Petrobras scandal highlights 12 years of Brazilian corruption

petrobrasPhoto credit to Geraldo Geraldo Falcão.

The most striking thing the latest sensational scandal involving Brazil’s state oil company is that president Dilma Rousseff’s poll standing has actually increased since the story broke three weeks ago.brazil

If Rousseff, as polls predict, wins the first round presidential vote on October 5, it will be largely because Brazilian voters have shrugged off the latest scandal involving Petrobras and several leading Brazilian figures, along with 12 years of scandals that have now accumulated after three consecutive terms of rule by Rousseff’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party).

Former Petrobras executive Paulo Roberto Costa, who was arrested in the spring during an investigation into money laundering, has allegedly testified that dozens of top officials, mostly within Rousseff’s own party, routinely took a 3% kickback on some of the company’s contracts dating back to 2004, when Rousseff, then the minister for energy and mines, technically oversaw Petrobras’s operations.

Among the politicians that Costa singled out was former Pernambuco governor Eduardo Campos, the former presidential candidate who died in a plane crash in August; Henrique Eduardo Alves, the president of the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Brazilian congress; and Edison Lobão, the minister for energy and mines, and a member of the centrist Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party).

Campos’s alleged involvement may be why the allegations haven’t apparently hurt Rousseff’s ratings against Marina Silva, Campos’s former running mate and now the candidate of the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB, Brazilian Socialist Party). Campos’s party spent much of the past 12 years supporting the governments of both Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Marina Silva, then a member of the Workers Party, served for five years as environmental minister.

But Rousseff’s other major rival, former Minas Gerais governor Aécio Neves, the candidate of the center-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party), has been unable to generate much success by emphasizing the scandal. Neves generally trails both Rousseff and Silva in polls ahead of Sunday’s first-round presidential vote. If, as expected, no candidate wins 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will advance to a runoff on October 26.

But as audacious as the Petrobras scandal could turn out to be, it will take its place under a penumbra of troubling corruption that dates back to Lula da Silva’s first term as president. Continue reading

Taiwan warily eyes battle of wills between Beijing and Hong Kong

Photo credit to Reuters / Toby Chang.

In Hong Kong, they may be protesting with umbrellas, but in Taiwan earlier this year, it was sunflowers.Hong Kong Flag IcontaiwanChina Flag Icon

As Beijing locks itself into what now seems like a needless showdown with the pro-democracy activists who have formed Hong Kong’s ‘Occupy Central with Peace and Love,’ among the chief incentives for proceeding with caution are mainland China’s relations with the Republic of China (ROC), the island of Taiwan, which split from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 in the aftermath of the Chinese civil war and which has maintained its de facto sovereignty ever since, to the annoyance of decades of Chinese leadership.

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RELATED: Hong Kong — one country, one-and-a-half systems?

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Even as Western commentators trot out tired comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown (at a time when Hong Kong’s British colonial governors were not prioritizing democratization in any form), the Hong Kong protests have a readier comparison to the ‘Sunflower Student’ movement in Taiwan earlier this spring, when another group of protesters demonstrated against closer ties between Taiwan and the PRC.

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In June 2013, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the ruling Kuomintang (中國國民黨) signed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with mainland China, which would liberalize trade in services between Beijing and Taipei, including, most controversially, tourism, finance and communications. When Ma (pictured above) tried to push the CSSTA through the Taiwanese legislature without as much political deliberation as promised, an already skeptical Taiwanese opposition howled, and CSSTA protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan (立法院) to stop Ma’s push to ratify the agreement. Today, Taiwan’s legislature still hasn’t approved the CSSTA.

Moreover, Ma came out in favor of the Hong Kong protests on Monday and reiterated earlier this week his opposition to reunification with mainland China:

“We fully understand and support Hong Kong people in their call for full universal suffrage,” Ma told a gathering of business leaders in Taipei.

“Developments in Hong Kong have drawn the close attention of the world in the past few days. Our government has also been very concerned,” he added. “We urge the mainland authorities to listen to the voice of Hong Kong people and use peaceful and cautious measures to handle these issues.”

