Bittersweet victories: The European Greens and the elections of 2021

Analysis

The year 2021 was an unprecedented one for the European Green Party (EGP) and its members. The transnational political party organisation of environmentalists in Europe enjoyed some of its best election results in Austria, Denmark, Germany, France, Norway and Switzerland. At the same time, European Greens often failed to meet the high expectations set by polling. Moreover, substantial levels of support remain limited to Western Europe, although the elections in Bulgaria show that EGP member parties can make it to the national parliament, and even into government, in Eastern Europe.

shutterstock_316393190.png

January-March: Central European successes and green doldrums elsewhere

The 2021 electoral year in Europe started with the presidential elections in Portugal on 24 January, where the EGP member Partido Ecologista “Os Verdes” supported João Ferreira. Ferreira is a member of the Portuguese Communist Party that sits with the Left Group in the EU Parliament and forms an electoral alliance with the Greens at the national level, namely The Unitary Democratic Coalition - Coligação Democrática Unitária (CDU). The candidate was eliminated in the first round with 4.3% of the vote, which was a better outcome than in the 2016 election, when the CDU candidate received 3.9%, but worse than the CDU’s results in previous presidential elections. Shortly after, the Greens had another sobering experience on the Iberian Peninsula. Catalunya en Comú, in the Spanish region of Catalonia, had entered the electoral alliance En Comú Podem-Podem en Comú with the left-wing Podemos. In the 14 February regional election, their vote share dropped by 0.6 points compared to the previous election, to only 6.9%.

Regional elections in Central Europe brought better news for the Greens: in the Swiss cantons of Valais and Solothurn, GRÜNE Schweiz’s regional parliamentary vote share jumped from 6.7% to 9.1% and 7.5% to 10.8%, respectively, in the elections on 7 March. Additionally, Green Party member Brigit Wyss defended her regional government position in the first round of the direct election. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens were able, for the first time, to defend a plurality in a German regional election on 14 March. Popular regional prime minister Winfried Kretschmann increased his party’s vote share from 30.3% in 2016 to 32.6%. In Rheinland-Pfalz, which voted on the same date as its southern neighbour, the Greens failed to meet double-digit expectations but increased their vote share from 5.3% to 9.3%. The election resulted in the renewal of the government coalition of the Greens, Social Democrats and the liberal FDP, blueprinting the coalition formation talks that would follow at the national level in the autumn. Just three days after the election in Rheinland-Pfalz, Jesse Klaver’s GroenLinks in the Netherlands received a disappointing 5.2%, losing almost half their vote share of the previous election in 2017.

April-June: A green spring

The national parliament election on 4 April 2021 shook Bulgaria to the core, transforming its political party system to the benefit of the European Greens. Zeleno dvizhenie entered the electoral alliance “Democratic Bulgaria,” which won the Greens national parliamentary representation for the first time in its history. In the two subsequent snap elections that followed in Bulgaria, on 11 July and 14 November, the Greens re-entered the national parliament with at first four and then – bittersweet – only two out of 240 total parliament seats. 13 December, it was confirmed that Democratic Bulgaria has joined the national coalition government, with Green Borislav Sandov as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Environment and Waters. Two weeks after the first Bulgarian election, the Greens in the Swiss region of Neuchâtel increased their vote share from 14.9% to 18.3%. Successes in Western Europe followed: the Greens received their best parliamentary election results in Scotland and Wales in their history, with 8.1% (up from 6.6% in 2016) and 4.4% (up from 3% in 2016) in regional votes, respectively. The progressive-separatist Greens joined the third Sturgeon government in Scotland three months after the election.

On 30 May, the mayoral election run-off in Zagreb saw the victory of the Green–Left Coalition with 63.8%, but their counterpart organization in Cyprus, the Movement of Ecologists (KOSP), continued the run of bittersweet green victories, dropping from 4.8% to 4.4% in the popular vote share, despite being fortunate to increase their seats from two to three. Also on 30 May, the French Greens – Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV) received results of above 15%, for the first time, in the national parliament by-elections for the 3rd district of Indre-et-Loire (16.2%) and the 15th district of Paris (18.5%). Regional elections in Saxony-Anhalt (Germany) on 6 June – in what some polls showed as a toss-up race for the first position between the centre-right and the far-right – saw the Greens rise from 5.2% to 5.9%, albeit underperforming compared to polls. A minor blemish on the green electoral record that spring was the Chesham and Amersham national parliament by-election in the UK, where the Liberal Democrats jumped from 26% to 57%, grabbing the seat from the Conservatives. Meanwhile, the English Greens slumped from 5.5% to 3.9%.

July-September: Summer losses and bittersweet victories

The electoral summer started with the most drastic decline of a European Green Party member in 2021: in the Dublin Bay South national parliamentary by-election, the Irish Greens collapsed from 22.4% to only 8% in the first vote count. It was the first test at the ballot box for the Greens in Ireland after entering the government under centrist Head of Government and European Council member Micheál Martin on 27 June 2020. Equally disappointing was the performance of the Partidul Verde Ecologist in the national parliamentary election in Moldova on 11 July. The party reached 0.1%, which was half of the result of the previous election. The Greens in Norway - Miljøpartiet De Grønne (MDG) increased their vote share during the 12-13 September national parliamentary election. However, the 3.8% historic high still fell below expectations of over 5% in the polls. The Greens in Upper Austria suffered a similar fate in the 26 September regional parliamentary election. They received 12.3%, compared to 10.3% in 2016, which historically was the best result of the regional Greens, but still lower than expected.

The most well-known electoral event in Europe 2021 was the federal election in Germany, where polls in the spring signalled that Alliance 90/The Greens was - for the first time - in reach of conquering the position of Head of Government and European Council member. However, the German Greens did not achieve this goal while, at the same time, leading the party to the best election result in their history, with 14.8% and 118 out of 736 seats in the national parliament, the Bundestag. In a sense, the German story of solid results but missing overly enthusiastic expectations is exemplary of other green electoral experiences this year in Europe. The record results for the German Greens at the national level paired with bittersweet victories at the regional level. In the regional election in Berlin, the Greens failed to win the pole position for the mayorship but won a record result of 18.9% and ultimately renewed their government coalition agreement with the Social Democrats and the Left. In the regional election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Greens entered the regional parliament for the first time since 2011 but only got 6.3% of votes. And despite significant losses of the centre-left in local elections in Lisbon, the earlier-mentioned CDU alliance only rose from 9.6% to 10.5%.

September-December: Minor losses in minor elections

The end of 2021 brought mixed results for the European Greens. The Czech member Strana zelených won 1% in the 8-9 October election, down from 1.5% in 2017. The local elections for the Copenhagen City Council on 16 November saw the EGP member Socialistisk Folkeparti rise from 8.3% in 2017 to 11%.

The UK Old Bexley and Sidcup national parliamentary by-election on 2 December saw the vote share of the English Greens rise from 3.2% to 3.8%. At the North Shropshire national parliament by-election, the Greens increased their vote share from 3.2% to 4.6%, although the Liberal Democrats obtained the seat.

Elections without green participation

Parliament elections also took place in Liechtenstein (7 February), Kosovo (14 February), Armenia (20 June), the Isle of Man (23 September) and Iceland (25 September). However, no European Green Party member exists in these countries. EGP members did not participate in the national parliamentary elections in Albania (25 April) or the neither free nor fair national parliamentary elections in Russia (19 September).

Although it is certainly the case that the European Greens did not meet the expectations set by polls at the beginning of this year, previous electoral record highs were often surpassed – in Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom. The Bulgarian Greens gave the movement hope that electoral success is ahead in Eastern Europe – but Moldova is just one example of how green success is far from being a mass phenomenon east of Vienna.

 

The election results of 2021 in Europe are linked on the Europe Elects website here until 31 December 2021 and then move to the Europe Elects archive here. This article is part of a two-article miniseries. In January 2022, the second part will shed light on electoral events in Europe during 2022.