Koreans look to 2017 after Park’s governing party loses seats

South Korean president Park Guen-hye met with US president Barack Obama in Washington soon after taking office in 2013. (White House)
South Korean president Park Guen-hye met with US president Barack Obama in Washington soon after taking office in 2013. (White House)

Though it’s only been two weeks since South Koreans upended polls to deliver a shock verdict in parliamentary elections, the country is now pivoting toward its next presidential election — which is nearly 20 months away. northkorea

Taking place nearly two-thirds of the way through the five-year term of president Park Guen-hye (박근혜), the election was an opportunity for Park to solidify her grip on the National Assembly, as well as her own party, the conservative Saenuri Party (새누리당, ‘New Frontier’ Party) by winning a more solid majority in South Korea’s 300-member unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (대한민국 국회). 

Despite poll predictions that Saenuri would take advantage of a split opposition and win an even wider majority, the party instead lost ground, falling further away from an absolute majority, winning just 122 seats, 24 fewer seats in the National Assembly than the party held before the elections. Park, like all South Korean presidents, is limited to a single term in office and, in some regards, she became a lame duck president from the first days of the 2013 inauguration of the country’s first female president. That hasn’t stopped Park from wielding power through a very strong executive branch.

SK elections 2016 SK national assembly (1)

Saenuri’s defeat, however, and Park’s failures in particular, mean that the country is now shifting towards the posturing among Park’s opponents, including those within other Saenuri Party factions, to plot a path to the presidency in an election that will not be held until December 20, 2017.

The results will give hope to the traditional center-left opposition party, the newly renamed (as of last December) Minjoo Party (더불어민주당), a successor to what used to be called the Democratic United Party, which won 123 seats — one more than Saenuri. That could embolden several top figures within the party to mount a 2017 presidential bid, including Moon Jae-in (문재인), the party’s former leader and its 2012 candidate against Park.

But the results will give even more hope to the newly formed, as of February, People’s Party (국민의당), an alternative liberal party that has pulled supporters away from Minjoo. Its leader is Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수), a software entrepreneur, businessman and academic, who burst onto the political scene as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. He will now almost certainly be a contender in the 2017 election. Though the People’s Party only won 38 seats, it actually won more votes than Minjoo.

So what does South Korea’s election mean for the rest of Park’s administration and for 2017? Continue reading Koreans look to 2017 after Park’s governing party loses seats

Why the Tories are so happy about their chances in Scotland

On May 6, Scotland could wake up to a Conservative leader of the opposition in Ruth Davidson. (Facebook)
On May 6, Scotland could wake up to a Conservative leader of the opposition in Ruth Davidson. (Facebook)

The next opposition leader of Scotland’s regional parliament just might be an openly gay Conservative woman.scotlandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

It sounds farfetched, but polls show that as the Scottish National Party (SNP) continues to lead by a wide margin with regional elections approaching on May 5, the Scottish Labour Party has sunk so low that Scottish Conservatives actually have a strong chance to place second — albeit a very far second behind the SNP and its popular leader, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

If the Tories do indeed pull off a victory in Scotland, it would be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Scottish Tories to rebrand themselves in Davidson’s image — and it would make Davidson, nearly overnight, a model figure in the modern Conservative Party.

Nothing’s certain.

The latest Survation/Daily Record poll conducted between April 15 and 20 gives the SNP a massive lead with 53% of the vote. Far behind in second place was Labour with 18%, but directly behind Labour? The Conservatives with 17%.

It’s virtually a law of post-Thatcher British politics that Scotland is a no-go zone for the Tories. In the 2015 general election, prime minister David Cameron’s Conservatives won just one seat (out of 59) and 14.9% of the vote, its lowest-ever vote share. The last time the Conservatives won even 25% of the Scottish vote in a general election was 1992. Since the 1997 landslide that wiped out the Conservatives, the party has elected just two MPs and, since 2005, the only Tory MP has been David Mundell, who represents Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. Since May 2015, Mundell has served as the secretary of state for Scotland.

It’s been even worse for the Scottish Tories in local elections — the region-wide Conservative vote was just 12.4% in 2011 and just 13.9% in 2007. In Scotland’s post-devolution history (it’s had a regional parliament only since 1999), the Conservatives have held no more than 18 seats (out of 129).

So it’s remarkable that, at this point, the Conservatives even have a shot at becoming the official opposition at Holyrood.

Much of the credit belongs to Davidson, who is not your typical Tory.  Continue reading Why the Tories are so happy about their chances in Scotland

Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria's presidential election. (Facebook)
Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election. (Facebook)

On a day when Serbians reelected their pro-European government in landslide, the spotlight suddenly fell on Austria instead.austria flag

Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the anti-immigrant, far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election, while the candidates of the two governing parties fell to fourth and fifth place.

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Hofer’s first-round lead of more than 10% shocked not only Vienna, but the entire European Union.

At age 45, Hofer is not nearly as well known as some of the Freedom Party’s top officials, including its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. But his fresh-faced appeal might have improved the party’s chances, in contrast to one of the FPÖ’s more established figures. Austria has admitted more refugees, on a per-capita basis, than even Germany, and Hofer spent much of his campaign trashing Austria’s willingness to pay more into the European Union than it receives in return, stoking anger over bailouts to Greece and other member-state with crippling debt. Continue reading Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Bangladesh’s government shares blame for spate of blogger murders

Dhaka-based LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan and the former US ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, in 2014. (Facebook)
Dhaka-based LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan and the former US ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, in 2014. (Facebook)

No one in Bangladesh’s government wielded the machetes that hacked to death Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent LGBT activist and local USAID officer, at his home on Monday in Dhaka.bangladesh flag icon

Just like no one in the Bangladeshi government actually perpetrated the murders of so many active bloggers before him in the last two years. Asif Mohiuddin or Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013.

