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Moving the goalposts: what will be the impact of electoral rule changes?

With less than 100 days to go to the European Parliament elections, Greece, Bulgaria and Germany are making changes to the rules governing the choice of candidates.

What are the changes and what will they mean?

Greece

Perhaps the most fundamental change comes in Greece, where the Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras (who is leader of New Democracy, a member of the European People’s Party - pictured below) came to an agreement with Evangelos Venizelos (the Deputy PM and Foreign Minister, and leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), which is a member of the Party of European Socialists).

GR-prime

Under the Samaras-Venizelos deal, party lists will be abolished and voters will select individual candidates. The Greek interior minister, Yiannis Michelakis, told EurActiv Greece that “In the country where democracy was born, we decided the election of our MEPs with the most democratic way, by abolishing the party lists and introducing the direct election”.

Others doubt the government’s spin. Such a fundamental change, cooked up in a backroom deal, came as a shock to many – not least the main opposition party, the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which is a member of the Party of the European Left. Leading personalities who hoped to get a ‘golden pass’ to the top spots on the party lists are also dismayed at the switch.

Previously, Greece had used a party list-based proportional representation system. This system of ‘locked’ lists, similar to that used in the France, Germany and the United Kingdom, lets parties choose the top candidates – something that has been widely criticised for many years.

The MEPs who were elected were often unknown to the public, and the system was considered to be a factor in voters’ detachment from the European Parliament and the European Union as a whole. However, the main parties have never before given serious consideration to making a change.

Under the new plan, Greek voters will be asked to mark their preferred MEPs from parties’ nationwide list of candidates – as in national parliamentary elections. Each party will each put up 42 candidates – twice the number of seats available.

So what was the trigger for this change? As is often the case in Greece, the answers are political instability and the financial crisis. The mainstream parties, under threat from fringe groups, want to secure their positions by having a system under which individual candidates can be chosen, rather than forcing people to vote for discredited parties (Pasok’s support has fallen from 43% in the national election in 2009 to just four per cent now).

MEP Maria Eleni KOPPA in the European Parliament in Brussels

Syriza’s political objection comes from a fear that well-known candidates will campaign aggressively as individuals and attract some of the votes that would otherwise go to the far-left party. From a more theoretical standpoint, Syriza broadly supports the change, but argues that such changes should not be decided only three months before the elections, but should instead be brought about after an appropriate period of reflection and consultation.

Some Pasok MEPs are also unhappy. Marilena Koppa (pictured left) has quit the party, although she will continue to sit in the Socialists and Democrats GroupAnother Pasok MEP,  Spyros Danellis, told EurActiv that a single constituency system “favours low quality TV personae”, citing the experience of the “current extremely degraded national parliament”.

The change in system is expected to help Pasok and harm the chances of the newly-established ‘58 Initiative’, a centre-left movement formed by a group of professors, economists, businessmen and artists. With a proposed ‘Olive Tree’ list between Pasok and the 58ers now off the table, Pasok is expected to launch open primaries to choose its candidates.

Bulgaria

Meanwhile in Bulgaria, another late change is taking place. Lawmakers have decided to introduce a five per cent threshold for preferential votes for the European Parliament election. As a result, voters will have the option to choose specific candidates, with anyone obtaining support of more than five per cent of voters having the chance to be moved to the top of their party’s list.

As is the case in other member states, such as Belgium, votes for a list as a whole will be counted as a ‘preference vote’ for the list leader designated by the party.

Germany

And just yesterday, thresholds were in the news again. In a ruling that has delighted smaller parties, Germany‘s constitutional court ruled against the three per cent threshold for qualification for a seat in the European Parliament.

The court – in a majority ruling – said that the threshold (which used to be set at five per cent) was not necessary. It held that due to the large number of parties in the European Parliament – more than one hundred – a threshold was not necessary to ensure a functioning parliament and a stable government (the reasons for which thresholds are used in federal and regional elections).

Read more on the German court decision in a blog by Simon Hix on pollwatch2014.eu

The Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD), who currently rule in a grand coalition, attacked the ruling.

Plenary session - week 27 -2012SPD MEP Bernhard Rapkay (pictured right) called it a “weakening of European democracy”. He attacked the judges for contributing to a lower turnout in May by portraying the Parliament as a weak body that did not have a real say in the formation of a government. For the CDU, Steffen Bilger, an MP, said that the fragmentation of political voices meant that Germany’s position in Europe will be weakened.

For its part, the court said that it was speculation that newly-elected MEPs from fringe parties would not be able to find a home in or establish a political group. Despite the Parliament’s role in electing the next President of the European Commission, the court added that – unlike in national systems – the Commission was not dependent on continuous support by a stable parliamentary majority.

While the court left open the possibility for change in the future, it has also made the European Parliament election in Germany much more complicated.

So what changes? The 2009 results show how bigger parties get more seats as smaller parties fall foul of the threshold:

In 2014, the CDU and SPD are likely to lose three or four seats each in comparison to what they would have won under the previous system. The Greens and The Left should be relatively unaffected. The Liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) parties will have their position in the new parliament assured.

With around 1.05% of the vote needed to win a seat, new voices are likely to be heard: the Pirate Party and the National Democratic Party (NPD) both achieved that score in the 2013 federal parliamentary election in Germany.

And it is the prospect of this latter party – a far-right group that takes an extreme anti-immigrant stance – winning seats that causes most angst. Even one MEP would help the formation of an extreme-right group in the European Parliament (given that 25 MEPs from seven member states are needed to form a group – the second criterion often being more challenging).

When the goalposts are moved at such a late stage, we can probably expect some chaotic outcomes.

Sofia Tzortzi, Julia Riss and David O’Leary - Burson-Marsteller Brussels
Christian Thams - Burson-Marsteller Berlin

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