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May 22, 2016

Waiting in Austria

It is somewhat confusing to read news reports about the Austrian election this morning, which has turned into a cliffhanger. The official projections are 50.0 for both candidates - the right-wing populist Norbert Hofer, and the Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. In terms of the actual vote count, Hofer was ahead - by 51.9% against 48.9% for Van der Bellen. The difference between the two reported results is due to postal votes, which will only be counted today. The 50/50 projections include an estimate of the postal vote, which, on experience, would favour the Greens over the FPÖ. If one includes that projection, Van der Bellen actually is marginally ahead but the difference is now so small - a few thousand votes - that, on the basis of the publicly available information now, there is no way to pick out a winner.

Der Standard notes that Van der Bellen did very well in the urban areas, especially in Vienna. Hofer had been slightly ahead during the campaign, according to unpublished opinion polls. The gap seemed to have increased around the time when Werner Faymann resigned as chancellor, and reduced again when Christian Kern took over as his successor. The implication is that the appointment of Kern as a quasi-political outsider might have satisfied some of the popular demand feeding the anti-establishment vote. 

There are already some brave commentators out there, desperate to present their spin on the elections with comments on the split electorate. We think it's best to wait until later today. 

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May 22, 2016

Greek court puts Turkey deal on hold

A court on the Greek island of Lesvos, close to the Turkish coast, deemed Turkey an “unsafe third country,” threatening the agreement's further implementation, Kathimerini reports. The committee of judges on Lesvos refused to reject an asylum application by a Syrian refugee and send him back to Turkey on the grounds that Turkey is unsafe. It said the case should be examined further. This could set a precedent and could put on hold the return of Syrian refugees to Turkey, essentially voiding the EU's agreement.

The asylum application process is also too slow to bring any significant change. In Chios, with 2,500 immigrants, only 10 applications get processed per day. On Lesvos 174 applications by Syrians have been examined so far, of whom 100 have been granted asylum. The remaining applicants, who were rejected, have lodged appeals requesting the re-examination of their cases.

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May 22, 2016

Sovereignty and rule of law in Poland

Today is the deadline for the Polish government to make "significant progress" on resolving its conflict with the country's constitutional court, or else Frans Timmermans is empowered to issue an opinion under the "rule of law framework" which the Commission adopted in draft form last Wednesday. The domestic Polish dispute has to do with the renewal of five seats on the constitutional court, as well as a law reforming the court, and the Polish government refusing to publish in the official journal a decision by the court striking down the reform law as unconstitutional, and all subsequent court decisions. The dispute has also involved the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which sided with the constitutional court against the government. 

The prospects of a satisfactory resolution today are slim as on Friday the Polish government passed a resolution through the Sejm accusing the Commission of violating Poland's sovereignty. Beata Szydlo said that the rule of law procedure has no basis in European law, and that "some" in the Commission want to break the EU apart. Konrad Szymanski, Polish minister for European affairs, took a more conciliatory tone last week, but also warned that there wasn't enough time for a breakthrough before today.

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May 22, 2016

The age of the disgruntled

Karl-Peter Schwarz offers a grim front-page editorial in Frankfurter Allgemeine this morning. He writes that the populist backlash in the four Visegrad countries - Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia - is not a threat to the democratic systems as such. But it is a tyranny of the majority, a form of radical democracy that was previously unknown. It is directed against both elites - European elites in particular - and minorities, like Roma or migrants. Viktor Orbán himself described this as an "illiberal democracy". The balance between the democratic majority principle and a constitutionalism that imposes limits on the voters themselves is out of kilter in all of those countries. He suggests that this is a trend that could catch on elsewhere as well.

Natalie Nougayrède makes a broader point in her Guardian column that the internet allows the erosion of representative democracy through grass-roots mobilisation, in a way that was never possible in the past. The traditional forums to settle conflict are no longer working. It is unclear who or what will ultimately act as an arbiter.

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