the sidelines of resolving governance crises on the African continent.

To deter popular revolts and organised opposition, many African leaders such as President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe have intensified the militarisation of the police force and intelligence service, and have politicised the military, leaving the real powers to change government with the security sector rather than with electoral processes. The same could be said of Egypt, where the security forces initially sided with the Hosni Mubarak regime against pro-democracy protesters before defecting and supporting the revolution that eventually ousted Mubarak.

However, recent coups in Burundi and Burkina Faso have, if not upended, at least complicated attitudes to military coups. In Burundi, a group of generals declared the President, Pierre Nkurunziza, dismissed while he was out of the country on May 13th. They acted in support of groups protesting against an attempt by the president to stand for a third term and ignoring constitutional term limits by doing so. Loyalist forces regained control after two days and the president returned. Hopes of a negotiated end to the protests were dampened after an opposition leader was killed.

A coup in Burkina Faso in October 2014 is another example of a potentially useful political intervention by the military – even if far from ideal in a democracy. There President Blaise Compaoré, was chased from power by his own guards when the Burkinabé politician, who held the country together for 27 years, tried to ignore term limits. New elections are scheduled for October 2015.[6]

Old crocodiles

At the end of the 20th century, many African countries adopted presidential term limits as part of a broader set of constitutional rules that accompanied the transition from personal and authoritarian rule to pluralistic modes of governance. While term limits were widely embraced by the larger African public, these rules have in recent years come under increasing attack from incumbent presidents seeking to extend their tenures. In the first six months of 2015 alone, the presidents of Burundi, Benin, the DRC, and Rwanda have either personally or through their supporters expressed the intention to dispense with or circumvent term limits in order to seek additional terms of office.

An attempt by West African leaders in May 2015 to adopt a common position in favour of a maximum of two terms for all presidents in the region failed following disputations from the presidents of Togo (which abolished term limits in 2002) and Gambia.

Whether these incumbents will be able to successfully pursue constitutional change to stand for a third term will depend on interaction between international and local politics, as Dr Omar Shahabudin McDoom of the London School of Economics (LSE) points out. “An international norm for external actors to act to prevent these third terms is crystallising but whether it is enforceable will depend on the leverage donors possess and the extend they are willing to use it.”

Nevertheless, development agencies and/or ministries do not always pursue the same policies as their foreign ministries who are often more willing to act against illiberal practices. Local politics are more unpredictable and much depends on the constellation of forces who would serve to act as counterweights to challenge the incumbent.These forces do not only consist of opposition political parties, but also of the Church and influential civil society organisations such as human rights organisations, trade unions, and student and professional organisations.[7]

Congo’s conundrum

In Kinshasa, the incumbent, President Joseph Kabila, appears to be entrenching himself and his regime in order to cling to power despite a constitutional limit, which should see him leave office by December 2016. Ever since the controversial 2011 elections, large segments of the population have mobilised against government attempts to maintain power. In January 2015, protest against a new electoral law descended into street protests and riots: as many as 36 people died in the violence.


In the DRC the political landscape is fragmented, as there are only a few large majority and opposition formations and a plethora of small, “one-man” parties, most often with a strong regional or ethnic affiliation. The political opposition has been very fluid and nearly invisible since the 2011 elections. The main challenger then, Etienne Tshisekedi, isolated himself from the political debate by maintaining his position as self-declared elected president and legitimate head of state. Tshisekedi has been the primary Congolese opposition leader for decades. Although he served in the government of dictator Mobutu Sese in various positions, he also led the campaign against Mobutu, and was one of only a few politicians who challenged that dictator. Since the disputed 2011 elections, the Congolese population seems to have lost its belief in elections as an instrument for change or a way to improve their living conditions.

According to the Constitution, the Congolese state has to organise elections before the end of 2016 and President Kabila cannot stand for a third term. Prior to these elections, President Kabila has several options. The three main options are: (A) if Kabila decides to respect the Constitution and step down as president, the regime will have to appoint a successor; (B) Kabila decides for a new mandate as president of the DRC and (C) he opts to remain in power by slowing down the electoral process.

