The cost-of-living crisis will dominate the elections in the EU over the next few months
14. 02. 2023 – Lomond
Immediately after the Czech presidential election last month, incumbent president Miloš Zeman was asked for his reaction to the news that Petr Pavel had beaten Andrej Babiš in the second-round run-off. He said: “I thought the election would be…a referendum on the government. It turned out to be a referendum on Andrej Babiš”. He criticised Babiš directly for what he saw as the strategic mistake of allowing the election to be framed in that way, and argued that he should have focused less on the war in Ukraine, more on the economic and energy crisis.
It’s no great surprise that the Czech election became focused on the personalities of the main candidates. It was a presidential rather than a parliamentary election, after all, and the Czech president is the head of state rather than the head of government so has more limited powers than presidents hold elsewhere. Despite that, in a country where inflation is running at over 17%, you might have expected the cost-of-living crisis to have been a more dominant issue during the campaign.
In that sense, the Czech presidential election is likely to be a real outlier when placed alongside the four parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place in the EU over the next couple of months: in Estonia, Bulgaria, Finland and Greece.
To get a sense of the issues that will dominate those elections – as well as others later in the year – it’s instructive to take a look at the most recent Eurobarometer, the European Commission’s flagship bi-annual public opinion survey of all 27 member states.
The most recent survey was based on interviews conducted in October / November 2022, and focused heavily on the cost-of-living crisis which, it concluded, was the “most pressing concern for 93% of Europeans”. The survey actually paints an alarming picture in this area. For example, in the EU as a whole, more than a third of people are struggling to pay their bills – 9% said that this was true “most of the time” (up from 7% in Spring 2022), 30% said it was true “from time to time” (up from 26% in Spring 2022).
In three of the four countries where parliamentary elections are imminent, the situation is much worse than that. In Greece, an amazing 86% of people told Eurobarometer that they are struggling to pay their bills, with 35% saying that this was now true “most of the time” (up 9% on six months earlier). In Bulgaria, almost three-quarters of respondents (64%) said that they were struggling to pay bills at least some of the time; well over a third (38%) said the same in Estonia.
This tracks against another question, which asked this: “Thinking about your household's income, how would you describe your current situation?” People were given four options, two of which were categorised as “living comfortably”, the other two as “living with difficulties”:
So, across the whole of the EU, the Greeks and Bulgarians see themselves as having the toughest time financially, with more than half of Estonians also saying that they are “living with difficulties”. It’s also worth noting Slovakia here, where almost two thirds of people are also “living with difficulties” and where an election is now scheduled for the end of September.
It’s important to acknowledge at this point that there is no deterministic relationship between economics and politics – if there were, you might expect the party of Sanna Marin, Finland’s Prime Minister, to be leading rather than behind in the polls leading into the 2 April general election given that Finland has one of the highest proportions of people “living comfortably” anywhere in the EU.
However, the Eurobarometer results do indicate a close link between perceived economic hardship and dissatisfaction with government. To illustrate that point, when asked “How satisfied are you with the measures taken so far to tackle the rising cost of living (for example the rising food or energy prices) by your government?”, the five countries where citizens were least satisfied included Slovakia (where 82% said that they were “not satisfied”), Estonia (81%), Greece (79%) and Bulgaria (76%):
Is that surprising? Probably not. Even though some of the factors driving the cost-of-living crisis are out of the control of national governments, you would probably expect those most affected to be amongst the least inclined to let their governments off the hook.
But particularly in Estonia, Bulgaria and Greece, the forthcoming elections will surely be dominated by the cost-of-living crisis – and, on this issue, they could barely be coming at a worse time for the incumbent governments and governing parties.