How the Le Pen family feud influences France’s 2017 election

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Sometimes, the cruelest cuts in international politics come not only from within your own party, but from within your very own family.France Flag Icon

Just ask David Miliband.

After months of increasingly strained relations, however, Marine Le Pen has now engineered the first break yet with her controversial father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he was formally ousted last week from the party that he founded, the far-right Front National (National Front). The legal move followed a political move earlier in the summer, when 84% of the party’s 30,000 followers also voted to expel Jean-Marie from the party that he founded in 1972.

In one sense, the Le Pen family spat has been a distraction from Marine Le Pen’s long-term goals of projecting her party as the true heir to French conservatism and building a majoritarian coalition that can woo not only traditional right-wing voters but left-wing voters disenchanted with French president François Hollande and the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and the neoliberal economic prescriptions that now dominate policymaking within the eurozone.

Since her party easily outpaced the ruling Socialists and Sarkozy’s center-right party in the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen has spent much of 2015 feuding with her own father.

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RELATED: Marine Le Pen is still a longshot
to win France’s presidency in 2017

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What’s worse, the spat showcases just how problematic it can be when a political party becomes tied up too strongly in family dynasty — it’s as true for the French right as for Indian secularism or Canada’s center-left. As Marine tries to consolidate the Front’s rank-and-file under her leadership, with regional elections approaching in the autumn, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 25-year old MP from southern France, could still make her life difficult.

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Maréchal-Le Pen (pictured above) has been more sympathetic to her grandfather and, unlike Marine’s journey toward economic nationalism, popular in northern France, Marion is far more of a traditional economic liberal and, with her southern base, far more focused on immigration. In December, Maréchal-Le Pen will be running for the presidency of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region; Marion Le Pen, for her part, will be contesting the presidency of the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. The party will be watching keenly to see which variety of the Front‘s politics will be more successful.

But in another sense, tossing the 87-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen to the side in 2015 could help Marine in 2017 as she continues to remake the party’s image — and brand it further away from the often anti-Semitic tones of her father’s leadership, which was also rooted in his experience as a soldier fighting to defend France’s colonial holdings in Algeria. Remarks about Nazi gas chambers being just a ‘detail of history,’ as it turns out, do not go down well for Marine’s push for a Front sanitaire.

Marine’s mission

Instead, Marine Le Pen is forging an identity that blends welfare-heavy statism, social conservatism and a nationalism that rejects both immigration and European integration. There’s a reason it’s called populism. Rallying support for ‘a strong France’ and opposition to a feckless European superstate that now essentially dictate France’s monetary, justice and border control policy, championing the comfort of an unreconstructed cradle-to-grave social welfare and attacking the ‘other’ of eastern European, African and Middle Eastern immigrants has an undeniably popular allure to many voters whose economic futures are far less certain than they were two generations ago. It’s attracted some odd supporters, including a puzzlingly high number of urban LGBT voters — Marine’s chief adviser, Florian Philippot, and the architect of Marine’s anti-eurozone policy, is openly gay. While Marine discreetly avoided the most intense battles of the same-sex marriage fight in 2013, Maréchal-Le Pen embraced the opposition to marriage equality.

That means that Le Pen has found common cause in recent years with a strange number of odd political bedfellows. That includes Nigel Farage, the anti-immigrant head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who encourages a British exit from the European Union in the 2017 referendum, and Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant crusader of Dutch politics. But she also encouraged Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in his standoff with European finance ministers over Greek debt relief (though Le Pen rejected him in stark terms when he agreed in July to enter negotiations for a third bailout for his country). She has also voiced sympathy for Russian president Vladimir Putin in his two-year quasi-standoff with Ukraine.

Marine’s bet seems to be working as French voters begin to focus on the contours of what could be an unpredictable presidential election in May 2017. In IFOP’s latest August 2015 poll, Le Pen leads all contenders for the first-round vote, garnering 26% in a race against Hollande (20%) and former president Nicolas Sarkozy (24%), guaranteeing her a spot in a runoff against Sarkozy. Though her father made the runoff in the 2002 presidential election against then-president Jacques Chirac, Jean-Marie Le Pen only narrowly managed a second-place victory over the Socialist candidate, prime minister Lionel Jospin. Continue reading How the Le Pen family feud influences France’s 2017 election

Singapore calls snap semicentennial elections

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Fresh off the feel-good celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, the rulinSingapore Flag Icong People’s Action Party (PAP) is moving up elections by more than a year to September 11 — just 17 days from now.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise, and a sometimes-divided political opposition has spent the summer mobilizing to prepare for the vote.

Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong is the son of Singapore’s longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew, who died at age 91 in March and is widely credited with Singapore’s transformation from a colonial-era trade hub (even 50 years ago, it wasn’t quite a sleepy backwater) into a major international financial center. Breakneck GDP growth in the last half of the 20th century, however, is slowing today, and critics argue that Lee Kuan Yew ran an authoritarian city-state with little freedom for speech, organization the press, political opposition or even, in many cases, individual expression.

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RELATED: Is Lee Kuan Yew’s role in Singapore’s rise overrated?

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As China’s economy sputters under the weight of a stock market crash, Singapore’s economy is already feeling the effects. Its GDP fell by an annualized 4% in the second quarter of 2015, and its annual GDP growth rate is now estimated to be between 2% and 2.5%, some of the weakest growth in the country’s post-independence history.