Cross-Straits relations have crested and ebbed over the last 65 years, but today it’s indisputable that Taiwan and mainland China have more ties than ever. Since 2008, direct flights between Taiwan and China have greatly intertwined the two economies, and a deluge of Chinese investment has taken root in Taiwan.

While Hong Kong and Taiwan have very different histories and relationships with the PRC, they share many similarities, so it’s not surprising to see so many similarities between the two popular anti-Beijing movements that swept across both jurisdictions in 2014.

In the second half of the 20th century, Taiwan and Hong Kong both became magnets for defectors from the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党), and both Taiwan and Hong Kong became pockets of economic prosperity while mainland China languished under Mao Zedong (毛泽东) and his fearsome reign of socialism, rural famine and political terror. Throughout, both Hong Kong and Taiwan developed particular cultural identities, such that majorities in both places see themselves today as Hong Kongers and Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

Both Hong Kongers and Taiwanese also worry that Beijing is plotting to  bring Hong Kong and Taiwan more firmly within its grasp. If it’s outlandish to think that Beijing can accomplish that goal with military might, it’s not difficult to believe it can do so through economic and political coercion. That’s exactly the kind of insidious influence that motivates both the Occupy Central’s fight for Hong Kong’s democratic sovereignty and the Sunflower Student movement’s fight for Taiwan’s economic sovereignty. Continue reading

Latvian right hopes to ride Russia threat to reelection

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Just days after former prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis was nominated as the European Commission’s vice president for the euro and social dialogue, his successor back home in Latvia is fighting to keep Dombrovskis’s party in power after five tumultuous years.latvia

Laimdota Straujuma, a former civil servant and, until her election as prime minister on January 22, Latvia’s agriculture minister, will attempt to win another mandate on October 4 for the broad center-right coalition government that, in the form of many different parties and combinations, has governed Latvia since its independence in 1993. Dombrovskis’s newly formed party, Vienotība (Unity), the fusion of an alliance of several center-right liberal parties, won Latvia’s October 2010 elections and, though it finished in third place in the most recent September 2011 snap elections, it continues to govern in alliance with three other center-right and populist parties.

If Straujuma (pictured above) is successful, she should send flowers to the Kremlin, because Russia’s newly aggressive tone with respect to its ‘near abroad’ has become a leading factor during the campaign.

When Dombrovskis became prime minister in 2009 amid the global financial crisis, Latvia was facing its worst economic turmoil since the post-Soviet adjustment of the early 1990s. Dombrovskis prevented a devaluation of the lats currency, salvaging Latvian hopes to enter the eurozone (it did in January 2014).

But Dombrovskis’s orthodox economic policy forced budget cuts and a steep internal devaluation and boosted Latvia’s unemployment rate in 2009 to what was then a EU-wide high of 20%, which today rests just above 11%. Though growth has bounced back, Dombrovskis resigned last December after a freak accident in a suburb of Riga, the Latvian capital, when a supermarket roof collapsed and killed 54 people.

In a normal election, with a weary Latvian electorate, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect its center-left party to take advantage of years of austerity to form what would be Latvia’s first truly center-left government.

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RELATED: Despite risks, Latvia (and all the Baltic states)
still wants to join the eurozone

RELATED: Who is Laimdota Straujuma?
Latvia’s likely first female prime minister

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What’s more, Latvia’s center-left party, Sociāldemokrātiskā Partija ‘Saskaņa’ (Social Democratic Party “Harmony,” which previously contested Latvian elections as the wider ‘Harmony Centre’ alliance), was on something on an upswing, winning the largest number of seats in the 2011 elections (31) in the Saeima, the 100-member, unicameral Latvian parliament, and it made even stronger breakthroughs in the 2013 local elections, when Harmony took control of the Riga city council.saeima

But what held Harmony Centre and now, the ‘Harmony’/Social Democratic Party back was its historical role as a party supported mostly by ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. Though Latvia has the largest ethnic Russian population of the three Baltic states (around 26.9%), that’s not a large enough support base to build a majoritarian government. Continue reading

Modi showcases newly muscular Indian foreign policy

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Indian prime minister Narendra Modi took power less than five months ago, but he’s already made five major world visits, including to Japan, to the BRICS summit in Brazil and this week, Modi is sweeping through an action-packed five-day visit to the United States.India Flag Icon

His current visit to New York and Washington has the air of triumph about it, and his speech to nearly 19,000 fans at Madison Square Garden certainly marks one of the very few times that a foreign leader has drawn such genuine support from an American audience. It’s all the more amazing, given that for much of the last decade, the US government refused Modi a visa to travel to the United States, due to his questionable role in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots, which took place four months after Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat state.

