Abdul Kalam, India’s popular former president, has died

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Photo credit to The Hindustan Times.

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, who served as his country’s (chiefly ceremonial) president from 2002 to 2007, died today at age 83 after collapsing while delivering a lecture to students at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong.India Flag Icon

Abdul Kalam was often nicknamed ‘the people’s president,’ and with good reason — he is being remembered fondly today across the political spectrum:

As a leading engineer, he was the face of India’s nuclear weapons program — making him a living embodiment of an accomplishment that immediately bolstered India’s standing in the scientific community and on foreign policy. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor, in 1997 and, with the success of India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, he became India’s ‘missile man’ before he became its ‘people’s president.’

Abdul Kalam was also an independent voice as India’s president. A Tamil Muslim, he was elected as president in 2002 in the wake of the anti-Muslim riots that so tarred the record of Gujarat’s first minister and now, prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Abdul Kalam belonged to no party — he’s the last truly independent to have been elected to the presidency. Moreover, he stood up to prime minister Manmohan Singh by initially rejecting a 2006 bill that would loosen rules on holding ‘offices of profit’ — the new law followed Sonia Gandhi’s resignation from several positions deemed to be offices of profit. Gandhi has served as the president of the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) since 1998, including its decade-long stint in power between 2003 and 2013.

He used the office of the presidency to great effect at home and abroad — and though he’s been described as apolitical, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued in The Indian Express in 2007 that he conducted his presidency as the consummate politician:

Kalam was engaging in politics in the deeper sense of the term: he had an unerring instinct for what the people were looking for, he never criticised but only proposed alternatives, he levelled distinctions between people not by lowering the elite but by raising the aspirations of masses, and he relentlessly called attention to the fact that the Office was a means not an end. It is always possible to probe further into his motives and compromises. But he succeeded not because he was apolitical but because he had a sense of what people want in a politician: the capacity to project a future full of possibilities with conviction and sincerity.

Corbyn’s surprise rise in Labour leadership race highlights chasm

corbynPhoto credit to Stefan Rousseau/PA.

Within hours of the Labour Party’s unexpectedly severe loss in the UK general election, its leader Ed Miliband had already resigned and within days, Miliband and his family were Ibiza-bound, the first step in an awkward transition back to the backbenches. United Kingdom Flag Icon

It’s been a gloomy downfall for Ed, and critics have good reason to criticize his performance between 2010 and the May elections. But what the Labour leadership contest aptly demonstrates is that Miliband nailed one thing in his five years — bridging the gap between Labour’s two factions, its union-heavy left and metropolitan, pro-business right. Miliband did such a good job maintaining Labour unity for the past five years, in fact, that no one realized just how divided Labour’s two tribes have become.

Those divisions are becoming all too clear in the emerging battle to succeed Miliband, and the surprise leader in the race is Jeremy Corbyn, a reluctant leadership contender first elected in 1983 to the British parliament, who’s now drawing the greatest support.

With the support of Unite, the most muscular of the labor unions that back the UK’s chief center-left party, Corbyn has managed to capture the imagination of a wide swath of the Labour electorate — disaffected nationalists, anti-austerity youths and old-school socialists like Corbyn (pictured above) himself, who’s bucked his party’s leadership 534 times in a 32-year parliamentary career. He bitterly opposed prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to join the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he opposes the Trident nuclear deterrent and he’s an unabashedly ‘retro’ socialist. He’s not entirely committed to opposing a ‘Brexit’ from the European Union in the planned 2017 referendum. Corbyn wants to re-nationalize the UK’s train system and energy networks, and he wants to reaffirm public control over the health system.

By way of example, Corbyn makes no apologies for firmly opposing the government’s bill last week that trims social welfare benefits. Interim Labour leader Harriet Harman instructed the party’s MPs to abstain — Corbyn and 47 other Labour MPs joined the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in voting against the legislation. It’s no exaggeration to say that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would embrace much of the 1970s and 1980s leftism that Blair worked so hard to expunge in the leadup to his 1997 landslide victory.