Or Shafiul Islam in 2014.

Or Avijit Roy or Washiqur Rahman or Ananta Bijoy Das or Niloy Neel or Faisal Arefin Dipan in 2015.

None of these names are necessarily household names in the United States or even in Bangladesh. In aggregate, however, they represent an audacious attempt by ultraconservative Islamists to silence the secular voices in the world’s eighth-most populous country.

And, with Mannan’s gruesome death, it may be working.

In 2013, hardline Islamists published a ‘hit list’ of at least 84 prominent online writers in Bangladesh, many of whom are secularists, like Mannan, a 35-year-old who published Rupban, a Bangladesh-based magazine for LGBT people in his country. Roy, perhaps the most high-profile victim, was a Bangladeshi-American activist who hosted a website that brought together many brands of secular humanist thought in Bangladesh.

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RELATED: Two years later, Bangladesh needs a real opposition

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With a discrete list of bloggers publicly identified for reprisal by jihadists and radical Islamists who have pledged loyalty, in some cases, to the Islamic State group that controls parts of Syria and Iraq, it should not be difficult for a functional government to protect seven dozen individuals in a country of 169 million people.

Quite to the contrary, government officials have done little to apprehend the perpetrators of crimes that have chilled freedom of speech and expression in Bangladesh, often suggesting that murdered writers may have crossed an invisible line by criticizing Islam too harshly in a country where religion and politics have been dangerously intertwined since its bloody war for independence from Pakistan in 1971:

Rather than condemn the killers, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan scolded the victims, telling CNN: “The bloggers, they should control their writing. Our country is a secular state. … I want to say that people should be careful not to hurt anyone by writing anything — hurt any religion, any people’s beliefs, any religious leaders.”

Continue reading Bangladesh’s government shares blame for spate of blogger murders

Serbian election kicks off tumultuous year for Balkan politics

Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić met with European Council president Donald Tusk in December as part of ongoing EU accession negotiations. (Facebook / Aydemir Dursun)
Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić met with European Council president Donald Tusk in December as part of ongoing EU accession negotiations. (Facebook / Aydemir Dursun)

This weekend, Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić finalized a four-year consolidation of power in early parliamentary elections that delivered a landslide victory for his center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), giving him the mandate and the support to advance political and economic reforms that he hopes could one day result in Serbia’s accession as a member-state of the European Union.Serbia_Flag_Icon

In results late Sunday night, the SNS a wide lead over its nearest competitor, the center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, Социјалистичка партија Србије), which currently serves as the government’s junior coalition partner. The Socialist leader, Ivica Dačić, a former prime minister, currently serves as Vučić’s foreign minister. Several parties of the fragmented center-left and hard-right ultra-nationalist parties trail far behind in single digits. With just under 50% of the total vote on Sunday, the SNS can expect to have an absolute majority in Serbia’s unicameral, 250-seat National Assembly (Народна скупштина).

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Vučic called the snap elections earlier this year, fully knowing how well his party was doing in the polls. Like it or not, Vučic and the former SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić, currently in his first term as president, will be directing Serbian policy through the end of the decade.

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RELATEDVučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia
with 3rd consecutive win

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But Serbia is far from the only country in the Balkans that will vote this year, and Sunday’s vote kicks off what could become a season of electoral change across the region.

Unlike Serbia, where voters were happy to deliver Vučic the broad mandate he wanted, voters in the rest of the western Balkans are far less sanguine about their elected officials. Opposition politicians in Montenegro nearly ousted their long-serving prime minister earlier this year, though fresh elections are due before October. The twists and turns of a wiretapping scandal in Macedonia have reached fever pitch this week, with protesters marching against the government in Skopje, and a June 5 parliamentary election date is currently in doubt.

A region that still dreams of EU accession

(Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)
(Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)

The western Balkans are the last major region of Europe that has not yet been integrated into the European Union. With the possible exception of Turkey, it’s the final frontier of EU accession. Among the six (or seven, if you count Kosovo) countries that emerged out of the former Yugoslavia, only two of them have won EU member-state status, Slovenia and Croatia. They join only Albania in representing the western Balkans in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The remaining Balkan states are in varying stages of their quests for accession:

  • Macedonia was granted candidate status back in 2005, but democratic and economic backsliding have stalled its membership push, not to mention its long-running spat with Greece over the name, ‘Macedonia,’ which Greeks consider to be an inaccurate appropriation of Greek culture and history.
  • Montenegro gained candidate status in December 2010, and negotiations are ongoing, though Montenegro has fully implemented just two of 33 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU law required for all member-states.
  • The European Union granted Serbia candidate status in March 2012, negotiations kicked off in 2014 and Vučic is eager to conclude accession by the year 2020, though that remains incredibly optimistic.
  • Albania won candidate status in June 2014, and though its negotiations have yet to begin, prime minister Edi Rama, a former artist who charged to power in 2013, is an energetic center-left figure who’s worked closely with former British prime minister Tony Blair to develop a package of EU-friendly economic and political reforms.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership status in February 2016, but the European Union hasn’t yet granted it candidate status.
Albania's pro-European, pro-reform prime minister Edi Rama met with US president Barack Obama last week. (Facebook)
Albania’s pro-European, pro-reform prime minister Edi Rama met with US president Barack Obama last week. (Facebook)

Given the existential threats that the European Union faces, hardly anyone outside the Balkans seems to have the stomach for what promises to be a difficult round of accession. The June 23 referendum in the United Kingdom on whether to leave the European Union remains too close to call, but its passage would be a major blow to the notion of ‘ever closer union.’ Much of southern Europe, most especially Greece, have still not recovered from the eurozone crisis that stretched the limits of EU financial, economic and monetary policy and that brought into question the future of the single currency. Meanwhile, the most acute refugee crisis in Europe since World War II has weakened the Schengen agreement by undermining the free movement of people within the European Union and the eradication of internal EU borders.

