Poll sees centre-left taking the lead in EU election race

Schulz June 2013.jpg

The European Socialist political family is likely to win the most seats in EU Parliament elections in May, a survey showed on Wednesday (19 February), boosting the group's chances of also securing the presidency of the European Commission.

Data suggests the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group will gain up to 29.4% of all seats in the next EU Parliament, according to a new survey aggregating polling data from all EU member states.

With 221 seats, the socialist group would overtake the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group, at 202 seats. The EPP would see its majority shrink to 26.9%. There are 751 seats in the European Parliament.

The polling data is gathered by PollWatch2014, an initiative launched by transparency organisation VoteWatch Europe and led by professors at the London School of Economics and Trinity College Dublin.

Polling far behind these two major forces, are the other political groups: the Liberal ALDE is projected to get 64 seats; the far-left GUE/NGL group 56; The Greens/EFA group 44 seats; the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) 42 seats; and the far-right EFD 30 seats.

While the survey predicts the EPP will lose seats along with the Liberals, the traditionally large parties are still expected to hold about 70% of the legislature.

Close race

“It is going to be a very close race on who will be the biggest group in the European Parliament. It is a high uncertainty,” said Simon Hix of LSE, at the launch of the initiative on Wednesday (19 February).

The next European Parliament is expected to be considerably more polarised than the current one, the researchers underlined, with fewer seats for the centrist groups and more seats for the radical left, radical right, and anti-Europeans, according to the researchers Kevin Cunningham, Simon Hix and Michael Marsh.

They remain cautious in their predictions, however, saying support for the EPP and S&D “depends significantly on the fortunes of a small number of large parties in Germany, France and Italy,” which have tended to swing over the past years due to the financial and economic crisis.

“Given the situation of Socialists in France, Germany and Italy, the uncertainty is probably slightly larger for the Socialists than for the EPP,” the researchers write.

“We’re confident on the pattern – there will be a big swing away from the centre and towards the radical left and right,” Hix said.

‘Campaign hasn’t started yet’

The outcome in May of this race between Europe’s two main political forces could have heavier consequences than in previous elections. As parties put forward designate candidates for the post of president of the EU Commission, the largest group will get the initiative to suggest their candidate for the top job.

The S&D have selected Germany's Martin Schulz, the current president of the European Parliament, as their candidate to succeed José Manuel Barroso as head of the Commission, a job with powers affecting 500 million Europeans.

“This poll will energise our activists and member parties," said Achim Post, secretary general of the Party of European Socialists (PES), which supports Schulz. "We are feeling optimistic and it looks like voters agree with us that it’s time for a change in leadership in Brussels,” he told EURACTIV.

The centre-right EPP, which has been the largest political force since 1999 and currently holds the presidency of the EU executive, will select its top candidate at a congress on 6-7 March. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker is currently in the lead to take the position.

>> Read: Merkel makes U-turn, backs Juncker for Commission job

The EPP’s spokesman, Kostas Sasmatzoglou, told EURACTIV the poll “shows a prediction at a time when the largest political party – us – has not selected a candidate yet. It gives a snapshot at a time when the campaign hasn’t started yet. Our internal polls also have us in a clear lead.”

Shuffle in Parliament factions

While the S&D and EPP groups are likely to remain relatively stable in terms of member parties, for the smaller groups all depends on which national parties will join which factions after the elections.

EURACTIV reported earlier that political groups will engage in tough competition to recruit new members, especially on the right side of the political spectrum.

The PollWatch survey forecasts that if the far-right formed a grouping that included the National Front and Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, it could win 38 seats, potentially doubling the far-right's presence in the parliament.

On the left side of the spectrum, much remains unclear too. PollWatch predicts the Italy's populist 5-star movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, could win up to 18 seats, but it is unclear which group they will join – or whether they will join a group at all.

Grand coalition versus Eurosceptics

The predicted breakdown of seats shows a more polarised European Parliament than the outgoing one. This would have significant effect on the workings of the European Parliament, PollWatch analysts argue.

“We are going to see a grand coalition [being formed] in the next European Parliament,” Hix predicted, “because the centre groups are squeezed together, and because of the German incumbent grand coalition: the German Koalition casts a long shadow over Brussels.”

“In that case, it is very easy for protest groups to say: ‘we told you these elections don’t have an impact [on EU policy making]. But it is not unhealthy to have critical voices … and voters can then see there is an actual debate being held in the Parliament,” Hix continued.

According to PollWatch data, the number of Eurosceptic MEPs could make up The total number of non-attached members – generally sceptical of the EU – would rise to 92 seats but this number does not include eurosceptic parties affiliated to the EFD group (like Lega Nord, projected at 4 seats, or UKIP, at 18  seats) or the far-left GUE/NGL group.  

Big six

While these projections are based on most recent polling data, the eventual outcome still depends greatly on the upcoming election campaign. The six biggest EU member states are key for European parties. Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Poland together make up almost half of the MEP seats.

Mainstream parties in these countries are under pressure, polls show. As socialist parties and/or centre-right parties often carry the torch in European coalition governments, the pressure is on these parties to fend off criticism from more radical political forces.

>>Read: EU elections will be tough again on parties in government, experts say

One uncertainty is how voters will react to the new grand coalition government in Germany. In Italy, the Socialist Party in government is going strong but support could collapse due to political instability within the party itself. The UK’s Conservatives, in a coalition government with the Lib Dems, could even fall back to become the third largest party in the European Parliament, after UKIP.

The model for the PollWatch website was used in last European Parliament elections in 2009. At that time, it predicted correctly the outcome of 720 of the then 736 seats, PollWatch stated.

The European elections will be held in all EU countries on 22-25 May 2014. The stakes of the EU election are high for mainstream parties, who will clarify the common programmes or ‘manifestos’ in the coming months.

Eurosceptic political parties are blossoming in many European countries. Analysts have argued that the next Parliament could have a high number of Eurosceptic, populist MEPs.

>> Background reading: our LinksDossier on the elections; on EU top jobs.

  • 21-23 Feb.: European Greens electoral congress, adopting the common manifesto
  • 28 Febr.-1 Mar.: Socialist party PES congress in Rome
  • 6-7 Mar.: EPP (Centre-Right) Congress in Dublin
  • 22-25 May: Elections for European Parliament

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