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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

WTF: European Snap Elections

The 4717 explains is going on over there.

Snap elections

With two of the more normal European countries calling for snap elections this summer, a sensible American might be forgiven for asking: What the hell is going on?


In the US, the president is the head of state, the head of government and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. That last one is thrown in there to prevent military coups by putting the army under civilian control. In both France and England, the head of state and head of government are separate creatures. In the UK, the monarch is the head of state, and the prime minister heads the government. Conflict between the two are removed by stripping the monarch of nearly – but not all - power. For instance, only the head of state can dissolve parliament, which Charles III did at Sunak’s request when he called the snap election on 30 May. A king hasn’t done this on his own since 1649, and Charles I got his head lopped off for the effort.


In France - which last lopped off a skull royale in 1793, and is currently on its fifth Republic since then - the president is the head of state and elected by popular vote. The prime minister (formally, the President of the National Assembly) is head of government. He is elected by members of the National Assembly, like in the prime minister in the UK or the Speaker of the House in congress, generally along party lines. Unlike the Speaker of the House does have considerable power, but it’s entirely domestic. The President can dissolve the government, by calling for a snap election. Like Macron did this week.


In contrast, much to their chagrin, an American president cannot dissolve congress, but merely ignore it and hope for the best at the mid-terms.


For Macron and his centrist government, this is a bold move as the national assembly generally supported the president. If the far-right of left opposition wins a majority, Macron will be a lame duck – or canard de lame - on his domestic agenda, killing much needed fiscal-consolidations. Thos won’t really affect foreign policy, so he can continue shaking his fists at summit meetings and sending troops into Ukraine to not fight.

So why do it?


In the UK, the prime minister (elected by parliament, not a popular vote) has five years in which to call an general election, and tries to time it so that seats stay with the party.  Rishi Sunak’s timing is terrible, but he had to call an election in November anyway. As it is the Tories have been in power for 14 years, and the last five have been a carnival of scandal and blundering. Given the political drift, things were only going to get worse so he’s probably throwing himself on a grenade to save party seats.


What spooked the French president was the elections to the European Parliament in Brussels. The EU, which was conceived as an economic bloc, has morphed into something like an informal confederation. If you close one eye you can think of it as badly analogous to the difference between state and federal elections in the US if the states still had the clumsy option of seceding. Which is what the Brits did in Brexit.


Both France and Germany took a hard-right turn in the EU parliamentary elections this week. Strictly speaking, that body is unrelated to the French government, but it is a good way to judge the political winds.


Macron has three years left in his presidency, and the snap election for the assembly is not going to change that. He’s survived more than 20 no-confidence votes this term, so he may be trying to block the far-right parties with a moderate coalition. If he’s wrong, Macron’s got a problem.


To an American, this might all be confusing as hell. Still, there is one huge benefit to not knowing exactly when an election will be held: You only have to endure six weeks of campaigning. With our set calendar, Americans know when any future election will be held. We held one in during a Civil War, which has got to be a record. Impressive, yes, but the downside is that our blow-hards start campaigning one, two and now three years out. They never stop.


A six-week political campaign season. Think about it. You can ignore anything for six weeks.

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