India’s foreign relations with major world powers like the United States, Russia and China aren’t always easy, and its relationships with other south Asian neighbors, especially Pakistan, can often be downright frosty.

Nevertheless, there are at least two reasons why Modi has such a strong opportunity to maximize India’s role on the world stage today — and none of it has to do with India’s economy, which is growing far slower than it needs to sustain truly transformational gains.

The first is the world’s growing multipolarity, which must seem especially multipolar from New Delhi’s view. Neighboring China is poised to become the world’s largest economy within a decade. India also has longstanding ties with Russia dating to the Soviet era that are now especially relevant as Russian president Vladimir Putin reasserts his country’s might in its ‘near-abroad.’ That makes cooperation with India, the world’s second-most populous country, a strategic advantage for any major power, and it gives India considerable leverage.

The second is the nature of Modi’s election in May. With 336 seats in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of the Indian parliament, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) has the strongest majority and boldest mandate than any Indian government since 1984. While no one knows whether Modi can use that strength to revitalize India’s public sector and institute reforms to boost its private sector, the magnitude of his victory forced the world to take notice. If, as Modi promises, he can introduce robust economic reforms, a more liberalized Indian economy could birth a lucrative market of over 1.25 billion consumers, especially if Modi can lift India’s poor into a middle-class standard of living.

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When Modi appointed Sushma Swaraj (pictured above earlier today with Modi, former US president Bill Clinton and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton), the former leader of the Lok Sabha, as India’s new external affairs minister, it was a gesture of respect for an ally of the BJP old-guard leaders, such as LK Advani, who have largely been pushed aside in the Modi era. But it should have also been a sign that Modi, known for his micromanaging style, would take a hands-on approach to foreign policy.

Given the emphasis that Modi placed on good governance and economic reform, it might be surprising that he’s spent so much time in his first five months on international relations. Modi has so far been cautious on economic policy — for example, his first budget in July featured far more continuity than rupture, disappointing some of his booster.

So what do five months of Modi’s foreign policy tell us about what we might expect over the next five years?

Plenty — especially on the basis of his international efforts as Gujarat’s 13-year chief minister.

Here’s a look at how Modi’s efforts in reaching out to five other global powers already provide strong hints to the Indian prime minister’s worldview, and how we might expect India to engage the rest of the world for the foreseeable future. Continue reading

Jayalalithaa scrambles India’s southern regional politics

JayalalithaPhoto credit to Malayalam Daily News.

It says something about the strength of India’s democracy that a regional leader who controls the third-largest bloc of MPs in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of the Indian parliament,  and who has developed something of a personality cult as chief minister of her home state of Tamil Nadu, can fall from power broker to convicted felon in the blink of an eye.India Flag Icon

So it goes for Jayalalithaa (pictured above), a former star of Tamil cinema, who has towered over Tamil Nadu’s politics for the past three decades — she first served as chief minister from 1991 to 1996, again for four months in 2001, from 2002 to 2006 and, most recently, since May 2011 regional elections, when her party, the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) won a landslide victory. She is known throughout the state as Amma, a Tamil word for ‘mother.’

With over 72 million people, Tamil Nadu is the sixth-most populous in India, and it has a population equivalent to Turkey’s. Its Tamil-speaking population also makes it unique among India’s states as a key cultural link with Sri Lanka, the island nation to India’s southeast.

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In the most recent national elections in April and May 2014, her party won 37 out of 39 constituencies in the state of Tamil Nadu, a rare performance in withstanding the electoral wave that brought prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) its biggest mandate, by far in Indian history.

But on Saturday, Jayalalithaa’s luck ran out when a Karnataka-based court sentenced her to a four-year jail term in a corruption case that resulted, suddenly, in her demotion from office. The court found Jayalalithaa guilty in a ‘disproportionate assets’ case, essentially convicting her for illegally obtaining up to 530 million rupees (around $8.7 million) in unexplained income. That forced her to step down immediately as chief minister and report to prison, though she’ll have an opportunity to appeal the verdict.

She is now the first sitting chief minister to be found guilty of corruption charges.

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RELATED: Jayalalithaa, the Tamil actress-turned-strongwoman,
could play India’s kingmaker

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If the conviction holds, it will be a rare victory for anti-corruption reformers in India. Among the strongest regional politicians, few are as powerful or as popular as Jayalalithaa. That give the case national importance. If the Indian judiciary can hold to account someone like Jayalalithaa, whose face plasters billboards, subsidized food halls and even bottled water in Tamil Nadu, no one in India can credibly believe that she (or he) is above the law. It’s a powerful precedent, and it’s a sign to global investors of the growing strength of Indian legal institutions.
Continue reading

Photo of the week: Cameron meets Rowhani

379932_Cameron-RouhaniPhoto credit to PressTV.

In Iran, the United States may be the ‘Great Satan,’ but it’s the United Kingdom has an even longer and more complicated history with Iran.Iran Flag IconUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

It’s not uncommon, among the most conspiratorial Iranian politicians, to hear fulminations against British plots, even today. And to be fair, there’s some basis for Iranian antipathy toward nearly two centuries of antipathy between the Persian and British empires.

The British increasingly sidelined the Persian empire in the 19th century during the so-called ‘Great Game,’ as the Russian and Turkish empires increasingly encroached on historical Persia. In 1908, with the discovery of oil, British interests quickly swooped in to negotiate favorable terms for themselves, to the detriment of the Iranians. During World War II, though Iran was officially neutral, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union jointly invaded Iran in 1941 as part of efforts to secure Iranian oil, installing the young Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the country’s new shah. The resulting chaos led to famine, economic mismanagement and starvation throughout Iran for the rest of the war. Though the United States Central Intelligence Agency carried out the 1953 ouster of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, British intelligence greatly facilitated the operation.

More recently, a mob invaded the British embassy in Tehran in 2011, setting fire to the British flag, which caused the United Kingdom to cut relations with Iran.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that the United Kingdom might today be even more hated in the Islamic Republic of Iran than the United States of America.

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RELATED: As Rowhani takes power, US must now move forward to improve US-Iran relations

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All of which makes this week’s bilateral meeting between Iranian president Hassan Rowhani and British prime minister David Cameron so fascinating. Continue reading

Neves struggles to puncture the Dilma-Marina show

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A month and a half ago, when Brazil’s investor class proclaimed its doubts about the reelection of president Dilma Rousseff, no one stood to gain more than Aécio Neves.minasgeraisbrazil

The grandson of a distinguished pro-democracy activist, Neves (pictured above) represents the next, post-lulista generation of Brazil’s center-right politics. Three decades younger than Brazil’s last conservative president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and more charismatic than former São Paulo governor and mayor José Serra, Neves brought to the race a strong pedigree and an accomplished record as an economic reformer as the two-term governor of the powerful, sprawling state of Minas Gerais.

That was before the airplane crash that killed former presidential candidate Eduardo Campos, which suddenly catapulted his running mate, the popular Marina Silva, into the presidential race.

Where Neves once had credible hopes of becoming Brazil’s next president, he now seems likelier to play a kingmaker role in what’s shaping up to be a fiercely contested runoff between Rousseff and Dilma.

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RELATED: Why Marina Silva must now step up for the Brazilian left

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Within days, Silva leapt to the lead in polls for the race to become Brazil’s next president. Though Rousseff has now recovered a first-round lead in many polls, Neves is still languishing in third place, far behind both Rousseff and Silva, a reverse from the summer, when Neves held a solid second-place position against the late Campos, who was leading a coalition anchored by the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB, Brazilian Socialist Party) that, until recently, supported the Rousseff government.