Meanwhile, because of election-related tensions and resurging conflict in the eastern provinces after the appearance of the M23 rebel group in March 2012, the planned provincial, senatorial and local elections were postponed. The takeover of Goma was in fact a major humiliation for President Kabila.[8]

In the Great Lakes Region, however, it is not only the DRC’s domestic troubles, which are spilling across the borders. In Rwanda, for instance, people talk of a “Putin-Medvedev scenario” that would let Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s dynamic but authoritarian ruler stay in charge, perhaps a prime minister, when he supposedly final term as president ends in 2017. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has now served 29 years in total. Denis Sassou-Nguesso has ruled Congo-Brazzavlle for most of the past 31 years. Elsewhere, the Republic of Congo recently expelled thousands of DRC citizens from Brazzaville, igniting social, economic and political tensions. Recent conflicts in the Central African Republic had led to thousands of refugees fleeing into the northern parts of the DRC. Also South Sudan and Uganda both have porous borders with the DRC.[9]

African Ownership Over Conflicts And Elections

The violent conflicts that have ravaged the Great Lakes Region since the early 1990s can be seen as domestic wars, such as in Rwanda (1990-94, 1997-99), Burundi (1993-2003) and the DRC (1996-today). However, they were also regional and even continental, with considerable inputs and outputs across national borders. The main reason for this extension is the nature of the Congolese state, which does not empirically perform essential state functions, chief among them the exercise of territorial control.[10]

René Lemarchand, a retired French-American political scientist who is known for his research on ethnic conflict and genocide in Rwanda, Burundi and Darfur has summarised the complex dynamics of the Great Lakes Region in his 2000 occasional paper. He believes that the marginal ranking of Africa in the scale of international priorities is just one explanation for this generalised lack of interest in the Great Lakes crisis. Another is the sheer complexity of the forces involved. When one considers the multiplicity of political actors, domestic and foreign, the fluidity of factional alliances, the spill-over of ethnic violence across boundaries, the extreme fragmentation of political arenas, it is easy to see why the international community should have second thoughts about the wisdom of a concerted peace initiative.

According to Lemarchand the key concept around which much of this discussion revolves is that of exclusion. “Political, economic and social exclusion are seen as the principal dimensions that need to be explored if we are to grasp the dynamics of domestic and inter-state violence in the Great Lakes. Briefly stated, the central pattern that recurs time and again is one in which ethnic polarization paves the way for political exclusion, exclusion eventually leading to insurrection, insurrection to repression, and repression to massive flows of refugees and internally displaced persons, which in turn become the vectors of further instability. The involvement of external actors, is inseparable from the perceived threats posed by mobilized refugee diasporas to their countries of origin as well as to specific communities within the host country.”[11] Lemarchand’s assertion is one that in 2015 still corresponds to reality.

African solutions for African problems?

An interesting new development is that African countries and multilateral institutions recently have been quite eager to play a role in the process of solving their own, internal conflicts; or at least preventing it from developing into an open regional war. For instance, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries tried to get actively involved by sending troops for the MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade and the African Union (AU) sought to promote its own visibility and leadership.

Also, in November 2014 ten East African nations have launched a joint military force aimed at improving security in the region and supporting the AU’s missions. The African Standby Force (ASF) was launched in the central Ethiopian city of Adama after almost a decade of planning and preparation. The force consists of up to 5,200 troops from the African countries of Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.

Yet, at the same time, the African coalition partners seem to struggle to engage effectively with uprising conflicts. In most African elections the international community has been an observer rather than an actor. In more powerful countries, such as Nigeria and Sudan, the international community plays a marginal role. Both were dominated by internal dynamics and politics, and little or no influence was exerted from abroad.

In this year of African elections, it is, as Christa Barrios of EUISS points out, not the West’s principles and policies that should be the focus. “Rather, it is African opposition parties and civil society who will use the polls to open up windows of opportunity that can be used to contest domestic policies and attract international attention”.[12]

Enforcement has proved to be a challenge for the AU, as for most regional organisations, since intervening in the affairs of another African state is still controversial. The Economic Community of Great Lakes Countries (Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC) cannot be easily used to deal with security issues. The SADC is considered a promising trans-regional endeavour, but some countries such as the DRC, remain peripheral in its structures.

Since its official inauguration on 9 July 2002, the African Union (has made the promotion of democracy and good political governance for the development and stability of Africa one of its main priorities. Despite the AU’s interventions, elections in Africa remain one of the weakest links in the democratisation process, turning out to be democratic liabilities, instead of assets.[13]

For the AU to be truly effective in conflict-resolution, it must be able to make the member states comply with AU’s decisions. In 2009, the AU took the unprecedented step of calling for UN sanctions of one of its members – Eritrea – for aiding jihadist fighters in Somalia and causing the deaths of AU peacekeepers. Although the AU has a built-in ability to become an efficient player in conflict resolution in Africa, it faces extensive challenges, which can only be overcome with extensive external support.

