Who is Isaac Herzog? A look at Israel’s opposition leader

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As Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to the United States to deliver a controversial address to the US Congress on Tuesday morning, he’ll leave behind him in Israel (if only for a couple of days) one of the toughest election campaigns of his career.ISrel Flag Icon

The Washington speech has sucked up much of the attention from Israel’s election campaign, both in the United States and in Israel itself. But that doesn’t guarantee that Netanyahu will win what would be a fourth term as prime minister and his third consecutive term since returning to power in 2009.

Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎), consistently since December, has been tied in most polls with the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני‎), a merger between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni, herself the former leader of the late Ariel Sharon’s essentially defunct Kadima (קדימה‎, ‘Forward’).

Though Israeli politics has become a dizzying array of fragmented, personalized parties, where political leaders denounce opponents one day only to join forces with the same opponents the next, Herzog and Livni both support a more progression economic agenda as well as the ‘two-state’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Zionist Union’s combined support means that Labor’s newest leader, Isaac Herzog, has emerged as the top alternative to Netanyahu to become Israel’s next prime minister. A soft-spoken attorney, Herzog isn’t known for his charisma or his bluster, and his chief quality might be that he’s regarded as the quintessential anti-Netanyahu, at least in style.

So how did Herzog (pictured above) get to this point? And what would a Herzog-led government look like?

Herzog wants to end Labor’s wilderness period

Though the Labor Party hasn’t won an Israeli election since 1999, it nevertheless has a storied legacy — it’s the party of Golda Meir, of Yitzhak Rabin, of Shimon Peres. Herzog himself is the son of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and he studied in New York in the 1970s when his father was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Herzog is Labor’s fourth permanent leader in a decade, and he hopes to lead Labor to its most successful election victory since the 1999 parliamentary elections under former prime minister Ehud Barak. Continue reading Who is Isaac Herzog? A look at Israel’s opposition leader

A look at Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov began his career

nizhniyPhoto credit to The Moscow Times.

In the aftermath of Boris Nemtsov’s shocking assassination, his friends in Russia and abroad are remembering him primarily for his role as a liberal opposition leader in the Putin era and for his short-lived tenure as first deputy prime minister under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Russia Flag Iconnizhny

Nemstov’s appointment as deputy prime minister lasted just four months, however, when Yeltsin dismissed him and other top government officials in the tempest of the 1998 ruble crisis. It was a sharp fall for someone that even Yeltsin hinted might one day be his successor.

nizhnyPhoto credit to BBC.

Instead, Nemtsov’s more enduring legacy in Russian government involves the six years he spent as the first post-Soviet governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast in the Russian heartland that lies hundreds of miles to the east of Moscow — it lies north of the Caucuses and the Turkish-Iranian border.

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RELATED: Nemtsov’s shocking assassination rocks Moscow

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The oblast is home to Nizhny Novgorod, once Russia’s third city after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Named Gorky (after the writer Maxim Gorky) from 1932 until the fall of the Soviet Union, it plays an important, if shrinking, role as a hub for the Russian industrial heartland. The city, which rests at the point where the Volga river meets the Oka river, dates to the 13th century. During the Soviet era, it was a center of military activity and, accordingly, foreigners were prohibited from visiting the city. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Nizhny opened both to tourists and capitalists alike.

Nemtsov, a bright and charismatic physicist who first engaged public policy in protest over the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, was appointed Nizhny Novgorod’s governor in November 1991. In December 1995, when Russia was still an emerging democracy (and not a failing democracy, or a puppet democracy or an outright autocracy), Nemtsov was reelected at a time when privatization and liberalism had become so unpopular that Yeltsin himself was struggling politically to defeat communist and ultra-nationalists.

As governor, Nemtsov enthusiastically embraced the wave of liberal reforms that Yeltsin and Anatoly Chubais, first deputy prime minister before Nemtsov, were introducing across the country. Unfortunately, however, those policies also caused massive economic dislocation and cultural disorientation. Nevertheless, Nemtsov won praise from free-market advocates like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and from Western bankers keen on the investment opportunities in a newly opened Russia. He was close not only to the young group of market-oriented reformers in government, but also to opposition liberals, most notably the liberal, pro-democratic ‘Yabloko’ bloc, then led by Grigory Yavlinsky, who advised Nemtsov on economic reforms in Nizhny Novgorod and who remains the intellectual godfather of the Russian opposition movement (here’s a recent interview with Novaya Gazeta).

In his book Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, the inimitable David Remnick writes that Nizhny Novgorod was a bright star in the Russia of the 1990s:

Beyond Moscow, the most encouraging region is centered around Nizhny Novgorod, where young and progressive politicians like Boris Nemtsov have made good on their promises to create ‘capitalism in one country.’ One of the biggest problems with the Soviet economy was that it was so heavily militarized; Nizhny Novgorod, the third-largest city in the country, has been one of the most militarized of all. And yet not only has the city managed, through privatization, demonopolization, and bond issues, to create thriving service and production economies, it has also managed to convert 90 percent of its collective farms to private hands.