Polls show that the October 26 runoff will be incredibly tight between the two women, and many officials within Neves’s party, the center-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party), popularly known as the tucanos (‘toucans’) was already talking a month ago about how they’ll support Silva, a former environmental minister under Rousseff’s mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in the runoff. Armino Fraga, a former central bank president known for stabilizing the Brazilian real in the early 2000s, who returned to the fray to help elect Neves, is now being floated instead as a possible finance minister in a potential Silva administration. Fraga, for now, refuses to serve in any administration other than Neves’s.  Continue reading

Kopacz puts imprint on Poland’s new government

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For Poland, former prime minister Donald Tusk’s elevation to the presidency of the European Council wasn’t the end of a complex inter-institutional process so much as the launch of a new domestic political process.Poland_Flag_Icon

When former parliamentary speaker Ewa Kopacz, a Tusk loyalist and former health minister, succeeded Tusk as Poland’s second female prime minister on Monday, she did so with a reshuffled cabinet that she will hope to lead into the next Polish election, which must take place before October 2015.

For the time being, Kopacz (pictured above, left, with president Bronisław Komorowski) is expected to act as little more than a placeholder for Tusk, and the rap on her is that she won the job through her loyalty to Tusk, not through any innate political ability or policymaking chops. For now, she’s expected to do Tusk’s bidding, even as he and his team head for Brussels. It’s rumored that Komorowski disapproved of Kopacz’s elevation to the premiership, and there’s no shortage of figures within her own center-right Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform) who would rather be prime minister instead.

But if she wins a mandate in her own right, Kopacz could gradually build her own political base and, as time passes, you can expect Kopacz to develop her own policy priorities separate from Tusk’s.

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RELATED: Tusk, Mogherini appointed to top
European offices — what next?

RELATED
: Who is Radek Sikorski?

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Among the most surprising changes was the end of Radek Sikorski’s seven-year tenure as foreign minister. Sikorski, one of the most hawkish voices against Russian aggression, instead assume the job that Kopacz once held, the marshal of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament. Though the job doesn’t bring the same high-profile notoriety as the foreign ministry, it will given Sikorski more direct parliamentary and domestic political experience and it’s technically second only to the prime minister. That makes it more likely that Sikorski himself could become prime minister one day, especially if Kopacz fails to win a third consecutive term in government. Continue reading

Miliband shifts Labour’s focus from austerity to health care

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If it wasn’t already clear, Ed Miliband’s final conference speech before next May’s general election indicated that he intends to wage his campaign on the basis of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service — and not a full-scale attack on the ‘austerity’ anti-deficit policies of David Cameron’s coalition government.United Kingdom Flag Icon

It’s hard to believe that Miliband has now been the leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party one year longer than former  prime minister Gordon Brown was, especially after the bravura performance that Brown delivered for the ‘Better Together’ campaign, which may have swayed enough Scottish voters to reject independence in the surprisingly close referendum.

When he won the leadership in September 2010, upsetting his opponent and brother, former foreign minister David Miliband, it was a shock. While Labour’s MPs and the party faithful narrowly preferred David, unions and other affiliated Labour groups gave Ed just enough of an edge to narrowly defeat the more seasoned Miliband, who promptly left frontline politics and moved to New York.

In the past four years, Ed Miliband has benefitted from the polling lead that Labour has consistently held against the Conservatives, who have been mired in unpopular decisions to slash the national budget after years of more permissive spending under Brown and his predecessor Tony Blair, for whom Brown served as chancellor of the exchequer.

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RELATED: Why England needs a series of regional parliaments

RELATED: What to make of Cameron’s ‘night of the long knives’

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In the first year of Tory-led government, the British economy grew by 1.7% — sluggish in absolute terms, but vigorous by what would follow. In 2012, British GDP fell to 0.3% before rebounding last year to 1.7% and a forecasted growth rate of 3.2% in 2014.

As the economy has improved, it means that it might not be enough for Miliband to attack Cameron and the current chancellor, George Osborne, for inflicting greater damage on the economy by cutting spending in a time of low economic growth. While it may be true that Osborne’s budget cuts didn’t necessarily promote growth, it’s unavoidable fact that the United Kingdom is now growing faster than the rest of the European Union, which emerged from the 2008-09 global financial crisis and the 2010-12 eurozone debt crisis to face a growing deflation threat today. Italy, which has struggled to enact reforms under its energetic new prime minister Matteo Renzi, recently entered a triple-dip recession.

Polls, meanwhile, show an increasingly tight race. Labour’s once dominant lead is shrinking, in the most recent September 18-19 YouGov/Sunday Times poll to just 4%. If the election were held today, Labour would edge out the Tories by a margin of 36% to 32%, with the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) winning 16% and the junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, just 7%. That could result in any number of outcomes, including a Labour minority government, a Conservative minority government, or the continuation of the Tory-Liberal Democratic coalition.

That goes a long way in explaining why Miliband is increasingly shifting from an anti-austerity message to a campaign that places greater funding for an increasingly burdened National Health Service (NHS) at the heart of his bid to defeat Cameron in eight months’ time. Continue reading

Liberals dominate New Brunswick vote

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The cardinal rule of political prognostication in Canada is that provincial results can provide no guarantee of future performance.newbrunswickCanada Flag Icon

Nevertheless, Justin Trudeau must be feeling pretty good this week about the Liberal brand throughout Canada, after a strong Liberal victory in New Brunswick, the fourth consecutive Liberal triumph in provincial elections since Trudeau won the federal leadership in April 2013.

The New Brunswick victory follows a rout in Québec, where the Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ) won April elections under the leadership of former health minister Philippe Couillard, after just 18 months in opposition. It also follows elections in Ontario, where the provincial Liberal Party won a fourth consecutive term and a majority government under premier Kathleen Wynne in June.

Those follow a landslide victory last October in Nova Scotia and a come-from-behind win by the incumbent Liberals under premier Christy Clark in British Columbia last  May.

The Liberal Party last came to power in New Brunswick in 2006 when voters narrowly ousted two-term premier Bernard Lord, oft-mentioned in the early 2000s as a potential Conservative prime minister. But in 2010, voters turned against the Liberals and premier Shawn Graham after an ambitious four-year program designed to improve energy, education and health care.

On Monday, however, New Brunswick’s voters rejected the Progressive Conservatives and premier David Alward. Under the leadership of the 32-year-old Brian Gallant (pictured above), who was just two years old when Trudeau’s father, Liberal premier Pierre Trudeau, left office in 1984, the Liberals have now returned to power. Liberals gained 14 seats to hold a total of 27 in the province’s legislative assembly, to just 21 for the center-right Progressive Conservatives and one for the Green Party’s leader David Coon, a historic breakthrough for a party whose two members of the Canadian House of Commons come from British Columbia.

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Gallant, who was predicted to win the September 22 election, despite polls showing a narrowing race in the days leading to the vote, promised to deliver more jobs and better roads and other provincial infrastructure.

All major parties, including the Liberals, supported the Energy East oil pipeline, which would link Albertan and Saskatchewan oil fields to Saint John, New Brunswick’s largest city on the southern coast along the Bay of Fundy. But while Alward vocally championed the development of shale gas exploration and ‘fracking’ within New Brunswick during the campaign, Gallant opposed fracking and, along with the Greens, supports a moratorium on fracking — for now.  Continue reading

Ruiz-Gallardón resigns after Rajoy drops Spanish abortion bill

spainabortionsPhoto credit to Susana Vera/Reuters.

It’s not just the United States that struggles over competing beliefs about abortion. In Spain, pro-choice advocates won one of their biggest international victories of the decade when the country’s conservative government this week backed down on plans to implement a restrictive new abortion law. Spain_Flag_Icon

Spanish justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón resigned Tuesday after prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s cabinet dropped plans for legislation that would heavily restrict abortion rights in the European Union’s fifth-most populous country. The law would have largely rolled back liberalizations enacted by the previous center-left government of prime minister José Luis Zapatero.

Though Rajoy and the Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) promised abortion reforms in the campaign that led to their election in December 2011, the legislation has been stalled by political opposition, not just from regional and leftist parties, but within corners of the People’s Party itself, including several prominent party leaders. They include the regional president of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who in January called on the national government to tone down the ambitions of its abortion bill, and the deputy speaker of the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), Celia Villalobos.

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RELATED: New PSOE leader Sánchez faces uphill struggle to unite Spanish left

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Nevertheless, Gallardón had increasingly staked his credibility as justice minister on the bill’s success, arguing earlier this year that the legislation would advance by the end of the summer. That didn’t happen and, on Friday, Rajoy’s cabinet refused to advance the bill.

Continue reading

Kurdish opportunity rises as US airstrikes hit Syria

mayfieldPhoto credit to Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Guest post by Christopher Skutnik

Most of the public blowback within the US policy debate over Syria’s civil war revolves around who, among the confusing mishmash of anti-Assad rebels, Western governments might possibly aid in the conflict.  USflagSyria Flag Iconkurdistan

Even as the body count climbed and the war crimes mounted, much of the West declared a policy of non-interference. The inability to find a suitable Western-friendly champion is key among the factors that have most restrained the foreign response to Syria, even as US president Barack Obama yesterday ordered the first airstrikes against Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية‎) after six weeks of strikes meant to subdue them in northern Iraq.

In 2011, the US Congress introduced a bill placing sanctions on actors committing human rights abuses in Syria, and which simultaneously and explicitly prevented US president Barack Obama from declaring war or otherwise using force against the Syrian regime. Later in 2012, Congress introduced another bill that began exploring ways to ‘…deny or significantly degrade the ability of [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad…to use air power against civilians and opposition groups in Syria….’

Like the one before it, this bill also maintained that ‘the United States ground troops [shall] not be deployed onto Syrian territory.’

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RELATED: Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement

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The United States was not alone in its reticence. In August 2013, the United Kingdom’s parliament famously voted 285 to 272 against prime minister David Cameron’s push for a British role in any potential American military action against Syria.

This proved to be a ‘two-fer.’ Not only were the British now going to stay out of Syria, but without the legitimacy of multilateralism, Obama was forced to withdraw to the principles that got him elected five years earlier. Aimed at a different war in a different country, Obama famously argued that the US war and occupation in Iraq that began in 2003 was ‘ill-considered’ and ‘unnecessary,’ and was steadfastly preempting political opponents of a possible response to Syria by proclaiming a ‘no boots on the ground’ policy. 

In doing so, the leader of the strongest liberal democracy in the world was leaving the victims of sarin gas attacks; the moderate, if nebulous, Free Syrian Army (FSA, الجيش السوري الحر‎); and the innocents on the periphery stuck between a vice grip of growing religious extremism and a government prone to attacking villages with helicopter gunships.

Fast forward to 2014.
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How Kim Dotcom made a boring Kiwi election interesting

kimdotcom

There was never much doubt that John Key would win a third term as New Zealand’s prime minister in the face of a hapless New Zealand Labour Party that has struggled to find a compelling leader.new zealand icon

Although he didn’t win any seats in New Zealand’s House of Representatives after the September 20 general election, Kim Dotcom (pictured above) managed to turn an otherwise boring election into a rollicking debate over Internet freedom and surveillance in the digital era.

How did a German-born fugitive fighting extradition to the United States become the sensation of the New Zealand general election? And why did, NZ$ 4 million (around US$ 3.25 million) in campaign spending later, does the Internet sensation have nothing to show for his initial foray into New Zealand’s national politics?

Dotcom formed the Internet Party in March. By July, he announced it would ally with the left-wing MANA Movement, an alternative indigenous party founded by former MP and former Māori Party member Hone Harawira in 2011. The two groups, however, always made for strange political bedfellows. It was never incredibly clear how Dotcom, with his agenda of international Internet freedom, found common cause with Harawira.

As recently as early September, Internet-MANA was winning 3.5% of voter support, which turned out to be Dotcom’s campaign high-water mark. By the time voters actually got around to voting, they only gave Internet-MANA 1.26% of the national party vote, not enough to deliver even a single seat, and not enough to reelect Harawira in the Te Tai Tokerau constituency.

Dotcom accepted full blame for the defeat after the election, acknowledging that he had become an easy target for his political opponents:

Internet Party leader Laila Harre has admitted that the gamble her party took with Mana had not worked. It follows the party’s founder, Kim Dotcom, last night saying Internet-Mana had lost support because of him.

“The brand Kim Dotcom was poisoned … and I did not see that before the last couple of weeks,” he said as results from New Zealand election 2014 rolled in last night.

Key said after the election that it’s now time for Dotcom to ‘go away:’

“I think a lot of middle New Zealand rejected the notion of a group of foreigners coming in and looking like they wanted to have a very heavy influence on a general election that is New Zealand’s election.”

Dotcom’s future remains murky amid efforts by US authorities to have him extradited on criminal copyright infringement charges related to his now-shuttered Megaupload website. Continue reading

Why England needs a series of regional parliaments

St George's Day - NottinghamPhoto credit to PA.

Following the historic vote on Scottish independence, British prime minister David Cameron emerged early Friday morning to deliver remarks praising Scottish voters for keeping the United Kingdom (‘our country of four nations’) together.United Kingdom Flag Icon england_640

He promised to keep a pledge to enact rapid legislation devolving further powers to the Scottish parliament (‘devo-max’), but he simultaneously promised to propose reforms addressing the role of Scottish MPs on matters that are exclusively English in nature, responding to loud grumbling from English Tories that Scottish MPs shouldn’t have a vote on English matters and who have long cried, ‘English votes for English laws.’

In tying the issue of the promised Scottish devolution to the West Lothian question, Cameron was hoping to calm his own backbenchers, who, even before voters cast ballots in the September 18 referendum, briefing against the unfairness of the ‘Barnett formula,’ whereby Scottish residents receive greater per-capita government subsidy than English residents.

But that left Downing Street scrambling after both the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and the pro-union, center-left Labour Party attacked Cameron for trying to tie the two issues together. Alex Salmond, who announced plans on Friday to step down as first minister after losing the referendum by a 10% margin, alleged that Cameron was already backing away from his promise to the Scottish people:

Salmond said that no voters in the referendum would feel they had been “misled”, “gulled” and “tricked”. The first minister told the Sunday Politics on BBC1: “I am actually not surprised they are cavilling and reneging on commitments; I am only surprised by the speed at which they are doing it. They seem to be totally shameless in these matters. The prime minister wants to link change in Scotland to change in England. He wants to do that because he has difficulty in carrying his backbenchers on this and they are under pressure from Ukip.

“The Labour leadership of course are frightened of any changes in England which leave them without a majority in the House of Commons on English matters. I think the vow was something cooked up in desperation for the last few days of the campaign and I think everyone in Scotland now realises that.”

Cameron strongly hinted that his approach would limit the ability of Scottish (or Welsh or Northern Irish) MPs to vote on matters that apply solely to English legislation. That echoes calls from other high-profile Conservative leaders like chief whip Michael Gove.

But it would be politically controversial for at least two reasons. Continue reading

Key leads National Party to easy reelection in New Zealand

john key

New Zealand’s voters didn’t have a chance to vote on a new flag during Saturday’s general elections, but they emphatically delivered prime minister John Key a third term in government.new zealand icon

Key (pictured above) led the center-right National Party to a majority government, winning 61 seats in the country’s unicameral, 121-member House of Representatives, the first such majority government since 1993, when the country still used a first-past-the-post voting system. New Zealand today uses instead a mixed-member proportional representation system.

NZ House 2014Though the campaign featured more political scandal and innuendo about surveillance than policy discussion, Key has in two terms amassed a considerably solid record. In his first term, he helped to steady New Zealand’s economy in the depths of the global financial crisis, and he’s maintained generally solid GDP growth — around 2.5% in 2013 — in the face of a Chinese economic slowdown.

In that time, Key raised the goods and sales tax from 12.5% to 15%, but he also lowered personal income tax rates and increased the minimum wage from NZ$ 12 to NZ$ 14.25. In his second term, Key initiated a program of privatization of several government interests by reducing public ownership in several companies, including Air New Zealand and several energy enterprises. Key also managed the reconstruction efforts of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-most populous city, which was severely damaged by a 2011 earthquake.

He has also been keen on developing stronger ties with the United States as a champion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and of the 2010 Wellington Declaration, which ushered in greater cooperation between the United States and New Zealand.

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