Punch and Judy show, or more democracy? Seven candidates are vying to become president of the European Parliament.
The plenary hall in Strasbourg is often dismally empty when European parliamentarians take up their routine debates. This Tuesday, however, it will be a full house, for every vote will count. There is an air of suspense surrounding the election of the Parliament's new president. For decades, the decision as to who would occupy the highest seat in the house was decided behind closed doors. And until now, the largest groups, the conservatives and the socialists, had always agreed on a shared candidate. This Tuesday, German Social Democrat Martin Schulz's successor will be determined by a real vote. Seven candidates, one from each parliamentary group, are standing for election. European vote researcher Doru Frantescu, from the organization "VoteWatch Europe," says its anyone's guess as to how it will turn out. He says he used a calculation model to attempt to discern which of the seven candidates would have the best chance of victory after four rounds of voting - "VoteWatch Europe" is betting on Antonio Tajani, the conservative.
But uncertainty looms large. Each candidate will need to get the support of other parliamentary groups to win. This means that coalitions will have to be hammered out and egos massaged on Tuesday - intrigue and betrayal cannot be ruled out. Gianni Pittella, the socialist candidate, sees this as a positive development. "It's a big deal," Pittella told DW. "Voting without having made deals ahead of time is a beautiful thing. In the end, after four rounds, the candidate with the most votes will win, whether it is one vote or ten. That's democracy!"
Candidates promise to pay more attention to smaller blocks
Many parliamentarians were surprised by the fact that the socialists and conservatives gave up on their informal grand coalition. It had provided for seamless legislative work, as well as cooperation with other legislative chambers. The European Commission proposes laws, but these must be signed by the Council of Ministers, representing the EU's national governments, as well as the European Parliament itself. The three European bodies have often met behind closed doors to craft compromises in a process know as "Trilogue" negotiations. Departing Parliamentary President Martin Schulz was said to have been a master of this process, enabling legislation to be passed swiftly. Many of the smaller parliamentary groups and individual representatives often felt slighted by the set up. Gianni Pittella promised DW that things would be different from here on out.
"I want to be the president of the entire European Parliament - the president of all groups and all representatives." Pittella went on to complain that his opponent, Antonio Tajani, stood for the old grand coalition, for cronyism and for more of the same. Tajani denied the accusations when speaking with DW. "I want to be a president that builds bridges." Unlike Martin Schulz, he says that he would not simply represent his own opinions, but rather those of the entire Parliament, even the minority factions.
German representatives have said that it will be hard for anyone to fill Martin Schulz's shoes. Schulz, who is now moving into German federal politics, was able to draw attention to the European Parliament, at least in Germany. Many think that will less likely be the case with either of the relatively unknown Italian conservative or socialist candidates.
Broken promise or sly tactic?
Two and a half years ago, the two large parliamentary groups and the liberals actually agreed that Schulz, a Social Democrat, would be succeeded as president by a conservative. But now neither the socialists nor the liberals want to have anything to do with such an agreement. Manfred Weber, the leader of the conservatives, has publicly condemned this "betrayal." The socialists have sought to justify the scuttling of the grand coalition by pointing to the fact that the two other top positions in the European Union, the president of the Commission and the president of the Council, are both held by conservatives. Therefore, says German Social Democrat, Udo Bullmann, they feel they at least have the right to the position of parliamentary president.
The liberal outwits himself
Liberal candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, thinks that his own chances will be improved by the fact that the two large factions are bickering amongst themselves. Verhofstadt initially attempted to win the support of the Italian populists of the "Five Star Movement." But the Eurosceptics were sorely out of place in the liberal group. They eventually balked, and Verhofstadt was forced to bury his alliance with "Five Star" leader Beppe Grillo. Asked what he thought when his odd plan backfired, Verhofstadt replied, "Bugger!" His future could in fact grow bleaker still, for the liberal faction is rumored to be looking to get rid of the ambitious Belgian as leader of their parliamentary group. Meanwhile, the "Five Star Movement" has remorsefully returned to the radical anti-European faction, which is still led by "Brexiteer" Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party.
"The presidential election and the lack of a grand coalition will make parliament more political, more critical and more democratic," says the German left party politician Gregor Gysi, who was recently elected leader of the European left-wing faction. Gysi, who visited the European Parliament a few days ago, and is still a bit of an outside observer, concedes, however, that right-wing populist anti-Europeans are gaining influence in parliament. Conservatives could soon be dependent on support from far-right factions. But Social Democrats will also have a harder time putting together majorities. They will be forced to rely on help from the Greens, the Left, the left-wing populists and the Communists.
Simple majority decides in the end
The candidates with the least chance of being elected on Tuesday are from the National Conservatives, right-wing populists, Greens and the Left. One candidate is nevertheless noteworthy: Jean Lambert is British and she is the Greens presidential candidate. She is standing for election despite the fact that Great Britain is leaving the European Union. Lambert says that her candidacy is intended to signal Green opposition to Brexit. Other parliamentarians say her candidacy is an absurd theatrical gag.
The candidate that is able to garner an absolute majority will be the man or woman to assume the position of president. In the fourth round of voting a simple majority will decide the outcome. In the event of a tie in the fourth round, parliamentary rules of procedure stipulate that the older candidate will assume the position. New candidates can be presented in each round of voting. "I don't want to discount anything. Maybe there will be a surprise candidate that will achieve consensus," predicted Gaby Zimmer, leader of the left-wing faction.