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May 8, 2012 | 12:33 GMT

4 mins read

Fringe Parties Strengthen in Germany and Italy


Germany's northern Schleswig-Holstein state held regional elections May 6, and Italy held local elections nationwide over two days from May 6 to May 7. The elections saw support for traditional parties weaken and the share of the vote won by unconventional political parties — the Pirate Party in Germany and the Five Star Movement in Italy — increase substantially.

While neither of these new parties came close to garnering a majority in any of the recent elections, their emergence reflects a growing hostility toward the political establishment throughout Europe. However, this strong showing for the fringe parties may have been more the result of a protest vote against the major political parties than genuine support. Even if the Pirate Party and Five Star Movement are serious about building on the outcome of the May 6-7 elections, both have much work to do in defining their policy platforms and putting together national party infrastructure before they can pose a legitimate threat to the major parties.

The Pirate Party and Five Star Movement share a number of characteristics. Both are strongly anti-establishment and have loudly rejected the current political leaders of their respective countries. Both are relatively new; the Pirate Party was created in 2006 and Five Star Movement formed in 2009. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their recent founding, neither party has a comprehensive policy platform.

The Pirate Party is still struggling to evolve from its origin as a single-issue party against government regulation of the Internet and supporting the reduction of copyright regulations. The Five Star Movement was founded by Italian comedian and activist Beppe Grillo, and its rhetoric is dominated by concerns about political corruption in Italy and the environment. To a large extent, neither of these parties has fully defined what it stands for, and this lack of a proper platform makes the parties' goals vague enough that they can attract very different kinds of people who may only share anger at the established parties. 

As indicated by the results of the recent elections, both parties are also growing in popularity. In Germany, the Pirate Party's 8.5 percent of the vote in Schleswig-Holstein was enough to win it six seats in the regional legislature. Meanwhile the Christian Democratic Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, suffered its worst performance in this state in more than 60 years. Merkel's main coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, won only 8.5 percent of the vote, the same as the upstart Pirate Party, and a loss of 5.5 percent compared to the previous elections.

The election in Schleswig-Holstein was not the Pirate Party's first success, however. It won representation in the regional legislature of Berlin in September 2011 and then in the legislature in Saarland in March 2012. The party is also expected to enter the legislature in the powerful state of Rhine-Westphalia, where it is currently polling at about 8 percent support. On a national level, recent polls show that the Pirate Party would receive around 13 percent of the vote if parliamentary elections were held now.

In Italy, the Five Star Movement won almost 20 percent of the vote in the populous city of Parma, allowing it to compete in the runoff. The party beat traditional parties, such as the Union of the Center and the People of Freedom Party. In Genoa, the party won 14 percent of the vote, and was less than one point away from reaching the runoff. In other towns such as Verona and Cuneo, the party exceeded 8 percent of the vote and will have a modest representation in local legislatures.

Despite these successes, the performance of these parties must be put in context. First, they have yet to win elections beyond the local level or consolidate at the national level, and therefore the practical impact of their strong performance will be limited. One of the main issues fueling public resentment of the governing establishment across Europe has been the Berlin-backed austerity measures and the elite's handling of the economic crisis. In Germany and Italy, the debate over austerity is still taking place between the major parties, and while the new parties may have been able to use growing opposition to austerity to win votes, they eventually may be co-opted by the bigger parties should their proposals prove popular.

Merkel's main opponent remains the center-left Social Democratic Party, which has criticized the chancellor's austerity policies and openly supported French President-elect Francois Hollande against Merkel's ally, Nicolas Sarkozy. In Italy, the center-left Democratic Party and its supporters in Italian trade unions are the most important force asking for an end to austerity and for the government to enact stimulus measures.

Second, these parties have yet to develop a more robust platform to present themselves to voters. An insurgent political force can campaign on only a few issues or even just general public disgust with the status quo, but to become more competitive with the established parties, these new parties must develop policy stances on a wide range of issues relevant for governing. Finally, as these parties enter the government in their countries, they will begin to be held accountable by their voters. As relative newcomers, this will test the seriousness of their efforts.

Though still small, the success of these parties serves as a warning to the European elite. The parties are taking away votes from major parties and gaining ground in electoral systems that were designed to keep fringe parties out of parliament by setting thresholds for representation. Because of the European economic crisis and its resulting social discontent, these parties are exceeding the thresholds with increasing ease. While these parties will not seriously challenge the elite in Italy and Germany over the next election cycle in 2013, they will pose a longer term challenge if the political establishment is unable to provide economic growth.

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