For current EU members, then, it may look like there’s precious little benefit in EU accession. But for the Balkan states, there remains enthusiasm that EU membership will force the kind of reforms that could reduce the crippling corruption that is, on general, worse in the Balkans than in the rest of Europe:balkans CPI 2015

Balkans populations also hope that EU membership will also clear the path not only for reforms, but for the kind of funding that could allow them to catch up to the higher EU standard of living, which, not surprisingly lags far behind: 
Balkans GDPWith eventual EU membership — and the promise it brings of greater incomes and opportunities — dangling as a carrot, it’s no surprise that Vučic has amassed so much political power in Serbia and an impressive amount of respect among European leaders. But it’s that same dynamic that could lead to massive changes throughout the rest of the region, most notably in Montenegro and Macedonia.

Wiretaps and pardons

Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski is facing protests on the streets of Skopje after the dismissal of an inquiry into a wiretapping scandal. (Facebook)
Former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s government is facing protests on the streets of Skopje after the dismissal of an inquiry into a wiretapping scandal. (Facebook)

Eleven days ago, Macedonia’s president Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 people, all of whom were implicated in a wide-ranging wiretapping scandal that forced the country’s powerful prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, to resign in January. Beginning in the early 2010s, Gruevski and his government were found to have wiretapped illegally up to 20,000 Macedonians, opposition figures, journalists and even diplomats.  macedonia

Ivanov, who announced a decree that would end all investigations into the wiretapping scandal, set off a constitutional crisis from what had already been a crisis of governance and the rule of law, and his announcements met with sharp disapproval from EU officials and Macedonia’s political opposition.

Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE (Внатрешна македонска револуционерна организација – Демократска партија за македонско национално единство; Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) has been in power since 2006. It easily won a fourth consecutive term in April 2014, though the election was hardly a fair fight.

Gruevski has spent much of the past decade stoking nationalist sentiment, which has antagonized Greece; for example, he erected an 11-foot high statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. While the spat with Greece helped Gruevski, in part, to rally domestic support, it has only hardened Greek determination to block Macedonian membership not only in the European Union, but NATO as well. Meanwhile, the VMRO-DPMNE’s government has done little to introduce reforms to stem corruption or promote liberalization.

Macedonia opposition leader Zoran Zaev stands an excellent chance of winning power in elections that may still be held on June 5. (Facebook)
Macedonia opposition leader Zoran Zaev stands an excellent chance of winning power in elections that may still be held on June 5, if he doesn’t boycott them. (Facebook)

Macedonians now seem fed up with Gruevski’s empty promises and hollow rhetoric, to say nothing of the wiretapping shenanigans and his attempts to persuade Ivanov to pull the plug on the ongoing investigations.

Elections were set for June 5, but the government, fearing a rout, may try to postpone them. A meeting scheduled earlier today in Vienna among EU leaders and Macedonia’s political leaders was cancelled, even as the intensity of Macedonia’s protesters increases.

Zoran Zaev, Macedonia’s opposition leader and the head of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM, Социјалдемократски сојуз на Македонија), was instrumental in revealing the extent of the wiretapping scandal, though only after Gruevski tried to have Zaev jailed for allegedly attempting to illegally toppling the government.

For years, Zaev has opposed Gruevski’s nationalist showmanship and denounced the government’s flashy development projects as wasteful vanity spending. Now, with Ivanov’s announcement to suspend the wiretapping scandal that Zaev himself helped to reveal, the opposition leader has joined the front lines of the protesters. There’s a sense that he could soon be leading the country, though he pledged earlier this month to boycott elections without additional reforms to guarantee political freedom and a free and fair electoral process. An original plan to hold elections in April has already been postponed once to June and could well be delayed again.

Negotiations over the conduct and timing of the Macedonian elections are just the beginning of what could become an even more tumultuous year. If Zaev and an opposition coalition forces VMRO-DPMNE from power, no one knows exactly how willingly Gruevski and his allies will concede. Moreover, from day one, a Zaev-led government would be locked in a high-stakes battle with Ivanov to reinstate the wiretapping investigation.

Đukanović’s last stand?

Montenegro's prime minister Milo Đukanović has dominated politics for a quarter-century, but his time may soon be running out. (CDM)
Montenegro’s prime minister Milo Đukanović has dominated politics for a quarter-century, but his time may soon be running out. (CDM)

Though it officially won its independence from Serbia only in June 2006, Milo Đukanović has controlled Montenegro like a personal fiefdom since 1991, when he was first elected prime minister. Đukanović has held power, on and off, ever since.montenegro

Polls show that Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS, Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore) hold a wide lead in elections that have to be called within the next six months. But that belies the frustration that’s built for a quarter-century with Đukanović and his family, whose opponents argue that they run Montenegro as their own personal duchy of corruption.

