Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal

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In one of the most significant foreign policy steps of his administration, US president Barack Obama announced widespread changes in the US-Cuba relationship on Wednesday, including the reestablishment of the first US embassy in Cuba in over a half-century and relaxed rules for US commerce, travel and engagement with the island nation of 11.25 million.cubaUSflag

It’s a historic play, and it yanks one of the biggest straw-men arguments out from under Cuba’s aging Castro regime. But the announcement brings with it more questions than answers for both the United States and Cuba, as the two countries begin negotiating a new chapter in a troubled relationship, even long before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs / Playa Girón invasion and the 1962 missile crisis. Cuban disenchantment with the United States stretches back to at least the 1903 Platt Amendment that established unequal relations through much of the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the brutal regime of US ally Fulgencio Batista, overthrown in Castro’s 1959 revolution. Obama shrewedly signalled in his statement Wednesday that he understands the broader arc of Cuban-American relations by quoting José Martí, a founding father of Cuban independence who was killed in 1895 by Spanish forces.

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RELATED: Did Hillary Clinton just lose Florida
in the November 2016 presidential election?

RELATED: A public interest theory of the
continued US embargo on Cuba

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As the two countries, which represent two very different brands of political thought within the Western hemisphere, begin to set aside their differences, here are six questions that are as unclear today as they were last week. Continue reading

Ozawa, Japan’s one-time ‘shadow shogun,’ survives wipeout

ozawaPhoto credit to Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty.

In Japanese politics, few figures loom larger than Ichirō Ozawa (小沢 一郎), who has been a MP in Japan’s parliament since 1969.Japan

On Sunday, he faced the largest challenge of his political career, when as the leader of the People’s Life Party (生活の党, Seikatsu no Tō), he struggled to hold onto his own constituency in northern Iwate prefecture, campaigning in his home city of Ōshū for the first time in three decades.

As it turns out, Ozawa (pictured above) held off his opponent by more than 10 points, winning one of just two seats for the People’s Life Party. So while Ozawa will return to the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会), he will do so as an increasingly isolated relic after reaching the pinnacle of leadership in both the dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) of prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō), which held power for three tumultuous years from 2009 to 2012.

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RELATED: Japan is once again an essentially one-party country

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Known for decades as Japan’s ‘shadow shogun’ for the power he wielded behind closed doors, it’s no exaggeration to say that Ozawa is one of the leading figures of postwar Japanese politics. He was a vital figure in the LDP’s 1980s dominance, and he was instrumental in leading the only two movements that have dislodged the LDP’s six-decade political hegemony. In 45 years of political life, Ozawa himself has gone from conservative to liberal and back again with no clear ideological compass beyond gaining (and regaining) power. Although he’s a controversial figure, there’s no doubting that he has played a greater role than nearly anyone else in Japan in the effort to create a truly multi-party system, even while he’s disparaged Christianity as an exclusionary religion, claimed to ‘hate’ Europe and once derided Americans as ‘mono cellular’ and ‘simple-minded.’

At age 72, and leading a caucus that contains just one other legislator, few would disregard Ozawa’s ability to mount yet another comeback, especially if Abe’s efforts to stimulate Japan’s economy, once again tumbling into recession, ultimately fail. That’s especially true with few credible opposition figures in sight.  Continue reading

What would Jeb Bush’s foreign policy look like?

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Is he more like his brother or his father?floridaUSflag

One of the most vexing questions in US politics is whether the foreign policy of former Florida governor John Ellis ‘Jeb’ Bush will look more like his father’s or his brother’s. Bush announced he would ‘actively explore the possibility’ of a presidential campaign on Tuesday.

The common perception is that Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, was a moderate and a foreign policy realist. He largely navigated the United States to the post-Cold War world with deftness, and he wisely held back US force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1990-91  liberation of Kuwait. Bush père surrounded himself with hard-nosed realists like Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, and James A. Baker III, his secretary of state.

Conversely, the foreign policy of Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, weighs heavily his response to the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the onset of the global ‘war on terror,’ and the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq that ousted Saddam and presided over a sectarian civil war between competing Sunni and Shiite forces. Bush frère deployed muscular language in stark tones about democracy, freedom and embraced a neoconservatism that set itself as realism’s counterpart, with support from officials like Donald Rumsfeld, his defense secretary, John Bolton, his ambassador to the United Nations, and Dick Cheney, his powerful vice president.

