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4th Mar 2024

Bye-bye Bettel? What to watch for in Luxembourg's election

  • Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel could be replaced on Sunday, after almost 10 years in office (Photo: European Parliament)
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Luxembourg's parliamentary election this Sunday (8 October) will be "an exciting race." At least if political scientist Anna-Lena Högenauer of the University of Luxembourg is to be believed.

One reason: the polls are very close. Luxembourgish prime minister Xavier Bettel of the liberal Democratic Party (DP) could be replaced after almost 10 years in office.

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  • Challenger Paulette Lenert was health minister during the pandemic and quickly became well-known in landlocked Luxembourg (Photo: Wikimedia)

In the latest poll, by Sonndesfro, the current three-party coalition of Bettel's DP, the Social Democrats (Luxembourg Socialist Workers Party/LSAP) and the Greens (Déi Gréng) still achieve a majority, but only by one seat.

Moreover, the Social Democrats replaced Bettel's DP as the strongest party in the coalition in the opinion poll.

The Social Democrats (LSAP) came in at 19.8 percent in the poll, Bettel's Liberals (DP) at 17.4 percent and the Greens (Déi Gréng) at 10.7 percent. This could make the lead candidate of the LSAP the first female prime minister of Luxembourg.

Paulette Lenert is her name and she is no stranger. She was health minister during the pandemic and quickly became well-known in landlocked Luxembourg (it has borders with Belgium, France, and Germany) and popular during the crisis.

But even Lenert's LSAP is only in second-place overall. The strongest party by far in the poll was the conservative CSV with 28.3 percent. The CSV has governed Luxembourg almost continuously since 1945. It was strongest party in 2013 and 2018 but not able to build a coalition.

An alternative to Bettel's current governing coalition would therefore be a coalition of CSV and LSAP. CSV and Bettel's DP fell just short of a majority in the poll. But that could change on Sunday.

"It's going to be interesting because there might be a lot of negotiating about the possible coalitions and therefore also in the choice of prime minister," says Högenauer.

During the election campaign, the major parties have not committed to possible future coalition partners.

Poll-free zone

The election is also interesting because the most recent poll dates from early September.

While in most larger European countries one poll follows another in quick succession any election, making, at least, an average of the results quite reliable, in Luxembourg there is only one.

"The risk that people voted differently that day is of course enormous. In 2018, the election turned out very differently from the poll," Högenauer explains.

There are other peculiarities to Luxembourg. Voting is compulsory in the EU's second-smallest country, with a population of around 660,000. Around 265,000 eligible voters are called to the polls on Sunday.

Wait, why so few?

Who are the people?

Around half of Luxembourg's residents are foreigners. They are not allowed to vote.

In the capital, a majority of inhabitants is not, in fact, allowed to vote — because about 70 percent of residents here have foreign passports.

"A country that excludes half of its population from the political decision-making arena is not sustainable in the long run — nor is it a true democracy," criticised Diego Velazquez, the EU correspondent for the country's largest newspaper.

While some things may be alienating in Luxembourg, the central topic of the election campaign may be all too familiar to most Europeans.

The issue: housing crisis

"No matter which polls you look at," explains Högenauer, the housing crisis is "the defining issue" in the country. "Even when you asked people during the pandemic what their biggest concern was, the answer was: the housing market."

The problem has been getting worse in recent years. "This has traditionally been a crisis of buying. Apartment prices went up when people bought homes, and rents stayed stable for a long time. Because interest rates went up and people can't afford the loans to buy, now everybody's renting. And suddenly rents explode, sometimes with 20 percent increases a year. That means the risk of poverty is now very, very high," she said.

In the lower salary groups, people pay a very high proportion of their income for housing.

Thus, Luxembourg, one of the richest countries in the world, also leads the European statistics for the "working poor."

According to the latest figures from Eurostat, Luxembourg ranks second in the EU behind Romania. Looking only at women in the country, Luxembourg is in first place. 13.4 percent of women and 12.9 percent of the population as a whole are considered at risk of poverty, even though they work.

The lack of voting rights for foreigners and the housing crisis go hand in hand here. At least that is the argument of the non-governmental organisation Asti. It has been fighting for the right to vote for foreigners for more than 40 years.

"The housing shortage has existed for 30, 40 years. But it never affected the voters, the Luxembourgers. It affected the migrants. The voters benefited", says Sérgio Ferreira, spokesman for Asti. "Because 70 percent of Luxembourgers are property owners, they were not interested in lowering prices."

Prices kept rising, so now young Luxembourgers are also affected.

And finally, it is on the political agenda.

Multicultural Luxembourg

Speaking of migration, the topic is boiling up in Europe just before the elections, as can be seen in Poland and Germany at the moment. And in Luxembourg? Not a thing.

Luxembourg stands by its multiculturalism — and its workforce. About 75 percent of the country's workforce are immigrants or cross-border commuters.

So, what does the election mean for Europe?

"It has to be said, in this election campaign, Europe is absent as an issue," Högenauer says. But that's also because the major parties are all similarly pro-European, she adds.

"For the EU, it won't matter much whether there's someone from CSV, DP or LSAP at the table."

Author bio

Marlene Brey is a journalist based in Luxembourg and Brussels. She is an EU correspondent for Germany's EPD and a freelancer specialising in migration, labour, and economy.

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