In the most recent election in May 2011, the PAP won just 60.14% of the vote, with the second-placed Workers’ Party of Singapore (WP) winning a mere 12.82%. Still, it was the worst showing for the PAP since it took power in 1959 — six years before independence, when Lee Kuan Yew enthusiastically embraced a role for Singapore within the Malaysian Federation.

In the fragile years after independence, first-generation Singaporeans were more willing to embrace the tradeoffs between freedom and economic growth. And Lee certainly delivered. On a nominal basis, Singapore has one of the world’s highest levels of GDP per capita — and, after Qatar and Australia, the third-highest in Asia. At over $56,000, it exceeds New Zealand, Hong Kong and even the United Arab Emirates. The political marketplace is far less mature. For example, though the country has first-world living standards, Freedom House ranks it as merely partly free, and Singapore ranked just 150th in Reporter Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index last year — just lower than Burundi, Ethiopia, Russia, Afghanistan, Angola and Tajikistan.  Continue reading Singapore calls snap semicentennial elections

China’s “crisis” continues…

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Just a reminder to everyone freaking out about the secondary effects of China’s equity markets: the Shanghai composite was trading much, much lower — even after today’s “crash” — on this day exactly one year ago. China’s having a correction, and that’s clear from the five-year trend.China Flag Icon

The ‘crisis’ here isn’t economic, it’s political. It’s the ineffective response of the ruling Communist Party and, more importantly, the cognizance of over 1 billion Chinese subjects that Xi Jinping isn’t infallible.

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

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Greece to vote in September snap elections

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Ballot-worn and crisis-weary Greeks will go to the polls for the third time in nine months in what amounts to a fresh referendum on the country’s third European bailout.Greece Flag Icon

Facing a growing insurgency in his own government as he implements the terms of a new European Union-backed bailout of up to €96 billion, prime minister Alexis Tsipras will dissolve the Hellenic Parliament and call early elections for September 20 — in an autumn where Turkey, just across the Aegean Sea, is also likely to hold snap elections after the apparent failure of coalition talks.

There’s already been a disproportionately large amount of ink spilled on poor Greece in 2015. With the first disbursement of the country’s third bailout accomplished, though, there’s probably no better time for Tsipras to go to the electorate. The early expectation is that Tsipras will survive the elections and govern with a more stable and likely centrist majority. But if you’ve learned anything about Greek politics this year, it’s that you should expect the unexpected twists and turns of a country that’s struggling culturally, economically and politically to exit crisis mode.

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RELATED: Both Greece and Turkey could be headed
for autumn snap elections

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From anti-austerity crusade in January to a third bailout in July 

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Tsipras (pictured above), the leader of SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left), won election in January on a pledge to reduce the terms of Greece’s memorandum and provide relief from the effects of a half-decade of austerity imposed on Greece’s fiscal policy — all without endangering Greek membership in the eurozone. After months of talks, headed by his outspoken one-time finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, it became clear that Greece did not have the political leverage that Tsipras hoped would force a more lenient deal for his country. By the end of June, it was clear that the eurozone’s finance ministers had no appetite for extending Greece’s second bailout program without additional concessions to cut Greece’s still-bloated public sector and to reform its economy.

Tsipras then hastily called a referendum for July 5, campaigning against the latest deal on offer by the Europeans, and the ‘no’ campaign (‘oxi‘) won a stronger-than-expected victory, despite closing Greece’s banks and imposing capital controls that restricted daily ATM withdrawals, at their nadir, to just €60.

Despite the referendum, Tsipras returned to the negotiating table and ultimately accepted a proposal for the third bailout — with terms even tougher than those rejected in the July 5 referendum. Tsipras, who dismissed Varoufakis as his finance minister hours after the referendum, argued that Greece had to choose between two tough choices — austerity tied to yet another bailout program or the insolvency and financial chaos that would result from a disorderly exit from the eurozone. Tsipras essentially admitted at the time that he had no ‘plan B,’ and that his country lacked the foreign reserves to establish a new currency in the event of ‘Grexit.’

Leftist rebels increasingly split from SYRIZA over bailout

SYRIZA, until recently a loose coalition of leftists ranging from mildly anti-austerity centrists to former communists, almost immediately split over whether to accept the third bailout, in spite of the chaotic alternative. In particular, Varoufakis and then-energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, the leader of Left Platform (Αριστερή Πλάτφορμα), have been vocal critics of the deal, and parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou attacked it vociferously in several key votes.

For the past month, however, Tsipras has pushed through the terms of the third bailout with dwindling support from his own party, and opposition MPs have kept his government and the bailout afloat. SYRIZA controls 149 of 300 seats in the parliament, and its junior governing partner, the nationalist right-wing and anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες), control just 13 more seats. But by last week, support from within Tsipras’s coalition dropped to below 120.

Ultimately, Tsipras wants to call snap elections because he can’t function indefinitely with a government that refuses to deliver him a majority. By calling a fresh vote, Tsipras hopes to win a mandate for his new approach and for the new bailout program, though even Tsipras himself has grumbled that its terms will continue to retard Greek GDP growth and employment, keeping Greece stuck in its six-year economic depression.

There are no reliable August polls, but surveys from the summer show that SYRIZA, under Tsipras’s leadership, still commands a massive majority of around 40% compared to just 20% for the center-right opposition, New Democracy (ND, Νέα Δημοκρατία).

But we have no polls that show what might happen if, as seems likely, Left Platform splits formally from SYRIZA. This is a crucial question because the party that wins the most votes in an election also wins a ‘bonus’ of 50 MPs. So if Left Platform steals a significant share of SYRIZA’s voters, another third party — most likely New Democracy — could win the election with a much smaller share of the vote.

Tsipras is a wily campaigner, though, and he should benefit from the fact that for the first six months of his premiership, he engaged in substantial brinksmanship in pursuit of a better deal for Greece.

He failed.

So the challenge for Varoufakis and Left Platform will be to describe how they would otherwise succeed — and how a eurozone exit would make life easier for Greece’s poor and its shrinking middle class. After all, Varoufakis and Lafazanis were key players in Tspiras’s government until July. At some point, voters will realize that the SYRIZA rebels have little more to offer than Greece’s Communist Party (KKE, Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας), which won only 5.5% in the January election. Tspiras, having followed Varoufakis’s advice, brought his country to the edge of Grexit. Tsipras will argue that Left Platform and the Greek Communists offer no solution that will keep Greece in the eurozone, and he’ll have the political scars of the last six months to prove it.

The state of Greece’s center-right and center-left opposition

Ultimately, however, Tsipras’s greatest threat may come from the right, which encompasses not just the traditional Greek right, but the center and the center-left as well. They will argue that Tsipras’s hardball negotiation tactics not only failed, but needlessly disrupted a nascent economic recovery and led to the flight of billions of deposits from Greek banks. And that’s not incorrect. But Tsipras will argue that, unlike his predecessors, conservative Antonis Samaras and leftist George Papandreou, he fought for Greek sovereignty in the face of the eurozone’s unelected officials and tried to reintroduce the democratic voice of the Greek people into the debate over Greece’s economic future.

Moreover, by calling snap elections so soon, Tsipras also hopes he can win a mandate before even more economic pain befalls voters from the additional pension cuts and an increase in Greece’s VAT required under the new bailout.

With former prime minister Antonis Samaras’s resignation after the July referendum, New Democracy has removed one of the most toxic figures in Greek politics from its leadership. But its acting leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, in office for six weeks, hardly seems prepared for the sudden challenge of unseating Tsipras. Nor does Fofi Gennimata, the leader of Greece’s once-dominant center-left party, PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement — Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα). She’s held the PASOK leadership only since June 14.

Theodorakis

Tsipras’s most credible opponent will be centrist Stavros Theodorakis, a former television reporter and commentator who founded To Potami (Το Ποτάμι, which means ‘The River’), a centrist, pro-European party, in February 2014. Theodorakis (pictured above) harshly condemned Tsipras’s decision to call a referendum over extending Greece’s bailout, but he has nevertheless supported Tsipras’s efforts to enact Greece’s new bailout since mid-July. As a more pragmatic and centrist ‘Tsipras 2.0’ is emerging, the distance between him and Theodorakis is shrinking.

If Tsipras wins, that means he will look towards To Potami as a coalition partner in his next government; until then, however, he will be fighting with Theodorakis over the same pool of centrist and center-left voters.

Though the Independent Greeks have backed Tsipras throughout the ups and downs of the last seven months, it’s not clear how such an anti-austerity party will hold onto its support after having embraced a new bailout memorandum. Its leader, defense minister Panos Kammenos, could face an uphill battle in selling the bailout deal. If ANEL collapses, however, it could be to the gain of Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή), a eurosceptic, anti-bailout, anti-immigrant and neo-fascist group that vies with To Potami for third place in the polls, typically with between 5% and 8% support.

Canada’s dysfunctional Senate becomes top campaign issue

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You might think it’s hard to imagine any legislative chamber more dysfunctional than the US Senate, with its arcane rules, political polarization and virtual requirement that all legislation survive by a filibuster-proof majority.Canada Flag Icon

But Canada’s upper-chamber Senate actually surpasses its American counterpart for ineffectiveness — and as Canadians begin to focus on the October general election, a scandal involving expenses that implicates prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff and Harper’s belated push for Senate reform could play a pivotal role in the campaign.

Unlike U.S. senators, Canadian senators aren’t (typically) elected. Instead, they are appointed by the governor-general, the mostly ceremonial representative of Canada’s even more ceremonial head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. In practice, though, Senate appointments are made upon the prime minister’s recommendation, and he (or she) typically advances candidates on a political basis. Often, prime ministers appoint former MPs and party grandees who have actually lost elections, further emphasizing the undemocratic nature of the Senate.

The Senate’s 105 seats are allotted by province — but not in any way proportional to Canada’s population in the 21st century — Ontario and Québec have 24 each, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick 10 each and British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland each have six. Prince Edward Island, with a population of around 150,000, has four senators — that’s two-thirds the allotment for British Columbia, which is home to over 4.6 million Canadians. Senators essentially serve for life, though a 1965 reform instituted a mandatory retirement age of 75.

Senate approval is required to enact Canadian legislation. In practice, however, the upper chamber proves a far less contentious chamber than the U.S. Senate, functioning more like the British House of Lords. Bills almost exclusively originate in the lower chamber, the House of Commons. It’s usually a big deal when the Senate blocks legislation — its opposition to the 1988 free trade bill sparked a snap election over NAFTA, and in 2010, it rejected a bill (supported by every party except the Tories) that committed Canada to sharp reductions in carbon emissions by 2020. Generally, though, its activity is limited. Given that its members aren’t elected representatives, that’s probably a reasonable outcome.

Though Harper originally came to power in 2006 on promises to find a constitutional fix, he too eventually appointed his own senators — 59 of them — between 2009 and March 2013, three of which were elected in Alberta under an experimental scheme to elect their own senators.  Continue reading Canada’s dysfunctional Senate becomes top campaign issue

Some unsolicited advice for Hillary Clinton

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Instead of making awkward jokes about Snapchat or sniping about wiping her private server ‘with a cloth,’ why is it so hard for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton — who will almost certainly be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2016, like it or not — to say something like this? USflag

“Look, in 2009, these rules were still in flux, and we actually thought a private server would be more secure than government servers. Reports of Russian and Chinese cyberattacks have borne that fear out, and it’s a multi-faceted problem I will tackle when I’m president.

“Unlike the Bush administration, which sought to hide 5 million emails from the public, I have no intentions of shielding my emails from FOIA. I respect and embrace government transparency as a fundamental value of our democracy. We have worked (and are working) with State and all other government agencies to make sure that all work-related email correspondence is archived and to confirm there were no security breaches.

“To the extent a very small amount of classified information was sent to me over four years, I take responsibility, and I will work with government officials to ameliorate any security breaches. But my actions as Secretary of State were done with the best of intentions and with the highest standards of security and propriety in mind.”

Robby Mook, are you listening?

Both Greece, Turkey could be headed for snap elections

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August may be among the most quiet periods of the year for world politics, especially in Europe as workers spend weeks away on holiday. Greece Flag IconTurkey

But events earlier this week made it very likely that two Mediterranean countries could hold snap elections later this year, adding greater political uncertainty to a European electoral calendar that will see elections for a new Labour leader in the United Kingdom next month, a new regional government in Catalunya (with implications for the Catalan independence movement) and new national governments in Portugal, Poland and Spain.

Greece’s troubled far-left government may call a vote of confidence as it begins implementing the country’s third bailout package, finalized with European leaders last weekend despite onerous conditions that could retard economic growth for years. The bailout and its aftermath could split prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s ruling SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left). With far-left SYRIZA rebels already opposed to the bailout and with other opposition parties refusing to prop up Tsipras’s government, Greece could be forced to hold its second election since January, when SYRIZA first swept to power.

Across the Aegean Sea, Turkey may find itself forced to hold a repeat election after the ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (pictured above) apparently failed to find common ground with Turkey’s two largest opposition parties, leaving it just shy of a majority in the Turkish parliament. Without a working majority, Erdoğan may be forced to call a new election by August 23, when Davutoğlu’s mandate to form a coalition government expires. Continue reading Both Greece, Turkey could be headed for snap elections

Rajapaksa concedes defeat in pivotal Sri Lankan poll

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Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president who ended Sri Lanka’s civil war, was pushed out of office in January when his decision to call a presidential election two years early backfired.SriLanka

In Monday’s parliamentary elections, however, Rajapaksa hoped to win a comeback as prime minister — especially as his successor, one-time ally and former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, struggles to rebalance power away from the presidency and toward the unicameral Sri Lankan parliament.

Rajapaksa appears to have failed, and even before full results were announced, he had conceded defeat on Tuesday morning, handing the once-powerful president his second electoral defeat in eight months. Nevertheless, he appeared to have won election as a member of parliament, where he will continue to attempt to block Sirisena.

Sirisena, who won January’s election as the candidate of the opposition coalitionstruggled to pass legislation through Sri Lanka’s parliament following his stunning victory earlier this year. Sirisena’s attempts at pushing through a wishlist of reforms in his first 100 days hit several roadblocks as Rajapaksa supporters blocked many Sirisena priorities, including changes to the country’s election law, though Sirisena has already been successful in reducing some presidential powers and restoring a two-term presidential limit. Faced with gridlock for deeper political reforms, Sirisena dissolved Sri Lanka’s parliament in June and called the August 17 elections nearly half a year early, eager to win a fresh mandate for his attempts to introduce new checks and balances on Sri Lanka’s political system.

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RELATED: Sirisena easily wins Sri Lankan presidency

RELATED: Tumultuous election a test for Sri Lankan democracy

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Most immediately, the parliamentary election has four major implications: Continue reading Rajapaksa concedes defeat in pivotal Sri Lankan poll

Why you shouldn’t take Bush/Rubio foreign policy speeches seriously

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Last week, two of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination delivered Major and Very Serious Foreign Policy Addresses designed to establish their credibility on international affairs. USflag

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who delivered an address last Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, and Florida senator Marco Rubio delivered an address to the Foreign Policy Initiative in New York. Bush and Rubio alike delivered plenty of bromides about projecting U.S. strength and toughness against the enemies of the United States, with plenty of withering attacks on the foreign policy of the Obama administration, including the likely Democratic presidential nominee, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But critics on both the right and the left panned the speeches as the same old neoconservative sauce poured back into a barely disguised new bottle.

From Slate‘s Fred Kaplan on the Bush speech:

His 40-minute speech, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, was a hodgepodge of revisionist history, shallow analysis, and vague prescriptions.

From The American Conservative‘s Daniel Larison on Rubio:

Once again, Rubio fails to understand the limits of applying pressure to another state…. Rubio boasts about wanting to usher in a “new American century,” and these are the bankrupt, discredited policies he wants to use create it.

From Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp:

Jeb Bush didn’t mention his brother, George W. Bush, Tuesday night in his foreign policy speech. But he might as well have…. Jeb’s speech is a reboot of his brother’s neoconservative view of the world, albeit in a somewhat stripped-down form. He thinks American military power “won” the war in Iraq. The lesson we should learn, Bush suggests, is that a bigger US military commitment to the Middle East is the best way to solve its biggest problems.

Ultimately, these haughty foreign policy speeches have little to do with establishing a foreign policy vision. They’ve become part of the traditional bunting of a modern presidential campaign — like flag pins and campaign rallies and the increasingly customary mid-summer overseas trip in general election years (à la Barack Obama in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012) that, at best, amounts to a weeklong photo-op and pedantically positive news coverage. In a primary election, grand foreign policy addresses are one part presidential playacting and one part rallying the base.

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RELATED: What would Jeb Bush’s foreign policy look like?

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For all the posturing, these speeches will all be long outdated by the time either Bush or Rubio hopes to take office in January 2017. Despite bluster on Cuba and Iran, it will be nearly impossible for any presidential administration, Democratic or Republican, to roll back US-Cuban normalization or to shred an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear energy program agreed among European, Chinese and Russian leaders, notwithstanding Rubio’s promise last week to do precisely that.

That’s assuming Cuba and Iran will even be foreign policy priorities in a year and a half.

Continue reading Why you shouldn’t take Bush/Rubio foreign policy speeches seriously

How the BP spill led to today’s Cuban embassy opening

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When US secretary of state John Kerry raises the US flag above the American embassy in Havana today, it will be a diplomatic highlight of the final 18 months of the Obama administration.USflagcuba

But its genesis lies partially in an unrelated disaster of the Obama administration’s first 18 months – the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. US officials worried initially that weather patterns would disperse the oil to Cuban waters, exacerbating an already troubled relationship, and it’s a fluke of the oceanographic currents that the oil largely flowed chiefly westward back to the US coastline and not eastward internationally. But they also increasingly worried that growing Cuban designs for its own nascent offshore oil drilling program (in the Caribbean Sea just north of Havana, close to the Florida coast) could cause an even more serious accident that could pollute US waters.

William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and the co-author of a new book on decades of back-channel negotiations between Havana and Washington, argues that informal discussions over environmental hazards and future potential ecological disasters built trust between US officials and Cuban policymakers in a multilateral Caribbean-wide framework, paving the way for bilateral talks on normalization, environmental standards and offshore oil production.

It took the US government a while, however, to warm to the idea. Continue reading How the BP spill led to today’s Cuban embassy opening

In Depth: Canada’s general election

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With prime minister Stephen Harper’s decision to call an election last week, Canada has now launched into a 13-week campaign that ends on October 19, when voters will elect all 338 members of the House of Commons, the lower house of the Canadian parliament.Canada Flag Icon

By American standards, where Republican presidential candidates will gather for their first debate nearly six months before a single vote is cast (for the nomination contest, let alone the general election) a 13-week campaign is mercifully short. In Canada, however, it’s twice as long as the most recent campaigns and, indeed, longer than any official election campaign since the late 1800s. But the major party leaders have already engaged in one debate — on August 6.

Plenty of Harper’s critics suggest the long campaign is due to the fundraising advantage of his center-right Conservative Party. Harper, who came to power with minority governments after the 2006 and 2008 elections and who finally won a majority government in 2011, is vying for a fourth consecutive term. He’ll do so as the global decline in oil prices and slowing Chinese demand take their toll on the Canadian economy, which contracted (narrowly) for each of the last five months.

Energy policy and the future of various pipeline projects (such as Energy East, Kinder Morgan, Northern Gateway and the more well-known Keystone XL) will be top issues in British Columbia and Alberta. Economic growth and a new provincial pension program will be more important in Ontario. Sovereignty and independence will, as usual, play a role in Québec — though not, perhaps, as much as in recent years.

In reality, the battle lines of the current election have been being drawn since April 2013, when the struggling center-left Liberal Party, thrust into third place in the 2011 elections, chose Justin Trudeau — the son of former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau of the 1970s and 1980s — as its fifth leader in a decade. Trudeau’s selection immediately pulled the Liberals back into first place in polls, as Liberals believed his pedigree, energy and sometimes bold positions (Trudeau backs the full legalization of marijuana use, for example) would restore their electoral fortunes.

Nevertheless, polls suggest* that two years of sniping from Harper about Trudeau’s youth and inexperience have taken their toll. The race today is a three-way tie and, since the late spring, it’s the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP) that now claims the highest support, boosted from the NDP’s landslide upset in Alberta’s May provincial election. (*Éric Grenier, the self-styled Nate Silver of Canadian numbers-crunching, is running the CBC poll tracker in the 2015 election, but his ThreeHundredEight is an indispensable resource).

With the addition of 30 new ridings (raising the number of MPs in Ottawa from 308 to 338) and with the three parties so close in national polls, it’s hard to predict whether Canada will wake up on October 20 with another Tory government or a Liberal or NDP government. If no party wins a clear majority, Canada has far more experience with minority governments than with European-style coalition politics, and the Liberals and NDP have long resisted the temptation to unite.

Canadian government feels more British than American, in large part because its break with Great Britain was due more to evolution than revolution. Nevertheless, political campaigns have become more presidential-style in recent years, and the latest iteration of the Conservative Party (merged into existence in 2003) is imbued with a much more social conservative ethos than the older Progressive Conservative Party. The fact that polls are currently led by a left-of-center third party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), also demonstrates that the Canadian electorate, which benefits from a single-payer health care system, is willing to shift more leftward than typical American electorates.

Provincial politics do not often portend changes in federal politics, but the 2015 election is proving to be influenced by political developments in Alberta, Ontario, Québec, Manitoba and elsewhere, and many provincial leaders have not been shy about voicing their opinions about federal developments — most notably Ontario’s Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne.
Continue reading In Depth: Canada’s general election

Scioli leads in Argentine presidential race after primaries

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There’s some bit of good news for each of the three contenders battling to win the Argentine presidency on October 25 after Sunday’s primary contest.argentina

Since 2011, Argentine elections have features an all-in primary contest in which every candidate competes both in absolute terms against all the other candidates and both for his or her party (or coalition) nomination. No one doubted that each of the three major contenders would win his inter-coalition primary:

  • Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province, ran unchallenged for the nomination of the governing ‘Justicialist’ Frente para la Victoria (FpV, the Front for Victory) of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and the bloc won nearly 38.5% of the vote.
  • Mauricio Macri, the more center-right chief of government of the city of Buenos Aires, easily won the nomination of the three-party Cambiemos coalition, with over 24% of the vote nationally.
  • Sergio Massa, the one-time frontrunner, former Kirchner cabinet chief, Tigre mayor and leader of the peronista, if not kirchneristaFrente Renovador (FR, Renewal Front), easily won the nomination of his own coalition, with over 14% of the vote.

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Those results, though, overstate Scioli’s strength. While the Kirchner-backed candidate has plenty of reason to be thrilled with the primary vote, Macri was facing two opponents for the Cambiemos nomination and Massa faced an own opponent for his own coalition, ‘United for a New Alternative.’

When you add together the votes for the coalitions, Macri can expect to enter the final campaign sprint with something more like 30% to Scioli’s 38% — with Massa’s coalition winning around 20.5%.

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There’s no doubt that Scioli’s success demonstrates a perhaps surprisingly united Argentine left, with reform-minded voters pulling away from Massa and towards Scioli (pictured above). Despite a scandal-plagued year, Fernández de Kirchner’s approval ratings are on the rise and, although inflation and other economic woes still plague Argentina, the economy is generally doing much better than neighboring Brazil or Chile and, in any case, better than in 2013 and 2014. Unlike his opponents, Scioli benefits from a truly national political network, which was clear on Sunday — the FpV won more votes in all but three provinces. As the governor of the country’s most populous province, he currently serves 16.3 million of Argentina’s 41.5 million-strong population. Moreover, Fernández de Kirchner and the current government will be doing everything in its power to bolster Scioli’s chances in the next two months.

Though she cannot herself run for reelection, Fernández de Kirchner’s close ally Aníbal Fernández (currently chief of cabinet) narrowly defeated Julián Domínguez in the hard-fought primary to win the FpV gubernatorial nomination for Buenos Aires province (and to success Scioli). Furthermore, Fernández de Kirchner is believed to have influenced Scioli to appoint as his running mate Carlos Zannini, a Kirchner loyalist and the presidential legal secretary since 2003. The fortunes of Zannini and Fernández mean that Fernández de Kirchner will wield strong influence in any Scioli administration.

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RELATED: What to expect from
Sunday’s Argentine presidential primaries

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Nevertheless, Scioli’s allies worry that he will be forced into a November 22 runoff against Macri. Scioli’s 38.41% support is a bit short of the 45% he will need on October 25 to win the presidency outright (alternatively, he could win with 40% of the vote so long as he defeats his opponent by at least a 10% margin). The primary results suggest that, barring a massive turn among Massa’s supporters to the ruling party, Macri will get a chance to take on Scioli directly.

Since 1983, the end of a brutal seven-year military junta, no presidential election has advanced to a runoff.

Continue reading Scioli leads in Argentine presidential race after primaries

Is Donald Trump the American version of Le Pen?

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Over the weekend, Le Figaro pondered whether Donald Trump, the tart-tongued real estate mogul, might be the U.S. version of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French far-right founder of the Front national (National Front) who’s also become notorious for controversial statements and for trampling ‘political correctness.’USflag

Le Pen, after all, edged out the leftist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the 2002 presidential election, establishing the Fifth Republic’s most lopsided runoff between the noxious Le Pen and the incumbent, center-right Jacques Chirac. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, who is working to broader the FN’s appeal, is polling high in the 2017 presidential contest and may win one of the two final runoff spots.

There are significant differences between the Le Pen family and Trump. Le Pen pere frequently expressed his doubts about the Holocaust with a heavy dose of anti-Semitic populism — so far, Trump hasn’t started questioning the Holocaust or attacking Jewish Americans. But both Le Pen and his daughter developed a significant constituency of French voters by expressing outrage against the influx of immigrants into the country, a concern much closer to Trump’s heart (he announced his candidacy by attacking Mexicans, promising to build a wall along the southern US border and billing it to the Mexican government).

More recently, Marine Le Pen has broadened her attacks to include European institutions, including the eurozone, as an attack on the sovereignty of France. In her exclamations of “Oui, la France!” there’s more than an echo of Trump’s “Let’s make American great again” shtick.

But the support that Trump has amassed in the summer of 2015 isn’t so unlike the wave of populism that’s enveloped Europe (on both the right and the left). Though the US economic recovery has chiefly outpaced that of Europe’s, it’s not been an easy expansion. Sustained unemployment, tepid GDP growth and stagnant wages have left working-class and middle-class American voters less secure — just like working-class and middle-class European voters.

It’s no surprise that since 2010, several new voices of the populist right and the populist left have demonstrated their electoral muscle:

  • In Italy, comic and blogger Beppe Grillo obtained nearly a quarter of the vote in the 2013 elections, and polls show that he still commands upwards of 25% of the vote. Frank Bruni wrote in May in The New York Times that Trump shares much in common with Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who dominated Italian politics from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s and, like Trump, reveled in controversial pronouncements. But Berlusconi was primed for politics by Bettino Craxi, the Socialist prime minister in the 1980s who was ultimately forced into exile in Tunisia; it’s not like George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich developed Trump as a protégé.
  • In the United Kingdom, anti-establishment candidates running for the Scottish National Party (SNP) wiped out longstanding Labour and Liberal Democratic strongholds in Scotland and, in the current Labour Party leadership contest, the far-left Jeremy Corbyn, a firm anti-austerian who wants to renationalize British railways, leads many surveys against more moderate opponents.
  • In Greece, the far-left Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left) took power in January’s elections, and the equally far-left Podemos hopes to pull off a similar victory in Spain’s general election in December.

It’s not surprising that economic pain, angst about sovereignty, identity and migration and other doubts about ruling political elites are fueling the same kind of anti-establishment reaction in the United States, too, and it’s the same instinct that powered the ‘tea party’ movement of the early 2010s.

It’s too soon to tell what Trump’s lasting legacy will be on the 2016 presidential race. His poll numbers might soon collapse (or not). He could wipe out before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. He might win a few early contests before Republican elites step in (and they will) to deny him the presidential nomination. He’s still holding the door open to an independent third-party run in the general election.

But the real template for Trump isn’t necessarily Le Pen or Tsipras or Corbyn or Grillo or even Berlusconi, though they all draw support from the same anti-establishment, populist reservoir.

Instead, it’s a duo of neophyte businessmen who have taken on powerful (and experienced) political leaders over the past two years to upend the status quo. Though Andrej Kiska and Andrej Babiš aren’t necessarily household names, even in Europe, they represent more closely the kind of appeal that Trump — at his best, perhaps — could replicate to upend the Republican establishment.

If I were Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, I would be furiously studying each case to extrapolate lessons for Trump.

kiska

Kiska (pictured above) is a 52-year old businessman who spent much of his life as a entrepreneur in Slovakia, making his fortune in the installment payments and the credit business. Despite his failures to break into the US market, Kiska shifted to charitable works in 2006, founding Dobrý anjel (Good Angel), a charitable organization that provides funds for the seriously ill.

Running as an independent in the Slovakian presidential election in March 2014, Kiska defeated Slovakia’s sitting center-left prime minister Robert Fico. The Slovak presidency is effectively ceremonial, but Fico’s victory would have consolidated power between the ruling party and the presidency. Fico’s defeat dealt an otherwise popular figure a significant blow — and Kiska’s victory preserved a sense of constitutional balance between the executive and the parliamentary.

Going into the election, Fico was a well-liked prime minister and Slovakia’s economic record outpaced its closest neighbors; Kiska was a political newcomer. Fico’s party, Smer–sociálna demokracia, (Smer-SD, Direction-Social Democracy), still widely leads polls for next year’s general election, for example.

Unlike Trump, Kiska didn’t campaign on the macho, alpha-male persona of a successful businessman. But Kiska succeeded by planting doubts about Fico’s campaign and the fact that Kiska was personally untainted by political corruption and ties to Soviet-era politics. By all counts, he’s thrived in the presidential role since taking office last year. The lesson to Trump is that he can dial down the antics and still present a capable challenge to the GOP establishment. Though Trump may embellish the influence that his past donations might have procured, there’s no doubt he is right when he showcases the corrosive influence of money on politics in the post-Citizens United world.

babis

Babiš (pictured above) is also a Slovak-born businessman, but the 60-year old made his fortune in the Czech Republic. Like Kiska, he left business to form a political party, Akce nespokojených občanů (ANO, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) in 2011.

In the 2013 Czech elections, ANO won nearly 20% of the vote, finishing a strong second to the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) in a highly fragmented result. Babiš, who developed Agrofert, an agricultural and food processing company, into one of the most successful companies in the country, later purchased a series of media companies before he turned to politics as one of the wealthiest men in the Czech Republic. Not surprisingly, Babiš argued that he would govern the Czech Republic like a business.

More caustic than Kiska, and more sympathetic to neoliberal policies, Babiš attacked both Czech social democrats and conservatives as corrupt and dishonest, arguing for an end to immunity for political figures. In 2012 and 2013, despite his inexperience, he expertly filled a void for an electorate that had lost trust in the central European country’s ruling elite. In that regard, Trump’s rhetoric much more strongly resembles that of the pugilistic Babiš.

In the past four years alone, a center-right prime minister resigned after his chief of staff (with whom he had become romantically involved) was caught spying on the former prime minister’s wife. It’s also a country where a former Social Democratic prime minister won the presidency in early 2013 and immediately tried to outmuscle the Czech parliament in a constitutional power struggle. That gave Babiš the opportunity to present himself as the truth-telling man of action, despite fears that ‘Babišconi’ would become just another oligarchic leader and despite troubling accusations that he cooperated with the Czech internal police during the Soviet era as well as with the Soviet KGB.

Nevertheless, after the 2013 election, Babiš  set aside his differences with elites and brought ANO into the current government — he now serves as the country’s finance minister. Though the next Czech elections do not have to be held until 2017, ANO leads polls and there’s a good chance that Babiš could become the next prime minister.

The lesson here from Trump is that the righteous ‘pox-on-both-your houses’ anger of the outsider can be effective so long as it’s targeted on the tangible excesses and failures of the ruling class. But it’s not enough, as Trump has done, just to call yourself ‘smart’ and politicians ‘stupid.’ What made Babiš successful was presenting the devastating case for why Czech politics had become so broken.

 

Schumer’s right — if Iran wants nukes, the US can’t deter it indefinitely

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With the entire US political world focused on the Republican presidential debate last night, US senator Chuck Schumer quietly announced that, after much deliberation, he will vote against the nuclear energy deal negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 (the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).USflagIran Flag Icon

If Schumer thought his Thursday night announcement would fly under the radar, he was wrong — and US secretary of state John Kerry was quick to say that he ‘profoundly disagrees’ with Schumer. With Senate minority leader Harry Reid retiring after the 2016 election, and with Democrats in a very good position to retake control of the US Senate in 2016, there’s an exceedingly good chance that Schumer will be the Senate majority leader in less than 18 months’ time. Moreover, he’s one of the leading Jewish voices in American politics and, as a senator from New York, the US state with the highest proportion of Jewish voters in the country.

So it’s not surprising that Schumer, a longtime ally of Israel, would reject a deal that Israeli prime minister Benjmain Netanyahu fiercely opposes. (Though New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, announced her support for the Iran deal earlier this week).

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RELATED: Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

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Schumer was careful to telegraph that he will not be working very hard to convince other Democrats to break ranks with the administration, and that’s probably the wisest course for someone who still wants to become the Democratic leader in the Senate after angering the party’s leftists. There’s no doubt that Schumer’s opposition will embolden the deal’s critics, and it may convince a handful of Senate Democrats to oppose the deal. But the Obama administration still believes opponents of the Iran deal will not achieve the 60 votes that they need to defeat it in the US Senate — or the 67 votes they would need to override Obama’s veto.

Chief among Schumer’s problems with the deal is the fact that after 15 years, Iran could conceivably be free of both international sanctions and restrictions on its nuclear energy program, thereby giving it the ability to build a nuclear weapon: Continue reading Schumer’s right — if Iran wants nukes, the US can’t deter it indefinitely

Will Canada have a recession election?

harpereconomyStephen Harper has a timing problem.Canada Flag Icon

Last week, Canadian officials announced that GDP contracted by 0.2% in May, the fifth consecutive decline in the country’s economic growth. If on September 1, statistics show a further decline for June’s GDP measurements and confirm the earlier 2015 data, Canada will officially be in recession — the generally accepted technical definition amounts to two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. Stephen Poloz, the governor of the Bank of Canada, recently cut the benchmark interest rate to 0.5% in July, and he may take further steps to loosen monetary policy if economic conditions continue to deteriorate.

For a prime minister seeking a fourth consecutive term in a general election on October 19, that presents a significant difficulty — and the economy will almost certainly loom large during the campaign’s first debate tonight.

Even if Canada doesn’t technically enter a recession during the election campaign, it will be an unwelcome distraction for a prime minister who in 2011 benefited from the perception that his government’s economic leadership saw Canada through the worst of the US-originated global financial crisis.

Now, both Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair will be able to use the economy’s flagging performance as a weapon against Harper. In particular, Mulcair’s emphasis on creating jobs has boosted the NDP to a (very narrow) first place in polls. In May’s provincial elections in Alberta, Rachel Notley and the Alberta New Democrats rode a wave of voter dissatisfaction to end 44 years of consecutive Tory rule. The outgoing premier, Jim Prentice, only recently returned to politics after a prior stint as a Harper loyalist in federal government, became the first political victim of lower oil prices in energy-rich Alberta.

He might not be the last. Continue reading Will Canada have a recession election?

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