Suffragio goes to Scandinavia

vinterdagen

Andrew Sullivan isn’t the only one who wants a break from the blogging grind!norwaydenmark flag

I am leaving this afternoon for Denmark and Norway, meeting with friends and breathing in a (very cold) week and a  half of Nordic sensibility.

That means posting will be particularly light and quite possibly oriented toward Scandinavia and its policies and politics, but also its culture, history, music and food.

I’ll still be writing about matters — the Arabian peninsula is still sorting out from the fallout of last week’s royal succession in Saudi Arabia and ongoing tumult in Yemen, the showdown between Greece’s new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and the rest of Europe, and Italy’s presidential election will dominate headlines tomorrow and Friday. Slovenia holds a referendum on February 7 on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

Next week, Delhi holds its legislative election, a real political test for both Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP and Narendra Modi’s BJP.

Of course, the big target for February will be Nigeria’s election, where former 1980s military leader and repeated presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari has a real shot at dislodging the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.

But through next week, Suffragio bids all of its reader God reise!

In the meanwhile, Suffragio has been nominated for Best Blog in the Online Achievement in International Studies awards. If you’re so inclined (and voting ends tomorrow), please email duckofminerva2015 at gmail.com for a ballot. There are a ton of great writers out there, and the ‘Duckies’ are a great introduction them all!

The real reason Netanyahu is coming to Washington

netanyahucongressPhoto credit to AFP.

Washington, it’s not always about you. USflagISrel Flag Icon

For a week, US House speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the US Congress has stirred controversy in the capitals of both countries, but especially in Washington, where commentators of all political stripes are attacking the veteran Israeli leader for the breathtaking breach of protocol in bypassing the administration of US president Barack Obama and dealing exclusively with Obama’s political opponents in the legislative branch. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, perhaps the leading US commentator on Israeli affairs and the bilateral relationship, slammed the move in a piece on Tuesday headlined, ‘The Netanyahu disaster.’

Yes, Netanyahu wants to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and he’s made it clear that he will stop at nothing to thwart Tehran from enriching even the tiniest bit of uranium in its quest to develop its nuclear energy industry — to say nothing of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Yes, Netanyahu is a political foe of the Obama administration and, time after time, he’s gone out of his way to indicate his disapproval of its approach to Iran and other issues central to Israeli regional security. Netanyahu has increasingly developed common cause with the US right, and he has a fervent supporter in Sheldon Adelson, one of the wealthiest Republican donors in the United States (he almost single-handedly bankrolled former speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid) and a top Netanyahu financier in his own right.

But neither of those are the real reason that Netanyahu is so eager to speak before the US Congress, now entirely controlled by the Republican Party. Nor will Netanyahu be dissuaded by arguments that it’s a fantastic breach of protocol that will make an already tense relationship with the Obama administration worse. After all, Netanyahu practically endorsed Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger for the presidency in 2012, and he easily won his own battle for a new term as Israeli prime minister two months after the American presidential election. The potential of alienating a sitting US president certainly didn’t harm Netanyahu’s own domestic political prospects two years ago. The fact that Netanyahu is one of the few US allies who so often publicly contradicts the US president might even boost his standing among Israeli voters.

The real impetus for Netanyahu?

His scheduled appearance comes just two weeks before he faces what will be his toughest election battle since 1999, when he lost an election to Ehud Barak, then the leader of the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).  Continue reading The real reason Netanyahu is coming to Washington

Seven lessons from the Greek election results

samarasloses

Greece’s voters have effected a political earthquake in making leftist Alexis Tspiras their new prime minister, delivering a near-majority to the far-left and giving the European Union its first full-throated anti-austerity government since the onset of the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis in 2009-10.Greece Flag Icon

Tsipras’s party, SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς), is now the most left-wing governing party in the European Union and, with the exception of economist Yiannis Dragasakis, who served as deputy finance minister in a short-lived technocratic government a quarter-century ago, it’s a party with no significant governing experience.

greece2015

hellenicparliamentDespite a 50-seat ‘winner’s bonus’ for SYRIZA, which significantly outpolled New Democracy, the party fell just short of an outright majority in Greece’s unicameral Hellenic Parliament (Βουλή των Ελλήνων). Earlier, today, however, Tsipras announced that he would form an alliance with the Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες), an anti-austerity spinoff from New Democracy. Its leader, Panos Kammenos, last week scoffed that Europe is governed by ‘neo-Nazi Germans,’ and he is something of a loose cannon on the Greek political scene, and he has sometimes veered toward nationalist and even anti-Semitic rhetoric. Like Tsipras, he has brutally denounced the conditions of Greece’s two bailouts over the past half-decade, but he agrees on little else with the country’s new leftist prime minister.

* * * * *

RELATED: EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

RELATED: Meet Greece’s new economic policymakers

* * * * *

So what should you make of the fast-moving events in Greece and the aftermath of Sunday’s elections? Here are seven key lessons.

Continue reading Seven lessons from the Greek election results

Meet Greece’s new economic policymakers

Varoufakis

With the Greek far left set to take power after Sunday’s staggering parliamentary elections, its next prime minister Alexis Tspiras will be just one of many key figures who will now become the central players in the latest chapter of the European Union’s economic policy debate.Greece Flag Icon

After Tspiras, no one will be more important than the economic advisers to whom the new government will entrust its attempt to reverse Greek economic policy and to negotiate debt relief from skeptical European Union leaders and international bondholders.

* * * * *

RELATED: EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

* * * * *

Among the chief economic advisers to Tsipras and the soon-to-be-governing SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left, Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) are a handful of colorful personalities, from moderates to Marxists, all of whom will shape Greek economic policy in the years ahead.

Varoufakis: the political neophyte and telegenic economics professor

Yanis Varoufakis, an economics professor at the University of Athens, is widely tipped to become Greece’s next finance minister or, at the very least, lead the new government in negotiations with the troika — the European Central Bank, European Commission and the International Monetary Fund — and other EU leaders. Until very recently, Varoufakis was an outsider to Greek politics. He’s not a politician and, until recently, was a visiting professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

Varoufakis, however, was invited to run for a parliamentary seat by SYRIZA’s leaders. His international profile (Varoufakisis half Australian) and fluent English skills mean that he could soothe international markets as the chief economic spokesperson for Greece’s new government. A former adviser to George Papandreou in the early 2000s, Varoukakis has been a strident critic of the austerity measures that, first Papandreou and, since 2012, outgoing prime minister Antonis Samaras have accepted as conditions for Greece’s two bailouts, totaling €240 billion. In his announcement that he would stand as a candidate for the Hellenic Parliament, he compared that austerity to ‘fiscal waterboarding':

Instead of discussing, in the European Union’s fora, the nature of our systemic crisis, the powers-that-be were busy fiscally waterboarding proud nations, letting them take a few short breaths before submerging them again into the waters of illiquidity.

Somewhat unusually for a European finance minister, Varoufakis has not shied away from criticizing the United States. Three years ago, Varoufakis wrote a book, The Global Minotaur, that paints a menacing portrait of the role of US economic policy vis-à-vis the rest of the world and American workers. Continue reading Meet Greece’s new economic policymakers

EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

tsipraswins

With his sweeping victory today in Greece, Alexis Tspiras has led the far left to its only victory since his country’s return to democratic rule in 1974.Greece Flag Icon

In so doing, Tsipras (pictured above) and the socialist SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left, Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) have upended the political order in a country that, for more than four decades, shifted between the rule of political elites on both the center-right and the center-left, often hailing from two or three dozen well-connected families. Tsipras’s victory today is as much the defeat of that Greek political elite on both the left and right, which cumulatively share responsibility for irresponsible budget policies and widespread corruption in government.

More recently, they have also shared responsibility for the Greek bailout that ceded significant control over Greek fiscal policy to the ‘troika’ of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Center-left prime minister George Papandreou (himself the son of a prime minister) accepted the first bailout in his term, between 2009 and 2011. Since 2012, a grand coalition headed by center-right prime minister Antonis Samaras and center-left deputy prime minister Evangelos Venizelos, have also accepted the increasingly onerous demands of the troika in exchange for the funding that has floated Greece’s treasury since the eurozone crisis of 2010.

* * * * *

RELATED: What to expect from Greece’s January 25 snap elections

* * * * *

Tsipras, at age 40, emerged in the lead-up to the 2012 parliamentary elections, by consolidating support on the Greek left in his denunciations of the grinding course of austerity that accompanied Greece’s humiliating bailout. Then, Greece was only in its third consecutive year of recession and, remarkably, the unemployment rate was actually lower then (24.8%) than it is today (25.8%), with the country nominally back on the path to GDP growth.

But for all the smoke of the election campaign, and for all Tsipras’s fiery rhetoric, the reality is that Tsipras and SYRIZA have spent the past three years moderating their positions and preparing for the day when Tspiras would lead the next Greek government, which may prove more ‘pragmatic left’ than ‘radical left.’

In 2012, Tspiras was ambivalent (at best) about Greece’s eurozone membership. Today, however, Tspiras is adamant, along with a wide majority of the Greek electorate, that Greece must retain the single currency. Whereas SYRIZA once mused about defaulting on greek debt and ripping up the ‘memorandum’ of stipulations that governs the country’s two bailouts, which totals €240 billion, the party now pledges to renegotiate Greece’s debt burden with EU leaders in an orderly manner. Though Tspiras and other SYRIZA leaders are committed to reversing the grinding austerity of the past six years, they will seek to do so in the context of a balanced budget (as opposed to the 4% to 5% surplus that outgoing prime minister Antonis Samaras hoped to achieve).

Tsipras, in short, will govern more like a social democrat than a democratic socialist. As prime minister, with the full weight on government on his shoulders, Tspiras will be hard-pressed to deliver appreciable relief from six years of austerity, recession and unemployment. To devote more funding for public services and boost growth will require a very different skill set than the campaign oratory of the past three years.  Continue reading EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

Photo of the day: Obama meets Modi

obamamodi

The most incredible thing about US president Barack Obama’s most recent three-day trip to India, which began today, is that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi can pull off such a sincere welcome less than six weeks after citing Russia as India’s top defense partner, even as he and Obama would later announce a new US-India nuclear energy deal.India Flag Icon

Has any world leader had such a strong first nine months in office from a geopolitical strategic perspective?

Keep in mind that Modi, barred from the United States for nearly a decade due to his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat, was not always particularly keen on strengthening relationships with the United States. Instead, on the basis of his work promoting Gujarat, it was always more likely that he would look to China, Japan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, where he wooed investment to his own state. With his emphasis on turfing out the corrupt and ineffective leadership of the Gandhi family, and with relatively little commentary on India’s foreign policy, no one expected Modi to build so many bridges in such little time.

Within just nine months, Modi has been the guest of honor at a state dinner at the White House, and he packed Madison Square Garden, filled with tens of thousands of North Americans of Indian descent thrilled to hear from India’s most powerful leader in three decades. By all accounts, Modi and Obama have developed a strong working relationship, unique for an American president who isn’t particularly known for his chemistry with world leaders.

Today, however, Modi has the grin of a prime minister, who, despite a decade as a pariah throughout much of the West, now revels in being suited by everyone — not just the United States and Russia, but China, Brazil, Japan, Europeans, Africans. In foreign policy, Modi is running a positive-sum game. What other countries in the world could manage to nurture such close relationships, strategic and otherwise, with Russia and the United States simultaneously? (Serbia, maybe? The United Arab Emirates? The list isn’t incredibly long.)

Modi, whose social media use has been nimble, was quick to post a photo of his warm welcome for Obama early Sunday morning. But one look at his Facebook and Twitter feeds, which often border on the campy side, show that he doesn’t just delight in Obama — in 2015 alone, he’s featured shots with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble,  Israeli agriculture minister Yair Shamir, Astrakhan provincial governor Alexander Zhilkin, Iranian presidential adviser Akbar Torkan, Canadian immigration minister Chris Alexander, Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski, among many (many) others.

What’s becoming clear is that while Modi has taken only a gradual approach to reforming India’s government, slowly introducing changes to make the bureaucracy more efficient, the theme of Indian pride is constant in the Modi approach to both domestic and foreign policy. Continue reading Photo of the day: Obama meets Modi

How the ECB forced Switzerland’s hand

SNB

Almost as soon as it happened last Thursday, nearly every economist in the world started asking — just why, after three years of maintaining a currency floor for the Swiss franc, did the Swiss National Bank suddenly declare that it would no longer intervene in currency markets to keep the franc‘s value artificially low?
swiss

The truth is that we won’t fully know until Thursday, when the European Central Bank is expected to announce a bond-buying scheme that ECB president Mario Draghi has been pushing for months — according to reports, a €550 billion program that amounts to Europe’s first major attempt at introducing quantitative easing into its monetary policy as the threat of deflation creeps across the eurozone. But it’s becoming clearer that the two events are related.

Draghi’s announcement that Europe will join the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan by dipping its toes into the waters of quantitative easing almost certainly forced the SNB’s hand last week. The looming ECB decision set into motion a set of domino actions throughout the world, starting with the SNB’s decision last week, which in turn caused a mini-crisis in Poland, where nearly half of the country’s mortgages are denominated in francs. It’s essentially the first major political challenge for Poland’s new prime minister Ewa Kopacz, who succeeded Donald Tusk last year when he became the president of the European Council.  Kopacz faces a tough election hurdle in elections that must be held this year before October.

Meanwhile, Denmark is now under pressure, too, with its central bank forced to lower interest rates in the face of speculation that, like Switzerland, it might be forced to abandon its permanent policy of pegging the Danish krone to the euro, under which the krone trades within a 2.25% band of a rate of 7.46 krone to the euro.

Suffice it to say we’ll know a lot more in 24 hours. For now, we’ve had almost a week to piece together our best understanding of the Swiss bombshell. Continue reading How the ECB forced Switzerland’s hand

Hichilema wages contested fight for Zambian presidency

hichilema

When Michael Sata rose to power as Zambia’s president in 2011, he did so after vanquishing a political party, the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), that had dominated Zambian politics for two decades.zambia

The MMD, in turn, wrested power in 1991 from the United National Independence Party (UNIP), which controlled Zambia between 1964 and 1991 under its first post-independence, long-serving president Kenneth Kaunda (who is still alive today at age 91 and remains a relevant figure in Zambian politics).

So when Sata died last October, it wasn’t immediately clear that his ruling Patriotic Front (PF) would necessarily retain power in the by-election that’s being held today, and the PF candidate, justice and defense minister Edgar Lungu, is not a lock to win the Zambian presidency. Hakainde Hichilema, the candidate of the United Party for National Development (UPND), a businessman who is waging his fourth consecutive presidential bid in nine years, is presenting Lungu a strong challenge — so much so that Hichilema (pictured above) has an outside chance of winning.

* * * * *

RELATED: Sata’s death gives Zambia a white president in Guy Scott

* * * * *

While many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have a growing record of decades of democratic practice, Zambia is special insofar as it has moved beyond one-party politics. Though South Africa has held regular elections since 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) easily won an absolute majority and the South African presidency under Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and now, Jacob Zuma. The same dynamic applies in Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique, where Filipe Nyusi was inaugurated just last week. In all four countries (and many others across the continent), the dominant political party remains, in essence, an evolved version of the country’s colonial-era independence movement.

What makes Zambia unique is that its post-colonial independence movement, UNIP, lost its grip on power a quarter-century ago. What’s emerged isn’t necessarily the left/right political contests that Western and European democracies know, but a personality-driven political marketplace. Nevertheless, Zambian elections have become every bit as competitive as campaign season in the United States or Italy or Australia. In the last four presidential votes, the winning margin was within single digits on three occasions and, on the fourth, the winning margin was just 13.6%. That’s a far cry from the three-to-one margins that the ANC routinely notches in South Africa’s national elections.

Though it’s just a country of 14.5 million people, that dynamic makes Zambia a potential bellwether for the future of democratic politics in southern Africa. Despite growing strides in democracy, the continent has seen just a handful of countries (e.g., Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Malawi) that have held elections resulting in multiple peaceful transfers of power from one party or movement to another. So what’s happening today in Zambia may be prologue for Mozambique and other countries in southern and, indeed, all of Africa.  Continue reading Hichilema wages contested fight for Zambian presidency

The Duke Chapel brouhaha and US ‘soft’ foreign policy

duke-chapel-wide

Photo credit to Bill Majoros.

U.S. foreign policy isn’t just the stuff of policy papers, talks at Washington think tanks, strategy positions in Foggy Bottom and the work of establishing economic ties, trade links and military alliances drawn up in the bowels of the Pentagon.USflag

To borrow a concept from Joseph Nye, that’s all ‘hard’ foreign policy.

But there’s also a ‘soft’ foreign policy, and it’s the kind of thing that can equally affect foreign relations, often in explosive and unpredictable ways. Officials in tiny Denmark never anticipated their country would alienate the entire Muslim world when the Jyllands-Posten newspaper printed several disparaging images of the prophet Mohammed in 2005. Nor did French officials have a role in the publication, week after week for decades, of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, but last week’s horrific murders in Paris could become the focal point of French domestic and foreign policy discussion for weeks, months or even years to come.

So, too, the latest manufactured scandal on the American political scene, a decision by Duke University, a private university in Durham, North Carolina, to allow its chapel to be used for a weekly call to prayer for Muslim students. Under pressure from Christian groups, conservative activists and preachers like Franklin Graham, and in the face of several threats, according to Duke officials, the administration backed off todayInstead of using Duke Chapel, Muslim students will sound the prayer call from the quadrangle in front of the chapel, instead of from the chapel’s bell tower. 

It just so happens that I have some interest in this story because I am, myself, a graduate of Duke University. For whatever reason, Duke has found itself at the center of several controversies in recent years, from a 2001 incendiary advertisement regarding slavery reparations that we ran in our days in charge of the student newspaper, The Chronicle, to more serious issues, including prosecutorial abuse in the now-famous 2006 lacrosse rape case. The school’s most recent headlines involved a certain porn star amid its undergraduate student body. But I’m proud to say that Duke is at the center of this latest controversy, in particular, because universities should be precisely the place where students and free thinkers smash against the conventional boundaries of society, ideology and every other sacred cow.

As David Graham (another Dukie and Chronicle alum) writes for The Atlantic, the chapel issue is really less about religion than about the type of society that the United States wants to be in the 21st century, and he quotes Omid Safi, the director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, who really nails this concept:

“At the end of the day, this is not an Islam conversation,” Safi told me. “It’s an America conversation. It’s a ‘who do we want to be and how do we want to arrange and accommodate diversity?’ conversation. Are we a zero-sum society? Are you less of who you are if I am who I am?”

But we can’t really have a grand debate about freedom of religion or freedom of expression in the context of a private university. Government played no role in either enabling or restricting anyone’s religious rights on Duke’s campus. But that doesn’t mean the discussion won’t inform future US attitudes and the world’s impression of US attitudes toward the freedom of religious expression.

Just as in Denmark in 2006 and in France today, the catalyst of the debate comes not over laws and regulations so much as the cultural values, assumptions and norms that often, ultimately, inform laws, be it increasingly tougher Danish restrictions on immigration or the 2010 French law that prohibits public face coverings, such as the burqa that many Muslim women wear. Continue reading The Duke Chapel brouhaha and US ‘soft’ foreign policy

A guide to Italy’s post-Napolitano presidential puzzle

Renzi NapolitanoPhoto credit to Roberto Monaldo / LaPresse.

Italy’s presidential election functions more like a papal conclave than a direct election or even like a party-line legislative vote like the recent failed attempts to elect a new Greek president.Italy Flag Icon

The long-awaited decision today by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano to resign after nine years in office is not likely to result immediately in snap elections in Italy, as it did recently in Greece. Nevertheless, the resulting attempt to select Napolitano’s successor presents Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi with perhaps the most treacherous political task since taking office last February.

Napolitano’s legacy

Napolitano, at age 89, was anxious to step down after Italy relinquishes its six-month rotating European presidency this week. Elected president in 2006, Napolitano (pictured above, left, with Renzi), a former moderate figure within Italy’s former Communist Party, is Italy’s longest serving president, reelected to an unprecedented second seven-year term in 2013 when the divided Italian political scene couldn’t agree on anyone else after five prior ballots.

Critics refer to Napolitano as ‘Re Giorgio‘ (King George), but there’s little doubt that he was consequential during Italy’s financial markets crisis in late 2011 by nudging Silvio Berlusconi, who first came to power in 1994, out of office — seemingly once and for all. Napolitano’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering may have prevented Italy from the humiliating step of seeking a bailout from European authorities though his detractors argue that he circumvented the democratic process by engineering Berlusconi’s ouster and appointing former European commissioner Mario Monti as prime minister. Monti, who stepped down after 2013 national elections, largely failed to push through major economic reforms that many investors believe Italy needs to become more competitive, and that Renzi now promises to enact.

Napolitano, who will remain a ‘senator for life’ in the upper chamber of the Italian parliament, steps down with generally high regard from most Italians, who believe that he, in particular, has been a stabilizing force throughout the country’s worst postwar economic recession.

An opaque process to select a president

The process to appoint his successor involves an electoral assembly that comprises members of both houses of the Italian parliament, plus 58 additional electors from the country’s 20 regions — a total of 1,009 electors. Within 15 days, the group must hold its first vote, though it may only hold a maximum of two voter per day. For the first three ballots, a presidential candidate must win a two-thirds majority. On the fourth and successive ballots, however, a simple majority of 505 votes is sufficient. Continue reading A guide to Italy’s post-Napolitano presidential puzzle

Croatia turns rightward in electing Grabar-Kitarović president

Grabar-Kitarović

While the rest of Europe focused on the Paris march following last week’s terrorism attacks, Croatia attended to the business of electing a new president.croatia

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who is associated with the center-right opposition, the Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (HDZ, Croatia Democratic Union), defeated incumbent president Ivo Josipović, nominally an independent but associated with the governing, social democratic Kukuriku coalition, an electoral group of four center-left parties.

That Josipović won the first-round vote on December 28 and only closely lost Sunday’s vote to Grabar-Kitarović is a testament to his popularity, not to the weakness of the HDZ. But for a party that believes it’s on the verge of returning to power — Croatia must hold parliamentary elections no later than February 2016 — it might have expected to do better. Grabar-Kitarović narrowly won by a margin of around 20,000 votes, many of which came from Croats living abroad in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the first round, she won over 77% support among Croats abroad, and she made promises to support the Bosnian Croat population.

The HDZ easily defeated the Kukuriku coalition in last May’s European parliamentary elections, and polls give the HDZ a lead of between 6% and 9% in advance of the next national elections. One new party, the Održivi razvoj Hrvatske (ORaH, Sustainable Development of Croatia), is attracting increasing support, however — it was formed only in October 2013 as a green, leftist alternative to the current government by former environmental minister Mirela Holy. Social Democratic prime minister Zoran Milanović, who took office in 2011, has faced the wrath of an electorate weary, like the rest of southern and central Europe, of poor economic conditions, despite the fact that he presided over Croatia’s accession as the 28th member-state of the European Union in July 2013.

croatia15

Nevertheless, the HDZ will be happy enough to have installed Grabar-Kitarović as Croatia’s first female president, a role that is essentially ceremonial though, like in most European parliamentary democracies, Grabar-Kitarović plays a role in foreign affairs and defense policy and she is technically in charge of appointing the prime minister following elections. In the context of the Balkans, however, the president can play an important diplomatic role for a region just two decades removed from war. Josipović, for example, made a controversial speech in Sarajevo during his presidency when he expressed deep regret for Croatia’s involvement in the Bosnian civil war. (Note that Atifete Jahjaga, elected in 2011 to the presidency by Kosovo’s parliament, is the first female head of state in former Yugoslavia, as a region).

No one should expect Grabar-Kitarović to make any apologies during her term. She is, somewhat controversially, a fan of Croatia’s first post-independence leader, Franjo Tudjman, an often autocratic and nationalist president throughout the turbulent 1990s and founder of the HDZ. During the campaign, Grabar-Kitarović promised to ‘return’ to where Tudjman stopped, raising some eyebrows.

Grabar-Kitarović served as European affairs minister between 2003 and 2008 and became, in addition, its foreign minister from 2005 to 2008, laying much of the groundwork for the country’s accession to the European Union, only the second Balkan country to achieve member-state status (after Slovenia). From 2011 to 2014, she served as NATO’s assistant secretary general for public diplomacy.

Photo(s) of the day, 2015 terrorism edition

parisjanuaryPhoto credit to Philippe Wojazer/Reuters.

sanaajanuaryPhoto credit to Hani Mohammed/AP.

What do these two photos have in common?yemen flagFrance Flag Icon

More than you might think.

The former is, of course, a near-instantly famous photo of French president François Hollande marching on the streets of Paris earlier today arm in arm with dozens on European and other world leaders, demonstrating the solidarity and unity of the French people (and their allies) in the wake of last Tuesday’s attack on satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people, and another attack on a kosher supermarket that killed four more people.

From left to right, you can see Federica Mogherini, the European foreign policy chief; Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president; Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; former French president Nicolas Sarkozy; Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta; Hollande; German chancellor Angela Merkel; European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk; Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas; and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. Not pictured are other luminaries, including British prime minister David Cameron, Jordanian King Abdullah, Greek prime minister and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and others, not all of whom are necessarily known for their staunch defense of freedom of expression, speech and the press at home.

The march was widely covered in world and US media today.

But the second photo was taken just hours earlier in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, where protests have erupted in the wake of another attack, also last Tuesday, that killed 37 people when a suicide bomber targeted a police academy, one of several instances of increasing violence in Yemen. Though they didn’t have the benefit of a phalanx of world leaders, the civilian marches in Yemen are no less important than those in Paris today. Continue reading Photo(s) of the day, 2015 terrorism edition

Sirisena easily wins Sri Lankan presidency

sirisena wins
Sri Lanka has avoided all the dark warnings of coups and political tumult — for the time being.SriLanka

Former health minister and one-time ally Maitripala Sirisena easily defeated two-term incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, who called a presidential election two years early. Hoping to take advantage of a scattered opposition, Rajapaksa believed he would slide to an easy reelection to a third six-year term. Instead, Sirisena, the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP, ශ්‍රී ලංකා නිදහස් පක්ෂය), promptly resigned as Rajapaksa’s minister and led 25 SLFP members of the Sri Lankan parliament into the opposition coalition, upending what Rajapaksa thought would be a cakewalk.

srilanka15

Despite the fact that, like Rajapaksa, Sirisena comes from the country’s Sinhalese majority and practices Buddhism, he won significant support from Tamil-speaking Moors (who practice Islam) and Tamils (who practice Hinduism). That, in tandem with the support of a significant set of elites and Sinhalese voters who had soured on Rajapaksa’s decade-long rule, was enough to deliver to him 51.28% of the vote, versus just 47.58% for Rajapaksa.

In the space of six weeks, Sirisena has gone from the general secretary of the SLFP and top minister in the Rajapksa government to the president-elect and head of the titular coalition led by the opposition United National Party (UNP, එක්සත් ජාතික පක්ෂය), which traditional draws more support from Tamil-speaking minorities and which also embraces a more free-market liberal and center-right ideological persuasion.

* * * * *

RELATED: Tumultuous election a test for Sri Lankan democracy

* * * * *

 

Despite ominous warnings that Rajapaksa would deploy the military if he lost the election, the incumbent stepped down and moved out of the presidential palace, Temple Trees, immediately, paving the way for what could be a surprisingly easy and peaceful transfer of power for a country where elections and politics often collide in violence.

While Sirisena is the clearest winner of Thursday’s vote, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is nearly as much of a winner. That’s because Sirisena is expected to strengthen ties with India at the expense of the People’s Republic of China. Increasingly, Rajapaksa looked to Beijing, not New Delhi, for international support, including billions in soft loans from the Chinese government, which in turn looked to Sri Lanka as its foothold in south Asia and the Indian Ocean. No longer. Sirisena has pledged to cancel several Chinese development projects that had become increasingly controversial.

Continue reading Sirisena easily wins Sri Lankan presidency

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

marinelepen2015

As predicted, everyone’s getting even more carried away today wringing their hands over the notion that the horrific Charlie Hebdo killings will play right into the hands of the far-right in France, elevating Marine Le Pen into the presidency in May 2017.France Flag Icon

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

There’s a simple reason why a Le Pen presidential victory, though not impossible, remains incredibly implausible — and that’s as true today as it was last week or last month. It’s because France, like many countries around the world, has a runoff presidential system. While Le Pen stands a good chance of leading the first round of the next presidential vote, that only means that she end up in a runoff against either a center-left or a center-right figure that will command virtually the entire spectrum of political support from the center-right leftward.

* * * * *

RELATED: In Charlie Hebdo massacre,
French values find a rallying point

* * * * *

We know this because it happened just over a decade ago.

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, narrowly edged out the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), prime minister Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, with just 16.86% of the vote. That set up a runoff against the center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac. Despite a widespread lack of excitement about Chirac’s reelection, virtually the entire political mainstream lined up behind Chirac, who walloped Le Pen by a margin of 82.21% to 17.79%.

Continue reading Marine Le Pen is still a longshot to win France’s presidency in 2017

Tumultuous election a test for Sri Lankan democracy

rajapaksa

Pessimists worry that today could bring the first coup in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, as political tensions are running high and military forces are rumored to be out in strong numbers as Sri Lankans go to the polls to elect a new president. SriLanka

They’ll do so in one of the tightest such races in Sri Lanka’s history, at least the tightest since president Mahinda Rajapaksa first took power in the 2005 election, and one with profound consequences for the direction of Sri Lanka’s democratic and policy future and with important regional implications for both India and China.

When the folksy Rajapaksa (pictured above) brought forward the election by two years in November, he hoped to take advantage of a fractured opposition and new rules that allowed him to call early election in either of the final two years of his six-year presidential term and revisions to the Sri Lankan constitution that allow Rajapaksa to seek a third consecutive term to the presidency. He didn’t plan, instead, on a close election that could bring his administration to a premature end.

Sri Lanka is an island country just off the southeastern coast of India. With over 22 million people, it’s one-third as populous as France (though it pales in comparison to many of India’s states — Tamil Nadu, for example, is home to nearly 70 million people alone). Formerly the British crown colony of Ceylon, the country was trapped for much of the past quarter-century in a civil war waged between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (தமிழீழ விடுதலைப் புலிகள்), popularly known as the ‘Tamil Tigers,’ a guerrilla group fighting to form an independent Tamil state. Despite false starts at peace talks, Rajapaksa presided over the group’s military defeat in 2009, a victory that has allowed Sri Lanka to put the fighting of the 1980s and 1990s behind it. Accordingly, under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has enjoyed annual GDP growth of nearly 7% over the last decade,  doubled per-capita income in the last five years, and marked massive reductions in poverty.

Nevertheless, the country remains precariously split between a Sinhalese-speaking majority that practices Buddhism (around 70% of the population) and its Tamil and Muslim minorities. Its Tamil-speaking minority practices Hinduism, not Buddhism — around 11% of the population consists of Sri Lankan Tamils clustered along the northern and eastern coasts and another 4% or so Indian Tamils clustered in the central highlands. Another 10% or so of the population consists of Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan Moors, who largely follow Islam.

For all of Rajapaksa’s successes in subduing the Tamil Tigers, he has become notorious for centralizing power in the Sri Lankan presidency since taking power a decade ago and amassing wealth for himself and his family, many of whom populate powerful positions in the government.

sirisena

The widespread impression of corruption and abuse of power is at the heart of the challenge to Rajapaksa’s reelection. His opponent, Maitripala Sirisena (pictured above), was until November 21, not only the health minister in Rajapaksa’s government, he was the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP, ශ්‍රී ලංකා නිදහස් පක්ෂය), the vaguely center-left ruling party that draws much of its support from the country’s Sinhalese majority.

In one fell swoop, Sirisena not only united the unruly opposition, but he brought more than two dozen members of the ruling Freedom Party into an anti-Rajapaksa coalition that includes the United National Party (UNP, එක්සත් ජාතික පක්ෂය), a more center-right party that draws support from minorities as well as Sinhalese voters, and any number of parties based on everything from Buddhist nationalism to Marxism. Less charismatic than the incumbent, Sirisena nevertheless heads a once-improbable movement that could topple Rajapaksa, tapping into the same ferocious energy with which Indian prime minister Narendra Modi ousted the long-ruling Nehru-Gandhi family and the Indian National Congress in last spring’s Indian elections. Continue reading Tumultuous election a test for Sri Lankan democracy

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN