A note to my readers

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After nearly five years of daily writing (sometime more often), I’ve reached the decision to move on from daily analysis.

When I came to the blogging genre in February 2012, it was relatively late in the game. The golden era, so to speak, was already over. Initially, it was an intellectual allergic reaction to years and years of practicing law at a big firm and, probably, some amount of burnout. Here, with Suffragio, was the possibility to engage intellectually with the world in a much different way, on a topic about which I’ve always been fascinated.

It was the summer of 1996 when our family first got an Internet connection. Like any red-blooded American teenager, I promptly began furtive trips to the computer to look up… information about Russia’s election that summer. (And if you’re not familiar, it was an amazing one). It’s been a constant fascination, even through years as a college news editor, a law student and now (for a decade) an investment funds attorney.

There’s no doubt that I’ll continue carrying that passion forward.

But it will not be through Suffragio.

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Your fearless author and bishop Christopher Senyonjo in Kampala.

In the most Schumpeterian sense, the only way to create the kind of creative runway for ‘what comes next’ is to bring down the curtain on what, in so many ways, has been a successful one-man publication. It’s been a platform to cover elections in Honduras and Venezuela, to meet dissidents in Havana, to interview brave folks like Christopher Senyonjo, an Anglican priest fighting for LGBT rights in Uganda, to travel to El Paso and Juarez to explore just why a Trumpista wall makes no intellectual sense, to explain just how much of a global outlier it is that the District of Columbia has no representation in the US Congress.

Protesters marching after Venezuela's 2013 presidential election.
Protesters marching after Venezuela’s 2013 presidential election.

I’m so proud that Suffragio, at its best, has been a driving force to tell these stories on a subject (i.e. world politics) that is too often reduced to fables and bogeymen, wrapped up in the confirmation bias that we all now suffer in our dis-aggregated, social media-driven news diets.

But since I started writing in 2012, the media landscape has changed incredibly — Vox has now been experimenting for years with ‘news explainers’ (some of which engage international politics deeply and thoughtfully) and Politico now has an entire branch devoted to European politics. In September 2013, I noted incredulously that Politico could run hourly stories about Mitch McConnell’s mood ring (the Senate was locked in a high-stake budget shutdown with the Obama administration), but didn’t devote one story to the impact of German election looming that weekend.

I still believe the internal dynamics of the politics (and cultures and policies) of other countries are under-reported by our mainstream media, ignored by the American public and still too often misunderstood by American policymakers.

Suffragio attempted to fill that role — ‘To make world politics less foreign.’ But really, to make American politics less dumb when it comes to world affairs. The rise of a post-truth presidential candidate in Donald Trump shows just how Sisyphean was Suffragio‘s task. In a Clickhole world, I’ve spent five years doubling down on analysis more PBS or Wilson Center than Buzzfeed.

What the information era giveth, the information era taketh away. It’s impossible to imagine Suffragio as a project 20 years ago, given the need to access global news sources in real time, with the kind of instantaneous translation necessary to understand what’s going on at the heart of a campaign halfway across the world. But that access also made it even more difficult for Suffragio to gain any kind of true critical mass. Hits aren’t everything, and what will sound familiar to most writers in an era of digital metrics, some of Suffragio‘s most viral posts haven’t been what I consider to be my best analysis.

Above all, Suffragio has taken so much of what is the most precious resource all of us have — time — and it’s a project that I’ve tried to carve out from the trimmings of a full-time job as an attorney, my own personal life with a great boyfriend. I have a pile of dozens of half-finished books I’d like to complete, and a couple of ideas for books I would like to write. But you can only burn both ends of the candle for so long.

I’m thankful, naturally, to my regular readers and to all of those editors and friends who helped amplify my voice through Suffragio. In particular, the editors at Real Clear World and The National Interest have always been incredibly encouraging. Their willingness to promote my analysis, through Suffragio and other pieces, has always been motivation to push forward, hopefully smarter and sharper than ever.

When Andrew Sullivan shocked the world in January 2015 by announcing the end to his long-running blog, every word of his post resonated, but none so much as these:

When I write again, it will be for you, I hope – just in a different form. I need to decompress and get healthy for a while; but I won’t disappear as a writer.

Sullivan (who also so kindly linked to Suffragio from time to time) lasted 15 years as a daily blogger. I lasted nearly five.

Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

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Germany’s chancellor since 2005, Angela Merkel is widely believed to be preparing to seek fourth term in the 2017 federal elections. (Facebook)

It’s entirely possible that September 2016 marks the worst month of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.Germany Flag Iconmecklenburg-vorpommern berlin

Merkel’s center-right party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) fell to third place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a relatively low-population state of just 1.6 million that sprawls along the northern edge of what used to be East Germany. While the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has been traditionally stronger there in elections since reunification, two factors made the CDU’s loss particularly embarrassing. The first is that it’s the state that Merkel has represented since her first election in 1990 shorly after German reunification. The second, and more ominous, is that the CDU fell behind the eurosceptic, anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland (Afd, Alternative for Germany), a relatively new party founded in 2013 that today holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and that, according to recent polls, will easily win seats in the Bundestag in next September’s federal elections.

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Two weeks later, on September 18, Merkel’s CDU also suffered losses in Berlin’s state election. As left-wing parties have long dominated Berlin’s politics, and the SPD placed first and Germany’s Die Linke (the Left) and Die Grünen (the Greens) placed third and fourth behind the CDU. But even in Berlin, the AfD still won 14.2% of the vote.

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Taken together, the state election results forced a mea culpa from Merkel on Monday. The chancellor, who is expected (though by no means certain) to seek a fourth consecutive term next year, departed from the calm, steely confidence that since last summer has characterized her commitment to accept and integrate over a million Syrian refugees within Germany’s borders. Merkel admitted, however, that she would, if possible, rewind the clock to better prepare her country and her government for the challenge of admitting so many new migrants, and she admitted lapses in her administration’s communications. With the AfD showing no signs of abating, it’s clear that its attacks on Merkel’s open-door policy are working. Merkel’s statement earlier this week admitted that her policies have not unfolded as smoothly as she’d hoped.

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RELATED: Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

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Indeed, German polls are starting to show that voters are souring on Merkel and her approach to migration, so much that in one poll in August for Bild, a majority of voters no longer support a fourth term for Merkel. All of which has led to hand-wringing both in Germany and abroad that Merkel’s days are numbered.

Don’t believe it. Continue reading Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.

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The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Pressure builds on Sánchez as third Spanish election looms

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Felipe González, right, a respected former four-term prime minister, has called on Pedro Sánchez, the current PSOE leader, to allow a conservative minority government. (EFE)

Felipe González was just 41 years old when he became, in the view of many Spaniards, the most consequential prime minister to date in post-Franco Spain.galiciabasqueSpain_Flag_Icon

Across a span of 14 years in power, González, the leader of the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), won four consecutive elections, normalized the rule of law and the traditions of democratic participation in Spain, brought the country into what was then the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today’s European Union, and shepherded Spain into NATO as a firm member of the transatlantic military and security alliance.

Today, while Spaniards take for granted many of those accomplishments as pillars of the Spanish state, González is also now remembered for the levels of corruption that sank his final government and a botched attempt to combat armed Basque nationalists.

But he’s still the first among Spain’s elder statesmen, in many ways as influential as the former king, Juan Carlos I, who abdicated in 2014 in favor of his son Felipe VI. In truth, the two are more responsible than anyone for Spain’s vibrant democracy today.

Third election a Christmas miracle?

As his country enters its 10th month without a government, voters may worry that Spanish democracy has become a bit too vibrant in recent years, as a strong two-party political system has crumbled into a four-party state with myriad regionalist parties from all corners of Spain, its two-party system dissolved under the penumbra of depression-level GDP contraction and unemployment.

That’s why, after two elections, the first in December 2015 and the second in June 2016, no party can quite cobble together the necessary majority to form a government. If Spain’s party leaders cannot unlock a breakthrough by the end of October, the country will head to the polls for the third time in 13 months, possibly even on Christmas Day 2016.

González, who has doled out criticism for all of Spain’s political leaders, is one of the few PSOE figures publicly urging his party and its young leader, Pedro Sánchez, to concede its fight to deny another government under conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy. In his view, Spain would suffer greater damage from a third general election in 13 months — as polls show that yet another snap election would result in essentially the same deadlock as the last two. In a country where turnout of 75% or more isn’t uncommon, turnout dropped from 69.7% in December to just 65.7% in June, and it could fall even lower, to 63% or worse, with another snap vote. Generally speaking, Spanish observers believe that will boost the PP, at the expense of the PSOE and Podemos, the leftist, anti-austerity movement that formed in 2014 out of the indignados movement of Spain’s masses of unemployed workers.

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RELATED: PSOE’s incentives point to PP-Ciudadanos minority government in Spain

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Another election in Spain would come as both Germany and France face national elections in 2017 with rising eurosceptic sentiment. It would come weeks after a make-or-break referendum on constitutional reform that’s seen as a plebiscite on Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, and as the United Kingdom, under its new prime minister Theresa May, maneuvers to leave the European Union after its blockbuster June 2016 ‘Brexit’ vote. It could fall just days after the United States might elect businessman and reality television star Donald Trump as its next president.

So the last thing Spain’s leaders (and European and American leaders) want is another inconclusive vote and prolonged uncertainty that could threaten the slight economic growth that Spain’s generated in 2015 and 2016 and that has left the country without a government to implement a budget for the next year or provide leadership in ongoing post-Brexit debates over the European Union’s future.

Rajoy fails to win investiture vote

Prime minister Mariano Rajoy has continued to lead a caretaker government since last December. (Facebook)
Prime minister Mariano Rajoy has continued to lead a caretaker government since last December. (Facebook)

The latest despair comes after another failed attempt by Rajoy to retain power. Although his conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) won the greatest number of seats in the most recent June election (indeed, a 14-seat increase from the December election), he has twice failed to win two confidence votes since the end of August, with a majority of the Chamber of Deputies (Congreso de los Diputados), the lower house of the Spanish parliament, blocking Rajoy’s investiture. Continue reading Pressure builds on Sánchez as third Spanish election looms

Croatian conservatives win elections in repeat from last November

Andrej Plenković, a former diplomat, is likely to become Croatia's next prime minister. (Facebook)
Andrej Plenković, a former diplomat, is likely to become Croatia’s next prime minister. (Facebook)

As global politics takes its strongest lunge towards ultranationalist populism in the postwar era, Croatian voters on Sunday delivered a fresh (if narrow) mandate to a conservative party now headed by a moderate and technocratic former diplomat.croatia

In a repeat of last November’s elections, the conservative Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (HDZ, Croatian Democratic Union) placed first but short of the absolute majority that it needed to govern alone.

Just as after last year’s elections, it will now look to form a coalition with Most nezavisnih lista (Bridge of Independent Lists), a reformist and centrist party formed in 2012 that fared slightly more poorly in the September 11 parliamentary election than last year. Nevertheless, Most continues to hold the margin of power for the next Croatian government, and it’s very likely to join an HDZ-led coalition.  Together, the HDZ and Most are just two seats short of a majority, which they might pick up from independents MPs.

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Andrej Plenković, a mild-mannered diplomat, is the HDZ’s fresh-faced leader, and he’s part of a rising generation of Croatians who came of age, politically speaking, long after Yugoslavia’s breakup. Though he leads the Croatian right in what has become an increasingly nationalist moment, Plenković’s career is rooted in foreign policy and diplomacy, not populist politics. A longtime member of the bureaucracy in Croatia’s ministry of foreign and European affairs, Plenković served for five years as deputy ambassador to France, then as secretary of state for European integration from 2010 to 2011, shortly before Croatia acceded to the European Union. Since 2013, he has also served as a member of the European Parliament (after a brief two-year stint in the Croatian national parliament).

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RELATED: Reform-minded Most party set to play kingmaker in Croatia

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Yet as the aftermath of the 2015 election showed, coalition agreements are easier conceived than executed. After 76 days of negotiations, the HDZ and Most agreed in January 2016 to form a coalition headed by a non-partisan prime minister, Tihomir Orešković, a dual Canadian national and pharmaceutical businessman. Tasked with a nearly impossible project to boost GDP growth and cut Croatia’s debt, the government seemed to be on track to meet its goals. Continue reading Croatian conservatives win elections in repeat from last November

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state elections provide test for both Merkel, German hard right

German chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to deny Germany's new anti-immigration right a victory in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. (Facebook / Laurence Chaperon)
German chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to deny Germany’s new anti-immigration right a victory in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. (Facebook / Laurence Chaperon)

 On September 4, German chancellor Angela Merkel will face one of her final electoral tests this year before most Germans believe she will attempt to win a fourth term in 2017.Germany Flag Iconmecklenburg

That test comes in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the sprawling state that flows across the north of what used to be East Germany and, as has been reported extensively, Merkel’s own home state. Voters will select all 71 members of the regional assembly, the Landtag, on Sunday, September 4.

Though the state is home to just 1.6 million people, it’s one of two state elections this month (the other is in the left-leaning Berlin on September 18), and it’s really the first political test since March of the appeal of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) that hopes to win over 20% of the vote and, perhaps, edge out Merkel’s own party, the more center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party).

The CDU, under Merkel’s leadership, has led Germany since 2005, and it has also served as a junior partner in a coalition government in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern since 2006, alongside the more dominant center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). Nationally, the CDU serves as the senior partners alongside the SPD in the second of two ‘grand coalitions’ that Merkel has headed since winning power over a decade ago.

As Europeans weigh the wisdom of Nice’s ill-fated (and judicially reversed) decision to ban ‘burkinis’ and as Germany’s state interior ministers try to adopt a limited burqa ban in public spaces, Merkel’s popularity is still sagging from a decision last summer — easily the boldest of her political career — to permit nearly one million Syrian refugees to settle in Germany at the height of the largest wave of migration in Europe since World War II.

Polls show that the AfD is roughly tied with, or even leading, the CDU in the state, each with anywhere from 19% to 23% of the vote, with the SPD leading in the range of between 24% and 28%. In a series of state elections earlier this year, the AfD performed best in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, winning nearly 25% of the vote there in March.

But reports that Merkel’s decision about whether to seek a fourth term — or the contours of a national election next September — could be significantly affected by a regional election in one of Germany’s most sparsely populated states are misguided. Barring a more lopsided upset, the SPD-CDU coalition is almost certain to continue under the state’s minister-president since 2008, social democrat Erwin Sellering. Though the refugee crisis has dented Merkel’s popularity, the CDU holds a wide lead nationally over the SPD and Germany’s other parties, though the AfD is now winning the support of between 10% and 15%, which would be enough to make it Germany’s third-most popular party. Victories in a handful of states is a far different thing that sustaining support until next year’s election, especially as the AfD has suffered from a self-inflicted internal leadership struggle.

Though Merkel may have grown up in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the CDU has never particularly been popular in the east. In the last state election in 2011, the CDU struggled too, but it was instead against Die Linke (The Left). In fact, the hard left is set to lose even more support from 2011 than the CDU. Five years ago, the CDU won 23.1% of the vote, a standard it might well replicate this year. But Die Linke is forecasted to win far less than the 18.4% it won in the 2011 election. There’s no doubt that the AfD poses a direct threat to the CDU, both in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and nationally because so many conservative Germans worry about the effects of resettling nearly a million Syrian refugees. But the AfD, especially in the east, seems to be taking votes from nationalist-minded voters on the left too, especially from Die Linke, a party with its roots in East Germany’s Soviet-era Communist Party.

Political violence hits Gabon as challenger Ping rejects election loss

Jean Ping, a Gabonese diplomat of half-Chinese descent, is protesting electoral fraud in Gabon's presidential election. (Facebook)
Jean Ping, a Gabonese diplomat of half-Chinese descent, is protesting electoral fraud in Gabon’s presidential election. (Facebook)

After a four-day delay between Gabon’s election and the announcement of results — an interval that saw an increased military presence in the capital city of Libreville and across the country, and that brought an Internet blackout that blocked access to Facebook and other social media outlets — protestors set the national assembly ablaze Wednesday and an opposition headquarters has been bombed in what could become a sustained stalemate between president Ali Bongo Ondimba and challenger Jean Ping over Gabon’s next government.gabon

When the results were finally announced amid the tense post-election climate, Ali Bongo had won reelection to a fresh seven-year term, albeit by a narrow margin. That would sustain the governing Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG, Gabonese Democratic Party) in power through 2023 — incidentally, far longer than the PDG governed as the only party in a one-party state.

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Gabon, a country of nearly 2 million people, is rare in that its nGDP per capita of nearly $8,300 (per the World Bank’s 2015 estimate) is far higher than most of sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to its oil wealth. That’s given the Bongo family, since the first decade of Gabon’s post-independence history, the resources to run the central African country, nudged on the western coastline south of Cameroon, as a family fiefdom. Up to a third of the country, nevertheless, lives in poverty as a result of the unequal distribution of oil profits.

Ali Bongo was first elected in 2009, following the 46-year rule of his father, Omar Bongo, who had governed the oil-rich central African country since shortly after it won independence from France.

His challenger, Ping, is a 73-year-old veteran of Gabon’s government who served as Omar Bongo’s foreign affairs minister from 1999 to 2008, president of the UN general assembly from 2004 to 2005 and who chaired the Commission of the African Union (the African Union’s executive and administrative arm) from 2008 to 2012. Ping’s father, Cheng Zhiping, was a Chinese businessman who emigrated from Wenzhou to France, where he worked for a time in a bicycle factory, and finally to Gabon, where he married and raised his family. After leaving the African Union in 2012, he turned both to the private sector and to Gabonese politics, resigning in 2014 from the ruling party and making plans to run for this year’s election. But Ping was once even married to Omar Bongo’s daughter Pascaline and had two children with her. Until two years ago, he would have represented exactly the kind of status quo that many Gabonese voters want to change. Though Ping has strong ties to China and is internationally well known, it’s not clear that his top priorities would be reducing corruption or political and government reform.

Historically Gabon has been a classic kleptocracy, and Omar Bongo ruled the country as his personal fiefdom and one of the most enthusiastic proponents of Françafrique, which normalized often shady connections between French and colonial political, financial and other vectors. French oil companies would extract Gabon’s post-independence oil wealth, and Elf Aquitaine, the former French state oil company, would some of Gabon’s oil proceeds to a special personal slush fund for Omar Bongo and the Bongo family.

Gabon's president Ali Bongo has won reelection, officially, but opponents claim it's a fraudulent victory. (Facebook)
Gabon’s president Ali Bongo has won reelection, officially, but opponents claim it’s a fraudulent victory. (Facebook)

While Bongo introduced multiparty elections in 1990, the benefits of incumbency (and an array of tricks to deny opposition candidates funding, to refuse equal access to media and other state resources and to deploy tribute to voters during election campaign) kept the Bongo family easily in power, even after Omar Bongo’s death in 1990.

Three factors made the August 28 presidential election in Gabon surprisingly close — and will continue to shape what could be days, months or even years of political uncertainty.

First, Ali Bongo’s hold on power is far weaker than his father’s ever was, though he served as a longtime figure in his father’s regime. Though he managed to win election after Omar Bongo’s death in 2009, it was after a closely fought contest against several officials who had also figured prominently in previous Gabonese governments. In the current campaign, Ali Bongo’s opponents claimed that he wasn’t even Gabonese — instead, a war refugee from Nigeria clandestinely adopted by Omar Bongo. The president’s supporters have dismissed it as akin to the ‘birther’ movement that inaccurately claimed US president Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya (and not in Hawaii). Moreover, voters in 2016 may have grown weary of the Bongo family, more willing to take a chance on limited change in the form of a Ping-led government.

Second, 81% of Gabon’s export wealth — and 43% of the country’s GDP and 46% of government revenue — derives from oil. Needless to say, the past two years have been economically difficult for Gabon as global oil prices remain depressed. It hasn’t helped that China, one of Gabon’s chief trading partners, is suffering an economic slowdown and, accordingly, there’s far less demand for Gabon’s oil as well as its iron ore deposits. Ping, throughout the campaign, has attacked Ali Bongo’s efforts to diversify the Gabonese economy as widely inadequate. The problem goes even deeper for Gabon, though, because it reached peak extraction in 1997 and its oil production has steadily declined since. Gabon in 2014 was producing just 240,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the world’s 37th most oil-productive country. In a decade or two, Gabon’s oil wealth might be extinguished completely, leaving the country struggling to maintain its current level of development.

Finally, several rivals in the final days of the campaign, including former Bongo prime minister Casimir Oyé Mba and former National Assembly president Guy Nzouba Ndama, dropped out of the presidential race in a coalition designed to unite the anti-Bongo movement behind Ping’s candidacy. Under Gabon’s election rules, the candidate with the most voters wins — period. There’s no second-round runoff or the requirement that a candidate win a 50%-plus absolute majority. That gave Ping and the opposition a real chance of overtaking Ali Bongo.

Together, those reasons explain why Ping and his supporters remains so skeptical about the results, announced after several days of delay and after an ominous military mobilization that’s now in danger of tilting into widespread violence.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise to Ping’s camp that the government announced a narrow victory for Ali Bongo. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to Ali Bongo’s supporters that Ping would placidly concede defeat. European Union observers said that the vote count ‘lacked transparency.’ But there’s ample evidence that the narrow margin of victory (of around just 5,500 votes) might be explained in full by possible fraud in Haut-Ogooué, the eastern-most of Gabon’s nine provinces, much of it bordering the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) and, most notably of all, Ali Bongo’s home province.

There, mysteriously, 99% of the electorate turned out (compared to a national turnout rate of around 59.5%) and supported Ali Bongo with 99.5% of the vote. The discrepancy makes it almost certain that Ali Bongo would have fallen short of victory in a legitimate election.

That leaves Gabon in a political state of emergency, because Ping and the Gabonese opposition seem unlikely to back down in the face of obvious electoral fraud. The question now is whether Ali Bongo is willing to deploy real force, however, in a bid to hold power at all costs.

Though the idea of Gabonese democracy has made some gains since 1990, a prolonged conflict between Bongo and Ping supporters could easily erase those gains. Unlike countries like Ghana, South Africa, Senegal, Kenya and even Nigeria, Gabon’s central African neighbors have all been loathe to adopt truly competitive democracy. In neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, president Denis Sassou Nguesso, president since 1979 (excepting one term between 1992 and 1997) easily won reelection with over 60% of the vote in March after revising the country’s constitution to remove a two-term limit. Few observers have much faith in the elections scheduled for November 27 in central Africa’s largest state, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Joseph Kabila is defying term limits to run for reelection and where leading opposition figure Moise Katumbi has already been sentenced to jail.

Peña Nieto needs a Trump-sized confrontation to help his ailing presidency

Nearly two-thirds into his presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto is far more unpopular than either of his two predecessors. (Facebook)
Nearly two-thirds into his presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto is far more unpopular than either of his two predecessors. (Facebook)

Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, was elected in July 2012 to great fanfare, so it was almost certain that his administration would fall well short of expectations.Mexico Flag Icon

In the leadup to that 2012 presidential election, Peña Nieto spent so many years as such a heavy frontrunner he was practically Mexico’s president-in-waiting. When he ultimately won the presidency by a margin of around 6.5%, it was less than polls predicted, but still the largest margin of victory in a presidential election since 1994. With movie star looks and a bona-fide star for a wife in Angélica Rivera, a model and telenovela actress, his victory was a triumph not only for himself, but for his party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party), which lost the presidency in 2000 after seven decades of consecutive rule in Mexico and that spent a difficult decade shut out of executive power at the national level. In Peña Nieto, the telegenic former governor of the state of Mexico, with over 15 million people, by far the largest in the country and the surrounding state of Mexico’s central federal district.

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RELATED: For El Paso-Juárez,
Trump’s vision of Mexico based on misconception

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When he rose to the presidency, Peña Nieto was widely expected to do just two things as the face of what Mexican voters believed to be a reformed and a modernizing PRI.

First, Peña Nieto would enact a range of reforms liberalizing everything from Mexico’s energy sector to its tax collections scheme. Second, Peña Nieto would bring peace to a country roiled by drug violence, lethal competition among drug cartel and what seemed like an increasingly self-defeating militarized response to drug violence by Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party).

On both fronts, Peña Nieto fell short of expectations.

While Mexico might today be more becalmed than in 2012, violence and government incompetence have dominated headlines. Peña Nieto’s presidency will forever be marred by the abduction and assassination of 43 students in Iguala by police officers in Guerrero state in September 2014. The glory of his government’s capture in 2014 of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, the leader of the infamous Sinaloa cartel, was soon eclipsed by his escape from a maximum-security prison in 2015, and Guzmán, recaptured seven months later, now faces extradition to the United States.

Peña Nieto’s presidency has been a mix of the good (significant political and economic reforms), the bad (corruption, impunity at the highest level of the PRI and his own administration and ineptitude in the face of cartel strength) and the ugly (the Iguala massacre).

By most measures, though, his performance has been far worse than many observers expected, with less impressive reforms than promised and a legacy of sporadic drug violence, police brutalization, personal conflict-of-interest scandals and continuing widespread corruption at all levels of government. That’s all on top of a Mexican economy struggling to deal with far lower global prices for oil and other commodities. It’s so bad that his approval rating sank earlier this month to just 23%, lower than any Mexican president since Ernesto Zedillo faced an acute peso crisis in the mid-1990s.

In the July 2015 midterm elections, the PRI lost nine seats in the Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Mexican congress, and in the June 2016 gubernatorial elections, the PRI lost power in states it’s held since 1929 — including Veracruz, Tamaulipas Durango and Quintana Roo.

Just this week, as he prepares to deliver his state of the union address on Thursday, Peña Nieto has faced down embarrassing revelations that he plagiarized much of the thesis that he submitted for his law degree. Earlier this month, his wife faced fresh accusations of a new conflicts-of-interest scandal involving the use of a luxury apartment from a Mexican businessman in Miami.

So as the Mexican president prepares to welcome Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for an unexpected private meeting on Wednesday, it’s no understatement that Mexico’s beleaguered president could use a diversion. With his approval ratings so low, though, Trump presents an easy target. Continue reading Peña Nieto needs a Trump-sized confrontation to help his ailing presidency

In Labour leadership contest, few believe Owen Smith has a chance

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Challenger Owen Smith greets Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn  (Getty)

With every big-name endorsement that Owen Smith wins in his quest to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party’s leader, his chances seem as remote as ever.United Kingdom Flag Icon

It’s not that Labour voters don’t respect Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, or London mayor Sadiq Khan or even Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale or former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn or any other of dozens of high-profile Labour officials.

But the Labour rank-and-file, which elected Corbyn as its leader with a first-ballot victory only last September, seem just as determined to deliver another mandate in three weeks when ballots close in this year’s Labour leadership contest. It’s entirely possible that Corbyn will even exceed the 59.5% of support he won in 2015.

So when Labour gathers for its annual conference on August 24, there’s little doubt — at least today — that Corbyn will emerge as the winner once again. It’s especially likely after his opponents failed to force him Corbyn to win renomination from sitting Labour MPs and after the same Corbyn opponents failed in court to prevent new (likely pro-Corbyn) party members from voting in the 2016 contest. That means that Labour’s parliamentary party will remain at contretemps with a twice-elected party leader. Smith, for all his qualities as a potentially unifying successor to Corbyn’s tumultuous leadership, is not yet breaking through as a genuine alternative, even as Labour voters begin to vote.

A strong Corbyn effort might embolden him and his increasingly isolated frontbench to force Labour MPs to stand for re-selection in their own constituencies, essentially forcing a primary-style fight for all of his critics. That may not matter to many MPs in marginal constituencies, who would lose reelection if a general election were held today, many polls show, whether they are automatically re-selected to stand for parliament or not.

The fear of both widespread de-selection from the left and a landslide defeat to the right, however, could force a formal splinter movement from Corbyn’s Labour, and that could conceivably, with enough support, become the ‘new’ official opposition in the House of Commons.

Given where Labour today stands — divided and electorally hopeless — it’s truly incredible that Smith’s chances seem so lopsided.

Continue reading In Labour leadership contest, few believe Owen Smith has a chance

Santos prepares for Oct. 2 referendum on Colombia’s FARC peace deal

(Adalberto Roque / AFP / Getty Images)
Cuban president Raúl Castro looked on yesterday as Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Timoleón Jiménez shook hands. (Adalberto Roque / AFP / Getty Images)

As expected, after years of negotiation, Colombia finally has a peace deal with a group of Marxist guerrillas that have been waging war against the central government for over a half-century. Colombia Flag Icon

In Havana on Wednesday, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and leftist guerrilla commander Timoleón Jiménez came to a final understanding on a peace deal that could, at long last, end the insurrection of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), following a four-year process that began in Oslo in 2012, that dominated the 2014 general election and promises to cast a long shadow on upcoming elections in 2018. A ceasefire is set to take effect next Monday.

The deal hopes to end over 50 years of violent conflict between the Colombian state (and often, right-wing paramilitary forces) and FARC, closing a chapter of brutality that stretches back to the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a popular presidential candidate, the Bogotazo riots the followed, the ensuing decade of ’La Violencia’ and Colombia’s descent into cartel-fueled drug conflict in the 1980s and 1990s.

Next, however, the Santos government has to win a national referendum on the deal to be held on October 2.

The headlines are congratulatory now, but it’s not going to be an easy campaign to win.

In addition, the ‘Yes’ side must constitute at least 13% of all voters, adding a secondary threshold. So if turnout isn’t high enough, the referendum will not pass. Even if it does win, however, the vote alone will not necessarily secure the peace deal’s future, and it will take years (and likely millions in funding) to normalize peace in Colombia. That includes securing 7,000 rebel guerrillas who have preliminary agreed to disarm. Moreover, the deal also includes a late-breaking and controversial provision that guarantees at least 10 seats in the Colombian congress to a FARC-affiliated political movement through at least the year 2026.

The Colombian government’s position has always been that any peace agreement should be ratified by voters in a special referendum; FARC leaders instead preferred a special constituent assembly. The next five weeks across Colombia will show why they’ve been so tenacious about subjecting the peace deal to a popular vote. There’s no doubt that Santos wants to call the vote relatively quickly to prevent an even longer campaign to discredit his administration’s efforts. First, though, the Santos administration must make public the exact terms of the deal, and it must formally win an internal FARC vote. Every little detail of the deal’s terms and conditions will be potential fodder for derailing it.

As anxious, pro-European Brits might warn, not every issue should necessarily be subject to popular referendum. That’s especially true in a representative democracy, where voters elect professional politicians to make, change and enact laws. That’s especially true in cases where a minority can take away rights from a majority — whether it’s the economic rights that come with EU membership or basic marriage equality for gay men and women. Or, in Colombia’s case, securing special rights and privileges that will induce FARC’s former guerrillas to give up violent conflict in favor of everyday politics.

Moreover, since the moment Santos announced plans to negotiate with FARC, his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, has bitterly opposed him.

As Uribe’s defense secretary, Santos seemed set to follow Uribe’s hard-line, no-compromise course against FARC. Once elected in 2010, however, Santos diverged, drawing Uribe’s ire and a challenge in the form of a new conservative political party, Centro Democrático (CD, Democratic Center), which thrived in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Uribe’s candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga won the first round of the presidential election in May 2014 and only lost the runoff by a narrow six point margin a month later (owing his success more for his emphasis on economic growth than for his skepticism about the peace process). The 2014 runoff vote, in which Santos barely won an absolute majority (50.95%) is evidence for the broad notion that majority of Colombians can be mobilized in support of the peace deal.

But Uribe and his allies will stop at nothing to thwart the peace deal at the ballot box. Most Colombians seem well-disposed to the Santos approach, weary to end the chapter of far-left guerrilla rebellion and far-right military reprisals. The deal contains controversial aspects, including the potential amnesty of FARC rebels, and Uribe will be certain to emphasize the most unpopular elements of the deal.

Andres Pastrana, Uribe’s Conservative predecessor as president, also tried to effect peace negotiations with the FARC, but like Uribe, he opposes the current deal, this week calling it a ‘coup d’etat against justice.’ Both Uribe and Pastrana will argue that a rejection at the ballot box will make possible renegotiation and, potentially, a tougher deal for FARC rebels. But it’s hard enough to know whether FARC guerrillas will universally accept the terms of the current deal, let alone negotiate in good faith after rejection by voters.

WIthout uribismo, the Colombian government would never have been in such a great negotiating position, it’s true. Uribe’s controversial military (and US-backed) approach essentially defeated FARC as a serious threat and challenge to the government. Though Uribe faces accusations of human rights abuses, today’s peace talks directly result from his government’s victories over FARC.

A peace deal with the FARC is the chief policy achievement of Colombia's two-term president Juan Manuel Santos. (Facebook)
A peace deal with the FARC would be the chief policy achievement of Colombia’s two-term president Juan Manuel Santos. (Facebook)

If Santos wins the referendum and signs the peace deal, it will be the most important policy achievement of his two-term presidency. But, with less than two years to go, Santos is massively unpopular as Colombians blame him for a struggling economy and a much devalued peso. Earlier this year, Santos lost the support of the largest party in his coalition, the Partido Liberal Colombiano (PLC, Colombian Liberal Party), and several figures from within the wider pro-Santos camp are already competing for the 2018 elections. Zuluaga, who may run again in 2018, will obviously campaign vigorously against the peace deal. But even Santos’s own vice president, Germán Vargas Lleras, the leader of the liberal, center-right Cambio Radical (Radical Change), and one of several leading 2018 contenders, has backed away from the peace process. Polls generally give the pro-deal camp a narrow lead, but not by much.

Other popular 2018 contenders less politically close to Santos will be in the pro-deal camp. Sergio Fajardo, a former Medellín mayor and governor of Antioquia, is likely to run as the candidate of the Partido Verde (Green Party). So might the left-wing Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and M-19 guerrilla. Uribista allies tried to remove Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, as Bogotá mayor (traditionally, the second-most important elected post in Colombia) in 2013 and 2014, ostensibly over the issue of garbage removal. It took a ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to reinstate Petro as mayor.

Petro’s example — the M-19 disarmed years ago and never represented the same level is that as FARC — shows just how radioactive, for both sides, the amnesty and political participation aspects of a peace deal could be. Notwithstanding Santos’s promises, a significant portion of the Colombian political elite will be incredibly wary of the possibility that former left-wing rebels could one day gain power through the political process. The 2018 elections, ultimately, will represent a second-run referendum on the peace deal. Even a vote for peace in October, therefore, doesn’t guarantee the peace process’s ultimate success.

Muhummad Yunus is exactly the person Clinton should have been meeting

Hillary Clinton met with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammed Yunus in Dhaka as US secretary of state. (AFP)
Hillary Clinton met with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammed Yunus in Dhaka as US secretary of state. (AFP)

It’s only Tuesday, but it has not been the best week for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. USflagbangladesh flag icon

Just a day after reports that the FBI discovered nearly 14,900 emails that Clinton should have turned over as work-related emails to the State Department (she turned over 30,000 and marked the rest as private), the Associated Press reported on Tuesday afternoon that, in an analysis of 154 private individuals that Clinton met while secretary of state, 85 of them were at least one-time donors to the Clinton Foundation, an international health charity organization — if true, that means that around 55% of her meetings with non-government and non-foreign officials were with Clinton Foundation donors.

First, it’s unlikely that Clinton, in four years at State, met just 38 people on average annually from the private sector, so there’s so doubt about whether the AP’s denominator is accurate. Secondly, without any other proof, a meeting is not anything more than just a meeting, especially after a thoroughgoing investigation from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation almost certainly reviewed the question of quid pro quo corruption. Third, it’s credible that many private-sector actors (especially wealthy individuals with storied careers in academia, finance, technology or otherwise) might have given money to a high-profile charity like the Clinton Foundation. Finally, and most importantly, while Clinton is not exactly a paragon of government ethics, it beggars belief that she would sabotage her own obvious 2016 presidential hopes by engaging in crude pay-to-play corruption.

It’s true that both Hillary Clinton and her husband have both shown ridiculously poor ethical judgment when entrusted with power, and it was only in July that FBI director James Comey (narrowly) declined to recommend criminal charges for Clinton’s handling of classified information on a home server that she used for email while at State. Both Clintons, already wealthy from book royalties, have also shown reckless greed in taking millions of dollars in speech fees from corporate and foreign interests since leaving office.

But short of one truly horrific example, and a particularly immature staffer in Doug Band, there’s not a lot of scandal involving the Clinton Foundation. (The example, reported last year to surprisingly little fanfare, involves a murky Canadian financier named Frank Giustra, a leading figure in a sale of a uranium company, Uranium One, that won approvals from State and numerous other US agencies. The deal, ultimately, handed over rights of one-fifth of US uranium reserves first to Kazakh and then to Russian control).

By and large, the Clinton Foundation a charity that leverages the Clinton family’s name and experience toward better global health outcomes. In that sense, it’s no different, really, than the Carter Center or any other private-public effort that a former US president undertakes.

In politics, though, especially in the crucible of US election-year politics less than 80 days from a presidential election, reality is less important than perception. And Clinton most certainly has a perception problem with the Clinton Foundation and the idea that it’s become a pay-for-play racket. Moreover, the Clinton Foundation gets generally great marks from charity scorecard watchdogs like Charity Watch. Despite the phony statistics of right-wing news media, the Clinton Foundation spends an admirably 88% of donations on programming.

But the most especially ridiculous aspect of the latest uproar over the Clinton Foundation is that one of those 85 individuals that Clinton met is Muhammad Yunus, the former head of Grameen Bank. Frankly, it would have been diplomatic malpractice not for Clinton to have met Yunus during her time at State, when Yunus was increasingly under attack from his own government.

By 2011, Bangladesh’s increasingly autocratic and corrupt leader, Sheikh Hasina, had expelled Yunus and fully expropriated Grameen Bank. Though the Bangladeshi government once tried to accuse Yunus himself of embezzlement, it eventually ousted him from Grameen on the basis that, then at age 72, he exceeded the retirement age. Continue reading Muhummad Yunus is exactly the person Clinton should have been meeting

South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg gets new opposition mayor

Herman Mashaba, who founded 'Black Like Me,' a leading hair product company in South Africa, is now Johannesburg's mayor. (Facebook)
Herman Mashaba, who founded ‘Black Like Me,’ a leading hair product company in South Africa, is now Johannesburg’s mayor. (Facebook)

Though the Democratic Alliance (DA) didn’t win the greatest number of votes in local elections in Johannesburg municipality in the country’s local elections on August 3, the party’s mayoral hopeful, Herman Mashaba, was elected Monday as mayor in the most populous municipality of South Africa.south africa flag

Mashaba, a successful businessman who hopes to bring a more market-driven approach to running the South African metropolis, won the votes of 144 council members, ousting the popular incumbent Parks Tau of the African National Congress (ANC), who won just 125 votes. Another DA official, Vasco Da Gama (no relation to the explorer), was also elected speaker of the Johannesburg council on a chaotic day in which one of the ANC’s council members collapsed and died amid the voting.

Greater Johannesburg, with around 7.5 million people, is the third-most populous metropolitan area in sub-Saharan Africa, after Lagos and Kinshasa-Brazzaville. It’s an amazing opportunity for the DA to weaken the two-decade grip that the ANC has held on power in South Africa and most of its major cities (excepting Cape Town and Western Cape province, which have become strongholds for the Democratic Alliance). 

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RELATED: DA impresses with wins in South African municipal elections

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That the ANC — Nelson Mandela’s ANC (!) — still the only party to rule post-apartheid South Africa, and not by a small margin, has lost control of Johannesburg is an incredible blow. The ANC’s woes are compounded by clearer losses to the DA in two other municipalities: Nelson Mandela Bay, a municipality that includes Port Elizabeth, the largest city of Eastern Cape province; and Tshwane, which includes Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative and executive capital.

Under a new, youthful black South African leader in Mmusi Maimane, the Democratic Alliance will now have three years and three cities to demonstrate that it is ready to compete directly with the ANC across the entire country and govern in a responsible manner. Under the leadership of Maimane and several fresh faces, the Democratic Alliance seems to be shedding its unfair image as a party of white South Africans devoted to defending white interests. Mashaba, 56 years old, is a well-known businessman who founded a hair care products company, Black Like Me, in the 1980s, and leveraged his success to build a wide business empire.

His pro-capitalist approach to economic policy means that he will attempt to boost private-sector job creation while working to reduce corruption. Though he will have a five-year term as Johannesburg mayor, the DA will have relatively less time to showcase that it is fit to run the national government before the next set of general elections in 2019. Continue reading South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg gets new opposition mayor

What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)
Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)

Given ancient Rome’s delight in all things Hellenistic, it’s perhaps surprising that it took until 1960 for the Italian capital to win its turn hosting the Summer Olympic Games.brazilItaly Flag Icon

Those 1960 Games, however, showcased a Rome that, in barely more than a decade, rose from the ashes of World War II’s devastation. Under the guidance of U.S. and western allies and under the aegis of the Catholic, conservative Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), the 1960 Games forecast a competent and determined Italy that would, for the next three decades, leap forward economically in surprising and creative ways.

Though Italy today seems often trapped in sclerotic and tradition-bound ways, it wasn’t outlandish to say that Italy in 1960 was still a country of the future.  

That evergreen label, too, is affixed to Brazil. It’s the country of the future, the old chestnut goes… and it always will be.

When Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic Games in 2009, it looked like that future, always just beyond the horizon, was finally within reach. In 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva marked the last of eight years in power. With GDP growth of 7.5%, the frothiest Brazilian economy in a quarter-century, and with extreme poverty nearly eliminated across Brazil through a series of social welfare, transfer and educational programs, it was a victory lap for a figure who had become the most mythic colossus of the Latin American left. Though Brazil’s 2010 boom was part of a short-lived emerging economies bubble, things were still looking up for Brazil as recently as 2014, when Lula da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, narrowly won reelection – the fourth consecutive term for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), defeating both Marina Silva, a charismatic third-way economic leftist and evangelical Christian who would have been Brazil’s first leader of African descent, and conservative Aécio Neves, a telegenic and well-regarded senator and successful former governor of Minas Gerais.

Even then, it was still possible to regard the historic 2016 Games, the first to be held in South America, as notice that at long last, Brazil would be a country of the present. Instead, the country today is in political and economic crisis. Far from announcing Brazil as a major economic power, the Rio Games themselves have become a symbol of economic inequality and government misrule. At best, they have been an opportunity (as much for Brazilians as for Trump-weary and Clinton-fatigued Americans) to forget politics for two weeks.   Continue reading What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

Photo of the day: A haunting victim of Aleppo’s siege

A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.
A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.

It’s important for the rest of the world to see what’s happening in Aleppo. Even when it’s ugly. Even when it means a child dazed and confused by the horrors of war. The video is even more heart-breaking. Our hearts should cry for what’s happened in Syria for 5.5 years. It’s disgusting.Syria Flag Icon freesyria

It’s going to get worse in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, now divided between a western half still controlled by Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army and an eastern half held by Sunni, anti-Assad rebels. The fighting is now fierce, and it has been for weeks. Both sides have committed atrocities. Dwindling water, food, power and medical care for over 2 million residents means that Aleppo could also spiral into a humanitarian crisis.

Russian bombs are making it worse.

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RELATED: Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

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Here in the United States, as we indulge ourselves in a presidential election focused on xenophobia, division and isolationism, when we should be thinking deeply about economic and social policy and global leadership, we may even hear the cries to ‘do something’ above the cowardly screeching  of Trumpismo.

Given the huge American military, most will naturally think first of a military solution. But of course the most effective things that the United States could do are things that it will not. One is to provide more financial aid to Lebanon that can assist the country in assimilating and caring for a deluge of around 1.5 million refugees (though the US government did find $50 million to fund the country’s military earlier this month).

Even more effective would be granting refugee status to more of the victims of Syria’s civil war here in the United States when a trickle of just 10,000 refugees — itself a massive increase — remains deeply inadequate and uncharitable for a country built on immigration.

Lungu wins narrow victory in Zambia as opposition cries foul

While Edgar Lungu has won a narrow victory for reelection, he shouldn't be celebrating just yet. (Facebook)
While Edgar Lungu has won a narrow victory for reelection, he shouldn’t be celebrating just yet. (Facebook)

Everyone in Zambia always expected that its August 11 presidential election would be close.zambia

But the circumstances of Edgar Lungu’s narrow victory, officially pronounced on Monday by election officials, do not bode well. By a margin of around 13,000 votes, Lungu edged the 50% threshold required to avoid a runoff with his chief opponent, Hakainde Hichilema, a five-time presidential contender and the leader of the opposition.

The result leaves the country divided sharply on political, regional and ethnic lines and subject to weeks or even months of additional political uncertainty.

Hichilema has demanded a recount and is challenging the result in court. He has good reason, starting with the four-day lag between election day and the final tabulation of results. No results, as of Wednesday, were available for the constitutional referendum or the parliamentary elections that also took place August 11 to choose all 156 members of the National Assembly. A delay in counting votes from the capital, Lusaka, has cast additional suspicion on the possibility that the Lungu government might have won the election through fraud. Even the European Union’s observers have expressed their skepticism about the fairness of the voting.

It hasn’t helped help that Lungu leaned on state media significantly throughout the campaign, and that his government went out of its way to shut down The Post, one of the leading opposition newspapers in the country earlier this year. Nor did it help that Zambia, which has seen several peaceful transfers of power from one party to a different party, endured a greater amount of political violence than in past election years (though still quite mild by, say, Kenya 2007 standards).

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RELATED: Hichilema hopes to win rematch in Zambia’s presidential race

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Hichilema, meanwhile, expected to benefit from disenchantment with Zambia’s ailing economy and a depressed global market for its most important export, copper. His party, moreover, the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), benefitted from the support of several high-profile defectors from Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF). Results show that Hichilema did predictably well in the south of the country, Lungu won most of his votes in his northern base and, however narrowly, in the vote-rich capital, Lusaka, and in the Copperbelt province in central Zambia.

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In fact, the results don’t look especially different from the results of last January’s presidential by-election, when Lungu (then Zambia’s defense minister) succeeded the late Michael Sata, though Lungu’s margin of victory (around 100,000 votes) is much wider in this year’s election than in the 2015 race (around 28,000). The 2016 election, moreover, featured much higher turnout — perhaps befitting the fact that Lungu, if his victory is confirmed, is now set to serve a full five-year term through 2021. Continue reading Lungu wins narrow victory in Zambia as opposition cries foul

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