The AU’s election-monitoring reports are known, in several instances, to have contradicted those of sister organisations, both international and domestic. While the international and domestic observer groups condemned the 2011 Republic of Congo election as lacking in integrity, citing various irregularities, the AU observers described it as ‘successful’.

Another major challenge confronting the AU’s election observation missions is the fact that their reports, like those of other monitoring groups, be they domestic or international, do not have the force of law. Consequently, no matter how damning the reports might be, the AU is largely powerless to intervene in the internal affairs of the host country, except in exceptional cases where electoral irregularities degenerate into acute post-election violence beyond what can be handled internally. In fact, the greatest challenge of the AU in conflict resolution in Africa, is to prove that Africans are capable of resolving African problems.

Towards the 2016 elections

As was always the case, the security and future of the countries in the Great Lakes Region is a regional affair. Congo’s allies (Angola, South Africa, Tanzania, Congo-Brazzaville) are very interested in the elections. Their main concern is not the democratic quality (most of them face similar problems of searching for a balance between credible elections and their dedication to remain in power) but stability at their borders related to their economic interests.[14]

Therefore the next electoral cycle in the DRC is of historic importance. In October 2015 the Congolese will elect their local representatives (représentants locaux). Presidential elections are currently slated for 2016. As earlier mentioned, under the current constitutional dispensation, it will mark the end of President Kabila’s second and final mandate. According to Chatham House, the central questions, therefore, are whether these elections will happen on time, and whether Kabila will seek to stand for a third term. A full electoral cycle will include polls at multiple levels, across a vast country with limited infrastructure – their organisation will demand enormous resources.[15]

A peaceful transition of power through electoral democracy would be a remarkable step forward for the DRC. Professor of Law and Politics Filip Reyntjens of the University of Antwerp believes that the elections definitely will lead to situations of local instability. However, as it is a strong ‘diluted’ process, Reyntjens does not except any major outbreaks of violence on macro-level.[16]

The central lesson from electoral uncertainty in Kinshasa and in other major African cities is that – for a short moment – the international community could have a disproportionate influence on long-term outcomes. The Congolese political system is adept at drawing in and subverting possible opponents. The population is deeply cynical about politics and politicians, and the country lacks a significantly developed urban middle class. Pressure for political change – let alone the ‘Arab Spring’ type of uprising that some have foreseen – is unlikely to arise spontaneously. In fact, the country seems close to reverting to the resignation of the Mobutu era.


The DRC, still emerging from decades of war and generations of pervasive misrule, may be in a position to break loose from a seemingly eternal repetition of violence and mismanagement, and move towards both a democratic transition of power and genuine post-conflict stabilisation. The financial, political and technical support offered by the wider international community will remain extremely significant, but is unlikely to be formative. Secondly, it is important to note that the twin imperatives of political legitimacy and internal security are also interrelated. As noted, it is extremely difficult to conduct elections amid the chaos of conflict – and elections themselves could generate unrest, particularly at the local level. Also, and more fundamentally, it has long been argued that one of the key obstacles to achieving an effective security sector in the DRC has been a lack of political will at the centre. This generates a self-fulfilling cycle. Instability prevents the growth of a mature political culture, based on the competition of ideas and policy rather than power and patronage. Successive regimes lack the firm foundation of a legitimate mandate, and thus feel compelled to subvert the coercive functions of the state – most importantly the military – for fear that they will turn against them.

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, it seems that the need to respond rapidly to conflicts has never been more important. It also gives an impression that the Africans definitely want to take measures into their own hands and becoming less independent of the international community. Addressing election-related violence is therefore the combined responsibility of all citizens of Africa, including the regional and continental organisations.

© Thomas Thielemans 2015

[1] Lindberg, S. (2006). Democracy and Elections in Africa. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[2] The Economist (12.10.2013). Too many dinosaurs. Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21587787-too-many-dinosaurs.

[3] BBC (22.06.2015). Ethiopia election: EPRDF wins every seat in parliament. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-33228207.

[4] Lindberg, S. (2007). The Power of Elections Revisited, at the conference Popular Identities and Elections in Africa, Yale University, 26-28 April 2007.

[5] Adejumobi, S. (2000). Elections in Africa: a fading shadow of democracy? International Political Review 21, 59-73, 60.

[6] The Economist (23.05.2015). Burundi. Good coup, bad coup. Vol. 415, n°8939, p.32.

