Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.

Posted by Sappho on May 31st, 2014 filed in News and Commentary

As alarm about the rise of the far right in the recent EU elections is followed by reassurances that the influence of the far right will, after all, be contained, I’ve been reading the arguments for why we can’t expect far right parties to do as well as national elections as they did in the EU parliamentary elections. The first reason offered is that voters, reasonably, see votes for the relatively weak and distant EU parliament as less important than votes for their own national legislatures, and therefore feel freer to cast protest votes. But there’s a second argument that I find interesting, the argument that, for some of the countries in question, national elections have a structure that’s better at discouraging wins by far right parties than is the structure of their elections for MEPs.

Take France. France has a two-round system for its presidential elections. The way this works is apparent if you look at the French Presidential election of 2002. In that election, the two leading parties fielded candidates, one or the other of which was expected to win: Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin. However, Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly received slightly more than Jospin in the first round of voting:

Jacques Chirac 19.88%
Jean-Marie Le Pen 16.86%
Lionel Jospin 16.18%

In the second round, the vast majority of voters united to reject Le Pen:

Jacques Chirac 82.21%
Jean-Marie Le Pen 17.79%

Similarly, when David Duke made it to the second tier in a two round vote for governor of Louisiana, an effort mobilized to defeat Duke no matter how tainted the reputation of his opponent might be, shown in the popular bumper sticker, “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” Edwards defeated Duke in a landslide.

Different ways of arranging democracy have different consequences for what kinds of governments you can get, but those consequences can be complicated to understand, at least for amateurs like myself with only a passing understanding of political science.

In this year’s June primary, California tries out a new two round voting system, replacing the party primaries of the past. Come fall, we may have Democrats competing with Democrats in some districts, and Republicans competing with Republicans in others. Will the new system, as promised, put a damper on partisan polarization? Time will tell.

As Washington has gotten more polarized, many of us have read the arguments, such as this one by Ezra Klein, that the American legislative system, with its multiple veto points, was built for more messily aligned parties than we have now, while our current, better ideologically sorted parties would be better suited to a parliamentary system, where polarized parties are freer to govern. Or arguments, like this one by Ezra Klein again, that gridlock like what we have now leads to increased executive bypassing of the legislative process.

Parliamentary systems, too, have their different varieties, with different consequences. The British system, described here by Ezra Klein, has more national party control of which local candidates get fielded (“If Joe Lieberman served in England, he’d either be left on the next ballot altogether or moved into an unwinnable district.”), making for weaker individual MPs and stronger parties, but still, like the US, uses a first-past-the-post system, with whichever candidate wins a plurality in the constituency taking the seat. Here’s an American Conservative blog post arguing that democratic dysfunction in countries as varied as Russia, Ukraine, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are tied to not using a first-past-the-post system, but instead use proportional representation:

Each party puts up “lists” of its candidates, the names usually decided by old Party bosses. Voters are only given the option to vote for one list or another, rarely for individual members concerned with their local, specific interests.

The blogger, Jon Basil Utley, argues that proportional representation makes for less individual accountability for politicians than first-past-the-post, and therefore for more dysfunctional democracies.

So, what constraints will greet the newly elected far-right MEPs as they arrive in the European Parliament? One constraint is the institution of political groups within the European Parliament.

The Members of the European Parliament sit in political groups – they are not organised by nationality, but by political affiliation. There are currently 7 political groups in the European Parliament….

25 Members are needed to form a political group, and at least one-quarter of the Member States must be represented within the group. Members may not belong to more than one political group.

Parties that can form political groups with parties from other countries gain access to additional resources.

For a group to be recognised, it needs at least 25 MEPs from seven different countries.

The larger the group, the more funding it receives, the more key committee posts it gets and the longer it can speak in debates.

The two descriptions of what’s needed for a political group match because the magic number of countries that you need right now to cross that one-quarter of Member States threshold is seven.

The political groups as they existed prior to the latest EU election were described by BBC as:

EPP – European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)
S&D – Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in Europe (centre-left)
ALDE – Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (liberal)
EUL/NGL – European United Left-Nordic Green Left (left-wing)
Greens/EFA – Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens and regionalists/nationalists)
ECR – European Conservatives and Reformists Group (right-wing)
EFD – Europe of Freedom and Democracy (Eurosceptic)
NA – Non-attached (MEPs not part of any group)

(You can follow the link to see how many MEPs each group had.)

With clout hanging on parties’ ability to form a larger political group, the bargaining is on to see whether the current crop of far-right parties can assemble such a group.

Marine Le Pen, whose National Front won one-quarter of the vote in France, appeared shoulder-to-shoulder with nationalist and anti-immigrant politicians from the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Belgium at a news conference in Brussels. Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, meanwhile, met with Beppe Grillo, the founder of Italy’s antiestablishment Five Star Movement, in an effort to form a new group in Parliament.

Officially recognized groups, which is a status that comes with extra funding and the right to lead negotiations on new laws, need at least 25 lawmakers from seven different EU countries. With Mr. Farage set to lose Italy’s Northern League to Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Grillo’s Five Star Movement and its 17 lawmakers would be a weighty win for Mr. Farage.

The parties face some difficulties in forming a larger group. The Wall Street Journal points out that

Mr. Farage has ruled out joining up with Ms. Le Pen, calling her party racist….

And even the nationalist parties that have already signed up for Ms. Le Pen’s planned alliance may struggle to overcome differences when it comes to forming clear policy lines. An analysis by VoteWatch, a group that keeps track of European lawmakers’ votes, showed that delegates from the National Front and the Dutch Party for Freedom have voted against each over 49% of the time.

Will neo-Nazi Golden Dawn be included in the deal making? On the one hand, a pre-election article in the EU Observer reported that

Late last year National Front leader Marine Le Pen said Golden Dawn had a “filthy image”. In February she told a Greek journalist that far-right parties “have been very clear about not including” Golden Dawn in their alliance.

On the other hand, another pre-election article, this one in the Greek Reporter, said that

France’s National Front is reportedly looking for an alliance with Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party to expand the reach of the extremists in the European Parliament.

The news site EurActiv’s Greek branch reported on the possible collaboration, which the French party’s leader Marine Le Pen denied.

Right now, Le Pen appears to be stymied at passing the seven country threshold. Far-right parties in Austria and the Netherlands are willing to join her coalition, but

To form a formal caucus in the European Parliament, Ms. Le Pen will have to secure the support of at least 25 legislators from seven countries — two more countries than she has today. The United Kingdom Independent Party, which came in first in Britain’s European elections, drawing nearly 27 percent of the vote, has refused to collaborate with Ms. Le Pen because of what it says are her party’s racist and anti-Semitic roots.

The Danish People’s Party, which trounced mainstream parties in Denmark, also “wants nothing to do with her party,” said Soren Espersen, a member of the Danish Parliament and the party’s spokesman on foreign affairs. “They have a very bad reputation.” …

Wary of giving ammunition to her critics, Ms. Le Pen has ruled out joining forces with nationalist parties that have embraced anti-Semitism, like Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece, both of which also won seats in the European Parliament.

So right now it’s up in the air whether a far-right block can be formed or not. Meanwhile, the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) remains the largest voting block in the European Parliament. Still, the fact that the European Parliament now houses a significant far-right contingent may make others wary of the continuously growing power of the European Parliament. One possible result of this election is less enthusiasm for expanding the power of the European Parliament any further.

5 Responses to “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”

  1. Marian Neudel Says:

    Vote for the crook? That doesn’t help much. Which one?

  2. Sappho Says:

    That is indeed a tough question to answer, in tomorrow’s primary election in California, as the new ballots give us every party’s crooks to choose from.

    Seriously, though, one of the Secretary of State candidates, Leland Yee, did get arrested in an FBI sweep in March. Since the alternative isn’t David Duke, I decided not to vote for that particular crook.

  3. Chris Jones Says:

    “Vote for the crook”

    The “crook” in this case was Edwin Edwards, a long-time Democratic politician in Louisiana. Edwards was notoriously corrupt (indeed, openly and flamboyantly so), but an expert and popular politician.

    At one point in his long and colorful career, Edwards ran for governor of Louisiana against Republican David Duke, an open and virulent racist who had been a high official in the Ku Klux Klan. Although Edwards’s flagrant corruption was well-known, the potential election of the racist Duke was perceived to be far worse. Edwards adopted the slogan “Vote for the crook. It’s important.” and went on to defeat Duke.

  4. Sappho Says:

    Edwards’ campaign slogan has to be one of the cleverest ever. And in a good cause, since even flagrant corruption is better than Duke’s virulent racism.

  5. Wired Sisters Says:

    One of my neighbors has a bumper sticker on her car:”Vote for Cthulhu–why bother with the lesser evil?”