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Changes in European politics: less ideas, more social media, new leaders

Slovakian, Turkish and Ukrainian citizens went to the polls over the past few days, while elections for the renewal of the Parliament in Strasbourg loom on the horizon. The common features characterising new political trends include anti-establishment and populist winds. But there’s more to that…

In the past days the citizens of three European Countries – Slovakia, Turkey, Ukraine – went to the polls, other elections are being planned (in Westminster on Brexit), and the forthcoming elections for the renewal of the European Parliament will take place May 23-26. European democracy takes different shapes and forms, it brings new faces to the fore and sends varying signals. Is it enough to make a general evaluation? It’s a difficult task, also because each Country is marked by political developments of its own. Yet it is still possible to identify a set of common features.

Bratislava and the Visegrad Countries. The facts first of all: Slovakian citizens have chosen the new President of the Republic, Zuzana Caputova. A woman (finally!) for the first time holds the highest office in Bratislava; a young lawyer, divorced, mother of two, renowned for her battles in support of individual and collective rights and for her fight against corruption and organized crime. A staunch Europeanist in a Country that is a member of the Visegrad group along with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic:

who knows if the election of Zuzana Caputova signals a crack in the alliance of Countries that have always had a cautious approach to European integration, despite being among the greatest recipients of EU structural funds.

The President of the European Council Donald Tusk (Poland), seized the opportunity for a public reflection by sending a congratulatory message to the President-elect: “I am particularly pleased to see such a strong vote, at the heart of Europe, in favour of decency in politics, of rule of law and tolerance”, he wrote. Tusk sees in this election “unequivocal support for the European and Euro-Atlantic paths” of Slovakia (which, inter alia, has the euro as its currency, unlike its neighbours) and “a welcome sign that the values they represent can prevail over the cynicism of power politics and the false promises of populism.” A message with positive tones was also conveyed by Msgr. Stanislav Zvolensky, President of the Slovakian Bishops’ Conference, who said: “I trust that the new President will defend the fundamental values underlying our society and that she will work for the promotion and consolidation of the common good based on Christian values.”

Elections in Kiev, gaze extended to Moscow. The atmosphere in Ukraine is different, with the first round of Presidential elections held last week that gave a majority to comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy with 30% of the vote, followed by the Europeanist, anti-Russian outgoing President, Petro Poroshenko with 17%. Former Premier Julija Tymoshenko ranked third with 13%, and is thus excluded from the run-off vote of April 21. Zelensky is known to the general public as the anchorman of the satirical TV show “Servants of the people”, in which he plays a man of the street who became national President.

Zelensky speaks Russian, and since the beginning he gained the conspicuous and cumbersome support of powerful Ukrainian businessman Ihor Kolomoysky,

not new to shady political positions. Poroshenko had made great promises, many of which he failed to keep – starting with economic recovery, meant to improve citizens’ daily lives. Yet he has also firmly rejected Russia’s claims on portions of Ukrainian territory, and acted as a liaison between Kiev, the European Union and NATO. Would Zelensky, a neophyte of political life, be capable of uniting the nation and be a counterbalance to Vladimir Putin?

Turkey, the cities and Erdogan. Turkey, a bridge connecting Europe and Asia, is the third Country that went to the polls for local elections. Its President Recep Tayyp Erdogan has grown intolerant of democratic rules and balances, with a heavy hand on internal opposition and especially on minority groups (the Kurds above all). He is also a cumbersome figure in the Middle-Eastern arena.

The outcome of the local vote shows that his party, AKP, has lost the lead in the Country’s two largest cities: Ankara, the capital, and the modern city of Istanbul.

This is not enough to conclude that Erdogan has lost his grips on voters, but it does represent a setback to his strong-arm, repressive, and anti-European politics.

Common features? Thus what are the possible common traits of these elections? It could be the anti-establishment trend, without distinction of colours and parties, which pours out against the leaders-in-office and governing forces. At the same time growing political polarization discourages initiatives for encounter, debate and exchanges with regard to values, projects and ideas, while conflict  – that revolves around simplistic slogans, erecting barriers that separate opposing factions and fuelling the animosity of political supporters on both sides – is encouraged.

Whether this attitude goes under the name of populism it represents a factor that recurs throughout.

Against this setting, social media play a major role, expressing the force of convincing without debating. Social media imposes new players – who often fail to measure up to the institutional role they are competing for. Last but not least – and finally a positive factor – these elections registered high turnout at the polls. For some political analysts this could occur again in the European elections. Should tensions increase and debates (albeit superficial) grow heated, some additional citizens could decide to go to the polls to make their voices heard. This aspect is yet to be verified, but it could turn out to be a relevant factor in the new political era shaped by social media.



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