As in Serbia, Montenegro’s opposition is even more split today than it was in the last election. The conservative opposition Democratic Front (Demokratski front) did poorly in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and its leader Miodrag Lekić narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election. Last year, however, Lekić left the party to form Democratic Alliance (DEMOS, Demokratski savez), a competing center-right party.

In December, however, Đukanović only narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in Montenegro’s unicameral, 81-member parliament (Skupština Crne Gore), following widespread protests that began in October over longstanding suspicions of Đukanović’s corruption. Protesters demanded his resignation and a transitional government; Đukanović himself spent half of the 2000s fending off a criminal inquiry into corruption from an Italian prosecutor. Đukanović’s long-time allies, the Social Democratic Party (Socijaldemokratska Partija Crne Gore), left government for the first time since 1998.

Đukanović has hoped that Montenegro’s relatively strong economy and a general trend toward liberalization will distract from his critics’ worst allegations. Moreover, Montenegrins will go to the polls as he pursues the country’s accession to NATO after formally opening talks in February. It’s a step that has appalled Moscow, which still holds plenty of economic and cultural power in the western Balkans, despite the region’s aspirations to integrate further with the rest of Europe.

Đukanović, who is only 54 years old, seems unlikely to take the opportunity of 2016 elections to step down. But it’s not inconceivable that, despite Montenegro’s more successful strides toward NATO and, eventually, EU accession, he too will face the kind of popular wrath that is now greeting Gruevski across Macedonia.

Obama’s credibility now on the line with Brexit vote

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US president Barack Obama joined forces with British prime minister David Cameron on Friday to cajole voters in the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

It all seemed so rational, so normal.United Kingdom Flag IconUSflag

When US president Barack Obama took the stage yesterday in London (and on the pages of The Daily Telegraph) to dismantle, with surgical precision, the arguments against the United Kingdom staying in the European Union, it didn’t feel like a rupture in international politics.

But it was a radical departure from standard operating procedure.

US presidents, to say nothing of lower officials, have never had qualms intervening in the domestic affairs of foreign countries.

Rarely does an American president so do in such a public forum.

Rarer still that an American president would weigh in on a matter that will be determined by a foreign electorate in eight weeks.

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RELATED: How Corbyn can use Brexit to
reinvigorate his Labour leadership

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Standing beside the British prime minister, Obama was making the case against Brexit better than anyone else on the British political stage, in part because of the sheer scale of power that comes with the American presidency. Special or no, the body language of Obama and his British counterpart David Cameron spoke everything about the unequal bilateral partnership. Amazingly, Obama managed to shrink and upstage Cameron nearly as much as George W. Bush diminished Tony Blair, oft mocked as Bush’s ‘poodle,’ over the Iraq war in 2003.  Continue reading Obama’s credibility now on the line with Brexit vote

Vučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia with 3rd consecutive win

Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vučić hopes to renew a four-year mandate in Sunday's snap elections. (Facebook)
Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić hopes to renew a four-year mandate in Sunday’s snap elections. (Facebook)

On Sunday, Serbians will go to the polls nearly two years before the current government’s term ends.Serbia_Flag_Icon

The results are hardly in doubt.

Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić is basically guaranteed to return to power by a wide margin, according to nearly every poll taken since the last election. His party, the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), already leads a coalition that enjoys a firm majority in Serbia’s unicameral National Assembly (Народна скупштина).

Originally due by March 2018, Vučić called snap elections in March in a bid to build an even more powerful majority. Vučić argues that a fresh mandate will give his government the space to push Serbia ever closer toward European integration; critics argue that’s a fig leaf to disguise a Vučić power grab, an attempt to squeeze the Serbian political opposition into powerlessness.

Despite problems with self-censorship in the press, Reporters without Borders ranks Serbia 59th in its 2016 press freedom rankings — that’s better than EU members Croatia, Hungary and Italy. Neighboring countries fare far worse — Kosovo ranks 90th, Montenegro ranks 106 and Macedonia ranks 118, just higher than Afghanistan.

With increasingly illiberal figures like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán thumbing their nose at European Union leaders, Vučić’s rise isn’t without its anxieties.

That’s especially true for the United States and Europe, both of whom have an interest in a country of 7 million that remains, economically and culturally, the anchor of the Balkans region, though Serbia itself shares an alphabet, similar language and a religion with Russia. Serbia is dependent upon Russia for natural gas, as well as a market for exports. In recent years, Vučić has shown that he’s willing to turn to Moscow and other surprising allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, for help when European leaders proved too slow.

That means that the European Union, despite its existential troubles, can’t afford to keep Serbians waiting indefinitely for membership.

Regardless, if polls are correct, Vučić will complete a four-year, three-election cycle that brings the SNS the most powerful domestic government in Serbia’s history following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Regionally, the Serbian vote takes place in the context of a year of explosive potential as Macedonia and Montenegro are also set to go to the polls amid tense political climates.

A pathway to Serbian political dominance

In July 2012, the SNS narrowly defeated the center-left, liberal Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) by a margin of 24.1% to 22.1%, following eight years of Democratic Party dominance in Serbia that smoothed the country’s transition from war-torn pariah to EU aspirant.

At the same time, Serbia’s two-term president Boris Tadić also lost his office to SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić. Once more sympathetic to Russia than to the rest of Europe, Nikolić and his acolyte, Vučić, quickly embraced the cause of EU accession. They made a deal with the nationalist, center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS) to take power, even though that meant making the SPS’s leader, Ivica Dačić, once a protégé of strongman Slobodan Milošević (who founded the SPS), Serbia’s new prime minister.

What is past is always present in politics. But that’s especially acute in the case of Serbia, because Nikolić, Vučić and Dačić all began their political lives on the ultranationalist right. Today, however, the three Serbian leaders have (so far, at least) transcended the bitter wars of the 1990s, using the reward of EU accession as a rationale not only to implement IMF-style economic reforms but to make genuine efforts to extradite suspected war criminals from the 1990s and to pacify relations with neighbors, most especially Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not recognize.

The government performed adequately, however. Neither Nikolić nor Vučić made a harsh turn away from the strong EU relations that the Democratic Party nurtured, nor did Dačić suddenly revert to 1990s era ultranationalism. Dačić led the push to open formal negotiations with the European Union for Serbian accession. However begrudgingly, the Dačić government engaged Kosovo over talks about the breakaway region’s international status.

In early 2014, Vučić, then minister of defense, saw an opportunity for the SNS to take power in its own right, and he essentially forced Dačić to call early elections.

It wasn’t a difficult decision, politically, because it instantly made Vučić the most powerful figure in Serbia.

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The SNS won easily with 48.4% of the vote and 158 of the 250 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. The second-placed SPS, which would continue in coalition as a junior member, with Dačić serving as Vučić’s new minister of foreign affairs, won 13.5%. The Democratic Party, suffering from a divide between its new leader, former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas and Tadić, the future president, who ultimately left to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDS, Социјалдемократска странка). The divide was fatal to Serbia’s democratic center-left, however, because the Democratic Party won just 6.0% and the Tadić-led SDS won just 5.7%.

Bracing for an even larger mandate?

Former prime minister Ivica Dačić, who has been happy to serve since 2014 as foreign minister, is shown here meeting US secretary of state John Kerry in Belgrade last year. (Facebook)
Former prime minister Ivica Dačić, who has been happy to serve since 2014 as foreign minister, is shown here meeting US secretary of state John Kerry in Belgrade last year. (Facebook)

Again, for the next two years, the government performed adequately. Low GDP growth was still strong enough for the unemployment rate to continue declining (though it’s still precariously close to 20%), and Vučić nuzzled ever closer to EU advisors with the hope of advancing negotiations one step closer to EU membership. For now, Vučić hasn’t particularly weakened Serbian democracy on his own, with the kind of anti-liberal steps that Hungary or Poland have taken, though the internal troubles of the opposition may make it seem otherwise. Indeed, Serbia has welcomed refugees in the face of a deluge of Syrians and others on European shores, the largest wave of migrants to Europe since World War II.

Then, at the height of his power, Vučić called fresh elections. Continue reading Vučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia with 3rd consecutive win

A few thoughts about the New York primary

Hillary Clinton strode to victory in New York, a state that twice elected her to the US senate in the 2000s. (Facebook)
Hillary Clinton strode to victory in New York, a state that twice elected her to the US senate in the 2000s. (Facebook)

The New York primaries are over, and it’s clear that they will be yuuuuuge victories for Republican frontrunner and businessman Donald Trump and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.new york flagUSflag

Of course, New York is central to both politicians’ careers. Trump built his real estate empire in New York City, and he launched his campaign from his now-iconic Trump Tower last summer. Clinton transitioned from activist first lady to public official when she won a seat in the US senate from New York in November 2000, a position she held through her presidential campaign in 2008.

Neither Clinton nor (especially) Trump will become their party’s presumptive nominee, but their victories most certainly give their opponents little comfort. Primaries next week in Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania do not seem likely to change the narrative.

One silver lining comes for Ohio governor John Kasich, who continues to wage a longshot campaign. He easily won second place last night, though Trump defeated him by a 60% to 25% margin. It will be good for at least some delegates, though, as Kasich took all of New York County, which corresponds to Manhattan.

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When will Texas senator Ted Cruz drop out, considering that he’s now playing such a spoiler role to Kasich? (I jest…)

California dreaming

Leaping ahead for a moment, though, it seems now obvious that the real fight for the Republican nomination will take place in California, which will go a long way in setting the stage for a convention where Trump, despite his stunning New York victory, is unlikely to win the 1,237 delegates he needs to clear a first-ballot victory.

California will, therefore, play an outsized role as the final major primary on June 7, just as Iowa and New Hampshire play outsized roles as first-in-the-nation contests.

Forget the delegate count for a moment. Continue reading A few thoughts about the New York primary

Manitoba gives Canadian conservatives power in 2nd province

Brian Pallister, a former legislator in the House of Commons, will be the first conservative premier of Manitoba since 1999. (Facebook)
Brian Pallister, a former legislator in the House of Commons, will be the first conservative premier of Manitoba since 1999. (Facebook)

No one will remember Brian Pallister’s nearly decade-long career in Ottawa as a backbench Conservative member of the House of Commons as particularly distinguished.Canada Flag Iconmanitoba

Over the course of eight years, Pallister never once served as a minister in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. His most pivotal moment, until tonight, may have come in 1998 when, as a rising legislator in Manitoba’s provincial assembly, he waged a challenge for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. He lost handily to former prime minister Joe Clark. Pallister eventually transitioned to federal politics as a legislator for the Canadian Alliance, a more socially conservative and western-based alternative to the Progressive Conservatives — and a party that ultimately effected a merger with the Canadian Alliance in 2003 under Harper’s leadership.

Pallister returned to provincial politics in 2012, winning an uncontested leadership bid for Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives, and for the past four years, that’s meant playing the role of inoffensive alternative to Manitoba’s premier, Greg Selinger, who angered even his own party’s caucus when in April 2013 he reversed a campaign pledge and raised the provincial sales tax from 7% to 8%.

