• Parliamentary Elections in 27 EU Countries: A Score-Card

  • By Gaël De Santis | 20 May 09
  • This article was written based on results of legislative elections in the 27 countries of the European Union over the period 2004 to 2008. It allows an overview of the different political forces in play on the eve of elections for the European Parliament which will take place on June 4–7, 2009. This “score-card” analysis is instructive on at least two counts: European Social Democracy appears weak. And, attempts at “political normalisation” in the name of a two-party system seem to be illusory. Europe remains the continent of political pluralism.

    It’s hard to be a social democrat… 

    In 1999, 12 out of 15 governments in what was then the European Union (EU) were led by socialists or social democrats. Today, the count is four out of the Europe of 15, seven, when the 12 countries that have become EU Member States since then are included. With Cyprus, which is led by a communist, only eight out of 27 governments are leftist. 2007 was a dark year: not a single victory for the left in a national legislative election. All rightist majorities were re-confirmed that year. In 2008, rightist majorities were re-confirmed in every country where they had been in power, with the exception of Slovenia.

    Last year, two leftist governments saw themselves replaced at the polls by governments of the right. Lithuania voted right. Italy replaced Romano Prodi (centre-left Christian Democrat) with the billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. Worse still for the socialists, after the election of April, 2008, the Party of European Socialists (PES) – the organisation that groups socialists, social-democrats and labour in Europe – no longer is represented in the Italian Parliament. The Democrats of the Left, who emerged from the old Italian Communist Party in 1992 and who belonged to the Socialist International, chose, with Margherita (once the left wing of the Christian Democrats) to create the Democratic Party. A debate is underway in this party over its international affiliation, with a large group within the party leaning more toward adhesion to the Liberal and Democrat Alliance for Europe (ALDE). Francesco Rutelli, one of the leaders of this party, is one of the founders of ALDE.

    When the left is in power, it often is as part of a wide coalition or without an absolute majority in parliament or at the polls. A case in point is Austria, where the Austrian Social-Democratic Party stays in power in alliance with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP, right), which should not obscure the fact that it scored its lowest number of votes in more than a century. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (PSB) of Prime Minister Sergei Stanichev came to power in 2005 with only 35% of the vote, which led to an alliance with two groups affiliated with ALDE in Europe: the party of the preceding Prime Minister, the National Simeon II Movement (19.9%), and the Turkish minority’s party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. In Cyprus, the only country in the EU led by a communist party, the Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) is only in power thanks to the election of Dimitris Christofias to the Presidency in the context of a presidential regime. In Parliament, the majority is composed of Socialists (8%) supported by one of the parties on the right. In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party owes its parliamentary majority to a one-round, plurality voting system which transformed 35% of the vote into 54% of the seats (355 out of 646).

    On a European scale, the Party of European Socialists (PES) seems to be losing ground. It has won 32% of the vote over the period under analysis. It is the most coherent political formation. There usually is no more than one member-party per country, which is not the case with rightist groups like the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Liberal and Democrat Alliance for Europe (ALDE, centre-right), which sometimes have two or three member-parties from each country. On average, in legislative elections that took place between 2004 and 2008# in the 27 EU Member States, socialists won 32% of the vote (27.5% without Italy’s Democratic Party). There were only four countries where more than 40% of the votes went to the socialists. In three others, they won more than 35%. This may mean that centre-left claims in certain countries like France and Italy that “European normality” resides in a broad leftist force of 35% do reflect reality. But only 13 countries have a social democratic force of more than 30%. Moreover, if the northwest Baltic countries have been cited as a Social-Democratic model (even if social democrats no longer are in power in these countries), the southeast Baltic countries appear to be a black hole for the socialists. They scored less than 15% in Poland (13.2%), Lithuania (11.7%), and Estonia (10.6%) and they have only a slight presence in Latvia. Outside this zone, the PES is weak in Ireland (10.13%) and Cyprus (8.9%). In the latter country, AKEL (Communist) is the leading force. PES parties are the first political force in nine countries and the second in nine others. In the rest, they are either in third place or far behind. 

    Other political forces

    Potential allies on the left for national PES parties are weak. Parties that belong to the Greens-European Free Alliance in the Strasbourg Parliament won 3.5% of the vote in their national legislative elections from 2004 to 2008.

    The European Free Alliance (EFA), which groups regionalist or independist forces and ecology parties, obtained 3%.

    The forces of the United European Left Group (GUE), the European Left Party and the communists won 5% of the vote over the period. They no longer participate in national governments. Forces that have tried in recent years – Rifondazione Comunista in Italy (until 2008) and the French Communist party (between 1997 and 2002) – have lost influence. Generally, electoral surges for this group come from factions that have not yet been part of a government. GUE won the most votes in: Cyprus (AKEL with 31.2%); the Netherlands, more than 10% (16% for the Socialist Party); Denmark (with the People’s Socialist Party at 13%), and in the Czech Republic (the Communist Party of Bohemia-Moravia won 12.8%). In Greece and in Portugal, two important parties ran separately. In Greece, the Communist Party won 8.1% and the Syriza coalition 5% in legislative elections in 2007. In 2005 in Portugal, the Portuguese Communist Party won 7.5% and the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) 6.3%. The United European Left Group therefore won more than 10% in six countries and more than 5% in four others (Finland, Germany, Ireland and Sweden). In Germany, there is Die LINKE („The Left“), a fusion East German post-communist and the Electoral Alternative for Social Justice (WASG) which split off from social democracy. 

    As the forces of social transformation take root, their political incarnation is diverse. In Northern Europe, there is the Nordic Green Left Alliance (NGLA) In Latin and Hellenic Europe, communists predominate in the GUE, as the most recent elections have shown. The same goes for the former Czechoslovakia where 60% of the votes won by this group of parties comes from the left, 24% from communist parties and 16% from coalitions where the communist party is the most important force (Italy, Spain). Elsewhere, to the left of the GUE, far left parties have won 0.5% of the vote in different elections. Far left forces are strongest (3.4%) in France, followed by Italy (1.7%) and Portugal (0.9%).

    Political groups on the left, therefore, won 41% of the vote (GUE, PES, Greens and far-left), versus 48% for the right (EPP, ALDE, centre-right). Forces allied with the rightist EPP obtained 38% of the vote. Those that adhere to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) or to the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR) count for 9.5%. Various parties not affiliated with the centre right have 0.5%. It seems as though, in certain countries, the right is capable of alternating power within itself. This is what happened in France with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. In Latvia, the first government to fall because of the current crisis was replaced by another rightist government, after demonstrations of a size unseen since the fall of the Soviet Union but in the absence of any election.

    Parties of the right lead after elections in 15 countries and come in second in 11 other countries. In 21 countries, the right constitutes two of the three biggest parties. In the Baltic countries, the top three parties all are parties of the right.

    Finally, populists and movements for sovereignty have won 7.5% of the vote. Parties close to the Alliance for Europe of the Nations (AEN) fall into this category and have won 4% of the vote. And parties of the far right, like those of the Independence/Democracy (IND/DEM) eurosceptic group, have won 3.5%. If 7.5% seems low, there are wide variations, depending on the member-state. In some countries, the forces of the AEN come in second (Poland) or third (Italy, Lithuania). In Austria, the third largest political force at the polls is the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), with 17%, followed by the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) with 10.7%, both on the far right.

    Two-party systems do not yet prevail

    Of all the countries, Malta is the temple of the two-party system. The country’s two main parties win 98.1% of the vote! The Greens make do with 1.3%. Parties of the radical left blame the two-party system for their difficulties. In fact, when the centre left calls for a “useful” vote, the result does not favour the left as a whole, which remains weak. Still, other political families do not seem to suffer from the system.

    The main political forces call for a two-party system in the name of efficiency in order to make electoral rules evolve to their advantage. This was the case when voting reform was implemented in Italy this year. And it was the case for regional and European Parliamentary elections in France under the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

    The fact remains that this type of two-party system is at least partially a fantasy. Often cited as an example, the UK model does not reflect the reality of the country, given the rise of the Liberal Democrats. In this country, with one-round majority voting, which is supposed to favour a perfect two-party system, the Liberal Democrats have won 22% of the vote, while the two main parties only scored 67.6%. More generally, in the EU 27, there are only eight countries where the two main political forces obtain more than 70% of the vote; more than 60% in only 15, and less than 50% in five. The norm seems to be between 50 and 70% for the two main political forces. This is the case in 14 EU member-states.

    The two-party system, therefore, has not yet won the day. In most cases, there is plenty of room for parties other than those that dominate the political scene. The question is to know why the left-wing of social transformation does not manage to occupy the available space. 



    1. The Republic of Cyprus is a special case, where the question of nationhood predominates: Turkey has occupied 40% of the island’s territory since 1974.
    2. When more than one election took place during the period, the most recent serves as a reference.
    3. As pointed out above, the Democratic Party has not yet formally chosen whether to affiliate with the Party of European Socialists (PES) or with the Liberal and Democrat Alliance for Europe (ALDE). Since most of the troops come from the Democrats of the Left (DS) which represented between 20 and 26% of the vote in recent years, we have opted, for the sake of convenience, to include this party in the Socialist family.
    4. Countries where the Socialists won more than 40% of the vote are Hungary, Malta, Portugal and Spain. Countries where the forces of the PES won more than 30% are: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Rumania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
    5. In Spain, for example, there are the Galician Nationalist Bloc and the Republican Left of Catalonia. The Association for Human Rights in a United Lithuania includes Russophones. The Scottish Nationalist Party and the Plaid Cymru (Wales) also belong to this group. More generally, regional forces or those that represent minorities are spread throughout different groups (Unified European Left Group, European People’s Party, ALDE, etc.)
    6. Counting parties that belong to the Alliance for Europe of the Nations (AEN).