[7] Email correspondence with Dr Omar Shahabudin McDoom, 12 May 2015.

[8] International Crisis Group (2015). Congo: Is Democratic Change Possible? Africa Report N°225, 5 May 2015.

[9] Barrios, C. (2015). Congolese lessons for the Great Lakes. European Union Institute for Security Studies: Brief Issue; 3.2015, pp. 1-4.

[10] Reyntjens, F. (2009). The Great African War. Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996-2006. New York: Cambridge University Press; Prunier, G. (2009). Africa’s World War. Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[11] Lemarchand, R. (2000). Exclusion, Marginalization and Political Mobilization: The Road to Hell in the Great Lakes. Occasional Paper, Centre of African Studies University of Copenhagen, p. 2.

[12] Barrios, C. (2015). Elections in Africa: half-full, half-empty? EUISS: Alert Issue 29. Available at: http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/Alert_29_Africa_elections.pdf.

[13] Omotola, J.S. (2014). The African Union and the Promotion of Democratic Values in Africa: An Electoral Perspective. Occasional Paper n°185, South African Institute of International Affairs.

[14] Riche, M. & Berwouts, K. (24.06.2014). DRC Elections: Will Kabila stay or go? And many other questions on the road to 2016. African Arguments, available at: http://africanarguments.org/2014/06/24/drc-elections-will-kabila-stay-or-go-and-many-other-questions-on-the-road-to-2016-by-manya-riche-and-kris-berwouts/.

[15] Shepherd, B. (2014). Beyond Crisis in the DRC The Dilemmas of International Engagement and Sustainable Change. Chatham House: Africa Programme. Available at: http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20141222DRC_Research_Paper.pdf.

[16] Email correspondence with Professor Filip Reyntjens, 14 August 2014.

°UK 2015 parliamentary elections: The consequences for UK foreign policy

On May 7th Britain is holding a general election to choose a new government. After several weeks of campaigning the opinion polls have hardly stirred. Labour is slightly ahead of the Conservatives in overall votes, and probably slightly behind in parliamentary seats. Among the possible outcomes of the 2015 general election are the following: a Toriescommitment to a referendum on the EU that could quite conceivably see the UK vote to leave; a new prime minister (Labour’s opposition leader Ed Miliband); a pivotal role in government for the SNP, a party devoted to splitting up the UK; and a chaotic minority government, facing the risk of a collapse. 

© Thomas Thielemans
© Thomas Thielemans

Recent coverage of the election from May2015.com has suggested that there are few scenarios in which the Conservatives are likely to survive a vote of confidence, meaning that Ed Miliband, a product of Oxford and Harvard, has a good chance of becoming the Prime Minister after May 7th. Even though in the past five years Labour has declined in Scotland and lost votes to both the left-wing Greens and right-wing UKIP, the 2015 UK general election maths clearly favour Labour. All the outcomes currently implied by the polls or predicted by forecasters put the centre-left political party in a superior position. So for Mr Cameron to win, he needs to win more seats than Labour – considerably more. In the event neither party succeeds to win support for their legislative programme by May 27th, when the Queen is due to open parliament formally, a second election in the autumn is almost inevitable.

According to the academic forecast of May2015.com the ‘anti-Tory’ parties – Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and smaller parties like the Greens, Plaid Cymru, SDLP and Respect – are going to win 337 members of parliament (MPs), fourteen more than they need to ‘lock Cameron out’, as former SNP leader Alex Salmond stated in March.

The big regional contests in this election will be between the Tories and the centrist Liberal Democrats in the southwest, and between Labour and the SNP in Scotland. If the SNP fades, Labour is the most likely to benefit. And if the Lib Dems could strengthen their ranks, the Tories will probably lose out.


How British elections work

As Britain is a constitutional monarchy, electors will be voting solely for their local MPs rather than directly for a head of state. The new Prime Minister will be the person who can command a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, the popularly elected legislative body of the bicameral British Parliament. He or she will then be sworn into office by the unelected head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.

One of the most important features of the Westminster model, as it is often called, is the “first past the post” system (FPTP). In short, it is a system where the country is divided in 650 constituencies and the politician in each constituency with the highest number of votes, gets the seat. England, the biggest and most populous part of the United Kingdom, has 533 seats. The Scots have 59 seats, Wales 40 and Northern Ireland 18.

If a general election results in no single political party winning an overall majority in the House of Commons, this is known as a situation of no overall control, or a ‘hung Parliament’. The electoral system makes this unlikely, but the high number of parties with a fair chance of winning seats this election might usher a repetition of the 2010 elections.