On the basis of idle speculation and one speech earlier this month in Miami, commentators are already declaring that Jeb Bush, who might run to become the 45th president of the United States, is closer to his brother’s foreign policy than his father’s.

Those false dichotomies will only calcify before they become more nuanced. Continue reading

Could Norway benefit from the oil price decline?

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When she was elected in September 2013 as Norway’s new conservative prime minister, one of Erna Solberg’s top priorities was to bring down the value of the Norwegian currency, the krone.norway

Boosted by its spectacular oil wealth, Norway is today one of the world’s wealthiest countries, so strong that it’s shunned not only eurozone membership but accession to the European Union altogether. Like many other oil-producing countries, however, the sudden drop of oil prices since July from over $100 per barrel to nearly $60 today has adversely affected Norway’s economy. If prices drop even lower, or the $60 level sustains itself through 2015 or beyond, it could endanger Solberg politically, who leads a minority government consisting of her own center-right Høyre (the ‘Right,’ or the Conservative Party) and the more controversial Framskrittspartiet (Progress Party), a more populist, anti-immigrant party that has its roots in the anti-tax movement. The Progress Party’s leader, Siv Jensen, now holds the unenviable task of serving as Norway’s finance minister as oil prices tumble. Solberg ousted the popular two-term prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who is now NATO secretary-general.

But for a country that was facing inflationary pressure when the rest of Europe continues to battle deflation, the fall in oil prices may bring additional benefits to a country long topping the list of the world’s most expensive places. As of July 2014, Norway still led The Economist‘s ‘Big Mac Index‘ — the price of the iconic McDonald’s sandwich was a whopping 61% higher in Norway than in the United States.

There’s no doubt that a sustained fall in oil prices will harm Norway’s bottom line. It will reduce the revenues available for public spending (already estimated to fall by over $9 billion because of the price drop), and it could easily cause Norwegian GDP growth to fall in 2015 from estimates of 2% or so (still robust compared to the eurozone), thereby causing the country’s relatively low 3.4% jobless rate to climb.

But it’s also caused the krone to fall to a 13-year low, declining to  parity with neighboring Sweden’s currency, the krona, for the first time since 2000. As recently as May, one US dollar was worth 5.8 Norwegian kroner. Today, that’s skyrocketed to 7.5 kroner and, as Russia and other oil-exporting countries see their own currencies tanking, investors could push the krone even lower.

NOKUSDPhoto credit to Bloomberg.

Aside from reducing concerns about inflation, the krone‘s fall could provide all kinds of benefits to Norway. For now, Solberg remains incredibly popular with Norwegians. Also for now, Jensen and the government doesn’t seem panicked, though the central bank cut interest rates from 1.5% to 1.25% last week. The current 2015 budget cuts taxes, while holding social welfare spending steady and increasingly spending on the country’s infrastructure.  Continue reading

Why the West shouldn’t root for Russia’s rouble freefall

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It might be tempting today for policymakers in Berlin, Washington, Brussels and London to have a moment of schadenfreude at the Russian currency crisis, which seems to deepen by the hour.Russia Flag Icon

But as Russia’s economy significantly weakens, those same officials might regret their glee if it causes Russian president Vladimir Putin to double down on the nationalist rhetoric and geopolitical aggression that’s characterized his third term in office. The Guardian‘s Larry Elliott declared that with today’s collapse, the West has won its ‘economic war’ with Russia and otherwise christened it ‘Russia’s Norman Lamont moment,’ a reference to the British pound’s collapse in 1992:

Back in September 1992, the then chancellor said he would defend the pound and keep Britain in the exchange rate mechanism by raising official borrowing costs to 15%, even though the economy was in deep trouble at the time.

European and US governments slapped economic sanctions against several top Russian officials earlier this year, largely in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March and the Kremlin’s continued role supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Even today, US president Barack Obama indicated that he would support even more economic sanctions against Russian weapons producers and other companies tied to the Russian defense industry after the US Congress overwhelmingly passed a new anti-Russia bill with bipartisan support.

The last Russian financial crisis in 1998 coincided with slowdowns across the developing world, an ominous sign for the struggling Brazilian, Indian and Chinese economies. It may have even precipitated the 1998-99 Asian currency crisis.

Much of Putin’s support in the last decade and in his first stint as president from 2000 to 2008 rested on the economy’s strong performance. After the embarrassing and impoverishing experience of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Putin era brought an end to the grinding poverty that characterized the presidency of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Buoyed by rising demand for Russian oil and gas, Putin presided over a boom in the mid-2000s that materially raised incomes across Russia, especially in cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

That continued even through the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, when Putin, barred from a third consecutive term, instead served as prime minister. But since returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin has faced an increasingly precarious economy, and as Max Fisher and other commentators have convincingly argued, the political basis for Putin’s government has shifted from economic grounds to increasingly nationalist and populist rhetoric. That explains the Kremlin’s machinations in Ukraine and its growing political standoff with Europe and the United States, a stand that’s boosted Putin’s previously flagging approval ratings.

If that’s true, though, the risk of Russian aggression is actually rising as its economy deteriorates. There are now several potential catalysts — the currency crisis could easily engender a wider economic recession, oil prices might continue their drop, or the United States and Europe could implement deeper sanctions. In such case, Russian president Vladimir Putin may respond by intensifying his saber-rattling against not only Ukraine, but the Baltic states, southern Europe, Moldova and Kazakhstan, to say nothing of Belarus, Georgia or elsewhere. Continue reading

Japan is once again an essentially one-party country

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As expected, Japan’s prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) and the governing Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) easy won snap elections called less than three weeks ago.Japan

Despite growing doubts about Japan’s precarious economy, which entered an official recession last quarter, Abe maintained a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Japan’s parliament. The most amazing fact of the election is that Japan’s opposition parties, despite a feeble effort against Abe’s push for reelection, lost virtually no ground.

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RELATED: Abe calls snap elections in Japan as recession returns

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Nevertheless, it’s hard not to conclude from the results and the sudden December election campaign that Japan today has essentially returned to one-party rule for the time being. It puts a grim end to a period that began in 1993 with the first non-LDP government in over 40 years, and that culminated with the clear mandate of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō) in the 2009 general election. The DPJ cycled through three different prime ministers in three years, and it often appeared to stumble in its efforts to respond to the global financial crisis, longstanding declines in demographic and economic trends and the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor.

By December 2012, with promises of a massive new wave of monetary and fiscal stimulus, Abe (pictured above) swept the DPJ out of office, wining a two-thirds majority in conjunction with its junior coalition partner, the Buddhist, conservative and generally more pacifist Kōmeitō (公明党). That coalition, which controlled 326 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会), will now control 325 seats after Sunday’s election.

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After its defeat in 2012, the Democratic Party elected Banri Kaieda (海江田 万里) as its new leader, essentially its fourth party head in four years. Kaieda, however, presented as an uninspiring choice for leader and he never seemed to grasp just how much rebuilding would be required in the aftermath of the party’s wipeout. Kaieda lost his own Tokyo constituency on Sunday, and will step down as party leader. But with just 198 candidates contesting the 325 seats elected directly, the DPJ was unprepared to wage a credible campaign to retake the Japanese government. Continue reading

Cheney, Obama and the US security policy debate

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The most audacious part of former US vice president Dick Cheney’s interview on Meet the Press on Sunday was not that he would ‘do it again in a minute.’   USflag

No one doubts that Cheney (pictured above) has no doubts about the aggressive ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that may have amounted to torture. To me, two other moments stood out. One was when  Cheney invoked the memory of the September 2001 terrorist attacks when NBC’s Chuck Todd asked him for his explicit definition of terrorism:

“Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” Cheney said on NBC. “There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.”

It was a masterful political argument, perhaps, insofar as Cheney shifted the question from the technical definition of torture to making an emotion-based argument rooted in the instinctive fear surrounding the horrific attacks 13 years ago on New York and Washington, DC. Cheney ultimately defended the actions because they were approved by attorneys in the US Department of Justice at the time, but even former Justice attorney John Yoo, who authored the Bush administration’s ‘torture memos’ that authorized the CIA techniques, worries that some of the tactics revealed amount to torture.

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RELATED: After US torture report, how to enshrine ‘never again’?

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Equally audacious was Cheney’s callous disregard for the fact that many detainees were ultimately deemed innocent. Cheney even dismissed the case of one detainee, Gul Rahman, who was left chained to a prison wall in Afghanistan to freeze to death:

“I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective and our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States,” he said.

Rahman’s story, among other revelations of ‘rectal rehydration,’ ‘rectal feeding,’ and more widespread use of waterboarding than previously reported, comes from the executive summary of a report produced by the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the abuses of the US Central Intelligence Agency in its conduct in the ‘war on terror.’

Both instances demonstrate just how willing Cheney and other officials in the Bush administration were to dispense with concepts like the rule of law and due process in their zealous efforts to prevent another terrorist attack on US soil. It matters that Cheney doesn’t seem to want to engage seriously about the definition of torture, and it matters that Cheney is non-plussed about the collateral damage of torturing possible innocents. Continue reading

Markets shouldn’t be freaking out about Greek elections

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It’s not surprising that Greek investors would be spooked by the idea of political turmoil that could replace Greece’s center-right coalition government with a radical leftist one as soon as February.Greece Flag Icon

That possibility became much more likely yesterday, when Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras brought forward a presidential election to replace Karolos Papoulias, the 85-year-old incumbent and a founder of PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement – Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα), Greece’s traditional center-left party, whose second five-year term was due to expire in March 2015. Greece’s presidency, a chiefly ceremonial office like in many European parliamentary systems, is determined indirectly by the Hellenic Parliament (Βουλή των Ελλήνων), not directly through national elections.

Samaras’s decision only moves up the presidential vote by two months. Samaras leads a coalition government of his own center-right New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) and its former rival PASOK. If the coalition fails to elect a president, it will trigger the government’s collapse, bringing forward parliamentary elections that would otherwise take place in June 2016.

The prospect of early elections and the possibility that SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) and its charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras (pictured above), could be running Greece’s economic policy within weeks was enough to send the Athens stock exchange tumbling by 12.78% on Tuesday, the largest single-day drop since 1987, as analysts went berserk explaining that a potential SYRIZA victory could spell doom not just to the European but to the global economy:

“Greece in the next 6 weeks may prove to be more important for global markets than Russia/Ukraine was in 2014,” said Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital. “A possible [SYRIZA] election victory may force the eurozone to choose between a fiscal union (debt write off for Greece) or the first Euro exit.”

Though voters might be weary of seven years of economic pain, Greece’s economy is actually growing at one of the highest rates in the eurozone, which is struggling with low growth and deflationary pressure. At a time when most Europeans have reason to be wary of 2015, Greeks should be confident that their economy has bottomed out, and employment and GDP growth should continue to improve in 2015 and beyond. In the long-term perspective, it’s a great time for stronger investment in Greece, not panic and divestment.

There’s reason to believe that Tsipras, once in power, would act responsibly. SYRIZA, and not PASOK, is now the standard bearer of the opposition left in Greece, but Tsipras has moderated some of his more firebrand positions. Though he is arguably the loudest critics of eurozone austerity, he is more solicitous of the investor class today than he’s ever been. Tsipras still wants to restructure Greece’s public debt (still a staggering 174% of GDP) by forcing a renegotiation that could lead to a haircut or other modification. Tsipras and his economic advisers have nevertheless committed a potential SYRIZA government to budget discipline, even while promising to ameliorate the worst of the drastic cuts to social welfare spending required under the terms of Greece’s two bailouts worth €110 billion and €130 billion, respectively, from the ‘troika’ of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. Reassuringly, however, Tsipras has essentially promised he will not default on Greek debt and he will not attempt to leave the eurozone. 

Tsipiras is probably correct that Greece’s debt burden is not sustainable. He’s also probably right that Brussels and Berlin would cave to renegotiating that debt if the alternative is a return to the ‘Grexit’ speculation and the financial market turmoil of 2012 when the ECB is trying to wage its own fight to expand the central bank’s reflationary ‘quantitative easing’ efforts. The upside for Tsipras, if he wins a new election, is that SYRIZA would likely take credit for Greece’s economic progress just as it’s beginning to emerge from the nadir of its recessionary cycle.

Continue reading

After US torture report, how to enshrine ‘never again’?

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Gul Rahman (pictured above), an Afghan citizen arrested by US officials in Pakistan in October 2002, froze to his death on the floor of a prison in US captivity just a month later, stripped half-naked and chained to a wall in a secret ‘black site’ operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency in Kabul. USflag

That’s one of several revelations from the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report respecting the CIA’s use of torture techniques in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks and throughout two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the duration of the presidency of George W. Bush.

The techniques used by CIA interrogators, as outlined in the report, are more gruesome than previously reported, though I can’t imagine that it surprises anyone. It’s not completely unrealistic, for example, that interrogators could have waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times or that officials ‘rectally force-fed’ a suspect or conducted rectal searches that amounted to sexual assault. Vox has a look at the 16 most outrageous CIA abuses, and the Daily Beast has a similar look at the excesses described in the report, and there’s not much to add to it. The report speaks for itself — there’s not a particularly partisan way to spin ‘rectal rehydration.’

Like Bagram and Abu Ghraib and My Lai, the Kabul black site, known as the ‘Salt Pit,’ will become another byword for US hypocrisy, a new example of how American brutality abroad triumphed over the legal, moral and democratic ideals upon which the United States claims to hold sacred. In fact, the abuses that took place at the ‘Salt Pit’ make the prisoner abuses within the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib seem like a trip to summer camp.

Though the report redacts the role of other countries, responsibility for the shameful actions aren’t solely for the United States alone to bear, despite international calls, including from UN special rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, for the United States to prosecute the perpetrators of the worst CIA violations. But countries like Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Thailand, Egypt and many, many others (their roles not always clear from the redacted report) were happy to host CIA ‘black sites,’ sometimes at a price, where most of the alleged torture took place. It’s a reminder that, of course, the world’s a messy place and our allies, many of which are longstanding or emerging democracies themselves, are happy to be silent partners in the darker aspects of what’s been an often stabilizing US global presence.

The report’s release wasn’t even certain, given efforts by the CIA and the administration of Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, to prevent or redact much of the report. Over the weekend, US secretary of state John Kerry reportedly tried to delay the report’s release in a phone conversation with the chair of the intelligence committee, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein of California. The CIA itself has even admitted that CIA personnel spied on Senate staffers throughout the five-year process of investigating and writing today’s 6,000-page report, for which only a redacted 480-page executive summary was released. The efforts have brought together an odd-bedfellows coalition of officials, including Feinstein, who otherwise holds hawkish views with respect to the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism efforts abroad, and Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have taken hard lines in favor of American interventionism in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

The refrain that we hear over and over again is that the report’s release will help ensure that the CIA abuses of the 2000s (call them ‘enhanced interrogation’ or torture) won’t happen again.

But there’s really no guarantee that it won’t. Continue reading

One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

moldovaPhoto credit to adrianhancu / 123RF.

By just about any measure, Moldova’s first quarter-century as an independent state has been inauspicious long before last weekend’s parliamentary elections.moldova

Emerging from the Soviet Union as a new state engaged in a war with separatists in Transnistria, Moldova is today the poorest country on continental Europe, and successive governments have left the country with antiquated and corrupt institutions that culminated in widespread protests (pictured above) and a political crisis in 2009. In 2014, no country in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, is perhaps more at risk from Russian aggression.

Though a coalition of three relatively pro-European parties appear to be moving forward to form a governing coalition, the winner in last Sunday’s vote was the Partidul Socialiştilor din Republica Moldova (PSRM, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova), formed in 1997 and a fringe party until it received an endorsement from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Socialists will enter Moldova’s 101-member Parlamentul (parliament), with 25 seats, the largest of five parties in the chamber.

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The Socialists benefitted chiefly from a decision on November 29 by Moldova’s supreme court of justice to uphold a lower court’s decision two days earlier to disqualify the pro-Russia ‘Homeland’ Party after it was found to have accepted foreign resources. Continue reading

Calabria, Emilia Romagna elections boost Renzi government

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In the wake of regional elections last month, Italian and international commentators have been quick to anoint Matteo Salvini, the right-wing leader of Italy’s Lega Nord (Northern League) the new star of Italy’s right.  calabriaItaly Flag Iconemilia-romagna

The most important takeaway, however, from both the Emilia-Romagna and Calabria elections on, is that Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi remains, by far, the most potent political force in the country. Renzi’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) won by double-digit margins in both elections. Though worrisome trends for Renzi certainly lurk behind the headline numbers, the overwhelming narrative in Italy is that the Democrats, under Renzi, are quickly becoming Italy’s hegemonic political force, much like the Christian Democrats from the 1950s to the 1990s and the various iterations of the Silvio Berlusconi-led centrodestra (center-right) since 1994.

In both elections, voters were replacing scandal-tainted regional presidents who resigned earlier in the year.

Calabria, in Italy’s south (the ‘toe’ that nearly touches the island region of Sicily), with just 1.98 million residents, is among the poorest regions in Europe, let alone Italy, plagued by the ‛Ndrangheta, the local organized crime operation, and fewer economic opportunities than the more storied (and well touristed) northern regions. The Democrats easily won the regional presidency, however, under the candidacy of Mario Oliverio, the decade-long president of Consenza province, who won 61.4% to just 23.6% for Wanda Ferro, the candidate of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.  The victory means that southern Italy, generally a conservative region, has almost exclusively center-left regional presidents (with the exception of Campania), two of whom — Puglia’s Nichi Vendola and Sicily’s Rosario Crocetti — are openly gay leftists.

Emilia-Romagna, a region of nearly 4.5 million people in central Italy just north of Tuscany, is the beating heart of the Italian left and during the postwar period, its regional governments were reliably under the control of the old Italian Communist Party. So it’s no surprise that the Democratic Party, a few iterations removed from its Communist Party roots, would dominate the race. True to form, the PD’s candidate, Stefano Bonaccini (pictured above, right, with Renzi) easily won the regional elections by a margin of 49.05% to 29.85% for his nearest competitor, Alan Fabbri of the Northern League.

Despite the wide victories for Renzi and his Democratic Party candidates, it was something of a shock that the Northern League won so much support in Emilia-Romagna, both because of the region’s historical left-wing tilt and because the Northern League has focused its efforts north of the region, chiefly in the Veneto, Piedmont and Lombardy.

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That the Northern League is breaking out of northern Italy and into central Italy, with plans to attract national support, is due to the vision of its young new leader, Matteo Salvini (pictured above). Continue reading

Germany’s Left Party comes of age with Ramelow victory

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After months of inter-party negotiations, the east-central German state of Thuringia will have a government led by Bodo Ramelow, the state leader of the democratic socialist Die Linke (Left Party).thuringiaGermany Flag Icon

On the surface, it means that Die Linke, partially the successor to  Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled the eastern German Democratic Republic, will control a state government for the first time since reunification, which has bred a significant amount of controversy:

Never before in a fully democratic Germany has a regional election triggered so much protest, with thousands demonstrating outside the parliament in Erfurt on Thursday evening ahead of the vote, declaring that the “perpetrators” were heading back into office.

Demonstrators included former East German dissidents, some of whom had spent time behind bars for their opposition views. They shouted “Stasi out!” in reference to East Germany’s repressive secret police, and “The Social Democrats have betrayed us”.

Even center-right chancellor Angela Merkel has used stark language to reject a Left-led government, arguing that Ramelow’s victory is equivalent to putting Karl Marx in charge of government.

But that’s a fairly oversimplified narrative.

Ramelow and the Left will govern in coalition with two far more moderate center-left parties, the Die Grünen (the Greens) and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). The SPD, nationally, governs in a ‘grand coalition’ with chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union).

Moreover, the Left isn’t even the largest party in the Thuringia Landtag, the regional assembly:

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Far from bringing a police state or a socialist revolution to the tranquil streets of sleepy Erfurt, the Left will be governing in coalition with two far more moderate partners. With the support of the Greens and the SPD, Ramelow’s government will have a one-vote margin in the Landtag. So even if it wanted to introduce radical far-left measures, the Left wouldn’t get very far.

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RELATED: Thuringia and Brandenburg results: Left & AfD on the rise

RELATED: Left hopes to make eastern breakthrough
in German state elections

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It’s not clear, however, that it wants to do so. Thuringia provides the party with the opportunity that it can govern responsibly, even with a different ideological perspective than Merkel’s prevailing CDU or the moderate SPD. While the Left is relatively pro-Russia, plenty of former chancellors, from Gerhard Schröder to Helmut Kohl, have struck more lenient views toward Russia than most European figures. While the Left is also anti-NATO, that’s because it’s on the more ultra-pacifist side of a political culture that for decades has been incredibly pacifist.

Ramelow, a Lutheran union leader born in West Germany, is hardly a flamethrower, and he’s an advocate of pro-growth, anti-austerity policies. He’s called for wider investment in education and wants to provide a free year of kindergarten to every child in the state.

Continue reading

At age 90, Mugabe launches ZANU-PF purge in Zimbabwe

mugabe2015Photo credit to New Zimbabwe.

After 34 years in power, and having controlled the government of Zimbabwe since virtually the moment of its independence in 1980, following the collapse of the white minority rule of what was previously Rhodesia, you’d think that president Robert Mugabe would be focused more on anointing a successor than causing more upheaval. zimbabwe new icon

If so, you’d be wrong.

For a leader who emerged as the darling of Western governments in his fight for black majority rule, then became an international pariah as Zimbabwe became synonymous with one-party rule, land confiscation, oppression of the few white residents who didn’t leave in 1980 and, more recently, hyperinflation, cholera epidemics and rigged elections, it should come to no surprise that Mugabe (pictured above) still wants to call the shots, two months short of his 91st birthday.

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RELATED: Post-election, what comes
next for Zimbabwe?
[August 2013]

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The most recent upheaval involves Joice Mujuru, vice president of Zimbabwe since 2004 and the vice president of the ruling ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front).

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At age 59, she came of age during the struggle against Rhodesian white minority rule, earning the nickname ‘Spill Blood’ as a teenager in the fight for Zimbabwe’s freedom. Mujuru (pictured above) has literally spent her entire adult life working under Mugabe’s command. She’s been in government consecutively since 1980, when she was first appointed as a minister of community development and women’s affairs. Her husband, Solomon Mujuru, was until his 2011 death, the highly feared head of Zimbabwe’s military. Among the radical cadre of leaders within the ZANU-PF, Mujuru is widely viewed as a moderate voice who could have pulled Zimbabwe from its Mugabe-era isoltion into a more normal relationship with the rest of the world.  Continue reading

Löfven not to blame for (probable) early Swedish elections

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If you lose a budget vote three years into your mandate, the problem’s probably with you.Sweden

If you lose a budget vote on the two-month anniversary of taking office, and less than three months after winning a general election, the problem’s probably not.

So it goes in Sweden, where voters will head to the polls on March 22 after the government lost a tough budget vote.

It wasn’t entirely unpredictable that prime minister Stefan Löfven (pictured above with Hillary Clinton) would fail to pass his first budget because of the odd dynamics of Swedish politics after September’s general election, which broke the Riksdag, Sweden’s unicameral parliament, into three blocs: Continue reading

Netanyahu sacks Lapid, Livni, seeks snap 2015 elections

 

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After weeks of tension, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked justice minister Tzipi Livni and finance minister Yair Lapid on Tuesday, accusing them of trying to lead a ‘putsch’ against him, and the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s unicameral parliament, has now voted to dissolve itself in advance of snap elections in early 2015.ISrel Flag Icon

Just two years and two months after Israel’s last parliamentary election, Israel is set to go to the polls on March 17, two years sooner than the current parliamentary term ends. Despite Netanyahu’s bravado in triggering early elections, neither he nor Lapid nor Livni are assured of increasing their share of the vote.

While Netanyahu remains the favorite to return as prime minister as the head of his center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎), he will be vying to win a fourth term leading government after two of the toughest years of his political career. Though the election is likely to focus, increasingly, on domestic issues, it follows this summer’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ against Hamas in the occupied Gaza strip that lessened global support for Israel. It also follows Arab-Jewish violence in Jerusalem in recent weeks, and after Sweden formally recognized Palestine’s sovereignty in October (as the French parliament voted on the issue earlier this week).

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RELATED: Twelve lessons to draw from Netanyahu’s new Israeli cabinet government [March 2013]

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Nevertheless, unless terrorism or religious violence increases, the Palestinian question will invariably fade from the agenda of the country’s leading politicians — for at least the next four months.

Accordingly, the election will be a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership over the past two years, including the management of his coalition, the struggle of Israel’s middle class, and global matters like his handling of the Gaza war and testy relations with the United States and the Obama administration. Critics from both the left and right will target Netanyahu during the 2015 campaign. Moreover, if Netanyahu falls short next March, his position within Likud is even more tenuous after he wasted precious political capital attempting (and failing) to block former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin’s presidential candidacy.

With allies like these, who needs enemies?

The unwieldy coalition Netanyahu formed in 2013 has been increasingly unstable since the end of the military action in Gaza earlier this year. The causes lie not only among moderate critics to Netanyahu’s left like Livni and Lapid, but among conservative critics to his right, including his one-time chief of staff, economy minister Naftali Bennett and his nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. During the Gaza conflict, Netanyahu nearly fired Bennett after his strident criticism that Israel’s military action wasn’t going far enough. Continue reading

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN