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Elections in Europe — Amid Ukraine agony, Russia still finds support

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(Left to right) Viktor Orbán, Emmanuel Macron, Aleksandar Vučić (Image by Dan Jensen)

Elections in Europe have shown the extent of pro-Russia sympathy, whether drawing on some traditional alignments in Eastern Europe or stirred up by the Far-Right.

The voting has put a dent in solidarity against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war of aggression against neighbouring Ukraine.

Macron’s battle for re-election in France

The lead-up to the French Presidential Election on Sunday 10 April saw a surge of support for the nationalist challenger Marine Le Pen, against the incumbent President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is centrist in politics, a stalwart of the European Union and of the defence alliance NATO in its backing of embattled Ukraine under invasion.

Preoccupied with the crisis in Europe, he began his campaign rallies late, a little over a week before the poll and has been battling long-standing resistance to one of his key changes in economic policy — a tightening of pension rights and the move to a later retirement age. He is also under fire for the deployment of an American consultancy to coordinate big programs including the COVID-19 response, amid contentions that the company was dodging taxes.

He remained ahead of the field in late polls with 27% of primary votes, among 12 candidates. All observers agreed that if he stayed in front he would also win the elimination round against any runner-up, scheduled for 24 April. Against that, the newspaper Le Monde consolidated all polls and declared the Election, one week out, was impossible to call.

As an indicator of the massive distraction of Ukraine, over the course of a week, the newspaper published seven email alerts on the war, two on the French Presidential Elections.   

Extreme-right politics

Le Pen moved to just 5% behind the President, picking up 7% in a week. It was a showing that drew attention to deep currents of resentment, built on campaigns against immigration or the large Moslem community, which comprises 5% of the French population. Le Pen makes a so-called populist pitch to voters disaffected by change in society and wanting to be offered blunt solutions — including a plan to walk out of the EU.

Prepared to kick over the traces protecting legal rights or usual democratic process, she found a friend long ago in Vladimir Putin, whose overseas television service, RT (formerly Russia Today), would give her a friendly outlet when needed.

Marine Le Pen’s father and political predecessor at the head of their movement, Jean-Marie, made a breakthrough in the 2002 Presidential Election, coming second in the first round. His vote rarely got beyond 15% but it was foundational. The electoral strength of this far-right force, called the Rassemblement, signals a breaking of ranks in Western Europe — a bad look for European solidarity in dealing with Russia at this time.

No fascist republic

Not that France is about to become a fascist republic.

The left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, was placed third with 16%, a bloc vote ready to be passed on to Macron. Melenchon inherited votes from the previously strong Communist Party and the Socialist Party that ruined its chances through maladroitness in government and major corruption scandals.

The late pick-up in votes for Le Pen looked to have come from the evident collapse of the presidential aspirations of Eric Zemmour, a television commentator who made a big splash a year ago, building up a showing of 30% support that eventually came down to just under 10%. Called France’s Trump, opinionated in the way of the more partisan talkers on Sky News, he knew how to entertain with outrageous and reactionary ideas, was an intruder into the political game, then stumbled.

Zemmour was a percentage point ahead of Valerie Pecress, candidate of the long-time party of government, the centre-right Gaullists, campaigning now as the Republicans. Her potential vote was drained away by Macron, whose closest identification in conventional politics has been with a centrist bloc – classic liberals including many business people – that always governed with the Gaullists. A lot of Republican voters would be taking him up as “their” incumbent.

Trouble further east

Voting in two smaller states, on 3 and 4 April, in Central and South-eastern Europe where politics get very rough gave more cause for worry in the Western alliance.  

The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, was returned to power with over 58% of votes and enough parliamentary seats to easily make up a governing coalition. He is Serbia’s version of a centre-left politician but is as much interested in siding with a China-Russia axis than pushing his country’s application to join the EU.

His non-Western tendency has come out in the form of most friendly relations with Vladimir Putin in Russia and very heavy Chinese investment in Serbian industries. The man’s balancing act will now be brought to a stand-off. Failure to join in active condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would cruel his chances of getting into the EU and getting EU money, a prize for the East European states with their weak economies. But perhaps he prefers crude company and may not care about going to Brussels after all.

In Hungary the most pro-Russian of all, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán easily won re-election, capturing 53.7% of primary votes against a combined opposition’s 34.4%. Orban runs a program he calls “Christian democratic, conservative, patriotic” and declared:

“We are sending Europe a message that this is not the past — this is the future.”

He was helped in the messaging by a general shutting-down and shutting-out of opposition in the media; the opposition alliance in the Election received five minutes of airtime for its campaign, swamped by propaganda for Orban’s party, called Fidesz. The international rights and security agency, the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), sent investigators to try and check widespread allegations of electoral fraud.

Orban’s victory was not just the outcome of courting reactionary spirit among many voters, as when he broke ranks with joint EU immigration policy during the Syrian crisis of 2015, refusing to let in refugees. He is also another balancing man, obtaining EU financial support given to weaker economies in the bloc, but depending heavily on Russia for well over half of Hungary’s oil and gas.

He would not worry so much that a percentage of the EU payments are now being withheld because of his rule-breaking on rights; he has a friendship with Vladimir Putin — enjoying visits with each other on some 12 occasions. When Ukraine was invaded, he campaigned as a “peace” candidate, not exactly breaking the letter of Hungary’s obligations as a member of NATO, but refusing to send any help to Ukraine, saying he would keep his country out of the war.

A “Putin test” for democratic, or undemocratic politics

The agony of Ukraine has provided a “Putin test” for nationalist or racialist political parties claiming to be democratic and denying any connection with fascist movements that arose in the 1920s. His action is replicating on pygmy scale the senseless and cruel aggressions of Nazi Germany, which, ironically today, included Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia — another Armageddon. If the parties and their voters don’t condemn and oppose Vladimir Putin, well, if you fly with the crows you get stoned with the crows. 

Ideas of “folk” identity die hard, whether that is among a minority of “tradition-minded” French reviling Arab citizens there, ethnic-Serb nationalism, or even dreams from yesteryear of Magyar ethnic hegemony and empire in Hungary.

The European Community before 1992 was a thoroughly democratic and prosperous Western European club, actually enacting ideals of justice, sharing and peace. It then acceded to urgent requests from the former communist states of Eastern Europe to be admitted to the new EU. NATO likewise agreed to admit those states to the alliance, as they were demanding greater assurance of protection from Russia.

In light of the barbaric events of the last six weeks, they had reason to fear. Governments of the West, while united and determined in the present crisis, must rue that they had few alternatives during the ructions of the 1990s and made this rod for their own backs.

This article is published also in Subtropic.com.au and EUAustralia.com.

Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.

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