Under the FPTP system, political parties usually only need to get a bit over a third of the popular vote to secure a majority of the MPs and so form a government. While the electoral system in Britain tends to over-represent the larger parties, it penalises small and middle-sized parties. The system has favoured strong, one-party rule with a strong executive.

This tradition may now be changing, however. Smaller parties, such as the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and UKIP of Nigel Farage now have been polling over five per cent each.

Polls and predictions

On present predictions it seems certain that once again neither the Conservatives nor Labour will be able to command an overall majority. After weeks of electoral combat, neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband has managed to inflict serious damage on their opponent. The polls have been static for weeks, with the Conservative and Labour parties being stuck on roughly 34 per cent each.

The Tories are likely to win most seats but Mr Cameron might struggle to form a coalition. In the event of a hung parliament, he might try to conceal a deal with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats – their current coalition partner – and Northern Ireland’s Unionist parties. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) may end up with ten seats, which could prove crucial in a closely tied parliament. Some Tory strategists prefer the idea of a Conservative minority government, while others warn about the problems of trying to govern without a majority.


In the meantime, Ed Miliband is the bookmakers’ favourite for Downing Street 10. For a Labour-led formal coalition to get off the ground, Labour would need to rely mainly on the Lib Dems as well. If the Lib Dems win the thirty seats they are currently projected to, Labour would need to get close to 295 to have a chance of making this work. Although projections suggest the Lib Dems could lose half of the 57 seats it won in 2010, Nick Clegg remains an important force.

The Labour party has yet another option up its sleeve: Mr Miliband could head towards a minority government backed from the outside by the Scottish National Party. In this event, there would be no formal coalition but the nationalists would keep Miliband in power in exchange for concessions. If the SNP opt to be a ‘silent partner’ in exchange for full fiscal autonomy or the so-called devo-max, as some pundits think likely, Labour could govern in this way without them.

The rise of SNP 

650 kilometres to the north, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is expected to score considerably better than in 2010. The Scottish nationalists lost last year’s independence referendum, but now they are set to rip the UK asunder. Some polls even expect the party of Nicola Sturgeon, who succeeded Alex Salmond as SNP leader and Prime Minister of Scotland in 2014, to wallop Labour for the first time in history.

The bookmakers see Ms Sturgeon as pivotal to Labour’s chances of taking power. She has assured Scottish voters that her party will never prop up the Conservatives, and on March 6th confirmed that its opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent programme Trident would not block a deal with Labour.

Following her performance in a televised leaders’ debate, the Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid, ran a front page calling her the “most dangerous woman in Britain”. In the more qualitative press, Sturgeon’s confident TV performance is widely appreciated and considered to be bad for Labour. A Financial Times editorial recognised that “Ms Sturgeon confirmed the popularity that has seen SNP membership soar since the independence referendum”.

One of Scotland’s foremost political commentators, David Torrance, estimates that the SNP

david-torrance-portrait will score considerably better than in 2010.“In 2010 the SNP got just six seats, but  any more than eleven MPs will be the party’s best ever result. I should think around  thirty MPs is a conservative estimate.”

One has to keep in mind that all election forecasts are associated with a significant degree of uncertainty. Much of the uncertainty in these predictions comes from the fact that even immediately before election day, general election polls in the UK have not been very accurate in the past. In 2010, the average of the election-day polls missed party vote shares by as much as four percentage point.

Absence of foreign policy

So far, foreign policy has not featured heavily in the political debates. Labour has been campaigning on the National Health Service and living standards, and the Conservatives on leadership and economy. Britain outperformed its G7 peers in 2014, but there are mounting fears that a weak Eurozone economy and geopolitical tensions will start to weigh on the domestic economy. Living standards, which took a hit in the aftermath of the crisis, are finally increasing, thanks to rising wages and falling inflation. The UK currently has a good employment performance, but at the same time witnessed a collapse in growth of output per worker and output per hour. In short, the UK economy has enjoyed a weak, yet job-creating, recovery.

As the outcome of the UK general election remains exceptionally unpredictable, markets may be in for a bumpy ride in the immediate aftermath of May 7th, according to some economists.

In the party leaders’ pre-election debate on April 2nd 2015, not a single direct question about foreign or defence policy was asked, and the closest the debate came to these issues was immigration and Britain’s membership of the EU. Nonetheless, foreign policy represents a key area of fault lines among the parties contesting the 2015 general elections. Few modern elections have been so clearly a search for national identity and meaning as the 2015 contest is.

