The ruling parties of France and Germany suffered defeat at the polls in regional elections this weekend. Both President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats failed to enthuse voters while opposition parties fared well.
Amid lackluster economic growth, Sarkozy and his right-of-center Union pour un mouvement populaire have been unpopular for months. The socialists, currently France’s largest opposition party nationally and already in the majority in most regions, have profited from the government’s push for austerity in the face of fiscal crisis but the the far-right Front national has been on the rise as well.
In the elections of the representatives of France’s cantons on Sunday, the UMP gathered a mere 20 percent of votes cast nationwide while the Socialist Party won some 36 percent. The Front national gained 12 percent.
The nationalists have done well in polls since they elected Marine Le Pen, one of the daughters of the party’s founder, as their leader in January. She has worked to rid the Front national of its racist image and focused on economic nationalism instead, favoring a French exit from the eurozone and heavier protectionist measures against imports.
If Le Pen succeeds, she could manage to combine the major populist attractions of both traditional ruling parties. The socialists have always claimed to be on the side of the working man, favoring high payroll taxes and reduced working hours. The UMP is seen as tough on law and order issues and curbing the influence of orthodox Islam. The Front national does both.
Jean-Marie Le Pen once made it into the second round of a presidential election. With Sarkozy’s approval rating hovering below 30 percent, a repetition of that situation is not at all unlikely except with a socialist as foremost contender.
In Germany, defeat for Chancellor Merkel’s party was all the more difficult to swallow as it happened in the traditional conservative stronghold of Baden-Württemberg.
Christian Democrats had held a majority in the southern state for close to sixty years. This weekend, the main opposition Social Democrats won about a quarter of the vote. In coalition with the Green party, that would be enough to secure a narrow majority in the state legislature.
The chancellor’s once support for nuclear energy is likely to have played a role in the election. Merkel speedily reversed her pro-nuclear stance after an atomic energy plant in eastern Japan was badly damaged after a devastating tsunami hit the coast there earlier this month. Her decision to mothball Germany’s oldest nuclear reactors failed to convince voters who widely saw it as an election driven tactic.
The Greens, who have traditionally opposed nuclear energy, were clever to field a social conservative former high school chemist as their candidate who managed to garner considerable support in the Christian Democratic bulwark.
The conservatives ruled out a coalition with the Greens ahead of the election, leaving the two major parties on the left with no other choice but to form a government among themselves. The Christian Democrats have engaged in alliances with the Greens in other states.
Although the election in Baden-Württemberg was dominated by local issues, the results are likely to undermine Merkel’s authority. With the recent departure of defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, there is no clear replacement for her but she will have to listen more closely to critics in her own party.
Many conservative party members, like many Germans, feel that they have shouldered their fair share of the burden of bailing out the rest of Europe. Merkel has pushed for a “competitiveness pact” to force austerity on heavily indebted euro nations, but financial aid from Europe — which is largely German aid — is likely to be necessary once again soon if Portugal does not manage to avert the possibility of sovereign default.
In a separate election in the western state of Rheinland-Pfalz on Sunday, the Social Democrats held on to power as expected but lost their absolute majority in the legislature. They will govern with support from the Greens.