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Elections in Europe, Iran show authoritarian march may have slowed, not halted

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LONDON (AP) — At first glance, elections in France and Britain were a triumph for leftists and reformers over authoritarians and the right.

Even Iran — where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all matters of state — elected Masoud Pezeshkian, a lawmaker long associated with the reformist movement.

In France, a leftist coalition beat the far right into third place in legislative elections. The U.K.’s center-left Labour Party swept back to power in a landslide after 14 years of Conservative rule. Iranian voters, offered a limited choice in a circumscribed presidential election, opted for the more moderate of two candidates to replace the late hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi.

But with voters in many countries still divided and disillusioned against a backdrop of economic gloom, analysts say the march of the right may only have been slowed, not halted.

“This is a crisis delayed, not averted,” said Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman of the outcome in France, where voters repudiated the far-right National Rally — but also turned their ire on centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who called the surprise election. Macron’s centrist grouping ended in second place after Sunday’s second round of voting, ahead of the far-right National Rally.

The outcome was a major disappointment for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which led after the first round on June 30. But with no political bloc holding a majority and no easy path to a durable government, it leaves France in turmoil at a time of European and global instability.

“It’s not a good situation for France, for Europe or indeed NATO, ” said Rahman, Eurasia Group’s managing director, Europe. “France is a G-7 member, a permanent (U.N.) Security Council member … Anything that weakens Emmanuel Macron, anything that forces him to pay more attention to domestic affairs … is of course going to subtract from his own influence, and also France’s influence, in the world.”

In contrast, Britain’s new government is vowing to re-engage with the world after years that saw the U.K. sidelined and distracted by its exit from the European Union.

Prime Minister Keir Starmer’s Labour Party won a huge majority in Thursday’s election, taking 412 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives, who had governed since 2010, were reduced to 121 seats, the worst result in the party’s 190-year history.

Labour will be able to implement its policies, but the picture is more unstable than that majority suggests. Labour’s victory was built on shifting sands: anger at the Conservatives, tactical voting to kick them out, and an insurgent party on the right, Reform U.K., that ate into Conservative support.

Reform won only five seats but took almost 14% of votes. Its leader, Nigel Farage, says his plan is to take over the role of true opposition to the Labour government from the diminished and demoralized Conservatives before the next election, which must be held by 2029.

Europe in general is trying to deal with gradual loss of confidence on the part of the electorate in the government’s ability to deal with globalization and the winners and losers that resulted, said Robin Niblett, former director of the Chatham House think-tank.

“We’re just in a very, very bumpy period of domestic politics. So, I don’t think it’s the return of the left either,” he said. “We’re in a very unstable and risky period, but one in which I’d say the parties of moderation still have the whip hand if they can be creative.”

Meanwhile, Le Pen and her party in France “may bide their time and just wait,” said Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London.

“Of course it is a setback for National Rally, but they can say, ‘We were defeated because all the other parties ganged up against us … without that funny tactical voting we would have prevailed,’” he said.

“In particular if the situation gets messy, which is a possibility, they will bide their time. And in three years’ time, you’ve got the presidential election and Le Pen would be in a strong position to win.”

In Iran, which held a presidential election after a May helicopter crash killed Raisi, two rounds of voting saw the country elect Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and longtime lawmaker.

He has been associated with a movement that aims to change the country’s Shiite theocracy from the inside while seeking better relations with the West – including Iran’s arch-enemy the United States

The first round of Iran’s election saw the lowest turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The theocracy selected the candidates and no internationally recognized monitors watched the vote.

Iranians – and international watchers – hoping for major change may be disappointed. Pezeshkian has firmly stated he believes in Khamenei having the final say on all matters of state, and has honored Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which is labelled a terrorist organization by the United States.

Pezeshkian “faces extensive restraints on his authority by Khamenei and his top aides and allies, all of whom are hardline conservatives,” the New York-based Soufan Center said in an analysis Monday.

“Khamenei issued a call for unity and continuity after the results were declared, advising the president-elect to continue the path set by Raisi – an indirect warning to Pezeshkian not to push the limits on his authority,” the analysis reads.

Underlying elections in many countries is an anti-politics mood in which anger towards incumbent governments remains strong.

Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, said that around the world, voters hammered by soaring inflation and a cost-of-living squeeze have “expressed a great deal of discontent with the performance of government.”

“Ideology is systematically overrated by those whose job it is to explain elections,” he said. “A lot of the time what you see with voting is what Ronald Reagan correctly identified: ‘Are you better off now than you are four years ago?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ do you stop and think through the various ideological aspects of why that might be? No, you don’t. You just kick out whoever is in charge.’’

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed to this story.

By JILL LAWLESS and DANICA KIRKA
Associated Press

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