Many pundits and scholars believe that Tory- or Labour-led Britain is retreating from the world. This pattern can be illustrated by the absence of election debates on foreign affairs. In the American campaign, foreign affairs have shrunk to the three I’s: Iran, Israel and ISIL/Da’esh. In Britain, foreign affairs seem to have shrunk to nothingness.

This is partly because David Cameron has not taken as close an interest in foreign affairs as Tony Blair did in the past,” as David Torrance points out. “The Iraq War also casted an obvious legacy: the focus now is much more on soft power”. Then there is immigration: according to Economist/Ipsos MORI March 2015 Issues Index, almost 27 per cent of the British population names it the most important issue. In 2012 Britain absorbed eight immigrants per 1,000 inhabitants – more than twice the EU average.

Other topics such as banks, Europe and global security barely feature. For instance, only five per cent of voters perceived defence/foreign affairs/international terrorism as important issues and only one per cent of voters told that the EU was the most important issue. So, with regard to world politics, no one will be the wiser. Yet one has to keep in mind that the same polls routinely find low levels of knowledge and interest among Britons in the EU, raising the obvious question of how far one can value the findings of polls in Britain on the EU when so few Britons appear able to make informed judgements about European issues.

Internationalism or isolationism?

The British foreign policy has been badly distorted by pressures at home. The rise of UKIP has forced the Tories in particular to think local rather than global, forcing them into promising a referendum on UK membership of the EU. This may be enough to rescue some votes from UKIP, but it makes for a terrible international image. Combined with Mr Cameron’s futile opposition to the appointment of Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president, this has left Britain more isolated in Europe than ever.

Some have gone further, drawing the conclusion from the public mood of Cameron’s Britain that the UK has embarked on a journey into isolationism. This rise of UKIP, with its core aim of UK withdrawal from the EU, supported by a significant section of the Tory party, can be seen as a symptom and a cause of this isolationist mentality.

However, this thesis is not supported by a Chatham House analysis, based on surveys by YouGov. The results indicate that there has been no clear movement towards isolationism: in fact, in some policy areas the reverse appears to be true. Overall, there is support for an ambitious British foreign policy and leadership role. This analysis clearly identifies a growing, or perhaps a reviving, appetite for the UK to aspire to be a “great power” rather than accept its decline  – 63% of the British public have this aspiration, the highest figure in such surveys since 2010.

Beyond Brexit

On perhaps the biggest foreign policy question facing the UK, the future of its relationship with the EU, the public and opinion-formers diverge significantly. Public perceptions of the EU remain broadly negative, but there has been a modest but consistent improvement since the survey was last conducted in 2012. Nonetheless, there is support for the government’s ambition to negotiate a looser relationship with the EU, with the return of powers from Brussels to the UK seen as the priority for reform.

Meanwhile, opinion-formers – leaders drawn from the worlds of business, media, politics, academia, science and the arts – are overwhelmingly supportive of membership of the EU. Voters in London and Scotland would vote to stay in the EU, while those in the rest of the South, the Midlands/Wales and Northern England would vote to leave. Scottish respondents are more pro-European, more supportive of development aid, and more likely than English ones to say ethics should play a role in foreign policy.

Mr Cameron’s promised EU referendum, which is likely to occur by the end of 2017, could wrench the nation out of the EU and his immigration rules would shut out the hard working and talented from abroad. As for the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, he sees the world as largely irrelevant to his grand project to build a fairer society.

In a rare mention of foreign policy during the election campaign, Mr Miliband said Mr Cameron “bears some responsibilityfor the stream of refugees fleeing from Libya to Europe in a speech that accused the prime minister of diminishing Britain’s standing in the world.

In 2013, Number 10 Downing Street accused Miliband of ‘flipping and flopping’, ‘buggering around’ and ‘playing politics’ whilst others, including some Labour voices, blamed him for almost single-handedly diminishing the role of the UK on the international stage. Mr Miliband received all this criticism because Labour refused to support the government’s decision to participate in almost immediate air strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Yet Ed Miliband’s refusal to countenance a EU referendum is welcomed in Europe. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair praised Mr Miliband for standing against the tide on the EU, and said Eurosceptics “need to get real about how difficult it would be for Britain to negotiate a new relationship with the EU. If Britain left, the rest of Europe will be vigorous in ensuring the UK gets no special treatment.”

Many argue Cameron’s Britain has stepped back from the active global and regional engagements favoured by most of his recent predecessors. The end of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014 supposedly drew a line under difficult counter-insurgency campaigns in distant places. Public caution has compelled Mr Cameron not to intervene in the Syrian civil war. Moreover Cameron has distanced Britain even further than his predecessors from the Eurozone and its momentum on European integration. Any remaining appetite for adventures abroad was sated by the 2011 intervention in Libya.

True, Mr Cameron has joined the conflict against ISIL/Da’esh in Iraq and sent forces to Western Africa against the Ebola threat. But he has also left the difficult and unsavoury job of dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin to other European leaders, principally with Angela Merkel.

With the general election just a few days away, foreign eyes are now turning to Britain. With a high probability of a hung parliament, political experts expect three foreign policy issues to have a significant impact on coalition negotiations: overall defence spending, the Trident nuclear deterrent and the question of a referendum on the EU.

Military spending

After a decade dominated by long and controversial campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, seen by many as distant and unsuccessful, the country seemed to be facing a sustained period without a military engagement, only to be pulled back into a multilateral operation in Iraq in the autumn of 2014. Despite this recent development, however, there is a growing perception that the public and the political elite have lost appetite for foreign intervention.

Despite playing host to the 2014 NATO summit, which committed allies to ‘reverse the trend of declining defence budgets’, it is likely that the UK will spend less than the NATO target of two per cent of GDP on defence as early as 2015.


For many years Britain has shown leadership within NATO by actually meeting the commitment all members make to spend at least two per cent of their GDP on defence. Although defence spending is falling, in a speech to the NATO summit in Wales, Mr Cameron suggested that a future Conservative-led government would be willing at least in principle to increase defence spending in real terms. The PM committed, for example, to bring two new aircraft carriers into service: “(…) Our brand new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (…) will be the mightiest ship the Royal Navy has ever put to sea, able to protect and project our interests across the globe for decades to come.”

Labour, on the other hand, has traditionally seen defence as a lower priority than domestic spending, and seems unlikely to match Conservative plans in this area. The party has committed itself to an immediate strategic defence review if it wins power at May’s General Election.

In stark contrast to the Tories and Labour, Nigel Farage has indicated that Ukip will actually increase defence spending to €67 billion – despite protesting that the UK is far too involved in “foreign” wars.

 So, a new spending review is expected after the election, but no one knows what the results will be. What is clear is that Britain’s capacity to project force abroad has already been drastically reduced. This is already colouring Downing Street’s relationship with the White House.

Renewing Trident

The second issue is the question of replacing the ageing Trident system, UK’s nuclear deterrent. The decision has been put back until after the elections following disagreements between the Tories and the Lib Dems. UK’s nuclear deterrent force currently consists of four submarines each capable of carrying up to sixteen ballistic nuclear missiles, capable of hitting a target up to 12,000 kilometres away. It is estimated that the cost of renewing the nuclear-armed submarines will cost in excess of €35 billion.


The Conservatives as well as Labour are in favour to retain the deterrent, though Labour is willing to countenance a cheaper, pared-down option. A recent survey by Chatham House-YouGov highlighted that public opinion favours saving money but prefers to keep the nuclear option alive.12 In the event neither party wins outright, the SNP have threatened to only join in coalition with Ed Miliband if he agrees to scrap Trident – which is based in Scotland – turning Britain’s nuclear future into an electoral issue.

EU Membership

The final area is, of course, Britain’s place in the EU. In 2012, the issue of Britain’s membership in the European Union exploded in the media, becoming a hot political issue in the wake of the Eurozone crisis and the rise of Euroscepticism.

Britain has been a member of the EU for just over forty years, and if the Britons were to vote ‘out’ in a referendum, there would undeniably be noticeable changes in terms of Britain’s international relationships and access to trade and markets. A “Brexit” would remove one of the EU’s most dynamic economies and, besides France and Germany, one of the few European countries with real military capacities.

Those in favour of leaving the EU argue that the benefits of cutting the expenditures associated with EU membership outweigh the potential costs of leaving. Increasingly, however, business interests have become more vocal, maintaining that a Britain outside of Europe would see a diminished level of political and economic influence. For Eurosceptics, Brexit would liberate British businesses, particularly their financial services, to operate on a global stage.

By 2017, Mr Cameron promises a referendum. Some argue that it is as an exercise in political calculation and party management. Mr Cameron argues that by renegotiating a better deal for Britain in the EU and then putting it to a vote, he will settle the question of the UK’s future in Europe and bolster its influence.

However, as Cameron brings Europe to the forefront with no firm commitments, UKIP capitalises on the British public’s lack of knowledge and distrust of the EU to encourage rampant Euroscepticism. In short, Mr Cameron, in an attempt to mitigate the rising number of Eurosceptics, has actually allowed it to escalate to the point where he can no longer control it.

On the campaign trail this referendum promise is regularly repeated, though about the reform, renegotiation and repatriation that are supposed to precede it, nothing is said. While Mr Cameron remains silent on what he actually wants in Brussels, he is clear that if he gets it he will recommend that Britain will stay in.

The public is split on the virtues of EU membership. The Chatham House-YouGov study found forty per cent of respondents would vote to retain it, 39 per cent to give it up. It is clear that public opinion is an important driver of UK policy towards the EU. One important consequence is the frequent clash between party political proposals designed to appease public opinion and governmental negotiating positions designed to achieve reform in Brussels.

Questions about the EU (and the related issue of immigration) have already featured during the election campaign and they will be central to any coalition negotiations. If the Tories are elected, there will certainly be a renegotiation followed by a referendum. If Labour is elected, Ed Miliband will not hold a referendum unless there is a further transfer of powers to Brussels. Finally, if a coalition government is formed with one of the smaller parties, the coalition agreement might stipulate other terms and conditions that have to be met in order to hold the referendum.


Foreign policy has not featured heavily in some of the debates so far, but the question of EU membership in particular will come to the fore as UKIP’s campaigning is being brought to completion. The government’s hope to negotiate a looser relationship with the EU resonates with a Eurosceptic public, yet its handling of Europe does not receive very high marks from voters. Nor does its handling of foreign policy overall. We can expect that the answers to these issues certainly will shape Britain’s foreign policy stance for a generation.

In 2010, the Cameron-Clegg coalition came about in less than a week but this time in Britain it may take longer. It could therefore be the turn of the smaller parties to wield influence in forming the next government, much as Clegg did before. The crucial number after May 7th will be 323 – the number of legislators required for a government to avoid losing a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. While the Tories may still win more votes and seats than Labour, it is hard to see how David Cameron can pool enough seats for a majority. The haggling starts on May 8.

[1] May2015.com (2015). Election 2015: Polls suggest Ed Miliband is likely to become Prime Minister. Available at: http://may2015.com/featured/election-2015-polls-suggest-ed-miliband-is-likely-to-become-prime-minister/.

[2] UK Parliament (2015). Elections and Voting. Available at:http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/elections-and-voting/.

[3] Parker, G & Stacey, K. (24.04.2015). Who will run Britain? Financial Times, p. 7.

[4] Interview with David Torrance on 21 April 2015.

[5] Ipsos MORI (2015). Ipsos MORI Issues Index Issues Index March 2015. Available at: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/March15IssuesIndex_topline.pdf.

[6] Raines, T. (2015). Internationalism or Isolationism? The Chatham House–YouGov Survey British Attitudes Towards the UK’s International Priorities.Available at:http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150130Raines.pdf; Kettle, M. (30.01.2015). This general election could define Britain’s global role into the next decade, The Guardian. Available at:http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/30/general-election-britain-global-role-trident-europe-isolationism.

[7] Rigby, E. & Parker, G. (25.04.2015). UK premier attacks Labour’s ‘ill-judged’ remarks on Libya. Financial Times, p. 2.

[8] Dominiczak, P. (30.08.2013). Flip-flopping Miliband accused of playing into hands of Assad, The Telegraph. Available at:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10275320/Flip-flopping-Miliband-accused-of-playing-into-hands-of-Assad.html.

[9] Wintour, T. (07.04.2015). Tony Blair: I support Ed Miliband 100%, The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/07/tony-blair-i-support-ed-miliband-100-labour-election.

[10] UK Prime Minister’s Office (2014). NATO Summit 2014: PM end of summit press conference. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nato-summit-2014-pm-end-of-summit-press-conference.

[11] David, M. (2015). State of the Nation: Britain’s Role in the World Just Keeps Shrinking. International Relations and Security Network (ISN) ETH Zurich. Available at: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=190229.

[12] Raines, T. (2015).http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150130Raines.pdf

[13] Rigby & Parker, 25.04.2015, p. 2.

[14] Kerr, J. (22.04.2015). When you have a plan for Europe, Mr Cameron, do let us know. Financial Times, p. 7.