But today, Nizhny is a case study in just about everything that’s wrong with the country — a confluence of the economic, environmental and demographic tragedies that are afflicting Russia in the 21st century. The oblast’s population has fallen from 3.71 million in 1989 to just 3.31 million in 2010, and the city is shrinking by around 15,000 annually as the death rate far exceeds the birth rate. Nizhny is now the fifth-most populous city, eclipsed by cities like Novosibirsk in Asian Russia.

As the prolific writer Anna Nemtsova (no relation to Nemtsov) has chronicled, her home city of Nizhny is not only one of the fastest shrinking cities in Russia, it’s one of the fastest shrinking cities in the world:

In 2014, [Nizhny] achieved an ­unenviable distinction: in the first six months of the year, 26,350 people died and only 18,700 babies were born – the population of Nizhny shrunk by 7,600 people in six months, its highest ever death rate. No bombs fell on the city during the period, no epidemics hit, no natural disasters struck its population. For the past two years Nizhny had been the fifth fastest shrinking city in the world.

In Siberia, of all places, cities like Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk are growing, even while Nizhny is failing. That’s not all Nemtsov’s fault who, after all, hadn’t been responsible for its government in nearly two decades. Moreover, as grim as Nizhny now appears today, it might have been even worse without the effects of Nemtsov’s shock therapy in the 1990s.

Nemtsova also writes about the city’s current mayor, whose wife spends much of her time in southern France. Valery Shantsev, the oblast governor since 2005 (one year after the Kremlin ruled that governors will be appointed directly and not elected) previously served for a decade as a former deputy mayor of Moscow under the fabulously corrupt Yuri Luzkhov.

Even as the region’s current leaders seem more like neo-feudalist, criminal vassals of Putin’s Kremlin, it’s clear that Nemtsov, in the 1990s, fell short of the economic miracle he was trying to achieve, and it’s important not to omit that failure from his legacy. It will be tempting now to remember Nemtsov for all his qualities as an opposition leader since the rise of Vladimir Putin, to paint him in broad strokes as a pro-democracy, pro-reform dissident and a man of principle. Nemtsov, of course, was all of those things.

But it’s not quite that simple, because he shares responsibility for  the wave of creative destruction unleashed throughout the Russian economy in the 1990s. Even if the Yeltsin-Chubais-Nemtsov reforms were a necessary step in Russia’s transition from a top-down communist state, they engendered economic suffering unknown to Russia for decades, scars that still afflict Russian collective memory today. The failure, in aggregate, of the reformers to establish broad-based economic prosperity, and the even more damning perception that they created a new class of oligarchic robber-barons set the conditions for Russia’s slow march back to autocracy.

Nationalism, the state security apparatus, a culture of corruption. All of these things are to blame for the rise of Putin-era illiberalism. But to understand the genesis of the Putin regime today requires a blunt and unflinching assessment of the failures of the regime that preceded it. After all, it was Yeltsin himself who plucked Putin out of relative obscurity in naming him as his fifth and final prime minister in August 1999.

Putin came to power, not in a vacuum, but into a specific context of economic, political and cultural conditions that Boris Nemtsov helped shape, both for better and for worse.

Estonian election results: Reform Party wins third term

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Estonia’s parliamentary election proves what is becoming a nearly iron-clad thesis about Baltic politics: so long as social democratic parties in the Baltic States nurture ties with Moscow and pitch themselves to the narrow pool of ethnic Russian voters, centrist and center-right governments will continue to win elections and govern.estonia

So it was in Estonia on March 1, as it became clear that the center-right Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party) would win its third consecutive national election, the first under its 35-year-old prime minister Taavi Rõivas (pictured above in Ukraine last year), who is expected to continue leading Estonia’s government.

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RELATED: Russian threat dominates Estonian election campaign

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Despite polls that showed that the center-left Eesti Keskerakond (Estonian Centre Party), led by former prime minister and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar might emerge as the leading party, Reform bested the Centre Party by nearly 3%.

Nevertheless, both the Reform Party and its junior partner in government, the Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond (Social Democratic Party), lost some ground — the two parties will, in aggregate, lose seven seats and six short of an absolute majority in the Riigikogu, Estonia’s 101-member unicameral parliament.

Estonia 2015 Riigikogu 2015

Luckily for Rõivas and the Reform Party, there are two new parties in the Estonian parliament, and one of them is a strong fit for a three-party coalition. The liberal Eesti Vabaerakond (Free Party), founded last September by Andres Herkel, an Estonian intellectual, could easily find common ground with Reform. Continue reading Estonian election results: Reform Party wins third term

Russian threat dominates Estonian election campaign

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With the world’s attention on a political assassination in Moscow, voters in the former Soviet republic of Estonia go to the polls tomorrow, March 1, with the threat of Russian aggression looming on its eastern border. estonia

Three days ago, US troops, as part of NATO exercises, paraded in Narva, one of Estonia’s largest cities, resting on the Russian border, and Russian troops reciprocated with a similar show. Though it felt like a Cold War throwback, the demonstration highlights just how seriously Estonia, a member of NATO since 2004, and other NATO allies are taking the possibility of a Russian incursion in the Baltics.