Corbyn’s rise is so stunning because he nearly missed the initial cut — he only barely achieved the 35 nominations from the party’s parliamentary caucus. He depended on support from legislators like Margaret Beckett, who believed that the far left deserved a voice in the campaign — if for no other reason than to show that the British far left is as weak in 2015 as in 2010 (when Diane Abbott placed last in the leadership contest) and 2007 (when John McDonnell failed to win enough nominations to advance against Gordon Brown, who won the leadership unopposed). Beckett, a former interim party leader and foreign secretary, now says she was a ‘moron’ to do so.

That’s because Corbyn, according to some polls, now holds a lead in the fight for Labour’s future. A July 17-21 YouGov/Times poll shows Corbyn leading with 43% of the vote — just 26% back shadow health secretary Andy Burnham (who held a series of ministerial profiles between 2007 and 2010), 20% back shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper (and the wife of former shadow chancellor Ed Balls and a former chief secretary to the treasury) and 11% back Liz Kendall, a shadow minister for care and older people first elected in 2010.

More alarming to the party establishment, when the choices are whittled down to the two leading candidates, Corbyn leads Burnham by a margin of 47% to 53%.

Ballots will not even be sent to Labour members until August 14, and the voting will continue through September 10 — there’s a lot of time left in the race, and it’s not clear Corbyn can sustain enthusiasm in the face of what will assuredly be a massive opposition to a Corbyn leadership.

But how, exactly, did a 66-year-old socialist become the pacesetter in Labour’s leadership contest?

Part of his rise is attributable to simple arithmetic.

Continue reading Corbyn’s surprise rise in Labour leadership race highlights chasm

Why Kagame’s reelection in Rwanda will be different than Nkurunziza’s

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Two small African neighboring countries. Both are densely populated with between 10 and 12 million people. Both have emerged from Tutsi-Hutu civil wars in the past two decades. burundirwanda

Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza seems headed for a difficult and bloody reelection against the will of a large segment of the Burundian people and arguably in violation of the constitution’s prohibition on serving more than two consecutive terms. Though Nkurunziza unconvincingly argues he is running for his second term under the current constitution, the Arusha Accords that ended Burundi’s civil war made it clear that Nkurunziza should get up to a decade in power — not 15 years (or, potentially, more).

Nkurunziza’s push for a third term resulted in a brutal crackdown over the past 18 months amid growing political violence, twice necessitating the delay of an election originally scheduled for June. When election results, the first of which are scheduled to be announced later Friday, show that Nkurunziza easily won reelection, many Burundians will refuse to recognize the victory, and there’s a chance that Burundi could collapse into greater violence — or even civil war.

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RELATED: Rwandan election highlights tension between ethnic, economic stability and authoritarianism

RELATED: Nkurunziza’s reelection effort brings violence in Burundi

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Next door in Rwanda, however, president Paul Kagame seems preparing for reelection in 2017, notwithstanding constitutional term limits. Unlike Nkurunziza, if Kagame (pictured above) does find a way to seek another term, he will largely do so to the widespread acclaim and genuine approval of the Rwandan people — and with the assent of Rwanda’s Chamber of Deputies, which passed a law earlier this week that will allow Kagame to run for a third term in his own right, in response to a petition signed by 3.7 million Rwandans.

While Nkurunziza has suffered international condemnation for pushing forward with reelection, Kagame will almost certainly receive far less scrutiny if, as expected, he runs for another term in 2017.

Kagame isn’t immune to political repression — the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) controls an effectively one-party country where opposition leaders or journalists are harassed or imprisoned, sometimes to the point of exile.

So what’s with the double standard? Continue reading Why Kagame’s reelection in Rwanda will be different than Nkurunziza’s

The lessons of Newfoundland’s 1948 referendum

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Imagine a North America with three, not two, countries north of the Rio Grande — the United States, Canada and… Newfoundland.newfoundlandCanada Flag Icon

Newfoundland!? That’s right. The Canadian outpost in the north Atlantic. Imagine today a proud population of nearly 530,000, now basking in the proceeds of a thriving offshore oil market, growing interest in summer tourism and a historical reliance on fisheries.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds — and if not for the votes of 7,000 Newfoundlanders on this day in 1948, the proudly sovereign country of Newfoundland and Labrador might exist today as a strategic Atlantic hub.

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With an area slightly larger than Bangladesh or Greece, and with a population similar to that of Luxembourg and larger than the populations of Iceland, Belize, Brunei or Malta, the Canadian province today has a GDP per capita of nearly $68,000, in Canadian dollars (as of 2013) — much higher than the Canadian average of nearly $54,000.

On July 22, 1948, nearly 150,000 Newfoundlanders voted in the second of two fiercely contested referenda. They decided, however narrowly, in favor of confederation with Canada. On April 1 of the following year, Newfoundland and Labrador became the 10th Canadian province. The referendum brought to an end 15 years of uncertain status — that’s because in 1934, the essentially independent ‘Dominion of Newfoundland’ reverted back to colonial status after a financial crisis left the country unable to service its debt.

Sound familiar? Relations today between Greece and the rest of the eurozone (most especially Germany) are as strained as ever. With a third bailout effectively ceding control of Greek fiscal policy from prime minister Alexis Tsipras to European authorities, Newfoundland’s example holds instructive lessons on sovereignty and debt. The referendum — and the failure of the pro-independence campaign — also provides a data point for aspiring nations like Scotland and Catalunya.

Nearly 80 years of sovereignty

Newfoundland first won self-rule in 1854, with the introduction of ‘responsible government,’ and it acquired more formal dominion status (equivalent to the dominion status Canada held) in 1907. Continue reading The lessons of Newfoundland’s 1948 referendum

Photo of the day (night): Cuba’s embassy in DC

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It’s been over a half-century since the Cuban flag flew proudly over an embassy in Washington, D.C.cubaUSflag

Though the flag had been lowered with twilight, the Cuban embassy is a true embassy, and not just an interests section, for the first time since 1961.

As the clock struck midnight on 16th Street in Washington, hardly a soul passed the embassy, save for myself and an African-American woman who asked if this was the Cuban embassy (and yes, she, too, was disappointed that the flag had been lowered with dusk).

Say what you will about US-Cuban relations, the Castros or US foreign policy, July 20, 2015 was a day to remember.

You can read Suffragio‘s coverage of Cuba (including my own trip to Havana two months ago) here:

Why normalization with Cuba will be harder than advertised

Interview: Talking to Cuban artist Tania Bruguera

Photo essay — Cuba on the cusp… but for what kind of future?

Obama’s move to remove Cuba from terror list was long overdue

Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal

A public interest theory of the continued US embargo on Cuba

Tight Buenos Aires victory slightly complicates Macri’s presidential hopes

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In one of the most important tests before Argentina’s general election, the hand-picked successor of outgoing Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, the chief center-right presidential candidate, only narrowly won a July 19 mayoral runoff.buenosairesargentina

Just three weeks out from Argentina’s crucial national presidential primary, the Buenos Aires mayoral results are being reported as a drag on Macri’s presidential campaign, and that’s true — to a degree. Macri’s long-serving chief of cabinet, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (pictured above, left, with Macri, right), garnered just 51.6% of the vote in a two-way race he was once expected to win easily by a double-digit margin. So while Rodríguez Larreta’s victory extends a three-term governing streak for Macri’s conservative Propuesta Republicana (PRO, Republican Proposal), it fell too far short of expectations. After all, Buenos Aires is the PRO’s heartland — Macri’s reach barely extends beyond the city to the larger Buenos Aires province, let alone the rest of the country.

With an open presidential primary taking place on August 9, however, and the October 25 presidential and parliamentary elections following shortly thereafter, the city’s mayoral election was a key test for Macri, who is trying to succeed Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, herself term-limited from seeking reelection.

Macri essentially occupies the conservative side of the presidential campaign — he hopes to win by picking up support from Argentine moderates and disenchanted kirchneristas without seeming too neoliberal. The winner of the 2015 election will be the first president in 12 years not to be a member of the Kirchner family, and Argentine voters may be ready for a modest change after the 21st century version of peronismo, as personified by the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who hopes to guide the ruling Frente para la Victoria (FpV, the Front for Victory) to yet another term.

Macri, for his part, wants to contrast the strength of his eight-year stewardship of the relatively wealthier city against the record of the FpV’s 2015 presidential candidate, Daniel Scioli, since 2007 the governor of the surrounding (and more impoverished) Buenos Aires province, and of Tigre mayor Sergio Massa, another center-left peronista who broke in 2013 with kirchnerismo to form the Frente Renovador (FR, Renewal Front).

It’s no surprise, by the way, that three politicians from the Buenos Aires region are vying for the presidency — the city, an autonomous federal district, together with the Buenos Aires province, is home to nearly 50% of Argentina’s 41.5 million citizens.

Argentina’s Goldilocks election

All three candidates — Scioli, Massa and Macri — have indicated they would pursue a more investment-friendly administration, and Macri, in particular, benefits from heading the most business-friendly government during the Kirchner era.

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RELATED: Everything you need to know about
Argentina’s impending default

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Macri nevertheless emphasizes that he’ll introduce only gradual shifts in policy, lest voters worry he’ll return to the economic policies of the disastrous 1990s.

Presumably to win Fernández de Kirchner’s support, Scioli last month named as his running mate Carlos Zannini, a fierce Kirchner loyalist who has served as the president’s legal secretary since 2003. But Scioli has emphasized that he wants to remove, however slowly, the capital controls of the Kirchner era, and to govern in a less interventionist and inflammatory manner.

Massa has positioned himself in between Scioli and Macri and, though his poll numbers seem to have dipped, seemed like the wide frontrunner following his breakout performance throughout Buenos Aires province in the October 2013 midterm elections.

Why the Buenos Aires mayoral race probably
won’t be important to the October election

While there are a lot of reasons why Macri could still lose the presidential race, it’s not particularly clear that either Scioli and the governing FpV or the upstart Massa should take too much comfort from the Buenos Aires mayoral election.

Continue reading Tight Buenos Aires victory slightly complicates Macri’s presidential hopes

Has Germany (and Europe) reached peak Merkel?

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In the span of six days, German chancellor Angela Merkel has made a teenage Palestinian refugee cry with her government’s stand on refugee and immigration policy (then tried to pet her, in what must be one of her most cringe-worthy moments as chancellor), reiterated her increasingly isolated position in Europe in opposition to LGBT marriage equality and almost allowed her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to force Greece out of the eurozone, in the process undermining Merkel’s authority both at home and within the wider eurozone.Germany Flag Icon

Some week.

Merkel, who won a narrower-than-expected victory in the 2005 election, reached the apex of her political power in September 2013, when her governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) nearly won an absolute majority in the country’s parliamentary elections. Despite being forced back into a ‘grand coalition’ with the rival center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), Merkel’s popularity crested. At long last, she had won a clear personal mandate for her cautious, seemingly ideology-free leadership.

But when faced with policy issues — like Greece, LGBT rights and immigration — featuring such sharp contrasts, Merkel’s popularity was always going to fall from those stratospheric levels.

The crisis over Greece’s future highlighted the limits of Merkel’s conciliatory governing style — to sit back, wait for a consensus to emerge and follow public opinion, even (or especially) if it means co-opting a rival party’s positions. That’s how Merkel has handled everything from nuclear power to raising the minimum wage. But there’s a limit to that kind of governance. Continue reading Has Germany (and Europe) reached peak Merkel?

Farron wins poisoned chalice of LibDem leadership

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If the contest between the two contenders to succeed Nick Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats seemed particularly grim, it’s probably because most of the ‘big beasts’ lost their constituencies in last May’s wipeout.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Vincent Cable, former business secretary; Danny Alexander, the former chief secretary to the treasury; Simon Hughes, a former civil liberties minister and former deputy party leader — all lost their constituencies in an election that saw the LibDem caucus shrink from 56 to just eight.

So there’s not an incredible groundswell of excitement for Tim Farron, who was announced today as the party’s new leader — The Telegraph ran a comprehensive profile today in anticipation of Farron’s widely expected victory.

In a nutshell, Farron is the most openly pious major party leader in recent memory — somewhat unique in a country where Alistair Campbell, a media adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair (himself something of a believer) once famously said, ‘We don’t do God.’ Farron’s Christianity has made him somewhat hesitant on LGBT rights, including on the landmark 2013 vote to enact marriage equality, and he’s somewhat anti-abortion as well.

Otherwise, Farron ran as a candidate far closer to Labour than to the Conservative Party, and it seems clear that Farron wants to pull the Liberal Democrats back to their comfort zone of the 1990s and mid-2000s as a leftist alternative to the Tories.

Since 2005, he’s represented the Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency in Cumbia, England’s northwestern corner. Though he narrowly won the party presidency in 2011, Farron has no ministerial experience and he has a history of bucking the party’s leadership — most notably opposing Clegg’s now-notorious turn on student fees. The December 2010 vote split the party — 28 MPs supported the measure, which tripled tuition fees. Clegg’s decision maintained the unity of the Tory-LibDem coalition, but it disillusioned many of the party’s supporters. Clegg had campaigned vigorously in 2010 on the promise that he would oppose fee hikes, and the issue is widely cited as a primary cause for the LibDem wipeout in the 2015 election.

Farron’s opponent, Norman Lamb, was viewed as the more moderate candidate with close ties to Clegg. Twelve years older than Farron, Lamb has been an MP from Norfolk since 2001, and he served as minister of state for care and support from 2012 to 2015. Though Clegg never formally endorsed him, Lamb won the support of two additional former leaders — Menzies Campbell and Paddy Ashdown.

If history serves as any guide, Farron’s task will largely be a thankless one that leaves him, at best, in a rebuilding role. At worst, he may be destined to become the party’s analogue to William Hague or the Michael Foot.

After the Labour Party’s defeat in the 1979 election, it took 18 years and three leaders before the party returned to power.

When the Conservatives, likewise, suffered a cataclysmic defeat in the 1997 election, it spent 13 years in the wilderness, shuffling through three leaders before it eventually landed on David Cameron.

Four candidates are currently vying for the Labour Party leadership — voting will be open to party members between August 14 and September 10, with the leader to be announced at a September 12 conference.

One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy

BoA ChartChart credit to Bank of America.

Within a half-century, the most important fact of the Obama administration might well be that it presided over an energy boom that de-linked, for the first time in many decades, US dependence on Middle Eastern oil and foreign policy.USflagIran Flag Icon

No other fact more explains the deal, inked with the Islamic Republic of Iran, that brings Iran ever closer into the international community — and no other fact brings together so neatly the often contradictory aspects of US president Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East today.

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RELATED: Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

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With the exception of a small peak in the mid-1980s, when prices tanked after the oil shocks of the 1970s, US imports of foreign oil are lower than ever — and that’s a critical component to understanding Tuesday’s deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Thanks, in part, to the shale oil and fracking revolutions, US oil reserves are at their highest levels than at any point since 1975. Bank of America’s chart (pictured above) shows that US dependence on foreign oil — net imports as a percentage of consumption — dropped to 26.5% by the end of 2014.

Making sense of the Obama administration’s Mideast contradictions

One of the sharpest criticisms of the Obama administration is that it has no overweening strategy for the region. On the surface, the contradictions are legion. To take just three examples: Continue reading One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy

Bruguera heading from Havana to New York?

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Less than two months after I met up with her in Havana, it looks like artist/activist Tania Bruguera is headed to New York:cuba

The City of New York announced Monday that it had chosen Ms. Bruguera, whose work blurs and sometimes obliterates the line between socially conscious performance art and straight-ahead social work, to be the first artist-in-residence for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, an unusual yearlong appointment in which she will help the agency recruit undocumented immigrants for the city’s highly popular new municipal identification-card program, IDNYC.

The announcement coincides with reports that Bruguera’s passport was returned to her over the weekend (after seven months) — and amid further reports that Bruguera will refuse to leave Cuba without reassurances that the Cuban government will allow her to return unencumbered:  Continue reading Bruguera heading from Havana to New York?

NDP rises to lead as Canadian election approaches

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In the United States, self-proclaimed ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont running for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, has hit his stride this month — Politico proclaimed it a ‘socialist surge.’Canada Flag Icon

Notwithstanding the thousands of supporters thronging to his campaign events across the country, Sanders holds a very slim chance of defeating against his opponent, former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

In Canada, however, it’s a different story.

The leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) has surged to a polling lead, giving its leader, Tom Mulcair, a legitimate chance to become Canada’s first NDP prime minister. Make no mistake, if the NDP wins Canada’s October election, it would be a huge milestone for the North American left.

ThreeHundredEight‘s June polling averages give the NDP a slight edge, with 32.6% to just 28.6% for prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and 26.3% for the Liberal Party. The NDP has a healthy lead in British Columbia and in Quebec, is essentially in a three-way tie in Ontario, leads the Liberals in Alberta and the prairie provinces (a Tory heartland) and leads the Tories in Atlantic Canada (the only remaining Liberal heartland).

On these numbers, the NDP could emerge as the largest party in the House of Commons, though probably not with an outright majority.

It is, of course, still early — the election is more than three months away. But it’s a remarkable reversal of fortune for a party that only recently languished in third place.

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RELATED: Alberta election results —
Conservatives lose 44-year hold on power

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It’s an aphorism of Canadian politics that federal trends don’t extrapolate from provincial trends. But there’s no doubting that the election of Rachel Notley in May as Alberta’s premier has much to do with Mulcair’s recent good fortunes. Notley’s Alberta NDP displaced the Progressive Conservative Party after 44 years in power — and sent Jim Prentice, a Harper ally and former federal minister, who returned from private-sector life to lead Alberta’s ailing PC-led government, back into retirement.

Under the leadership of Jack Layton, the NDP made its first major breakthrough in the 2011 elections. With voters unenthusiastic about Michael Ignatieff’s leadership of the center-left Liberals and with Québec voters in particular tiring of the pro-independence Bloq québécois, the NDP won 103 seats, including  59 of Québec’s 75 ridings. It was enough to make the NDP, for the first time in Canadian history, the official opposition. Tragically, Layton died of cancer less than four months after the election, depriving the party of a figure whose personality and integrity were a key element of the so-called ‘orange crush.’

Mulcair, a moderate with aims of winning over moderate as well as progressive voters, won the leadership in March 2012, dispatching Brian Topp, his more leftist rival. A French Canadian who got his start in the rough and tumble of Québec’s local politics, Mulcair served for 13 years in the provincial assembly and won plaudits as the minister of environment from 2003 to 2006 under Liberal premier Jean Charest. Mulcair made the jump to federal politics during the 2007 election, easily winning a riding from Outremont.

With the Liberals stuck in rebuilding-mode, the NDP took the lead in many surveys throughout 2012. But with the election of Justin Trudeau as the new Liberal leader in early 2013, the NDP’s support tanked — to just barely above 20% in many polls. That’s essentially where Mulcair’s NDP remained for the rest of 2013, 2014 and early 2015.  Continue reading NDP rises to lead as Canadian election approaches

A Twitterstorm on the political fallout from the Greek deal

A quick rundown of where Greece and Europe stand in the wake of today’s early-morning deal:Greece Flag Icon

How Schäuble’s failures shape the eurozone fight

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble attends a German-Greek chamber of industry meeting in Athens, on July 18, 2013. Local authorities stepped up security in the capital for the visit, as Schaeuble is seen by some in Greece as a champion of the tough austerity policies that have gripped the country for the past four years. AFP PHOTO / Angelos TzortzinisPhoto credit to Angelos Tzortzinis /AFP.

Though it’s Yanis Varoufakis, the Marxist economist and recently deposed Greek finance minister, who is typically painted in the media as the drag on the long-running negotiations to avoid a Greek default and keep the country within the eurozone, his intransigence has been met at every step of the way by Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, whose sneering impatience for Greek demands has been no less personal than Varoufakis’s over-the-top denunciations of European ministerial colleagues as ‘terrorists.’Germany Flag Icon

Schäuble’s sharp-tongued wit has been a constant through five years of negotiations that stretch back long before prime minister Alexis Tsipras and the far-left SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left) took power in January. On Thursday, Schäuble joked to an increasingly concerned US treasury secretary Jack Lew that he would be willing to swap Europe’s Greece troubles for Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

When it comes to Greece, Schäuble is in many ways Germany’s opposition leader, even though he’s a stalwart of chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party). He’s made it clear throughout the course of negotiations that he favors pushing Greece out of the eurozone, a result that other European leaders worry could destroy the single currency’s credibility — not to mention plunge Greece into an even more painful depression. Back in 2011 and 2012, few German politicians — just a handful of grey-haired Bavarian conservatives — were willing to call for Greece’s eurozone exit. Today, however, it’s a mainstream position, even on the center-left.

Germany is currently governed through a ‘grand coalition’ between the center-right CDU and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) that includes around 80% of the entire Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament. Nevertheless, Merkel is limited in her maneuverability — if she gives too much to Greece, there’s a chance Schäuble could lead a revolt of CDU backbenchers who already worry Merkel has transformed the party into a political amoeba that sways to the path of political expediency.

As Tsipras and his new finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos wait for Greece’s creditors to evaluation the government’s probable last proposal for debt relief, there’s a lot that lies in Schäuble’s hands. Even as French president François Hollande has directed his entire economic leadership — prime minister Manuel Valls, finance minister Michel Sapin and economic minister Emmanuel Macron — to help save Greece’s place in the eurozone, German doubts about the deal, a three-year bailout of over €50 billion, could still derail Saturday’s deadline. A full summit of the European Union’s leaders has been scheduled for Sunday. With banks running out of money and Greece banks nearing insolvency, European leaders have made it clear that if they don’t reach a deal with Tsipras on Saturday, they will spend Sunday addressing how Greece will exit the single currency.

Germany, as the largest member-state, is the largest contribution to any stability funding that comes from the European Commission and/or the European Central Bank. It’s currently on the hook for around €90 billion of Greece’s €5320 billion public debt. Merkel, despite doubts in her own party, has supported Greece’s two bailouts in the past, though she’s done so by demanding harsh strings that satisfy her own conservative flank and, of course, German taxpayers, who are ultimately on the hook for nearly one-third of Greece’s bailout debt.

Back in 2010, with a nod to moral hazard, Merkel cruelly told then-prime minister George Papandreou that she had to make the bailout as difficult as possible:

Mr. Papandreou says that when he asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for gentler conditions in 2010, she replied that the aid program had to hurt. “We want to make sure nobody else will want this,” Ms. Merkel told him.

In principle, it was Merkel’s nod toward moral hazard — she couldn’t give the Greeks terms that Spain, Italy, Ireland, Portugal or the Baltic states might soon want. But in practice, it was a sop to the German right, which was growing ever more disgusted at consecutive Greek governments, which haven’t had the strongest reform record.

But Schäuble makes Merkel look relatively welcoming. The 72-year-old finance minister, according to reports, apparently asked Greek negotiators how much money it would take to get them to leave the eurozone. Continue reading How Schäuble’s failures shape the eurozone fight

Three ways Europe and Greece could blow their last chance at a debt deal

varoufakiseuclidPhoto credit to EPA/BGNES.

The world woke up to the news Monday morning that outspoken Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis had, at long lost, been dismissed by his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.Greece Flag Icon

Varoufakis (pictured above, right, behind Greece’s new finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos) had become, to say the least, a brake on negotiations with the Eurogroup, even though his widespread popularity and strident anti-austerity boosted Tsipras’s government to a stunning victory in Sunday’s debt negotiations referendum, whereby 61.31% of voters rejected a prior plan offered by Greece’s European creditors.

European officials struggled to reach consensus with Varoufakis, who just last week, in the middle of the rushed referendum campaign, referred to his European ministerial colleagues as ‘terrorists.’ Tsakalotos, an Oxford-trained economist, is expected to take a more mild-mannered approach, and he already supplanted Varoufakis as Greece’s chief negotiator back in April. That was, however, only to the extent anyone could supplant the motorbike-riding, free-wheeling Varoufakis, who gave his final press conference as finance minister Sunday night in a t-shirt.

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RELATED: If Grexit comes,
Greece will have wasted five years in depression

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Varoufakis’s resignation, along with a pledge of national unity across Greece’s mainstream domestic political spectrum, breathed new life into hopes for last-minute talks for a third bailout, allowing the country to reopen its illiquid and perhaps insolvent banks, lift (at least partially) capital controls that have limited daily cash withdrawals to €60, restore liquidity to ATMs that have run out of cash altogether, address Greece’s €1.6 billion default on June 30 to the International Monetary Fund and meet a July 20 deadline to make a €3.5 billion payment to the European Central Bank.

For all the celebration that followed the resounding ‘no’ vote in Sunday’s referendum, the coming Sunday could bring financial austerity far more severe than Greece has known in the past five years, marked by a nearly 30% drop in GDP growth and a 26% unemployment rate. Failure to reach a deal could result in a shortage of cash, food, medicine and so many other necessities to the extent that European leaders are whispering that Greece could require humanitarian aid.

Notwithstanding the dire consequences, a deal is not necessarily likely — or even possible. If they’re lucky, the European Union has five days to prevent Grexit. Here are four reasons why it will be so difficult in the hours ahead.  Continue reading Three ways Europe and Greece could blow their last chance at a debt deal

Primakov’s legacy lives on in aggressive Russian foreign policy

primakovPhoto credit to AFP.

In an alternative universe, with just a twist in Russian politics, Yevgeny Primakov might have died, at age 85 late last month, as his country’s president.Russia Flag Icon

Instead, he’ll be known for what the international community remembers as ‘Primakov’s loop’ — his order that a Washington-bound plane across the mid-Atlantic reverse course and turn back to Moscow upon hearing the news that the United States had launched military action against Russia’s ally Serbia in 1999. Though it was ultimately a nationalist gesture that did nothing to stop the eventual NATO-led action in Serbia and the de facto independence of Kosovo, it was the highlight of Primakov’s turbulent nine-month tenure as prime minister.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin turned to Primakov in a moment of crisis, after the collapse of the Russian ruble and an economic collapse that left the once-proud country even more at the mercy of international institutions. Despite narrowly winning reelection over a cast of misfits, nationalists and washed-up communists in 1996, Yeltsin failed in his second term to restore the kind of economic prosperity that capitalism seemed so loftily to promise in the heady days following the Soviet Union’s breakup. Privatization of public industries amounted to a botched firesale of national assets, delivering wealth into the hands of a few lucky and well-placed businessmen who made obscene fortunes in the process.

A former spook who started his career as a writer for Pravda in Cairo in the 1960s, Primakov would become the chief Russian strategic on Middle East affairs across a career that spanned the Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, reached its apex under a wary Yeltsin and concluded with a turn as Russia’s chief envoy to Iraq in the lead-up to the 2003 US invasion. Primakov, not surprisingly, vociferously opposed US military action and had nurtured a decades-long relationship with Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein. Continue reading Primakov’s legacy lives on in aggressive Russian foreign policy

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