Estonians voted Sunday in an election marked by jitters over a militarily resurgent Russia and a popular pro-Kremlin party, with the security conscious centre-left coalition tipped for a return to power. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last year and its meddling in eastern Ukraine have galvanised the European Union, including this eurozone member of 1.3 million people, a quarter of whom are ethnic Russian. Military manoeuvres by Moscow on Estonia’s border days ahead of the vote further stoked deep concerns in Europe that the Kremlin could attempt to destabilise countries that were in its orbit during Soviet times. NATO is countering the moves by boosting defences on its eastern flank with a spearhead force of 5,000 troops and command centres in six formerly communist members of the Alliance, including one in Estonia.
Estonia’s ruling party is poised to retain power in a ballot on Sunday as concern the conflict in Ukraine will herald similar unrest helps isolate its main challenger. Prime Minister Taavi Roivas’s Reform Party has as much as 23 percent support, neck and neck with the Center Party, which is backed by more than three quarters of ethnic-Russian voters, the latest polls show. Even if the Center Party wins, potential coalition partners such as the Social Democrats or Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit have ruled out an alliance with it. The Baltic region, which evaded Soviet control as communism fell 24 years ago, has been jolted by the Ukraine conflict, the annexation of Crimea and Russian fighter-jet activity on its borders. Concern Vladimir Putin will foment disquiet among ethnic Russians in Estonia, a European Union and NATO member, prompted Reform to add defense pledges to promises of tax cuts.
A referendum to prevent granting new rights to gays in Slovakia, an ex-Communist state in the European Union’s east, failed Saturday due to a low turnout as opponents of the popular vote urged people to stay at home. Only 21.4% of 4.41 million eligible voters cast their ballots, below the required 50% quorum in this predominantly Roman Catholic country of five million people to make the national-vote results legally binding, final results released Sunday by the Slovak electoral commission showed. They confirmed preliminary results published late Saturday. The final tally also showed that between 90.3% and 94.5% of 944,209 Slovaks voting in the referendum agreed to all three questions it asked: whether marriage can only be a union of a man and a woman; whether to ban same-sex couples from adopting children; and whether parents can let their children skip school classes involving education on sex and euthanasia. The Slovak antigay vote followed a similar referendum that succeeded in Croatia, also a Roman Catholic EU member, in 2013. The different results reflect cultural differences within Europe on gay rights. Some people in mostly ex-Communist eastern EU states, including also Hungary and Poland, are against what they view as excessively liberal policies such as legalizing various forms of same-sex unions and children adoptions by gay couples possible elsewhere in the 28-nation bloc, including Austria and the Czech Republic.
The outcome of Greece’s election on January 25 will be pivotal for Greece—and the way political elites respond across Europe will have a profound impact on the future of the European Union, too. It is the interplay of Greek national debates and European-level policies that make this election distinctive—and so important. The crucial question is how the European dimension influences Greek democracy, and how Greece’s choices affect the future of the European Union. At present, the leftist Syriza party looks set to win the elections. The domestic significance of this is that the party’s emergence overturns the decades-long duopoly of the conservative New Democracy and the socialist Pasok parties. In short, the euro crisis has already profoundly reshaped the very structure of Greek politics. Even if the polls prove wrong and Syriza does not win, politics will not return to the pre-crisis status quo. This is a harbinger of similar political adjustments across Europe.
In an unexpectedly tight runoff, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, a conservative challenger, won Croatia’s election on Sunday and is set to become the country’s first female president. With more than 99 percent of the ballots counted, Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic, 46, won 50.4 percent of the votes, compared with 49.6 percent for President Ivo Josipovic, the center-left incumbent, the electoral commission said. The election took place in a climate of deep pessimism about Croatia’s economy. The newest member of the European Union, Croatia has one of the weakest economies in the bloc, with an unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent and youth unemployment running at 41.5 percent. “Let’s go together,” Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic of the opposition Croatian Democratic Union said late Sunday in a speech laced with patriotic wording and interrupted by nationalist soccer chants. “A difficult job awaits us. Let’s unite. Let’s unite our patriotism, love and faith in our Croatian homeland.”
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic failed to win re-election in the first round as NATO official Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic forced a Jan. 11 run-off on a campaign to help the Balkan country emerge from six years of recession. Josipovic, a Social Democrat, won 38.57 percent after 97 percent of vote counted, the state electoral commission said on its website yesterday. Grabar Kitarovic, running for the main opposition party, the Croatian Democratic Union, took 37.08 percent. Milan Kujundzic, supported by a group of small right-wing parties, and Ivan Sincic, an independent, garnered 6.28 percent and 16.46 percent, respectively. “Grabar Kitarovic advances to run-off as a favorite, for several reasons,” Zarko Puhovski, a political science professor at the University of Zagreb, said by phone. “The Croatian Democratic Union has traditionally been better at mobilizing its voters. She will get all the votes given to Kujundzic, and about half the votes given to Sincic.”
Governments and investors across Europe braced for renewed economic upheaval on Monday after the Parliament in Greece failed to avert an early general election, reviving the toxic debate over austerity as the way to cure the Continent’s economic woes. Senior European Union officials immediately urged Greek voters — now headed to the polls on Jan. 25 — to focus on continuing the policies that have enabled the country to ride out its previous monetary crisis and remain part of the eurozone, and that have begun to restore the country’s battered reputation for fiscal management. But with household incomes down by a third from what they were before the policies were adopted, and unemployment higher than 25 percent, polls have indicated support for Syriza, a leftist party that opposes the deep budget cuts Greece has made in recent years as a condition of financial bailouts.
The liberal incumbent and a conservative rival are heading for a showdown in a runoff presidential election in Croatia, according to the partial count of the Sunday poll, held amid severe economic woes in EU’s newest member. Current President Ivo Josipovic, who is backed by the center-left government, held a slight lead with some 39 percent over opposition candidate Kolinda Grabar-Kitarevic at around 36 percent, early results released by the election authorities showed. Two other candidates were far behind. Since no one took more than half of the votes, a runoff will be held in two weeks. Analysts said no major change was expected with all the ballots counted.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras faces a vote in parliament on Monday that will decide whether the country goes to snap elections that could bring the leftwing Syriza party to power and derail an international bailout. In the most hotly contested vote for president since Greece joined the euro more than a decade ago, the result in the final round of voting is likely to be decided by a small handful of deputies. If lawmakers fail to elect a successor to 85-year-old Karolos Papoulias, a snap election will be held within weeks. Syriza, leading in the opinion polls, vowed again to renegotiate the joint European Union-IMF bailout bailout Greece needs to pay its bills and roll over its debt.
Croatia, the European Union’s newest member, is set to vote for a new head of state December 28, with none of the four candidates vying for the largely ceremonial post seems likely to secure an outright victory according to polls. Incumbent Ivo Josipovic, supported by the ruling Social Democrats, is seen as a frontrunner even though the government’s failure to halt economic decline has eroded the party’s popularity. Josipovic has campaigned on a platform proposing constitutional changes, saying that a more decentralized and democratic country is needed to help the economy find a way out its sixth year of recession. “Today we have an entire generation of young people who are no longer concerned with asking whose side one was on in 1941 or in 1991, they are concerned with where to get jobs. I want to learn from them, I want to live with them, and I want to see us giving them a future together. Let’s not forget that we have merely borrowed Croatia from future generations, and it is our obligation to solidify the foundations of the country, and without doing that, we cannot find a way out of the economic crisis,” Josipovic told a rally in Zagreb in December, referring to political divisions in Croatian society over the legacy of World War II and the independence war of the 1990s.
Croatia’s atypical president, Social Democrat Ivo Josipovic, is running for re-election Sunday with an emphasis on the more conventional promise of restoring economic health to the European Union’s newest member. Josipovic, a former law professor and classical music composer, was elected in January 2010 to the largely ceremonial presidential post on vows to fight corruption and help Croatia attain EU membership. When his country finally became the 28th member of the bloc in 2013, Josipovic celebrated by performing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in a televised piano appearance. The 57-year-old, who enjoys a squeaky-clean political reputation, has consistently topped the three other contenders in the race in opinion polls.
Shares on the Athens Stock Exchange suffered more heavy losses Thursday, as the governing coalition appeared short of the support needed to stop the government collapsing in a parliamentary vote this month. Retreating for a third day, shares closed down nearly 7.5 percent, taking this week’s cumulative losses to around 20 percent. Meanwhile the yield on Greece’s 10-year-bond jumped to nearly 9 percent, way above levels thought as sustainable. Even though Greece has recently emerged from its brutal six-year recession and has made big strides to get its public finances into shape, the country has been thrown back into uncertainty following the decision earlier this week by conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to call an early vote in parliament to elect a new president. To get his preferred candidate — Stavros Dimas, a former commissioner at the European Union — elected, Samaras will require support from opposition lawmakers in the 300-member parliament.
The National Front in France has admitted taking a huge loan from a bank controlled by Russia. National Front leader Marine Le Pen announced last week that her party had taken an 11-million-dollar loan from the First Czech-Russian Bank. She made the announcement during a visit to Moscow. Her admission came as the French government delayed an agreement to deliver two warships for Russia. The French president’s office said the situation in Ukraine did not permit delivery of the warships, which carry helicopters. The ships are being built in the port of Saint Nazaire. The National Front has campaigned hard for the warship agreement to be completed. The party’s Gauthier Bouchet spoke to VOA in October. “Our position is to protect our industry, to protect our right to trade with every country that we want.”
The election in Moldova on November 30th was as dirty as could be. Pro-European parties accused the Russian intelligence services of illegally funding their opponents. Just before the poll, the courts banned one pro-Russian party for receiving money from abroad, a move its supporters called abusing the judiciary for political ends. In all probability both claims are true. Many voters would agree with Igor Botan, a political analyst, that the choice was between “pro-Europe crooks and pro-Russia crooks”. Ultimately, three pro-Europe parties won a narrow majority in parliament. Now they must deliver on promises to adopt European Union regulations, made in an association agreement signed in June. EU leaders’ renewed attention to Moldova, prompted by the war in neighbouring Ukraine, should provide some incentive. Just before the election, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, wrote to Iurie Leanca, Moldova’s prime minister, and mentioned the country’s “perspective of membership” of the EU.
Pro-Western parties in Moldova said Monday that they would press ahead with building closer ties to Europe, relying on a narrow victory in parliamentary elections to fend off Russia’s attempts to keep the ex-Soviet republic in its orbit. The election Sunday in one of the poorest countries in Europe was seen as an important battleground in the worst standoff between the West and Moscow since the Cold War, sparked by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Russia has opposed the European Union’s moves to seal free-trade and political-association deals with countries in the region, including Ukraine and Moldova. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western leaders have warned that the Kremlin is trying to restore its old sphere of influence over its neighbors using economic and military pressure. After street protests in Kiev early this year ousted a pro-Moscow president, Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region and has backed separatists in the country’s east. Russia has also stationed troops in Transnistria, a pro-Russia breakaway region of Moldova, and has blocked imports of some of Moldovan meat, fruit and wine in response to the landlocked country’s EU ambitions.
Moldova’s three main pro-Europe parties appeared on Monday to be able to form a new coalition with most of the vote from an election on Sunday counted, despite the pro-Moscow Socialist Party taking first place. With 87 percent of the vote counted, according to the election authorities, the three parties – the Liberal Democrats, the Liberals and the Democrats – had a combined vote of 44 percent – enough to win a majority in the 101-seat parliament. This was in spite of the pro-Russia Socialist Party taking a surprise lead with 21.5 percent of the vote and the communists, who wish to revise part of a trade deal with the European Union, taking third place with 17.8 percent. A three-party coalition, led by Prime Minister Iurie Leanca’s Liberal Democrats, has piloted one of Europe’s smallest and poorest countries along a course of integration with mainstream Europe since 2009, culminating in the ratification of a landmark association agreement with the EU this year.
