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March of the Greens?

The end of the speculation is near in the European elections, with final results from four days of voting to be released this evening at 20:00 GMT. In the meantime, we’ll take a look at a curious trend regarding the protest vote and small parties in Europe – something that has possibly played into this cycle of voting.

The buzz around western Europe has been that in France and elsewhere, the Greens are on the move. With a charismatic leader in Daniel Cohn-Bendit (French-German fellow), and widespread dissatisfaction with the larger parties in France (and Germany), many people are looking at Les Verts as a good “lefty” option, but without the ugly party politics of the Socialists or Communists. Particularly among the young, green social democracy has become a new leftward movement, fueled in part by frustration with the mainstream system, and the recognition that environment damage, particularly climate change and natural resource depletion are the burden of the younger generation.

It turns out, however, that a “green” sensibility has a lot more power at the European level than at the national level in most big EU countries.

Across each of the four largest delegations to the European Parliament, green factions outstrip their national counterparts by wide margins. Only in Germany do Die Grünen have a significant presence, where green politics have made great inroads to the mainstream left since the reunification in the early 1990s. Perhaps green movements, which recognize the need for cooperative global action on issues such as climate change, are the pragmatic new leaders of the pan-European movement, following the first wave of economic liberals and trade integrationists?

Perhaps. It also turns out that far-right/right wing & nationalists are also far more powerful at the European level than they are at home.*

Nationalist, far-right parties are an interesting category, particularly in the scope of European elections. In Germany, for example, mainstream parties have attempted to have the National Democrats disbanded, under post-Nazi era anti-right legislation. While there is a robust population of supporters, the National Dems have not made much progress at the national or EU electoral level, while at the state level, they have had some success in the north.

Exactly the opposite, the former Italian neo-fascist party MSI seamlessly transformed into the National Front in 1995, with only a small portion of the old party joining the alternative (and more conservative) Fiamma Tricolore. The National Front, which officially renounced some of the more far-right policy positions that it had before 1995, now plays a large role in the governing coalition, as part of Silvio Berlusconi’s “The People of Freedom”.

Nationalist parties in the UK have a completely different setup, with independence parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in some ways playing a similar more mainstream role in the House of Commons as the UK Independence Party plays in the European Parliament. In France, while the Front Nationale has had great success in garnering votes at the European level, at Presidential and Parliamentary level the results have not been there. Across the four countries, we can also see that where green parties are strong, nationalist parties tend to be weaker at both the EU and national level, and vice versa.

All in all, smaller constituency parties, include the fringes, play a far bigger role in the EP than in national parliaments, which indicates some of the thinking that EU voters have about the role of the EU elections. With less at stake, they say, why not vote for someone who you would not normally? With strict proportional representation enforced by the EU, the fringes suddenly become accessible to voters who might otherwise vote for more conventional parties and candidates. And with incredibly low turnout, only the most committed of voters are casting their ballots – perhaps those who are committed to parties farther from the center than would be the case in national balloting.

*Note: As it is often quite difficult to make the distinction between “mainstream” nationalists and “fringe” nationalists, my charts throw an inclusive net.

UPDATE: Looks like the Greens indeed performed well , especially in France.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at