Under that tense penumbra, voters will elect all 101 members of Estonia’s parliament, the Riigikogu, where the center-right  Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party) currently controls the largest bloc of seats and governs in coalition with the centrist Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond (Social Democratic Party).

Riigikogu

Some polls show, however, that the center-left Eesti Keskerakond (Estonian Centre Party) narrowly leads the Reform Party, with the Social Democrats and the conservative opposition party, Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit (IRL, Pro Patria and Res Publica Union), trailing close by in third and fourth place.

It’s the first time that Estonia’s youthful new prime minister Taavi Rõivas (pictured above) will lead the Reform Party into an election. When longtime prime minister Andrus Ansip stepped down in March 2014 after nine years in office, the idea was that he would switch jobs with former Reform Party leader, prime minister and European commissioner Siim Kallas. That worked out for Ansip, who’s now Estonia’s representative to the European Commission with a ‘super-portfolio’ for the digital single market.

Kallas, however, was tripped up by a scandal dating to his days as Estonia’s central bank president in the 1990s, and he stepped out of consideration for the premiership. Other heavy hitters like former foreign minister Urmas Paet also demurred.  That meant that the challenge fell to the 35-year-old Rõivas, whose government experience included just two years as social affairs minister. Married to pop singer Luisa Värk, Rõivas has been a member of the Estonian parliament since 2007 and is generally seen as close to Ansip.

The Centre Party’s leader, Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar, is nearly three decades older, and he served briefly from 1991 to 1992 as Estonia’s first independent prime minister. During the campaign, he’s made much of Rõivas’s relative inexperience. Continue reading Russian threat dominates Estonian election campaign

Nemtsov assassination rocks Moscow

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Throughout the Putin era, it hasn’t been uncommon to see political opponents harassed or even killed.Russia Flag Icon

Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in 2006 in the elevator of her building in central Moscow after writing several highly praised books detailing the dark side of life in Russia under president Vladimir Putin.

Officials in the United Kingdom protested furiously when, as if out of a Cold War thriller novel, former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litivinenko was apparently poisoned with the radioactive polonium-210 a month later.

Alexei Navalny, who rose to prominence more recently as a critic of Putin and the corruption of Russian government, has been harassed and imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

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RELATED: The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

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Business leaders like Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were exiled and imprisoned after Putin’s government decided that they amassed too much wealth in the fire sale of the 1990s when Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, sold many of the former Soviet Union’s public assets.

But the assassination of opposition figure and former Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov is the most brazen attack yet. I’m sure no one will ever be able to tie Nemtsov’s murder to the Kremlin, which is already officially condemning the murder. The attack — an audacious murder on the streets of Moscow when Nemtsov was otherwise on a Friday night stroll — sends a chilling message to everyone in Russia who opposes Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule (not to say that Putin’s rule was even incredibly liberal or democratic).

Nemtsov’s assassination seems certain to subdue a planned opposition march scheduled for Sunday.

Don’t think for a moment that this isn’t exactly the gruesome image the Kremlin wants its critics to see — a dissident gunned down in the back just footsteps away from the Kremlin walls: Continue reading Nemtsov assassination rocks Moscow

Video of the day: Brazil needs a ‘Straight Pride’?

It was something of an odd remark by the new president of Brazil’s Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies), Eduardo Cunha, whose elevation to the top post in the lower house of the Brazilian congress came just three weeks ago.brazil

Typically described as either a tough insider in the vein of Frank Underwood, the protagonist of House of Cards, or an independent-minded speaker sure to challenge beleaguered Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Cunha’s off-hand comments that December 3 should be celebrated as ‘straight pride’ day have backfired, causing one response (embedded above) to go viral, first in Brazil and now globally.

Though same-sex marriage has been legal since 2013, when the country’s top court issued a ruling to that effect, Brazil remains a country where homophobia remains a problem, especially in its more rural and conservative enclaves. Former presidential candidate Marina Silva, who surged in the polls late last summer, started to tumble after backtracking on her support for gay marriage. In 2010, Rousseff stumbled when her opponent, José Serra, suggested she was too pro-abortion. With a growing number of evangelicals (including both Cunha and Silva) and a strong base of Catholics, Brazil is still a deeply religion country. Rousseff, for the record, still opposes full marriage equality as well, though she supports civil unions, and she pledged her support for an anti-homophobia bill — an initiative that seems unlikely now that Cunha controls Brazil’s lower house.

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Cunha (pictured above) is a member of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), a big-party tent that played a role in promoting democracy during military rule in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Today, though, it’s something of an ally of convenience — the PMDB boosts Rousseff’s government in power just as it did for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva before her and for the more conservative Fernando Henrique Cardoso. It’s generally viewed on the more corrupt side of the political spectrum, and it includes all sorts of ideologies (like most of Brazil’s political parties, large and small).

So officials like Cunha, ostensibly allies, are far more conservative than Rousseff or the political mainstream on social issues, even though he’s likely to block her administration’s moves to cut spending to reduce the country’s budget deficit in her second term. Realistically, though the PMDB is Rousseff’s ally, Cunha personally opposes much of Rousseff’s agenda, and his elevation as Chamber president essentially means that Rousseff will face an unfriendly legislative branch in her second term — at least as long as her political popularity continues to sink.

That Cunha was elected in the first place came as a shock within Rousseff’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party). Though Rousseff recently won reelection last October, a corruption scandal at the state oil company, Petrobras, and a deepening recession (exacerbating by falling global oil prices) have hurt Rousseff politically, even while Lula da Silva contemplates a comeback to the Brazilian presidency in 2018.

Cunha’s remarks should come as no surprise, though. It’s not even the first time he has pontificated aloud over a ‘Straight Pride’ day. He’s also staunchly anti-abortion, and he said shortly after his election as Chamber president that a law to liberalize Brazil’s tight abortion restrictions would pass only ‘over his dead body.’

What is Nigerian candidate Buhari really doing in London?

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Since last weekend, leading Nigerian presidential challenger Muhammadu Buhari has been in London, even though he’s waging a spirited fight in what could easily be the most contested election since the return of civilian rule in 1999.nigeria_flag_icon

So what was he doing spending a week in the United Kingdom, over 4,200 miles away?

Buhari, the candidate of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), who’s waging his fourth presidential campaign since 2003, was also Nigeria’s military head of state between December 1983 and August 1985 has been in the United Kingdom, waging a charm campaign that seems largely geared at allaying fears of Western government, specifically those of the United Kingdom and the United States, that a Buhari victory in Nigeria’s delayed March 28 election would represent a backtrack for democracy in Africa’s most-populous country and its largest economy.

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RELATED: Six weeks can’t defeat Boko Haram —
or fix Nigerian democracy

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He appeared at the leading think tank, Chatham House, in London on Thursday.

Though it was clear that his audience was Western policymakers and not Nigerian voters, Buhari’s remarks, at least at face value, were humble, measured and thoughtful, and he committed himself to democracy, not only in Nigeria but throughout Africa, expressing hope that a flourishing, democratic Nigeria could trigger a wave of consolidated democratization throughout Africa. Buhari’s victory could end, after 16 years, the dominance of the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Nigeria.

He spoke, sometimes eloquently, about how democratic elections alone are not enough to entrench democratic traditions in Africa.

As you all know, Nigeria’s fourth republic is in its 16th year, and this election will be the fifth in a row. This is a major sign of progress for us, given that our first republic lasted three years and five months. The second republic ended after four years and two months.

And the third republic was a stillbirth.

That last bit elicited laughter from the audience, because it was Buhari who led the military coup that brought the third Nigerian republic to its end three decades ago.

But Buhari ended his remarks by addressing his own baggage, the most controversial aspect of his candidacy. As Nigeria’s military head of state in the 1980s, Buhari led the coup that deposed Nigeria’s first elected president and subsequently governed in ways that violated human rights principles:

Let me close this discussion on a personal note. I have heard and read references to me as a former dictator in many respected British newspapers, including the well-regarded Economist. Let me say, without sounding defensive, that dictatorship was military rule. Though some are less dictatorial than others, I take responsibility for whatever happened on my government watch. I cannot change to the past, but I can change the present and the future. So before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat.

Frankly, that’s a lot more apologetic than South Korean president Park Guen-hye, who only reluctantly expressed regret for the excesses of her father, South Korea’s military dictator for nearly two decades. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi hasn’t apologized at all for more than 1,000 Muslim killed in riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002, when Modi’s state government was accused of encouraging Hindus to take vigilante action.

Though Nigeria’s sporadic military rule firmly ended in 1999, its first ‘civilian’ president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was a Nigerian army general and his administration, which ended in 2007, found many top roles for Obasanjo’s former military pals. No one today could call Buhari, three decades after his own role in toppling an elected Nigerian president, a figure who wants to restore military rule. Ironically, perhaps, Nigeria’s military brass today generally favors the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, and Buhari, a northern Muslim with a reputation as something of an ascetic who tried to reduce corruption in the 1980s, could upset the cozy links between Nigerian business and government.

But Western governments, which have worked closely with Jonathan since he assumed the presidency in 2010, have been wary of Buhari, questioning what his checkered past would mean in the event that he defeats Jonathan — a result that seems quite possible, according to ground reports and to polls.

GEN BUHARI MEET TONY BLAIR IN LONDON

There are two explanations for why Buhari, who also met quietly with former British prime minister Tony Blair (pictured above) over the weekend, would spend such a long time abroad in the heart of Nigeria’s toughest election in 16 years. Continue reading What is Nigerian candidate Buhari really doing in London?

Nitish Kumar returns to front-line Indian politics

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That didn’t take long.India Flag Icon

Less than a year after his resignation in the wake of a strategic miscalculation, a break with India’s conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) over its decision to anoint Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014, Nitish Kumar is back as the chief minister of Bihar state.

