Keeping Tally on Elections across the Atlantic

The 2016 U.S. presidential election created shock waves around the world, but it was not the first unexpected outcome in 2016, and would not be the last. The results of elections and referenda held in 2016 in the U.S. and in Europe are likely to have a significant impact on upcoming elections in 2017. Right-wing parties have gained traction on both sides of the Atlantic, and many leaders are trying to fend off the anti-establishment movements’ growing popularity.

The first shock in 2016 was the Brexit decision, in which UK citizens voted in June to leave the European Union by a narrow margin of 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent. The outcome led Prime Minister David Cameron, who called for the referendum during his campaign for reelection, to resign.  He was replaced by Theresa May, only the second female to take on the role. The “Brexit” decision has likely played a significant role in the outcome of elections throughout Europe.

Nearly one month after Americans went to the polls, votes were held Austria and Italy, further testing European resolve to continue on the path toward deeper integration. In Italy, voters rejected constitutional reforms in a referendum. Similar to the case in the UK, the result of the constitutional referendum led Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to resign, opening the door for yet another election to watch in 2017.

In an election that played out differently than the rest in 2016, Austria’s presidential election resulted in defeat for the far-right candidate. Center-left politician Alexander Van der Bellen was elected as the new president with a projected 52 percent of the vote, defeating ultra-nationalist Norbert Hofer. While the election for such a ceremonial position can only be viewed as a small victory, newly-elected President Van der Bellen had encouraging words for his counterparts around Europe: “red-white-red signal of hope and change, a red-white-red signal today goes from Austria to all the capitals of the European Union,” a reference to the Austrian flag.

Also after the U.S. presidential election, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she would be running for a fourth term in 2017. Merkel is up against a similar right-wing populist movement, and her handling of the refugee crisis and the state of domestic German and European affairs will play a key role in the outcome of the German election.

Voters in France and the Netherlands will also go to the polls. The French presidential election is off to an unexpected start as current president François Hollande announced he will not seek reelection. Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, is likely to step up as the leading contender in the primary. The surprise announcement is viewed by many to improve the odds for the Socialist Party. Whoever stands in the place of Hollande will be up against François Fillon, who was chosen recently as the candidate for the center-right Republican Party after defeating former president Nicolas Sarkozy in the primary, and the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen.

The strong ties between the British and the Dutch have many closely watching the Dutch general elections after the Brexit vote. Furthermore, the results of the Italian referendum have many wondering if the Dutch are next, as Dutch leader Mark Rutte faces a strong Euro-skeptic challenger leading up to the Dutch parliamentary elections scheduled for March 15.

Other elections to watch out for in 2017 include a possible snap election in Denmark, a vote by Catalans for independence in September, and an election in October in the Czech Republic in which the Czech Populist Party is likely to win the position of prime minister. The uncertainty ushered in by 2016 demonstrates that there is a potential for unscheduled leadership changes and further referenda throughout Europe in the year ahead.


Jackie Pierson is the Finance and Development Coordinator at AGI.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.