France: €40m of Russian cash will allow Marine Le Pen’s Front National to take advantage of rivals’ woes in upcoming regional and presidential elections | The Independent
The financial and political firepower of Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) is to be transformed by a €40m (£32m) loan from a bank with links to the Kremlin, it has been alleged. Ms Le Pen confirmed earlier this week that a Russian bank was lending her cash-strapped, far-right party €9m. This is part of a growing pattern of connections between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and far-right and Europhobic parties in the European Union. Ms Le Pen dismissed as “fantasy” a report that the €9m was the first instalment of loans totalling €40m which will allow her to mount an unbridled challenge to France’s mainstream parties in regional elections next year and presidential elections in 2017. However, other senior FN officials told the investigative website Mediapart that there was an agreement that the First Czech-Russian Bank would provide most of the party’s funding needs up to the presidential election in 30 months’ time. “A first instalment has been agreed of a €40m loan,” a member of the party’s political bureau told Mediapart. “The €9m has arrived. Another €31m will follow.”
The unexpected victory of the opposition candidate Klaus Johannis in Romania’s presidential election yesterday is an important development — not just for Romania, but for the European Union as a whole. Migration within the union, which has led to the rise of anti-EU political groups in some wealthier nations, including the U.K., is paying off: It is helping nations on the periphery such as Romania adopt the best practices of the older, core democracies. In the first round of the vote, Prime Minister Victor Ponta beat Johannis, the center-right mayor of the Transylvanian town of Sibiu. Johannis, an ethnic German, didn’t appear likely to prevail in the run-off. He is Lutheran, and not Orthodox Christian like most Romanians, and he ran a rather boring campaign. The election, however, was marred by complaints from Romanians abroad who had trouble casting their ballots. There were long lines at polling stations in Italy and Spain, where Romanians are the biggest immigrant group, as well as in France and the U.K., which also have large Romanian populations.
For Luciana Bizgan, Romania’s presidential race could mean she’ll never again turn up for work wearing rubber boots. Across the nation of 20 million, the second-most populous of the European Union’s newer members, Romanians are witnessing Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s bid for president triggering a spending glut on streets, schools and churches. Bizgan, 36, a seamstress, wants her dirt road in the southern town of Turnu Magurele asphalted so rain doesn’t dictate her footwear. “I just hope this time it’s my street’s turn,” she said. The EU’s second-poorest member, whose post-communist transformation has pushed bond yields to record lows, is loosening the purse strings a year after exiting monitoring by the bloc for fiscal slackness. Next year’s budget shortfall may balloon to double the government target, leaving a headache for Ponta’s successor, should the prime minister turn his poll lead into victory in a Nov. 16 runoff.
Ukraine: Merkel, Juncker Say EU’s Russia Sanctions to Stay After Eastern Ukraine Elections | Wall Street Journal
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the new European Commission president said there was no prospect in sight of scaling back sanctions on Russia, maintaining a tough stance after Moscow embraced the results of a separatist election in eastern Ukraine. Ms. Merkel said in Berlin on Wednesday that the European Union should consider expanding its sanctions list to include the winners of Sunday’s local voting. The EU, Kiev and the U.S. have refused to recognize the elections and said that Russia’s refusal to condemn them are a breach of a September cease-fire. “We should also have another look at the list of specific individuals who now have responsibility in eastern Ukraine due to these illegitimate elections,” Ms. Merkel told reporters. “Otherwise I think we should maintain the sanctions we have.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman told reporters at a news conference in Berlin on Monday that Sunday’s elections in rebel-held eastern Ukraine were “illegitimate,” as they contravened the country’s constitution and the Minsk ceasefire signed in September. Steffen Seibert also said the manner in which the polls in the rebel-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and the nearby self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic were conducted were “extremely questionable.” “It is all the more incomprehensible that there are official Russian voices that are respecting or even recognizing these so-called elections,” Seibert said. He added that under these circumstances there could be no thought of easing EU sanctions on Russia, and that if the situation in eastern Ukraine deteriorated further measures may be needed.
Rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko smiled only slightly on hearing that he had won this weekend’s elections in Donetsk, Ukraine (pictured). The results were never in doubt: Mr Zakharchenko’s nominal opponents openly supported him, and his face was the only one on campaign billboards. Nonetheless, eastern Ukraine’s separatist republics went through the motions of democracy, including inviting international election observers. Those proved hard to find: while Russia has said it will respect the vote, America, the European Union, and the United Nations have all condemned it. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe refused to monitor the elections. The European politicians who did show up to observe were drawn from a smattering of far-right parties, including Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front, and Italy’s Forza, as well as a few far-left ones. While they may not have done much to legitimise the vote, their presence was significant as a marker of Russia’s growing relationship with Europe’s political fringes. The elections in the breakaway pro-Russian regions were marked by armed men standing next to ballot boxes and a disturbing absence of voter rolls. This did not bother the European observers, who pronounced the voting free and fair. Many of them had arrived in Donetsk with luggage bearing “ROV” airline tags, code for the Russian city of Rostov, where they had flown in before crossing the border by car into separatist-held territory. Russia has been courting European fringe parties for years, part of a multi-pronged strategy aimed at “undermining the EU project”, argues Thomas Gomart, a Russia scholar at the French Institute of International Relations.
Alexander Zakharchenko, a 38-year-old mining electrician, won an illegitimate election in pro-Russian separatist controlled Ukraine this weekend. The election was held to determine a leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, however, the militant separatist group is not recognized as a legitimate power by the Ukrainian government. President Petro Poroshenko refers to them primarily as a terrorist group. In addition to being carried out by an unrecognized rebel organization, the election violated a September 5th ceasefire agreement that was signed by not only Ukraine and the separatists, but also by Russia. Though the separatists believe the election will allow them to break eastern Ukraine away from the west, and exert political control over the area, officials in Kiev will not recognize the election or Zakharchenko’s reign. The Ukrainian government referred to the vote as “rogue” and believes it was encouraged by Russian officials, who have long been accused of funding and controlling separatist actions in Ukraine. Poroshenko said the election was a “farce that is being conducted under the threat of tanks and guns.”
Romanians will head to polling stations on November 2 to elect a new president, with incumbent Traian Basescu stepping down after serving the maximum two terms allowed by law. The field to replace Basescu features 14 candidates, but only two are seen as realistic challengers – prime minister Victor Ponta, leader of the Social-Democrat party, and the mayor of Sibiu Klaus Iohannis, leader of the National-Liberal party. Ponta is seen as the favourite, with various opinion polls giving him between 38 per cent and 43 per cent support, while Iohannis ranked second with support between 30 per cent and 33 per cent. All other candidates were polling in the single-digit range. In the likely scenario that no candidate wins the presidency in the first round of voting, a run-off would be held on November 16. A win by Ponta would consolidate the Social-Democrats’ hold on government and bring a degree of stability after a decade marked by repeated conflicts between the presidency and parliament during Basescu’s two terms in office.
Foreign observers on Tuesday voiced concern over alleged irregularities in the counting of votes from Mozambique’s presidential and legislative polls held last week. Both the European Union and the United States government issued statements on Tuesday pointing at problems in the tallying process after last Wednesday’s polls. “Despite an orderly election day, these processes have encountered many difficulties and adversities,” the EU observer mission said. These included “faulty” handling of final result sheets from polling stations and lengthy tabulation procedures. The EU “considers that such mishaps in the tabulation process, added to the absence of official public explanations about these difficulties, hinders what has been an orderly start on election day.”
Latvia’s hawkish center ruling coalition has won a clear majority in a general election, results showed on Sunday, after taking a hard line over the actions of Russia, its neighbor and former ruler, in Ukraine. Victory for the center in the Baltic state, which takes over the presidency of the EU at the start of next year, will bring a sigh of relief from many worried that the pro-Russian Concord party might gain power and give Russian President Vladimir Putin a friendly voice in the European Union. “The pro-European, relatively predictable, economically liberal course will continue,” Ivars Ijabs, associate professor of political science from University of Latvia, said.
Latvians look likely to back their hawkish centre-right ruling coalition in a parliamentary election on Saturday amid increased tensions with giant neighbor Russia, Riga’s communist-era ruler, over the Ukraine crisis. Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma has taken a tough stance towards Moscow over its policies in Ukraine, boosting defense spending and joining Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania in pressing for a bigger NATO presence in their region. Among her main opponents in the election is the traditionally pro-Moscow Concord party, which draws support from the ethnic Russians who make up about a quarter of Latvia’s two million-strong population. “I think that most likely we will have the same centre-right coalition as we see now. And the main reason is Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” said Andis Kudors, executive director of the Center for East European Policy Studies. “Latvian parties will have a hard time convincing voters why they would go (into a coalition) with a Concord party which does not condemn Russia’s aggression enough.”
Sweden: Social Democrat Leader Stefan Lofven Defeats Incumbent Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt | Wall Street Journal
Sweden’s Social Democrat Leader Stefan Lofven defeated incumbent Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in parliamentary elections on Sunday, signaling the return of a left-leaning government after eight years in opposition. The shift reflected concerns among the Swedish electorate that Mr. Reinfeldt’s pro-market policies have chipped away at the country’s cherished welfare state. Mr. Reinfeldt said he would resign as prime minister on Monday and as leader of his party by spring. Mr. Lofven, though, still faces tough negotiations with left-leaning allies over forming a coalition government after failing to secure an absolute majority. With nearly all votes counted, results from Sweden’s election authority showed the Social Democrats won 31.1% of the vote, largely unchanged from the last election in 2010, while Mr. Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party slumped to 23.2%, from 30.1% at the last election. Though the two parties won nearly the same amount of votes four years ago, Mr. Reinfeldt’s Moderates were then able to cobble together a larger center-right alliance of parties.
Afghanistan’s audit of millions of ballots from the presidential runoff vote is being slowed down by disputes. But Thijs Berman, the EU’s chief election observer, tells DW what matters is that the audit is done properly. It’s only been a few days since Afghanistan began an audit of more than eight million votes cast in the June 14 runoff presidential election but the process has already been marred by walkouts by both sides. Although the country’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) said that the process would take around three weeks, with teams working in two shifts to audit around 1,000 ballot boxes a day, the exercise may take longer than expected as the two sides still appear at odds over the ground rules for the audit. The audit had been agreed upon by rival presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani following Abdullah’s claims of massive fraud, which had threatened to plunge the conflict-ridden country into a political crisis. The agreement, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, comes at a crucial time as the United States, Afghanistan’s biggest foreign donor, prepares to withdraw most of its combat troops by the end of this year. Thijs Berman, the chief election observer of the EU Election Assessment Team (EAT) in Afghanistan, says in a DW interview, that it is not uncommon for audits to lead to discussions, especially over ‘suspect votes’, and adds that the important thing is that the audit is conducted properly.
Slovenians head to the polls on Sunday faced with a choice between a political novice and a former prime minister serving time for corruption and with little hope of returning their troubled country to stability. The vote will be the second early elections in three years for Slovenia, a once model member of the European Union that has been on a downward spiral since the 2008 financial crisis. Miro Cerar, a prestigious law professor, is favoured to win despite his lack of political experience, and analysts predict that any new government will not last long, spelling further instability for the small nation of two million. The Miro Cerar Party, which he founded only in June, is expected to win between 29 and 37 percent of the vote, according to the latest polls. The main opposition centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party, whose leader, former prime minister Janez Jansa, began serving a two-year prison sentence just last month, is meanwhile polling at 15 to 24 percent.