Tonight, however, Pallister becomes the first leader of a provincial Conservative or Progressive Conservative party to win power in the era of prime minister Justin Trudeau. He’ll join another small-c conservative, Brad Wall, who two weeks ago won reelection to a third term as premier of Saskatchewan under the banner of the center-right Saskatchewan Party.

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Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives will win over 53% of the vote, more than double that of the NDP and the Liberal Party (long an anemic third force in Manitoba’s politics). The massive defeat of Manitoba’s New Democratic Party (NDP) ends a 17-year stint in government that leaves the NDP, across Canada, in power solely in Alberta, where Rachel Notley won an astounding victory last May. Continue reading Manitoba gives Canadian conservatives power in 2nd province

How Corbyn can use Brexit to reinvigorate his Labour leadership

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been slow to embrace the campaign to reject Brexit.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been slow to embrace the campaign to reject Brexit.

If, contrary to the United Kingdom’s new fixed parliament law, the British went to the ballot box tomorrow, most polls show that the result wouldn’t change much.United Kingdom Flag Icon

That is, a Conservative government with which Britons are less than enthusiastic.

Nearly eight months into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the opposition, center-left Labour Party, there’s no indication that the electorate has warmed to Corbyn’s hard-left policy views, nor any likelihood that Corbyn’s own critics on the back benches, populated with many of the figures who once wielded power in the ‘New Labour’ years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, trust him as their standard-bearer.

The nearly flawless campaign of the left-wing (though not always Corbynite) Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate in London’s mayoral race, will give Corbyn at least one highlight in the coming May 5 regional elections. But Labour faces potential routs across England and, most damningly, failure to make any real progress against Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) apparently heading to a romp in Scottish parliamentary elections, with a nearly 30% lead over the Scottish Labour Party.

All of which will put even greater pressure on Corbyn’s leadership. Though Corbyn entered the Labour race with no hope of actually winning, there’s little that the party’s Blair/Brown/Miliband/Cooper wing (which dominates the parliamentary caucus, though not the Labour grassroots) can do unless or until Corbyn loses popularity among the Labour faithful that delivered him to the leadership last summer. It’s not an outcome that appears likely to happen anytime soon.

Nevertheless, even if Labour suffers an especially poor night on May 5, Corbyn has a tailor-made opportunity to save his leadership. In the process, Corbyn might also transform his image among  a British electorate that remains highly skeptical of ever giving Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street.

It all rides on how Corbyn wages the Labour campaign to remain within the European Union in the coming June 23 referendum. If he succeeds, politically and substantively, Corbyn could both silence critics in his own party and, for the first time, introduce himself as truly prime ministerial material.

Continue reading How Corbyn can use Brexit to reinvigorate his Labour leadership

After vote to impeach Rousseff, what happens next?

The fight over whether to impeach Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff has left the country deeply divided. (Renato S. Cerqueira/Futura Press/Folhapress)
The fight over whether to impeach Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff has left the country deeply divided. (Renato S. Cerqueira/Futura Press/Folhapress)

No one has accused Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, of any personal impropriety in the sweeping investigations of kickbacks to politicians in Brazil from the state oil company, Petrobras.brazil

Nevertheless, a two-thirds majority of the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies) decided to impeach Rousseff anyway, based on an obscure theory — that Rousseff fudged the budget numbers in the lead-up to the 2014 election to hide the  precarious condition of Brazil’s budget deficit and reduce the need to cut spending in an election year.

No one had any doubts in 2014 that the country’s increasing debt burden was weighing down its economic outlook and even Rousseff, after her reelection, shook up her cabinet, bringing in Joaquim Levy as finance minister, and Nelson Barbosa, now Levy’s successor, to introduce greater budget discipline as the country sinks further into recession.

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RELATED: Collor faced Brazilian impeachment crucible
25 years before Dilma

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In reality, it’s the Petrobras scandal that’s swept up Rousseff, along with nearly 320 members of the Brazilian congress. Operation Car Wash has uncovered a wide-ranging scheme whereby leading politicians accepted kickbacks on the basis of inflated public contracts granted from Petrobras. The scandal implicates Rousseff’s own Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party), but it has also snared politicians from across the ideological spectrum. The scandal took an even sharper turn this spring when former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s mentor who first won power in 2002, was also accused of taking kickbacks. The speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, among many, many others, are also under investigation. Brazilians refer to the scandal as the petrolão, which translates to the ‘big oily.’

The battle moves to Brazil’s Senate

Complicating the impeachment vote is the fact that Rousseff herself is personally and politically unpopular. A collapsing economy has left her with an approval rating in the teens. In one sense, Rousseff was impeached on Sunday because she’s so widely reviled by Brazilians. Rousseff’s opponents, even though many of them are under investigation themselves, blatantly admit that they supported impeachment just to remove her from office for political reasons. The Brazilian right has lost four consecutive elections to either Lula or to Rousseff, though Rousseff only narrowly won reelection in October 2014.

The nakedly political considerations involved explain why Rousseff and her left-leaning supporters have been quick to label the impeachment vote as an undemocratic coup. But it’s more complicated than either side would like to admit. Rousseff is correct when she argues that the Brazilian media is, largely, anti-PT, and the business elite has increasingly turned against her and Lula.

But Rousseff herself served as the chairwoman of the Petrobras board between 2003 and 2010, and her critics believe it’s risible that she knew nothing about the kickbacks. Moreover, she blatantly attempted to appoint Lula to her cabinet last month as a way of offering him immunity from prosecution. (Rousseff’s supporters subsequently attacked the lead prosecutor, Sérgio Moro, for releasing the audio recording of a conversation between Lula and Rousseff).

Rousseff is now almost certain to face a prolonged trial before the upper house of the Brazilian Congress. With just a majority vote in the 81-member Senado (Senate), she can be suspended for office for 180 days. Her vice president, Michel Temer, the 75-year-old leader of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), will almost certainly take over temporarily and, if not impeached himself, will take over if Rousseff is formally removed. The next elections are scheduled for 2018.

Temer and the PMDB broke with Rousseff earlier this month, in a step that now seems likely to have doomed Rousseff’s fate. Temer has already indicated that, as Brazil’s new president, he will pursue a much more center-right orientation that will look to assure markets and business elites. He has also indicated that he might attempt to rein in the Petrobras investigations that have thoroughly discredited a country’s worth of institutions. The PMDB is a ‘big tent’ party whose sole ideology seems to be proximity to power — it has provided support to every sitting Brazilian government, of the center-right or the center-left, since 1994. Temer, Cunha and other leading pemedebistas are under the same clouds of corruption as many of the leading petistas, so a Temer presidency would not wipe the political slate clean. 

Rousseff will, however, survive if she can muster more than one-third of Brazil’s senators in a trial that might not begin until May.

Her removal isn’t a fait accompli.

Note, however, that Rousseff (and Temer, as her 2014 running mate) still faces the possibility that her reelection will be vacated by Brazil’s supreme electoral court, which is reviewing whether the Rousseff campaign received illegal campaign funds. If the court decides to vacate the election, Cunha (the scandal-plagued speaker of the Chamber of Deputies) will temporarily replace Temer as president before a fresh presidential vote later this year.

Brazil’s hyper-partisan future looks grim

The legacies of Lula and Dilma are now bound together through the high-stake impeachment process. (Facebook)
The legacies of Lula and Dilma are now bound together through the high-stake impeachment process. (Facebook)

Even if Rousseff survives the Senate trial, she will have virtually no power as a wildly unpopular lame-duck president — just the second in modern Brazilian democracy to be impeached. Rousseff will continue fighting to protect the legacy of lulismo and the PT’s four terms in power, most notably the massive programs that have reduced extreme poverty and inequality that have made Lula, Rousseff and the PT extremely popular among Brazil’s poor. Moreover, even as Lula himself faces criminal liability for his own possible role in the Petrobras scandal, he remains extremely popular in Brazil (much more so than Rousseff) and on the Latin American left, generally.

Indeed, if an election were held today, Lula would be competitive to win, as incredible as it seems. He’s essentially tied with the other top-tier contenders from the 2014 election, Marina Silva (an alternative leftist with socially conservative positions on abortion of LGBT rights and with roots in Brazil’s green movement) and Aécio Neves, a Brazilian senator and the former two-term governor of the state of Minas Gerais. Neves today is the leader of Brazil’s main center-right opposition party, the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party), which has long supported Rousseff’s removal.

But the impeachment process and its aftermath are already making Brazil’s hyperpartisan divide even worse. A small glimpse of the ugliness came on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies Sunday night when one member, Jair Bolsonaro, who also hopes to run for president in 2018, dedicated his vote in favor of impeachment to the leader of a torture unit during Brazil’s military dictatorship whose victims included, among others, Rousseff herself. Other far-right deputies also voiced praise Sunday night for some of the leaders of Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 through 1985.

Though a majority of Brazilians (including both wealthy and poor Brazilians) supported Rousseff’s impeachment, the battle has left many voters divided sharply. Moreover, a compromised Temer-led interim presidency also seems unlikely to unite a country that still faces incredible challenges, including a nasty economic downturn, the rising threat of the Zika virus and the difficulty of hosting the first Summer Olympics in South American history later in 2016.

Brazil’s democracy has already survived one impeachment, when former president Fernando Collor resigned a day before the Brazilian senate voted formally to remove him from office in December 1992. But Collor, at the time, was more personally and, potentially, criminally implicated in the corruption scandal that spurred his impeachment, which the Chamber of Deputies passed in a near-unanimous vote. In contrast, the impeachment battle against Rousseff has been far more colored by partisan opinion.

Collor faced Brazilian impeachment crucible 25 years before Dilma

Fernando Collor de Mello left office in January 2013 after his removal as president by the Brazilian Senate (O Globo / Roberto Stuckert Filho)
Fernando Collor de Mello left office in January 2013 after his removal as president by the Brazilian Senate (O Globo / Roberto Stuckert Filho)

As Brazil’s congress votes on president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment today, it’s not the first time that the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies) will consider a president’s impeachment.brazil

It’s not even the first impeachment since the return of civilian, democratic rule in the 1980s.

Before Rousseff, there was Fernando Collor de Mello, who was impeached nearly a quarter-century ago, and who resigned a day before a formal vote to remove him from office.

Commentators ruefully said during Collor’s impeachment crisis that the process showed Brazil’s institutions, from its media to its judiciary, were robust enough to stop impunity in a newly democratic Brazil, even when corruption went all the way to the presidential palace.

But as Operation Car Wash wreaks havoc on the entire spectrum of Brazilian politics, and commentators are saying the same thing today, the corruption within the Collor administration now seems quaint compared to the current scandal, which involves massive kickbacks from Petróleo Brasileiro SA, the state oil company, to hundreds of politicians within many Brazilian parties.

If anything, the lessons of the Collor impeachment viewed in the context of the current Petrobras scandal — informally nicknamed , ‘petrolão’ (the ‘big oily’) — show just how tenacious the roots of corruption are in Brazil, as much today as 20 or 30 years ago. Continue reading Collor faced Brazilian impeachment crucible 25 years before Dilma

Why Obama will almost certainly visit Hiroshima

US secretary of state John Kerry became the highest-ranking US official to pay his respects to the victims of Hiroshima this week. (Telegraph)
US secretary of state John Kerry became the highest-ranking US official to pay his respects to the victims of Hiroshima this week. (Telegraph)

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had not even appeared at Hiroshima’s peace memorial before word leaked that US president Barack Obama could visit Hiroshima at the end of May following the G7 meeting in Shima, Japan.JapanUSflag

The Obama administration, it’s safe to say, is in full legacy-building mode.

Last month, Myanmar’s government transitioned to a democratically elected government (and, yes, Kerry’s predecessor at State, Hillary Clinton, played a critical role in US support for Burmese democracy). There’s the landmark deal of the ‘P5 + 1’ countries with Iran to bring more transparency to its nuclear energy program and, possibly, its nuclear weapons ambitions. There’s the opening to Cuba after decades of isolation and resentment on both sides of the Straits of Florida, and Obama’s historic visit to Havana.

Kerry is now the highest-ranked US official to visit Hiroshima, but a presidential visit would be exponentially more important — and symbolic — for at least three reasons. Continue reading Why Obama will almost certainly visit Hiroshima

As Yatsenyuk throws in the towel, a grim future for Ukraine

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If it weren’t possible to be more pessimistic about the future of Ukraine and its economy, Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s sudden resignation on Sunday is reason to be even more glum. (Facebook)

No one believes more in the possibility of a post-crisis and prosperous Ukraine than Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the country’s prime minister and, too often, its chief punching bag.Ukraine Flag Icon

Never beloved, even among the pro-European Ukrainians who live in the country’s western regions and who resent Russian interference within their borders, Yatsenyuk’s goal since the fall of former president Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has been rightsizing an economy that’s underperformed even by standards of the region, with growth rates dwarfed by authoritarian Belarus, a Russian ally that’s retained Soviet institutions.

Facing few good options, Yatsenyuk simply gave up, hoping that, perhaps, the resignation of Ukraine’s last ‘true believer’ might shake loose enough support for the economic reforms that Ukraine desperately needs to continue its financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund. Ironically, though Yatsenyuk has personally advocated liberalizing reforms and anti-corruption measures for years, his government is now seen as incapable of delivering reforms and as incorrigibly corrupt.

Yatsenyuk must now know how former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh surely felt after a decade in office (if not quite in power).

It’s not even the first time the pressured premier resigned. His resignation in July 2014 paved the way for fresh parliamentary elections in October 2014 that restored a majority for a pro-western, pro-European government that was ultimately headed by Yatsenyuk. Continue reading As Yatsenyuk throws in the towel, a grim future for Ukraine

PPK has chance to unite anti-Fujimori voters in June runoff

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who narrowly fell short of the 2011 presidential runoff, could win Peru's presidency in July. (Facebook)
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who narrowly fell short of the 2011 presidential runoff, could win Peru’s presidency in July. (Facebook)

For Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the hardest part of Peru’s two-stage presidential election might be making it into June’s runoff. Peru Flag Icon

It was no surprise that Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, a controversial figure now serving a prison sentence for human rights abuses during his time in office from 1990 to 2000, would win the first round of the election on Sunday.

Quick counts and initial results show that Fujimori, as predicted, easily won the first round with around 39.5% of the vote.

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RELATED: Fujimori’s daughter leads as
Peru faces June presidential runoff

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Kuczynski, nearly universally known as ‘PPK’ in Peru, was winning around 23.7% of the vote, enough to edge out the third-placed candidate, left-wing Verónika Mendoza, who was winning around 17.1% of the vote.

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The results all but assure that Kuczynski will emerge as Fujimori’s challenger in the June 5 runoff — a choice that many Peruvians wanted in the 2011 election.

Five years ago, it was leftist Ollanta Humala who won the first round, while Fujimori placed second, eliminating Kuczynski from the runoff in what many voters considered a worst-case scenario. On one hand, they could support a former army officer with a spotty military record and with ties to the radical left; on the other hand, the daughter of an anti-democratic authoritarian.

PPK’s apparent victory over Mendoza this year means that the 2016 runoff will be far less ideological than the 2011 runoff, instead featuring two candidates who espouse the kind of orthodox economic views that have dominated Peruvian governance since since the 1990s (even, perhaps surprisingly, during the Humala administration).

One of the central policies of Keiko Fujimori’s campaign has been a promise to use some of Peru’s $8 billion ‘rainy-day’ fund to stimulate spending on infrastructure and other projects to develop rural Peru. That means she will, on economic matters at least, be running to the left of PPK, who has called for budget discipline and pro-business policies that include a modest sales tax cut. Both candidates have signaled that they want to curb Peru’s growing coca production, and both candidates want to work to give local communities a greater share of profits from gold and copper mining that have boosted the Peruvian economy.

Polls show that the runoff will be competitive, despite Fujimori’s wide first-round victory. An average of four polls conducted in April before Sunday’s first-round voting gave Fujimori a statistically insignificant lead of 41.6% to 39.8%. Continue reading PPK has chance to unite anti-Fujimori voters in June runoff

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN