Alan Johnson’s endorsement for Cooper may scramble Labour race

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Alan Johnson, a former union official, former home secretary and one of the most highly regarded figures of the New Labour high guard has endorsed Yvette Cooper (pictured above) for the Labour leadership contest.United Kingdom Flag Icon

It’s been a surprising election, and the most beguiling twist of all has been the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn, the 66-year-old socialist, as the frontrunner among Labour rank-and-file. Polls consistently show that Corbyn has a wide lead over Cooper, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall for first preference votes. Corbyn has won the support of many unions across Great Britain, including Unite, the largest labour union backing the party.

Johnson, writing in The Guardian, argues that Cooper presents the best chance to unite Labour in the post-Miliband era — and he makes much of the argument that Labour, founded in part on the principle of full suffrage for women, has the chance to elect its first female leader: Continue reading Alan Johnson’s endorsement for Cooper may scramble Labour race

China’s stock market crash is a political, not economic, crisis

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In January 2014, the Shanghai Composite Index was hovering at around 2,000. China Flag Icon

Today, it’s ‘down’ to just above 3,600 and everyone from Beijing to London is gnashing teeth and wrenching hands over the great Chinese stock market crash of 2015.

However, in the light of the massive gains of the past two years, the current bear market seems more like a correction than a crash. You wouldn’t know it, though, from the response of China’s one-party state, which has intervened in just about every way imaginable to prop up the equities market.

Part of the anxiety, both in China and abroad, is due to the country’s role in the global economy — as the era of double-digit annual growth slows to ‘just’ 6% or 7% growth, global demand from the world’s largest economy will invariably slow. That will have a global impact. But no one expected China to grow at spectacularly outsized rates for decades without end, and that alone isn’t necessarily enough to torpedo the US or European economies. The ups and downs of China’s wild stock markets, moreover, aren’t necessarily correlated with long-term economic growth. That doesn’t obviate some of the real harms suffered by largely unsophisticated retail investors who dumped their savings into Chinese stocks during the rally of the past year and a half.

This underlines that the real crisis is political, not economic. Under pressure to ‘do something,’ the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) is doing a little of everything — devaluing the yuan, halting new IPOs, prohibiting trading in some of the hardest-hit stocks, buying stock in an attempt to keep prices artificially high, cutting interest rates. Certain institutional investors will not be permitted to trade (i.e. sell) stocks for up to six months.

It’s a panicky response that only further perpetuates the ‘crash’ narrative and further sell-offs. But it’s also the response of a governing regime that knows — and knows that the Chinese people know — there’s no competing political party to blame. Chinese leaders often argue that the one-party system incentivizes long-term policy planning because there’s no short-term gains to be had from elections every two years. But the acute knowledge that the Communist Party owns every policy (and every policy misstep) cuts both ways. The current stock market turbulence shows that Chinese Communists, just like American Republicans or Democrats, aren’t above taking hasty steps to end short-term political pain.  Continue reading China’s stock market crash is a political, not economic, crisis

Why Kazakhstan should have won the 2022 Winter Games

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It’s official — the International Olympic Committee has awarded the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to Beijing.China Flag Iconkazakhstan

Ultimately, China’s successful bid faced little competition after Oslo and several other finalist cities withdrew from consideration after cost considerations and other hassles. Beijing, which was bidding to become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games, already hosted the 2008 Summer Games as a way to prove its mettle as a host city, and it has already built much of the Olympic infrastructure it would need to host again — sparing its sole competitor, Almaty, from the task of building stadiums that, as in most Olympic host cities, lay fallow for decades thereafter. Kazakhstan has relatively little experience at throwing international events, and it certainly doesn’t have the budget that China (or Russia’s 2014 Sochi Winter Games) could have promised.

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan would have been the first central Asian country ever to host either the winter or the summer games, and by 2022, it will gather experience through hosting the 2011 Asian Winter Games and the 2017 Winter Universiade. It also had the benefit of offering real snow, unlike Beijing, a fact that its proponents reiterated throughout the competition.

While Almaty’s selection might have raised more uncertainty than Beijing’s, it would have more greatly fulfilled the Olympic Charter’s stated purpose:

The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth people through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.

Central Asia has long been overshadowed by its neighbors Russia (which controlled the region when all five of its countries were swept into Soviet Union) and China (which is home to the region’s largest and most dynamic city, Urümqi). But its location has made it incredibly important to global trade and geopolitics — and, in the 21st century, to Russia, to China or to the United States, a leverage that Kazakhstan and its neighbors have used to great effect, and it that’s what Kazakh diplomats mean when they speak about their country’s ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy.

It’s hard to think of a region of the world so little understood and even more rarely considered than central Asia, and Almaty’s selection as the site of the 2022 Winter Games would have drawn a rare and welcome spotlight on Kazakhstan, specifically, and central Asia generally — warts and all.

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RELATED: As Putin blusters over Kazakhstan,
what follows Nazarbayev?

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And there are a great many warts. Kazakhstan has been ruled by the same man, the 75-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, since 1989 when the country was still a republic in the Soviet Union. Despite duly conducted show ‘elections,’ it’s not a democracy and, also like China, it’s received harsh international condemnation for human rights abuses. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakh nationalism (vis-à-vis Russian nationalism) has been a greater priority than ethnic or sexual minority rights. Its sudden oil wealth, developed over the past two decades, has boosted the odd architecture of Astana, the country’s new capital, and widening corruption (it ranked 126 in the latest Transparency International rankings of corruption perceptions — worse than China’s ranking of 100 but better than Russia and the other four ‘stans’ of central Asia). Its dependence on petrodollars, as oil prices remain subdued, demonstrates just how much the economy should diversify. Its record on press freedom is very poor, but not quite as poor as Beijing’s. On balance, Kazakhstan is no worse than China when it comes to human rights and democracy and, on many vectors, it’s a less repressive country than China.

Of course, Kazakhstan (a country of 17 million people) doesn’t boast one of the world’s largest economies. Yet, at between $212 billion and $231 billion, it’s more than three times larger than the closest central Asian alternative, Turkmenistan. For all of Nazarbayev’s failings, he personifies Kazakh pride at clawing back their own nation-state after centuries of Russian colonization and economic subjugation that began in the early 1700s. Nazarbayev has used his petro-fueled bully pulpit to call for more ambition among the Muslim world, scolding the World Islamic Forum in 2011 for dragging its feet on modernizing. He’s a hero among the nuclear non-proliferation set because of his decision to give up Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons — a policy that Nazarbayev has skillfully used to generate goodwill on the global stage and in the international media.

Perhaps most importantly, with Russian designs on its near-abroad ever more menacing in president Vladimir Putin’s third term, from Ukraine to Georgia, central Asia has also felt some uneasy pressure from Moscow. Leading Russian politicians hungrily eye Kazakhstan, especially the northern plains where many ethnic Russians currently reside (ethnic Russians comprise nearly 24% of the population). There’s a real question as to whether Kazakhstan will remain a stable, independent country in the coming post-Nazarbayev era — Putin could easily take advantage of turmoil if the political transition to the next generation of leaders isn’t smooth.

Almaty, still the country’s mountain-dazzled cultural and financial center (but no longer the capital since 1997), lies in the far southeastern corner of the country, closer to China and Kyrgyzstan (and even Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) than Russia. That’s one reason why the country, just six years after independence, moved its capital to the northern steppe, transforming sleepy Akmola into a city of over 850,000 today — that’s certainly some feat for a country aiming to erect Olympic infrastructure in the next seven years.

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Moreover, choosing Beijing doesn’t rid the Olympic committee of its woes with respect to human rights and autocracy — China’s record is arguably worse than Kazakhstan’s on both counts. Given that there are around 50 Chinese cities with populations at least as large as Chicago, it’s somewhat disappointing that Beijing wants two bites at the same Olympic apple. China is far more diverse and culturally engaging that its urban eastern coastline. Urümqi, in Muslim-majority Xinjiang, or the mountainous (and snowy) Tibetan plateau, one suspects, were off-limits due to the government’s anxiety that separatists might try to hijack the games for political purposes.

Critics note that the 2008 Beijing ceremony, like the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, did little to promote human rights, and they point to the egregious conditions of foreign workers in Qatar, which is (for now) hosting the 2022 World Cup, despite the ongoing tumult over corruption at FIFA. Handing the 2022 Games to Beijing will do just as little to influence Chinese behavior.

But there’s a strong case that Kazakhstan would have been more susceptible to international influence — it’s not a member of the United Nations Security Council, for one, and Nazarbayev has gone to great lengths to portray his rule as just, if not always liberal or democratic. He’s sensitive to international pressure on democracy and human rights, considered renaming the country to eliminate its status as ‘just one of the ‘-istans’ in Eurasia, and his government nearly went into a tailspin when a comic mock-u-mentary portrayed the country in a silly, provincial light.

Of course, the 2022 Winter Games would have been a Nazarbayev legacy project, from start to finish, but no less than they’ll now be a showcase for China’s ruling Communist Party — in 2022, China’s leader Xi Jinping (pictured above with Nazarbayev) will be prepared to step down after a decade in power.

But they’re also a project that could have bolstered Kazakhstan’s independence and transformed the image of central Asia worldwide. It’s difficult to think of another Olympic ceremony, short of the Barcelona Summer Games in 1992, that could have had as much transformative value — not even the pending 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first games to be held in Brazil or in South America.

Handing the 2022 Winter Games to Almaty would have highlighted a region with has a unique culture and a storied Silk Road history at the crossroads of world history. This more intimate understanding is precisely why the Games exist, and Beijing’s selection marks a wasted opportunity to further fundamental Olympic goals.

The rational case for supporting Corbyn’s Labour leadership

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The entire political and media elite in Great Britain are today descending on Jeremy Corbyn (pictured above), the surprise frontrunner in the race to become the Labour Party’s next leader. United Kingdom Flag Icon

Today, for example, The Guardian‘s veteran political sage Michael White disqualifies Corbyn as, in essence, a socks-and-sandals hippie who would fail spectacularly:

I know there are good ideas in there, too, and that his lack of spin, his candour (sort of) and informality (etc) make a refreshing change from the timid incrementalism of the post-Blair Labour world. But running a party, let alone a government dealing with other governments, is a disciplined business. It’s got to hang together, which is not easy, as the Cameron government often shows…. Labour activists, the ones who do the hard work, are usually more leftwing than Labour voters, let alone floating voters. After 13 years of uneasy compromises in office, they want a leader who believes what they believe. If the price of the comfort blanket is permanent opposition, well, some would accept that too. Shame on them.

There’s a lot of reason to believe that Labour’s top guns will pull out all the stops between now and September to prevent Corbyn’s once-improbable victory, from former prime minister Tony Blair and down through the ranks. Think about how Scottish independence so focused the energies of virtually the entire business and political class of Great Britain last September. If Corbyn still leads the pack by late August, you can imagine much fiercer attacks than anything Corbyn’s seen so far.

Nevertheless, Corbyn is still on the rise. After winning the endorsement of Labour’s largest union, Unite, he nabbed the support of Unison earlier this week, and he won the support of the Communication Workers Union today. For good measure, the CWU, in its endorsement, added that Corbyn was the effective antidote to the ‘Blairite virus.’ Ouch.

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RELATED: Handicapping the race to succeed Cameron as Tory leader

RELATED: Corbyn’s suprise rise in
Labour leadership race highlights chasm

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So what gives? If Ed Miliband, according to so many political professionals, lost the May 2015 general election because he veered too far left, how in the world (so the logic goes) will Corbyn manage by taking Labour far into the retreat of its 1980s thumb-sucking comfort zone? Continue reading The rational case for supporting Corbyn’s Labour leadership

Four reasons why Puerto Rico won’t become a state anytime soon

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For all the comparisons to Greece’s debt crisis, there’s one simple solution that many Puerto Ricans and mainland policymakers are prescribing to solve the commonwealth’s own financial crisis — and it’s not available to Greece or any other eurozone members. PR

Puerto Rico could simply become the 51st American state.

For the past 63 years, it’s been an estado libre asociado — a self-governing commonwealth that lies uncomfortably between a state and a territory, with bespoke elements unique to Puerto Rico, both good and bad.

Republican presidential contender and former Florida governor Jeb Bush supports statehood and in 2012, both US president Barack Obama and his rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said they would support it if a clear majority of Puerto Ricans want statehood — Puerto Rico held a status referendum in the same election year. Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s Democratic-affiliated non-voting delegate to the US  House of Representatives, made the case for it in an op-ed in The New York Times earlier this month.

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RELATED: The next debt crisis in the United States may
require a Puerto Rico bailout

RELATED: Could Puerto Rico really become the 51st US state?

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It’s true that both the Greek and Puerto Rican crises share much in common. Both governments are tethered to monetary policies that aren’t necessarily optimal. Functionally, that means neither Athens nor San Juan have a currency that they can depreciate to spur exports. Neither the European Central Bank nor the Federal Reserve can realistically be expected to tailor monetary policies to local needs. That, in turn, has exacerbated the effects from the economic forces of the past decade — the 2008-09 subprime crisis in the United States and the 2009-10 sovereign debt crisis in Europe, along with the economic pain of a nearly decade-long recession, rounds of tax increases and spending cuts, and accompanying rises in unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Lower growth, of course, means lower revenues and higher budget deficits — and more borrowing means higher yields that are now sucking Puerto Rico into a downward spiral. Alejandro García Padilla, its governor, made clear in late June that he believes the island’s $72 billion in debt is unsustainable.

In both scenarios, Greeks (through the Schengen zone) and Puerto Ricans (through the universal grant of US citizenship made in 1917 to allow Puerto Ricans to fight in World War I) can relocate to more economically prosperous European and American regions with ease. Migration means that fewer Puerto Ricans are left to service the growing debt — or build businesses and communities that can provide the revenues to fund schools and infrastructure. The island’s population is creeping downward; from a peak of 3.83 million in 2004, it was down to just 3.55 million last year. The pace of emigration is rising — to about 50,000 annually.

There are key differences as well between Greece and Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s status is a relic of the late colonial era, and the United States acquired the island in 1898 as a result of its war against Spain (in Cuba, the Philippines and elsewhere). From the beginning, full-fledged independence has never been a popular option among Puerto Ricans. But nationalist sentiment rose so strongly by 1950 that two pro-sovereignty activists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, attempted to assassinate US president Harry Truman.

The US policy response, Operation Bootstrap, adopted throughout the following decade to industrialize the island, transformed Puerto Rico into a more modern, urban place, even as American businesses consolidated the island’s farmland. But it never whisked Puerto Rico into a miraculous Caribbean Singapore, and it decimated small-scale agriculture.

Puerto Rico also suffers from the classic ‘island effect’ that economists sometimes describe of countries where dependence on imports and higher transport costs artificially increase the cost of living — a condition that’s often found throughout the Caribbean and islands, but that also affects Israel, a country surrounded by hostile Arab states with virtually no cross-border trade.

Most important of all, there’s no real talk of ‘PRexit,’ because no one believes that Puerto Rico could just abandon the ‘dollarzone.’ There’s no plan sitting in US treasury secretary Jack Lew’s desk that outlines the potential steps because it’s so much more implausible than a ‘Grexit.’

García Padilla is right that the crisis, decades in the making, is due to political factors as well as economic. Default may come soon — the Puerto Rican government says it doesn’t have enough cash to make a scheduled August 1 payment of nearly $170 million. That could launch a messy years-long default process, with the island trying to force haircuts on its bondholders. If San Juan can’t demand debt relief, protracted litigation might result in court rulings forcing Puerto Rico’s government to prioritize creditors over the salaries of public servants — galvanizing so much economic suffering that it would draw international condemnation over America’s neocolonial version of Greece.

There’s no effective Chapter 9 process for Puerto Rico, unlike for US municipalities, so the alternative of an orderly Detroit-style restructuring, isn’t available. The Obama administration, moreover, has made it clear that it doesn’t support a bailout — and it’s not clear that Republicans in Congress would be willing to provide the funds for any bailout.

So calls for statehood, in both Puerto Rico and on the mainland, and on the left and right, are on the rise, and predictably so. But as genuine as those calls might be, it’s a very, very unlikely result– and that will likely be true for a long time.

Here’s why. Continue reading Four reasons why Puerto Rico won’t become a state anytime soon

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

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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?

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN