What do you know about Luxembourg, more particularly, its politics? Probably not much more than I would know about Maltese or Slovenian politics. But perhaps names like Jean-Claude Juncker, Jacques Santer and Xavier Bettel sound familiar to you. The latter was Luxembourg’s Prime Minister for the past 10 years. However, the national elections on 8th October have changed power dynamics in the small country and Xavier Bettel will most likely not stay on as head of government.
So what happened during the elections? What do the results mean for Luxembourg? Before we get to this, allow me to quickly guide you through the Luxembourgish voting system.
Image credits: Lee-Ann Lichtenberger
The Luxembourgish Voting System Explained
Bear with me here. The Luxembourgish system is complicated and confusing, especially for outsiders. Nevertheless, it is important to know how it works to understand the results (and it gives you some general knowledge for your next pub quiz).
So… where to start? First off, you might have heard that Luxembourg is a monarchy. It is true that Luxembourg has a Grand Duke, making it the only present-day Grand Duchy in the world. But rather than being an absolute monarchy (think Louis XIV in France), Luxembourg is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy: the Grand Duke takes on a more symbolic role nowadays and most political power is embodied in the government and parliament.
During national elections, the people of Luxembourg vote for the 60 representatives to sit in parliament, the “Chambre des Députés”, for the next 5 years. The voters thus do not elect the prime minister or government members in a direct way. It is only after the 60 representatives are officially elected that the Grand Duke appoints one of them as “Formateur”, with the mission of forming the new government. Moreover, voting is compulsory in the Grand Duchy (only voters above the age of 75 may choose whether to vote or not). Theoretically, there voter could risk a fine of up to 1’000€ and prosecution for not voting, although in practice such a punishment has not been carried out since the 1960s. Still, with around 89%, Luxembourg enjoys one of the highest voting turnout rates in the world.
But how exactly do voters elect the representatives? In Luxembourg, voting is done through one single ballot, yet the amount of votes one can cast depends on where you live. In fact, Luxembourg – yes, this already tiny little country – is divided into four voting districts: North, South, Centre and East. Proportional representation is applied, since the South and Centre are more populated, voters in these districts have 23 and 21 votes to cast respectively, corresponding to 23 and 21 elected deputies out of the total 60. Voters in the North will elect 9 deputies, whereas those in the East can only elect 7. The to-be-elected candidates will usually put themselves on the list of the district they reside in. To give a practical example, a voter in the East has the possibility to vote for Luxembourg’s health minister, a candidate in the East, in the 2023 elections, but not for Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, a candidate in the Centre. If that voter would want to support Xavier Bettel nevertheless, they could still opt to cast votes for Bettel’s party, which would eventually play a role regarding which parties gain seats in parliament.
But wait a second – above I wrote “the people of Luxembourg”, but actually not everyone living in the Grand Duchy has the right to vote. In this month’s national elections, 286’739 people were registered as voters (ultimately there were only 231’344 valid ballots) – out of a population of roughly 660’000. Voters in Luxembourg have to be at least 18 years old, must have Luxembourgish nationality and cannot have lost their voting right (for instance through committing severe crimes). This does not sound so strange, does it? The key point here is that Luxembourg’s share of foreign residents makes up almost half of the country’s population, which is much higher than in any other OECD country. Thus, about half of Luxembourg’s residents cannot vote in parliamentary elections (June 2023 marked the first time foreign residents were able to vote in municipal elections). There was a proposal to amend the law to grant foreign residents the right to vote in national elections (dependent on two conditions), but it failed in the 2015 referendum.
Who Governed Luxembourg in the Past?
Historically, Luxembourg’s political landscape was dominated by the Christian Social People’s Party CSV, gaining most of the votes in elections. The CSV was the leading party in most coalition governments since 1945, with only a few exceptions, most notably since 2013. Indeed, in 2013, the Grand Duchy saw a change in power as a three-way coalition emerged between the Democratic Party (DP), Socialist Workers’ Party (LSAP) and the Greens (Déi Gréng), with DP leader Xavier Bettel heading the government as Prime Minister. This was surprising, especially for the CSV which remained the most-voted-for party with 23 seats in parliament. But the so-called “Gambia” coalition (for the parties’ colours added up to resemble Gambia’s flag) made up 32 seats at the time, with 31 representing a majority in Luxembourg’s parliament. This forced the unhappy CSV to return to the opposition for the first time since 1979.
In 2018, the Gambia coalition’s seats again added up to a majority in parliament, with the Green saving the coalition with a win of 3 more seats whereas DP and LSAP lost 1 and 3 seats respectively in comparison to the 2013 elections. The CSV remained in opposition, along with a few smaller parties.
“Gambia” Gives Way to the “Neie Luc”
Given this historical background, it was even more shocking to see the Greens lose half of their seat power in the 2023 national elections, falling from 9 to only 4 seats. Prior polls did indicate a slight loss in votes for the Green party, but no one, including the Greens, seemed to expect these results. The DP’s and LSAP’s wins in seats could not make up for the loss of the Greens either: only 29 seats remained in total for the Gambia coalition which governed the country for the past 10 years. While there was general confusion about what happened to the Greens’ seats, recent calculations indicate that many Green votes were lost to the DP.
Regarding the other parties’ results, the CSV is essential to mention here, you will understand why in just a few seconds. The CSV saw similar results in terms of the share of votes they gained this year compared to 2018, ending up with 21 seats yet again. Smaller parties’ results also remained rather stable, although the Pirate Party (Piraten) and the right-wing Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR) each gained one more seat in parliament.
Although they might not have made great wins in terms of new seats in this month’s elections, the CSV certainly does see itself as the winner of the 2023 elections. Especially the party leader, Luc Frieden, can be happy: he was appointed “Formateur” by the Grand Duke, coalition talks for a CSV-DP government are currently running and Frieden is expected to take over Bettel’s position as Prime Minister. A trained lawyer, Luc Frieden is not new to politics: he served as minister of Justice, Defense, Treasury and Finance between 1998 and 2013. After the “overthrow” of the CSV in 2013, he preferred to withdraw from politics and work in business again, for instance in renowned banks or as President of Luxembourg’s Chamber of Commerce and Eurochambres. In the past, Frieden was seen as a serious, cold politician, but in his recent political comeback, he reinvented himself as a more modern, approachable “Neie Luc”, as Luxembourgish people call him, or “New Luc”, in English. The CSV has also undergone a rebranding: the party adopted a new logo last year and Frieden recently emphasised that CSV is a centre party, not a liberal nor conservative one, and that the “C” in CSV does not stand for one specific religion anymore, but rather for common fundamental values. While this new and modern CSV is now set on building a government, it remains to be seen whether its promises regarding more purchasing power, housing and competitiveness can be held in the next 5 years.
The CSV, as the party with the most votes, was in a position to choose their coalition partner, either the DP or the LSAP, as both options would represent a majority of seats in parliament. However, it is pretty clear at this point that the DP is the CSV’s favourite. Indeed, Luc Frieden describes a good atmosphere in the coalition talks and emphasises that the lack of fundamental differences between the two parties.
What do the Results Mean?
While the CSV exchanges opposition benches with leading government posts, not only one but two parties, namely the Greens and LSAP, lose their jobs in government. This represents a big change, especially for politicians that have been part of the government for a long time, such as LSAP figure Jean Asselborn, Minister for Foreign Affairs since 2004. During the electoral campaign, the LSAP clearly bet on health minister Paulette Lenert, who played a prominent role during the Covid-19 management. Their wish of Lenert as the first female Prime Minister in Luxembourg was not answered in these elections.
Speaking of representation, only 18 women were directly elected into parliament, hence women make up not even a third of all seats in parliament. It is a small gain compared to the 2018 elections, but is still far from equal representation. To be noted here is that there might be more women joining the parliament once it is decided which of the elected representatives will take on a role in government, meaning that their spots in parliament have to be filled with new representatives from the respective parties. Still, not only the representation of women in parliament, but also that of nationality, as mentioned above, remain concerns one can raise when thinking about adequately representing the diversity of Luxembourgish society.
Moreover, the Greens’ loss of seats raises questions regarding Luxembourg’s future climate and energy policy. The Greens held the key ministries in this field for the past 10 years, but will now be replaced by CSV or DP ministers. In the run-up to the elections, Luxembourg’s most significant climate organisation “Mouvement écologique” published an analysis of the parties’ programmes from an ecological standpoint. The CSV’s programme did thematise the topics of environmental and biodiversity protection, but was considered too general and in part even problematic (due to proposals like substantially expanding bypasses and highways or reducing certain competencies of the Ministry of the Environment). The DP presented more concrete proposals, but also there the focus was rather limited on an incentives-based policy, according to “Mouvement écologique”. The environmental organisation was among the stakeholders recently invited to the coalition talks. Only the future will show how and to which extent the new government will take action regarding environmental topics, especially concerning the controversial “growth” question.
Furthermore, the largest Luxembourgish trade union OGBL (Independent Trade Union Confederation Luxembourg) expressed concerns regarding the new coalition. “There will be many challenges for wage-earners in the next years”, so the OGBL President Nora Back. She cites several points where the CSV and DP programmes strongly differ from the OGBL objectives, including wage policy, labour law, work flexibilisation as well as climate crisis and housing policies.
Finally, some people, including politicians from the Greens and the Left, argued that the recent elections showcased a “right-wing pull” in Luxembourgish politics. Indeed right-wing party ADR received almost 10% of national votes, regained one more seat and are as of now the fourth-strongest party in the country, ahead of the Greens even. Some of the ADR’s objectives in their campaign programme included a more selective immigration, stronger support of the Luxembourgish language, less political paternalism, a referendum on the expected “1 million inhabitants state” and a “parent subsidy” for stay-at-home-parents. The heightened support for the ADR, in addition to the probable liberal-conservative government, do make it seem that Luxembourg might take a more conservative direction in the next five years. In Luxembourg’s neighbouring country Germany, the state elections of the Länder Hessen and Bavaria (held on the same day as the Luxembourgish elections) resulted in the right-wing party AfD becoming the second and third strongest party respectively behind the conservative CDU. Zooming out even further, right-wing support has been increasing in most European countries in recent years.
If you made it to the end of this article, I think you agree there is no doubt there will be changes in Luxembourg. On Tuesday, 24th October, most of the recently elected parliament representatives were officially sworn into office. It will only be a matter of time until the new government with its Prime Minister - will it be the “Neie Luc”? – is established. Yet one thing is sure: among all the crises that Luxembourg, Europe and the world are currently facing, those taking over the Grand Duchy’s steering wheel for the next five years will be closely watched by Luxembourgish society.