It’s not every day that Patna, Bihar’s capital city, becomes the epicenter of Indian domestic politics. But the return of Kumar (pictured above) heralds the comeback of one of India’s most wily politicians, a potential national rival to Modi, and one of the most capable policymakers in India today. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kumar’s ‘Bihari model’ is in some ways superior to Modi’s ‘Gujarati model’ when you look at the development gains that Bihar state made under Kumar’s nearly decade-long tenure as chief minister from 2005 to 2014.

Kumar’s return comes no less than nine months before regional elections are due in Bihar, one of India’s most important states that will now be shaped widely as a standoff between Kumar and Modi.

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With nearly 104 million people, it’s India’s third most populous state. Bordering Bangladesh on its far eastern corner, Bihar has a predominantly Hindi-speaking, Hindu-practicing population. But 16.5% of the population consists of practicing Muslims, making it an especially diverse state in terms of religion.

Don’t underestimate how important the state is — and how important its further development could become. Bihar is home to more people than the entire country of The Philippines or Vietnam or Egypt, and it’s only at the beginning of what could be a longer trajectory of rising economic growth.

For now, Kumar is taking a gentle stand with respect to Modi, pledging to work with India’s new prime minister for Bihar’s benefit. But Kumar will not be renewing a one-time alliance between the BJP and Kumar’s own party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U), जनता दल (यूनाइटेड)).

Once a leading player in the BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Kumar pulled the JD(U) out of its alliance with the BJP when it became clear that Modi would lead the alliance through the 2014 elections. That was a difficult proposition for Kumar, whose party attracts a significant share of votes among Bihar’s Muslim population. Modi’s reputation among Muslim Indians remains fraught, in no small part over Hindu reprisals for the burning of a train of Hindu pilgrims. Those riots, which took place in 2002 in the first months of Modi’s tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, led to the deaths of nearly 1,000 Muslims. Critics argued that Kumar, instead, wanted to be the BJP-led alliance’s candidate in his own right, and observers point to long-standing antipathy between Modi and Kumar, as veteran writer Sankarshan Thakur writes in The Telegraph:

The two men have duelled infamously on the national stage and the prickly needle between them became the sole cause of the collapse of the JDU-BJP alliance in Bihar and the crises that have dogged the state to this day. The Modi juggernaut had decimated Nitish in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and caused him to resign. Nitish has displayed a near-pathological aversion to Modi, refusing even to bring the Prime Minister’s name to his lip. His return as chief minister raises the charming prospect of the two men having to come face to face and engage as leader of nation and state.

Bihar’s regional elections, due before November, will be the most important political test for Modi’s strength since his election last year. The BJP’s recent loss in regional elections in the National Capital Territory of Delhi to the anti-corruption Arvind Kejriwal must certainly give Kumar hope that he, too, can unlock the means to defeating Modi. For their part, the BJP, under the leadership of former Gujarati minister Amit Shah, will pull no punches in its attempt to wrest Bihar away from Kumar, giving it a key foothold in northeastern India. If Modi and the BJP succeed in Bihar, they will have a credible shot at winning 2016’s elections in West Bengal — the fourth-most populous state in India and, like Bihar, both much more Muslim and much poorer than the rest of India. Continue reading Nitish Kumar returns to front-line Indian politics

Death penalty diplomacy presents challenge to Jokowi

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Guest post by Andrew J. Novak

Indonesian president Joko Widodo (known popularly as ‘Jokowi’) was perceived as a promising agent for change when he was elected to office last July, but he has triggered recent diplomatic criticism for his unrepentant views on the death penalty, especially for drug trafficking, in ways that are drawing attention to the use of the death penalty in southeast Asia and beyond. Indonesia Flag

Jokowi claims that drug use takes the lives of 50 Indonesians per day and he promises no mercy in combating traffickers. Though drug trafficking is an often intricately premeditated crime, the death penalty for drug offenses appears to have little deterrence value, as it primarily ensnares drug mules –often poor migrant workers — rather than drug lords. In addition, the death penalty for drug trafficking falls heavily on foreign nationals, especially in southeast Asia where countries are increasingly interlinked, and their own nationals are on their neighbors’ death rows. Accordingly, diplomatic pressure to prevent the executions of a country’s citizens by foreign governments places increasing strain on the death penalty throughout the region. The Malaysian government’s opposition to the planned execution of its national Yong Vui Kong in Singapore, for instance, ultimately helped spur a major reform of Singapore’s death penalty laws in 2012 and led to Yong’s removal from death row. As a result of that opposition movement, Malaysia sent promising signs that it was internally reviewing its own mandatory death penalty laws, including for drug trafficking.

Jokowi’s government is now trapped in this diplomatic web. In January 2015, after a four-year moratorium, Indonesia carried out six executions, five of them of foreign nationals. In response to the execution of a Dutch national, the Netherlands, Indonesia’s former colonial power, withdrew its ambassador. Brazil followed suit after Jokowi rejected Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s personal appeal for clemency on behalf of a Brazilian national. The row with Brazil, in particular, has deepened: this past week, Rousseff indefinitely postponed accepting the credentials of the Indonesian ambassador-designate to Brazil, a snub that elicited strong protest from Jakarta. On February 22, Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Brazil. Rousseff is also pleading for another Brazilian national — one with a documented mental illness — who is facing imminent execution in Indonesia. In Vietnam, where recent wrongful convictions and grants of clemency have spurred reflection on its own death penalty regime, the foreign ministry publicly (and unsurprisingly) opposed Indonesia’s execution of a Vietnamese national. News reports also indicate that the Nigerian foreign minister summoned the Indonesian ambassador to protest the execution of a Nigerian national, and pressure is mounting to withdraw the Nigerian ambassador from Jakarta. Continue reading Death penalty diplomacy presents challenge to Jokowi

As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal

schaublePhoto credit to Bloomberg News.

If you want to know which side ‘thinks it won’ in today’s temporary deal between Greece and the Eurogroup, you need look no further than the extraordinary statement from German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who essentially spiked the ball in Greece’s face after winning a key concession from its new anti-austerity government that it would honor existing Greek commitments to its creditors in exchange for a four-month extension of its bailout program:Greece Flag Icon

“Being in government is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream,” the conservative veteran said, stressing Athens would get no aid payments until its bailout program was properly completed. “The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters.”

Even if you think the Greek government had little leverage to force the Eurogroup to accept its demands and even if you think today’s temporary deal is at least a step on the path to a stronger Greece within the eurozone, I can’t think of a statement from any European leader more at odds with reality and basic political acumen since the out-of-touch musings of former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 2004 and 2005, when he was in charge of the process to enact a constitution for the European Union, a process that died when France itself rejected the constitution in a referendum.

It’s as if Schäuble (pictured above with Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis) actively wants to feed the notion that Germany dominates European policymaking. His comments might play well in Munich or Stuttgart, but they’ll be poisonous in Madrid and Athens, and cause some amount of indignation in capitals like Paris and Dublin. 

Imagine a different response, whereby German chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a statement that, even while holding steady against concessions to the Greek government, acknowledged Greece’s economic suffering and acknowledged that the Berlin-led bailouts have caused more harm than anticipated — an admission, by the way, that the International Monetary Fund was already making years ago.

A German Europe, and a divided Europe

Greece is in a depression that’s now lasted six years and runs deeper than the Great Depression of the 1930s in either Europe or the United States. Unemployment is rife in Spain, so much so that an untested anti-austerity group, Podemos, now leads polls for the general election later this year. Italy, for now, has placed its trust in its young Tuscan prime minister Matteo Renzi, who seems to have far more commitment to reform than ability to carry it out. Romania and Bulgaria, despite responsible budget policies, are being hollowed out by depopulation and migration to wealthier EU countries.

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RELATED: What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

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Europe’s best and brightest are leaving economically depressed regions and countries, and they’re heading to London. To Amsterdam. To Frankfurt. That’s left national governments responsible for fiscal commitments to social welfare, education and health care. While its most ambitious citizens look abroad for careers, these national governments find their revenues shrinking and their obligations increasing. Continue reading As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal

Six weeks can’t defeat Boko Haram — or fix Nigerian democracy

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Last weekend, Nigeria — the most populous country on the African continent — should have held its presidential election.nigeria_flag_icon

It didn’t, because the government, led by president Goodluck Jonathan, ordered the voting postponed for six weeks, from February 14 to March 28, to give the Nigerian military a little more time to do in six weeks what it hasn’t been able to do in six years — defeat the Boko Haram militants that control part of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria and threaten much more of northern Nigeria and northern Chad. That, in turn, has complicated efforts to provide voter cards to the largest electorate on the African continent.

When the government announced the election’s postponement, it looked more like a cynical attempt to buy six more weeks to shore up his campaign for reelection. Though Jonathan (pictured above) is the candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), his inability to halt the rise of Boko Haram, and his unwillingness or inability to rein in Nigeria’s endemic corruption have left him vulnerable. Moreover, as a southerner, Jonathan never won over the trust of northern Nigerians. It didn’t help that Jonathan came to power in 2010 with the death of his predecessor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, and sought reelection in his own right in 2011. That upset the balance between northern and southern presidents, contributing greatly to the mistrust of Muslim northerners.

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RELATED: Nigeria emerges as Africa’s largest economy

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Jonathan’s strategy may turn out to backfire, especially if (when?) he doesn’t eradicate the Boko Haram threat before the end of March, when voters may well replace him with his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari. Though Buhari is a northerner and is expected to sweep the Muslim north no matter what happens in the next six weeks, he hardly represents a breath of fresh air to Nigerian voters. He’s running for the fourth consecutive time, and he holds the distinction of having lost the Nigerian presidency not only to Jonathan in 2011, but to Yar’Adua in 2007 and to Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003.

Buhari, like Obasanjo, played a role in the era of Nigeria’s military dictatorships. He served as Nigeria’s leader from December 1983 to August 1985, taking power in a military coup that deposed one of Nigeria’s few elected presidents of the era, Shehu Shagari. Buhari has a reputation for probity and for intolerance of corruption, one of the factors in his own overthrow in 1985 at the hands of Ibrahim Babangida, another military leader — one that Nigerian elites found much more permissive to the widespread graft in government to which they had become accustomed in the 1970s and early 1980s. Though Buhari is, in essence, a three-time loser in the most recent era of Nigerian ‘democracy,’ voters increasingly believe that his military background and anti-corruption credentials could improve a country where fortunes could hardly be worse.

In addition to the Boko Haram threat, simmering ethnic tensions in the north, where 12 states have adopted a form of Islamic sharia law since the early 2000s, and in the southeast, which remains impoverished despite holding much of Nigeria’s oil wealth, threaten national unity. Jonathan and his finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, have been forced to cut the country’s budget as global oil prices plummeted in the past six months — and as the value of the naira has lost nearly 20% of its value in the same period.

To make matters worse for Jonathan, Obasanjo resigned yesterday officially from the PDP, dramatically tearing up his membership card and excoriating Jonathan’s leadership. It should come as no surprise that Obasanjo is backing away from Jonathan. Obasanjo stepped down in 2007 only after hand-picking Yar’Adua for president and Jonathan for vice president because he thought they would be pliable allies, allowing him to continue to direct Nigerian policy from outside the presidency. Yar’Adua quickly distanced himself from Obasanjo, as did Jonathan, who resisted calls last year from Obasanjo not to run for reelection.

Moreover, Obasanjo has not-so-quietly signaled his enthusiasm for the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) and for a Buhari presidency. Like Buhari, Obasanjo comes from the military and, like Buhari, he served as a military leader of Nigeria, from 1976 to 1979.

Whereas Jonathan might have hoped an extended campaign would give him time to consolidate his support, it might have the opposite effect, in essence giving Buhari a six-week period of triumphant campaigning. Earlier this week, Buhari traveled to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, for a rally, despite significant security concerns. It follows a surprise visit earlier this week by Jonathan to the state.

The rise of the APC, a coalition of opposition parties and disaffected PDP leaders, is in one sense good for Nigerian democracy, considering that the PDP has ruled Nigeria since the return of civilian rule in 1999. The risk is that an increasingly desperate Jonathan will try to win the election through fraud, splitting Nigeria on tense north-south lines at a time of economic and security fragility. Though Nigeria has held four consecutive, regular presidential elections, its democracy remains flawed and, according to many observers, deteriorating. Moreover, the Nigerian military, now used to 16 years of PDP rule, may be actively working to prevent a Buhari victory.

Nigeria has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economy, officially surpassing South Africa last year after recalibrating the way that its government measures GDP growth. It also has the continent’s largest population (173.6 million). So if democratic rule falters, or if Boko Haram grows to the point to destabilizing Nigeria’s already underdeveloped north, it will establish a disproportionate precedent for African governance across the continent. Colonial British administrators artificially joined the chiefly Muslim Northern Protectorate and the chiefly Christian Southern Protectorate in the 1950s prior to the country’s independence in 1960. Today’s disparity in resource allocation in favor of Nigeria’s southeast date back to the colonial era.

Shortly after independence, the country split on tripartite ethnic lines — the northern Hausa-Fulani, southwestern Yoruba and southeastern Igbo — culminating in the Biafra War of 1967-70. Though Nigeria ultimately defeated the southeastern secessionists and took a forgiving stance to post-war reconciliation, the first decade of Nigerian independence strengthened the military, which would come to dominate government for the next three decades. The war also resulted in the geopolitical division of Nigeria into what is today 36 states and its federal capital region of Abuja. While that’s empowered minority ethnic groups, at the expense of each of the three dominant minority groups (Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo), it has also strengthened the federal government, giving it more respective power over allocating resources from Nigeria’s oil resources — and more opportunity for corruption.

AfD, FDP thrive in Hamburg state elections

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It’s a slow election year in Germany, so there will be few tests at the state level for chancellor Angela Merkel, her center-left ‘grand coalition’ partners or any of the various challengers to Merkel’s hold on German centrism.hamburgGermany Flag Icon

That makes the results from Sunday’s election in Hamburg, a city-state in the German north, perhaps more important than they otherwise would be, and it’s not great news for Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), which won just one-third as much support as its center-left rival (and partner in federal government), the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).

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RELATED: Thuringia and Brandenburg election results —
Left, AfD on the rise

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The CDU and the SPD continue to be the largest of Germany’s political parties and, notwithstanding the fact that they have joined together in the second ‘grand coalition’ in 10 years, the two parties fight fiercely at the state level and will contest Germany’s next national elections later this decade. Nevertheless, it wasn’t unexpected that the SPD, under the leadership of Hamburg first mayor Olaf Scholz (pictured above), would easily win the election. Though the SPD lost four seats, enough to deprive it of its absolute majority, Scholz will almost certainly form the next government, likely with Die Grünen (the Greens).

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The troubling aspect for the CDU isn’t that it did so poorly in Hamburg, which has traditionally leaned toward the SPD, but that it seems to be losing voters to more right-wing alternatives, including the mildly eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), which actively advocates that Greece and other countries leave the eurozone. It’s the four state where the AfD has now surpassed the minimal threshold to win seats in the state parliament/assembly.  Continue reading AfD, FDP thrive in Hamburg state elections

What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

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At times this week, it has felt nearly like the European Union was brokering a bailout of Ukrainian debt, while working to negotiate a ceasefire with Greece.European_UnionGreece Flag Icon

But as Greece’s new left-wing government and the Eurogroup, the collection of eurozone finance ministers, work over the weekend for a new Greek debt deal to float Greece’s treasury for the next two years (or thereabouts), there are glimmers of hope on both sides that a deal might possibly emerge. Negotiations continue as the February 28 deadline approaches, when Greece’s current bailout program is scheduled to end.

So what might that deal ultimately be? Above all, any deal that attempts to put Greece on a long-term path to prosperity needs to start from the notion that its debt burden of nearly 175% of GDP growth is simply unsustainable. You might not hear that in public from figures like German chancellor Angela Merkel, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker or Eurogroup president and Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, but it’s likely another story in private.

No matter how many cuts successive governments make to future budgets, the cost of servicing that debt will cripple its ability to provide the same level of public services to Greek citizens — especially at a time when unemployment remains so high. (Not everyone has the view, however, that the Greek debt burden is so incredibly unsustainable).

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RELATED: A Russian bailout may have always been Plan B for Tsipras

RELATED: Seven lessons from the Greek election results

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Here’s an outline of what to expect — perhaps as soon as early Monday morning: Continue reading What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

Anwar sodomy verdict casts doubt on Malaysian rule of law

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Nearly two years ago, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) narrowly won reelection under prime minister Najib Razak.malaysia flag

At the time, there was a strong argument that, notwithstanding several problems with Malaysia’s legal and electoral system, Najib probably did command something close to a mandate over the opposition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR, People’s Alliance) coalition.

Despite a strong fight by Pakatan Rakyat and its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, there was a clear case that Najib, just as his predecessors Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Mahathir Mohamad, could count on just enough ethnic Malay votes to secure victory, even while ethnic Chinese, ethnic Indians and a growing number of young, urban voters of all ethnicities backed an increasingly competitive People’s Alliance. Though there was always more than a shadow of a doubt about the legitimacy of the Barisan Nasional‘s victory, it was credible enough to believe that Pakatan Rakyat simply fell short.

But since that election, Anwar’s persecution, prosecution and, now, conviction on sodomy charges throws much of that in doubt, alongside any notion that Malaysia operates under any recognizable rule of law. An appeals court affirmed Anwar’s sodomy conviction and five-year prison sentence earlier this week.  Continue reading Anwar sodomy verdict casts doubt on Malaysian rule of law

History shows Abbott faces long odds in holding Oz premiership

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More than an unpopular mining tax or one of the world’s most progressive carbon trading schemes, Australian voters booted the last Labor government as a punishment for the personality-driven drama between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard who, in six years of government, traded the premiership twice and fought through four different leadership battles.australia new

Rudd eventually returned to leadership in the summer of 2013 when its fickle members worried that sticking with Gillard would result in an electoral catastrophe. Labor lost the election anyways, and Tony Abbott, the conservative leader of the opposition Liberal/National Coalition, became prime minister.

Just 17 months after taking office, however, Abbott now faces the same dynamic, and Australia’s prime minister survived a ‘leadership spill’ earlier this week by a narrow margin of 66 to 39. If successful, the challenge would have opened the way for a direct leadership contest, presumably against either two more popular figures — communications leader (and former Liberal leader) Malcolm Turnbull or Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop, a rising star.

The leadership wobbles point to a growing trend of snap leadership contests that are reshaping Australian politics by narrowing the time horizons for leaders of both major parties. Though that makes party leaders conceivably much more responsive to their colleagues and it also gives individual government ministers more power and leverage, it correspondingly creates uncertainty and drives weaker leadership. Think, for example, of the rotating-door premierships so common in Japan or Italy for much of the post-war era.

Why Abbott was so vulnerable

Abbott largely did what he said he would do when he was elected in September 2013. He’s deployed enough military personnel and detained enough asylum seekers at detention centers in Papua New Guinea to sufficiently disincentivize immigrants from attempting the dangerous trek to Australia by boat. He successfully won enough support among the Australian Senate’s independents to kill both Rudd-Gillard era accomplishments — first, their landmark carbon trading scheme and, a month later, an unpopular tax on mining profits (that, in any event, raised far less revenue than initially anticipated). For good measure, Abbott finalized two key free trade deals, with Japan and with South Korea, at a time when the Australian economy is reeling from both China’s economic slump and a decline in global commodities prices. In the crisis over downed Malaysian Airline flight 370, he showed genuine regional leadership, especially in contrast to the Malaysian government. In Abbott, Australians got exactly the prime minister that was advertised — a passionate right-wing conservative not afraid of controversy.

But that meant that Abbott too often embraced awkward positions. Continue reading History shows Abbott faces long odds in holding Oz premiership

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN