Uranium, sovereignty and corruption headline Greenland vote

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It may seem quaint that misuse of just over €14,000 in personal and travel expenses could bring down a government, but that’s exactly why Greenlanders are going to the polls just 19 months after their last election — after a sudden September 30 scandal caused prime minister Aleqa Hammond to step down.greenland flagdenmark flag

Hammond, who stepped away from frontline politics two months ago, is sitting on the sidelines of Friday’s election, watching as her former deputy, acting prime minister Kim Kielsen tries to steer the governing Siumut (Forward), a center-left, moderately pro-sovereignty party, to a longer term in office.

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RELATED: Greenland’s election a case study in climate change, sovereignty, China, the EU and the Arctic’s future [March 2013]

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Amazingly, Kielsen has a real shot at winning Friday’s election, notwithstanding the fact that Hammond’s corruption woes are the immediately cause of the election. In part, that’s because Kielsen has run a humble campaign focused on his own reputation for honesty and appealing to traditional Greenlandic voters.

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In part, it’s also because the chief opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (‘Community of the People’), has pledged to slow down the government’s push to open up large parts of Greenland to international mining interests hoping to unlock the potential mineral wealth of the Arctic north. Its candidate for premier, Sara Olsvig (pictured above), entered politics only in 2011 as one of two members of Denmark’s parliament, the Folketing, and she is currently head of the Folketing‘s Arctic committee. Though she seemed a lock to become Greenland’s next premier when Hammond’s government collapsed, her hesitation with respect to Greenlandic mineral and oil development has, in part, stalled her campaign.

Inuit Ataqatigiit is even more leftist than Siumut, and it is stridently more in favor of Greenlandic independence, but it has also tried to balance the frothy excitement of a mining boom against the concept of sustainable development. That’s especially true in an era of climate change and melting glaciers in Greenland.

In one sense, you can think of the 2014 Greenlandic election as a choice between two imperfect ideals:

  • a more conservative approach to autonomy coupled with a more aggressive approach to the kind of mining and development that could give Greenland the economic basis for independence in the decades to come; or
  • a more aggressive approach to independence with a more hesitant approach to economic development that prioritizes the risks to the environment, local communities and other factors.

Traditionally, Siumut has controlled Greenlandic government since 1979, when Greenland, an ‘autonomous country’ within the Kingdom of Denmark, won self-rule, though the party only recently retook control of government in the March 2013 elections, following a four-year Inuit Ataqatigiit government led by local musician Kuupik Kleist.

No matter which party wins the November 28 election, the vote is unlikely to settle definitively either Greenland’s debate over the nature and pace of mining and development or its status vis-à-vis Denmark. That’s most of all because no one yet knows whether Greenland harbors the kind of oil or mineral wealth that could allow it to become a viable independent nation-state. The country currently receives a subsidy grant of around $600 million from the Danish government (and it still posted a budget deficit last year).

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It’s too late for Labour to boot Ed Miliband as leader

Miliband beggarPhoto credit to Nigel Roddis/Getty Images.

Though it hasn’t been a great month for British prime minister David Cameron, November was quite possibly the worst month in the four-year tenure of Labour leader Ed Miliband, who was forced to endure a full-fledged crisis of confidence just six months before the next general election.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Miliband (pictured above) began the first half of the month batting away rumors that a backbencher uprising might topple him from the leadership just before the country prepares for the May 2015 general election. Miliband had already come under fire for a lackluster speech at Labour’s September party conference in which he didn’t mention the British budget deficit.

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RELATED: Miliband shifts Labour’s focus from austerity to health care

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Most reports urged Alan Johnson, the widely respected former home secretary, as a potential replacement, though Johnson declaimed all interest in leading the party, thereby depriving any plotters of the most necessary ingredient to a successful putsch — the quick installation of a universally well-regarded successor.

Labour struggling to retain working-class supporters

No sooner did the ‘dump Miliband’ story quell than Miliband was forced to sack Emily Thornberry, the shadow work and pensions secretary, for a photograph (see below) posted to Twitter that seemed to mock working-class English voters — it’s a peculiar quirk of the delicate nature of class that a photo of a white van parked in front of a house with two English flags waving would stir such controversy. But it’s arguably the most damaging moment for Labour vis-à-vis the British working class since April 2010, when then-prime minister Gordon Brown was overheard calling a Labour supporter a ‘bigoted woman.’

Emily Thornberry's Twitter image. 'Emily did not mean to cause offence,' another Labour MP said. 'Bu

Miliband was forced to reaffirm that Labour was founded as the party of ‘working people,’ even as Nigel Farage’s anti-Europe, populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) now threatens to steal as many traditional supporters from Labour as from the Conservative Party.

UKIP won a November 20 by-election in Rochester and Strood, triggered by Conservative MP Mark Reckless’s decision to defect to the party — Reckless, as the newly minted UKIP candidate, easily defeated Tory challenger Kelly Tolhurst, leaving Labour far behind in third place with 16.8%. Reckless is the second Tory to defect to UKIP, joining Douglas Carswell — and quite possibly others in the months ahead.

Though you might think that’s more of a headache for Cameron than for Miliband, UKIP’s rise is just one reason why the November scare won’t be the last time between now and May that Miliband faces a surge of doubt within Labour ranks.

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Hagel’s exit symbolizes Obama policy shift

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The headline should have read yesterday:USflag

“US President elected to end military quagmires in the Middle East fires prominent anti-quagmire Defense Secretary, ramps up for ambiguous Middle Eastern quagmire.”

Whatever the reasons for US president Barack Obama’s decision to fire defense secretary Chuck Hagel, it’s clear that Hagel’s brand of foreign-policy realism is falling ever further out of favor, as the Obama administration moves toward a more interventionist approach to foreign policy in its final two years.

Though the decision, in superficial ways, is similar to the 2006 resignation of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which also followed a devastating midterm election for president George W. Bush, Hagel’s experience at the Pentagon had little in common with Rumsfeld’s tenure.

Hagel, his worldview forged as a squad leader in the US army infantry during the Vietnam War, was always a cautious prairie conservative. As a former US senator from Nebraska, Hagel stood up to his own Republican Party over the conduct of the US occupation of Iraq in the mid-2000s.

That skepticism seemed to be pitch-perfect for the Obama administration in earlier years, when it was taking pains to extricate the United States from internal conflicts in the Middle East.

Obama successful ended the US occupation of Iraq, he studiously avoided taking sides in the Syrian civil war (even when it meant swallowing criticism for backing away from his ‘red line’ statement about the use of chemical weapons), and he kept US military assistance to a minimum in the NATO-led effort to support anti-regime rebels in Libya.

Critics have argued that the Obama administration has pursued a disengaged approach to world affairs, thereby explaining both Libya’s disintegration into chaos and, in no small measure, the vacuum that allowed the Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية‎) to wreak havoc throughout traditional Mesopotamia — eastern Syria and western Iraq.

That criticism seems to have resonated with Obama and his foreign policy and national security team, and Obama’s apparent decision to make a personnel change seems more important than the fact that Hagel is out and someone new is in. Telescoping that decision comes with the real costs involved with pushing a high-profile nomination through what will be a Republican-controlled Senate in January 2015. Hagel stumbled from the beginning, starting with the Congressional hearings upon his appointment and who seemed to lack the presence for the role. But neither he nor his successor is likely to call the shots on foreign policy.

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Throughout ‘reform’ debate, US ‘immigration’ has changed

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In 2001, when George W. Bush came to power in the United States, three factors — his record as a Texas governor, the strong relationship that he had developed with his conservative Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, and his hope to make the Republican Party more attractive to US-based Latino voters — meant that immigration reform was suddenly back on the agenda for the first time since 1986.USflag

Three US presidential elections, two Mexican presidential administrations and a 2001 terrorist attack and a 2008 financial crisis later, Bush’s successor, Democratic president Barack Obama, will take a leap toward immigration reform today through executive action, pushing as far to the line as possible without exceeding his authority vis-à-vis the US Congress.

Obama will announce today a plan that will de-emphasize the deportation of undocumented immigrants to the United States who have lived in the United States for at least five years, and he will do so with a prime-time Thursday night speech and a campaign-style rollout in Las Vegas on Friday:

Up to four million undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years can apply for a program that protects them from deportation and allows those with no criminal record to work legally in the country, President Obama is to announce on Thursday, according to people briefed on his plans.

An additional one million people will get protection from deportation through other parts of the president’s plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration enforcement system, including the expansion of an existing program for “Dreamers,” young immigrants who came to the United States as children. There will no longer be a limit on the age of the people who qualify.

But farm workers will not receive specific protection from deportation, nor will the Dreamers’ parents. And none of the five million immigrants over all who will be given new legal protections will get government subsidies for health care under the Affordable Care Act.

It’s a strong first step toward reforms that both Republican and Democratic politicians have attempted (unsuccessfully) to pass through the US Congress since the Bush administration. Obama’s action could affect between 4 to 5 million of the currently 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today.

Why now? And why without Congress?

A pro-reform Republican president couldn’t pass a bill with either a Republican-led Congress (from 2005 to 2007) or a Democratic-led Congress (from 2007 to 2009). Nor has a pro-reform Democratic president passed a bill with either a Democratic-led Congress (2009 to 2011) or, currently, with a Republican House. Obama’s action indicates that he doesn’t believe that the switch to a fully Republican-led Congress will make much different. Despite howling from the Republican opposition about the ‘monarchial‘ nature of Obama’s executive action

While Washington debated immigration for over a decade, the nature of immigration in the United States has changed dramatically. Even if the basics of ‘reform’ today still look and feel like they did in 2001 or 2005 or 2008, the world has changed, and the nature of immigration to the United States has changed with it.

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RELATED: 2014 US midterms showcase rise of Asian Americans

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For example, in 2013, more Asians migrated to the United States than Latin Americans, part of a new wave of immigration from an even more diverse array of cultures, languages and backgrounds that’s rising. In 2008-09, as the global financial crisis sent the United States into its worst recession in decades, net migration from Mexico actually decreased, reflecting a larger trend that began in the mid-2000s. Continue reading

Abe calls snap elections in Japan as recession returns

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Barely hours after the news that Japan is entering a recession, with an annualized GDP drop of 7.3% in the second quarter and 1.6% in the third quarter, prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三)  has announced snap elections that will be held sometime in mid-December.Japan

Ostensibly, Abe’s rationale is his determination to postpone the next installment of Japan’s consumption tax increase, which jumped from 5% to 8% in April and is set to rise further to 10% in 2015.

But that’s an obvious fig leaf — the consumption tax is the legacy of the opposition government that Abe defeated in his landslide victory in December 2012.

Instead, Abe hopes to maximize his government’s relative popularity and to take advantage of a scattered opposition to win a rapid mandate next month and extend the LDP’s control for another four years instead of waiting to face voters in 2015 or 2016, when the opposition could be stronger and when Abe’s policies might be even less popular. Abe also faces an internal LDP presidential election next year — it will be hard for rivals to attack Abe so soon after a successful election victory.

Ultimately, however, the election is also a referendum on ‘Abenomics,’ the most audacious experiment in neo-Keynesian economic policy today. Continue reading

Iohannis upsets Ponta in Romanian presidential election

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It’s becoming a more German Europe in more ways that one.Romania Flag Icon

In a stunning upset victory, Sibiu mayor Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, defeated prime minister Victor Ponta, in Sunday’s Romanian presidential election, challenging confident predictions that Ponta would easily take the presidency.

Ponta’s center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party), dominated both the December 2013 national parliamentary elections and the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, and Ponta entered the runoff as the prohibitive favorite after a resounding victory in the October 2 first round, when he took 40.44% of the vote to just 30.37% for Iohannis, the new leader of the center-right Partidul Național Liberal (PNL, National Liberal Party).

But Ponta’s 10-point lead disguised the fact that he fell 10% short of an absolute majority and, as voters’ minds focused on the runoff, Iohannis gained from a surge in turnout — from around 53% in the first round to over 64% in the runoff.

That’s despite the endorsement that Ponta won from third-place challenger, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, a former PNL leader and the country’s prime minister between 2004 and 2008, who founded the Partidul Liberal Reformator (PLR, Liberal Reformist Party) in July, helped boost Iohannis to an unexpectedly wide margin of victory — 54.50% to just 45.49% for Ponta.

Iohannis, a physics teacher by training, has served as mayor of Sibiu, a city in Transylvania, since 2000, and he led the relatively small Forumul Democrat al Germanilor din România (FDGR, Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania) from 2002 to 2013. As outgoing incumbent Traian Băsescu receded from the spotlight after a decade as president, Iohannis assumed the leadership of the PNL, the larger of Romania’s two major opposition parties, though Iohannis also had the support of Băsescu’s Partidul Democrat-Liberal (PD-L, Democratic Liberal Party).

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Though the PNL joined forces with Ponta (pictured above) in 2011 to form the Social Liberal Union, it left the coalition in February 2014 to enter opposition, eyeing an alliance with the PD-L. When the PNL suffered disappointing losses in the May European elections, however, its leader Crin Antonescu stepped down, paving the way for Iohannis to reboot the party and become the joint PNL/PD-L presidential candidate.

Though ethnic Germans settled much of Transylvania, including the city of Sibiu, two waves of German exodus, first after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, have left few German-speaking enclaves in Romania. Today, just over 4% of Romanians are ethnically German. Continue reading

China has self-interested incentives for a bilateral climate deal

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When you walk through the streets of New York or Washington or even Houston or Los Angeles today, the air is clear — by at least global standards.USflagChina Flag Icon

That’s due, in part to the 1963 Clean Air Act in the United States, which together with wide-ranging 1970 and 1990 amendments that have largely brought air pollution under control within the United States. Sure, Los Angeles is still known for its smog, but the worst day in Los Angeles is barely a typical day in Beijing.

The PM2.5 reading (a measurement of particulates in the air) for Los Angeles last year averaged around 18. In Beijing? A PM2.5 reading of 90, on average. Los Angeles’s worst day was 79, while Beijing’s was 569.

That’s one of the reasons that the landmark carbon emissions agreement between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, announced in the wake of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is such a big deal — it’s not necessarily a coup for US diplomacy, but it’s definitely a signal that Chinese authorities are taking pollution seriously. It shows that Chinese leaders under president leader Xi Jinping (习近平) recognize that in order to showcase their seriousness about environmental hazards, they have to engage the international community on climate change.

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Landmark though the US-Chinese bilateral agreement may be, it is still much more about domestic Chinese priorities than trans-Pacific good will. As James Fallows writes in The Atlantic, pollution and environmental harms are the single-most existential challenge to the now 65-year rule of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党):

But when children are developing lung cancer, when people in the capital city are on average dying five years too early because of air pollution, when water and agricultural soil and food supplies are increasingly poisoned, a system just won’t last. The Chinese Communist Party itself has recognized this, in shifting in the past three years from pollution denialism to a “we’re on your side to clean things up!” official stance.

If you want to showcase to 1.35 million citizens that you’re serious about the environment, there’s no better way than signing a high-profile agreement with the world’s largest economy (and the world’s second-largest carbon emitter).

Xi himself has admitted earlier this year that it’s China’s most vexing policy issue, when he plainly stated that pollution is Beijing’s most pressing problem. Shortly thereafter, in March, premier Li Keqiang (李克强) declared a ‘war on pollution’ within China:

“Smog is affecting larger parts of China, and environmental pollution has become a major problem,” Mr. Li said, “which is nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.”

That’s already having an effect, with the first drop in coal use in China in over a century, a result that’s possibly affecting global coal prices, though part of the effect might be explained by a slowing Chinese economy — it’s expected to grow at a pace of just 7.5% this year. That’s still robust by most standards, but it would be the lowest reported GDP growth in China since 1990.

Republicans in the United States grumbled that the pact was ‘one-sided,’ and perhaps it was (though you’d expect grumbling from incoming US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, the heart of the US coal mining industry). But if so, it’s one-sided in the way that unilaterally lowering tariffs is good for trade. But US president Barack Obama’s commitment to lower US carbon emissions by 2025 by between 26% and 28% (compared to 2005 levels) is only going to accelerate the transition of the US economy from fossil fuels to cheaper, cleaner alternatives, including renewable energy.

China, on the other hand, has agreed to reduced emissions that it expects to peak in the year 2030, when it hopes to raise 20% of its energy from zero-carbon emission sources under the agreement. But Obama has already, through executive action, committed the US Environmental Protection Agency to work to reduce emissions levels by 17% through the year 2020, so the United States (for now) is already committed to carbon reductions on a unilateral basis.

Of course that’s lopsided, to some degree, but only if you ignore that the United States and Europe polluted without abandon in the 18th and 19th centuries when they were going through the same level of industrialization and development — and they surely didn’t do it with national populations of over a billion consumers.

Today, China is by far the largest emitter of carbon into the global atmosphere, responsible for 29% of the world’s total carbon emissions, while the United States is responsible for 15%, the European Union 10%, India 7.1% and Russia another 5.3%.  As White House correspondent Josh Lederman writes for the Associated Press, however, one of the agreement’s benefits might be in the power it will have to nudge other countries to join the fight against carbon emissions and its role in climate change with the 2015 Paris conference fast approaching:

Scientists have pointed to the budding climate treaty, intended to be finalized next year in Paris, as a final opportunity to get emissions in check before the worst effects of climate change become unavoidable. The goal is for each nation to pledge to cut emissions by a specific amount, although negotiators are still haggling over whether those contributions should be binding. Developing nations like India and China have long balked at being on the hook for climate change as much as wealthy nations like the U.S. that have been polluting for much longer. But China analysts said Beijing’s willingness to cap its future emissions and to put Xi front and center signaled a significant turnaround.

But there’s an even stronger benefit in the US-Chinese accord, insofar as it demonstrates that Xi is willing to work with the United States on tricky issues, even as China scrambles to compete with the more developed US efforts (through the Trans-Pacific Partnership) to form an Asia/Pacific trade bloc.

As Chinese military and political influence grows throughout the Asia/Pacific region, agreements like today’s on carbon emissions show that US and Chinese diplomats are establishing strong working relationship for potential collaboration in the future — cooperation that could be vital in the decades to come in maintaining a peaceful Asia and world.

 

Madrid ignores Catalan vote at grave risk

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Though Sunday’s unofficial referendum on Catalan sovereignty may have been legally murky, it is nonetheless clear that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s strategy of ignoring the groundswell of support for regional self-determination and autonomy has been a failure.cataloniaSpain_Flag_Icon

So what actually happened on Sunday — and where do the Catalan nationalist movement and the Spanish government go from here?

What happened in Sunday’s ‘consultation’ vote

2004155Photo credit to AFP.

Catalans voted in a non-binding, unofficial ‘consultation’ that its Generalitat (or regional government) once hoped would be a legal referendum not unlike the recent September vote on independence in Scotland. But Rajoy has refused to countenance even the idea of negotiating the terms of such a referendum, and he has consistently ruled out any vote as unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, Catalunya’s regional president Artur Mas (pictured above) has championed a referendum since at least 2012, and his party and other more radical groups in the Catalan regional parliament overwhelmingly voted to hold the referendum, setting the central and Catalan regional governments on what has been a divisive battle over the past year.

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RELATED: Mas cancels official Catalan independence vote

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Mas backed down on the ‘official’ nature of the referendum, which in any event was always designed to be non-binding, when Spain’s constitutional court ruled that the vote was illegal last month. Much to the chagrin of other, more leftist nationalists, however, Mas instead moved forward with an unofficial referendum, taking care not to use official Spanish government resources to conduct the vote.

The Spanish constitutional court ruled last week, in a second decision, that even this unofficial, non-binding ‘consultation’ should be delayed until it could have time to rule on its further legality. Mas went ahead with the vote, anyway, however, prompting a sharp rebuke from Rajoy’s government on Sunday:

Justice Minister Rafael Catalá described the November 9 vote as an “act of political propaganda with no democratic validity; a sterile and useless act.”

The minister went on to announce that the public prosecutor would evaluate the facts of Sunday’s vote and decide whether or not to begin legal action in the courts.

Though the law is squarely on the side of the Spanish government, the Catalans seem to have valid political and moral reasons for demanding at least a voice over their own future. In any event, at least 2.3 million Catalans turned out for the vote, representing around 35% of the total Catalan electorate, nearly all of them were pro-independence voters.

The vote asked two questions: first, ‘do you want Catalunya to be a state?’ and second, ‘if so, do you want Catalunya to be an independent state?’

The so-called ‘yes-yes’ vote won with around 80.8% of the vote. The so-called ‘yes-no’ vote (i.e., those supporters of a Catalan state, but not necessarily an independent state) won another 10.1%. ‘No’ won just 4.5% of the vote.

While that’s skewed in favor of the independence movement, it’s also not insignificant — and it indicates that a large portion of the Catalan people want a legal and valid vote on their status. The longer that Madrid assumes an ostrich position over what’s become a very real sense of grievance among everyday Catalans, the worse the standoff over independence will end. By refusing to discuss the possibility, Rajoy and the central government risk pushing moderate unionists into the arms of the Catalan nationalists.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s turnout fell far short of the 3.7 million voters who participated in the most recent November 2012 regional elections, indicating that a substantial number of voters (who presumably aren’t as enthusiastic about independence) didn’t bother to turn out. The two-pronged ballot question demonstrates the kind of too-cute-by-half ambiguity that British prime minister David Cameron refused to entertain when negotiating the Scottish referendum — what, after all, does it mean for Catalunya to be a state if not independent?

A frustrated electorate trapped between Rajoy and Mas

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The most obvious solution to the standoff is a calm, rational conversation between the Mas and Rajoy governments that would result in greater autonomy for Catalunya’s Generalitat with respect to its own finances and spending. Incredibly, however, the two leaders went months earlier this year without even talking.

Rajoy, whose center-right Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) won the November 2011 Spanish general elections, has consistently refused to discuss greater autonomy for Catalunya. In part, this is because Rajoy’s party has fairly little support within Catalunya — the Partit Popular de Catalunya (PPC, People’s Party of Catalonia) is just the fourth-largest bloc in the regional parliament. So Rajoy feels little immediate political pain from snubbing the region.

When he took office, Rajoy faced the likelihood that Spain would be essentially forced into a European bailout. As it turned out, Rajoy was forced into implementing budget cuts and tax increases to stave off a bailout — in addition to similar austerity measures introduced by his predecessor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the center-left prime minister whose Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) came to power in 2004 at the dawn of the Spanish construction and finance boom.

Accordingly, Rajoy has a decent argument for avoiding a full-fledged independence referendum: with a 23.7% unemployment rate as of September, Spain is still in the midst of the worst financial and economic crisis in decades. An independence referendum in Catalunya might credibly be followed by a referendum in the Basque Country/Euskadi, another economic powerhouse with an even more painful history of separatism. Copycat movements could thrive in Galicia and elsewhere. So Rajoy has a reasonably sympathetic argument that a Catalan referendum in the midst of the current crisis could eventually pose an existential threat to the Spanish nation.

But that’s not an excuse for ignoring the problem. What’s worse is that the Spanish economic crisis is itself also fueling greater discontent among Catalans, who believe they send far more in revenue to the Spanish central government than they receive back in services and infrastructure. Though the data isn’t entirely clear, the Catalans are essentially correct. It rankles that all high-speed trains in Spain run through Madrid, for example, and that almost all of the country’s international flights arrive at the Madrid airport. Catalunya, with just 7.5 million of Spain’s 47 million citizens, is responsible for 19% of the economy.

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RELATED: In refusing Catalan vote,
Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

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The Scottish referendum was also about economics (nationalists believe they can thrive as a smaller, oil-rich country within the European Union) and about politics (like the PP in Catalunya, the Conservatives have relatively little support in Scotland). But the Catalan movement is also colored by additional layers of complexity that Rajoy shows virtually no sign of appreciating — notably decades of suppression of its language and culture by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. When Rajoy’s education minister, a few years ago, suggested a stronger national program in the Castilian language, it particularly rankled Catalans, many of whom remember the days when the Catalan language was legally banned.

But Mas, the leader of the Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), a two-party, center-right nationalist coalition that’s traditionally been the most powerful force in Catalan politics since the return of democracy, is hardly an honest broker. CiU has always been more comfortable with greater autonomy than full independence, and Mas only recently converted to the cause in 2012 following widespread protests. Since taking power in 2010, Mas has made many of the same painful, unpopular budget decisions at the regional level that Rajoy has made at the national level. What’s more, Jordi Pujol, the former CiU leader and Catalan president between 1980 and 2003, has been subject of increasing scrutiny over his personal wealth and corruption accusations.

Accordingly, neither Mas nor Rajoy come out of the current showdown from a incredible position of strength. That might not necessarily matter if they could at least find a middle ground to discuss the most sensible solution to the political crisis — constitutional reform, greater regional autonomy and the possible creation of a federalist system in Spain.

As elections loom, what comes next?

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So far, however, the chances of any productive talks between Madrid and Barcelona seem small.

Mas has given Rajoy a two-week deadline to begin negotiations for a formal referendum. Rajoy, however, is almost certainly unlikely to take Mas up on that offer.

What happens thereafter is murky, though.

Mas’s party, the larger, more moderate and more aggressive Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC, Democratic Covergence) within the CiU, would like to hold early regional elections, rolling the dice that they would become a de facto referendum on Catalan independence — or at least the right of the Catalan government to call a vote. The smaller, Christian democratic Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC, Democratic Union) has always been less enthusiastic about Mas’s push for independence and would prefer to wait on snap elections.

Part of the political calculus for Mas, Rajoy and the CiU are polls that show that the most popular party in Catalunya is now the leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia), an even more radical pro-independence party led by historian Oriol Junqueras.

On paper, at least, the PP and the CiU have much more in common than the PP and Esquerra, so both Rajoy and Mas have an incentive to reach some kind of face-saving deal in the next few days.

But at the rate Rajoy is going, he may not have the opportunity to negotiate anything in the long run.

The rise of the anti-establishment Podemos (‘We can!’), the movement founded earlier this year by professor Pablo Iglesias (pictured above), has scrambled all pretenses of Spain’s two-party system. Winning five of the country’s seats to the European Parliament in May, Podemos wants to reevaluate Spain’s public debt, lower the retirement age to 60 to free up more jobs for younger workers and reverse the austerity of the past two PSOE and PP governments, using government spending to create jobs for a country that still has the highest unemployment within the European Union, despite signs of new growth. A Podemos win would be a significant setback to the orthodox policies that German chancellor Angela Merkel has attempted to establish throughout the eurozone, including the 2011 ‘fiscal compact’ that firmly limits national budget deficits to less than 3% of GDP.

Podemos, in a shock Metroscopia poll a couple weeks ago, gained the lead among potential voters in advance of the next Spanish general election, which must be held before December 2015 — it would win 27.7% to just 26.2% for the PSOE, under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez, who won his party’s July leadership contest, and 20.7 for Rajoy’s PP. Sánchez, for his part, opposes Catalan independence, but has indicated much greater willingness to hold discussions with regional leaders over constitutional reform.

The local Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC-PSOE, Socialists’ Party of Catalonia) controlled the regional government between 2003 and 2010, and many of its members are sympathetic to the idea that Catalans should have the right to self-determination.

Though Podemos is widely viewed as a leftist alternative, it has attracted widespread support from many Spaniards who have lost faith in both major parties, especially among young voters who face the worst job prospects, and the indignados, the unemployed protestors who have given voice to the harsh effects of what are now a half-decade of austerity policies.

Ironically, Podemos has attracted little support within Catalunya, where voters have a nationalist (and leftist) alternative in Esquerra.

But as Spain nears the one-year mark until its elections, with the November 9 referendum now in the rear-view mirror, the brinksmanship between Rajoy and Mas won’t matter if they can’t find a path toward reconciliation. At this time next year, their respective governments could be headed by much more radical figures.

Photo of the day: Helmut Kohl at Brandenburg Gate

amazingPhoto credit to Andreas Mühe/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn for BILD.

This is perhaps the most haunting photo in world politics in 2014.Germany Flag Icon

Helmut Kohl, who was first elected chancellor of West Germany in 1982 and who left office in 1998 following his final term as the chancellor of a reunified Germany, is today long out of frontline politics and, since a 2008 stroke, has been confined to a wheelchair. He sits alone in this photo for Bild at night in the glow of the Brandenburg Gate, one of many points that divided East Berlin from West Berlin for the better part of 28 years.

It’s astonishing that, with Sunday’s 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which ultimately resulted in the reunification of Germany and became a harbinger of the collapse of the Soviet Union, we’ve almost reached the point where the Berlin Wall has been down longer than it initially stood.

Even as Mikhail Gorbachev, still around as an icon of the revolutionary change of that era (and despised, to this day, in Russia), is warning that Ukraine could spur a new 21st century cold war, Sunday was an opportunity to celebrate the universal desire for freedom. That was as true in 1989 as it is in 2014, when many walls still remain, from Gaza to China’s ‘great firewall.’

For Germany, the reunification of East and West has been very successful in some ways, others not. It’s almost comical today to imagine British prime minister Margaret Thatcher telephoning Gorbachev, frantically and practically begging him to stop German reunification. But when we think about the chiefly German-led European Union of 2014, with its emphasis on tight budgets (instead of GDP and jobs growth) and its peculiarly German reticence as regards debt and inflation (even in the face of growing deflationary pressure), there may have been something to Thatcher’s warnings, after all. Ulrich Beck captures the peculiar problem of German Europe in a new short book, translated earlier this summer into English.

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RELATED: Has the first Ossi chancellor been good or bad
for the former East Germany?

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German reunification is itself something of a cautionary tale about the perils of implementing a currency union in what, in 1990, was most certainly not an optimal currency zone. Though the past 25 years haven’t been horrific for the six eastern German states that once constituted the German Democratic Republic, it’s hard to say that the former GDR has done better than Poland or other former ‘Iron Curtain’ countries. That, in part, may have been due to the effects of conversion of East German currency on a 1:1 ratio with the West German deutsche mark.

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A Hungarian remembers the Berlin Wall’s fall

Guest post by Dániel Kiss

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Photo credit to DPA/ZUMA Press.

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, I was in my fourth year of primary school in Budapest, Hungary. I was too young to understand politics, but I do remember the excitement of the adults around me during that eventful year. What I do have clear memories of is how the end of Communism affected my life as a schoolboy.Germany Flag IconHungary Flag Icon

At the start of my first year at school, my classmates and I had entered the Young Pioneers, the Communist youth organisation, which all youngsters in the country effectively had to join. Our parents bought us a uniform consisting of an awkward white shirt, dark trousers, a blue nylon scarf, and a smart whistle of which I was very fond. We formed brigades each with a leader and a name; I recall that one of them was called the Panda Brigade. Occasionally we would have to stand in formation, listen as our brigade leaders delivered formal reports to our teachers, or march around to patriotic music in our gym hall on special days such as 4 April, the day of the liberation of Hungary by the Red Army after World War II. These events had a strange atmosphere of make-believe, as the adults leading them seemed to lack all passion and conviction. But these ceremonies gradually petered out without explanation, and at one point (I think it was at the start of my fourth schoolyear in September 1989) our activities as pioneers too came to an unexplained end. Soon afterwards Hungary started preparing for its first political elections, with a burgeoning growth of political parties of all sorts, and my classmates and I joined the fun by founding, naming, dividing and uniting parties among ourselves.

Hungary had a softer brand of Communism than East Germany and its fall was less spectacular, but the basic reason for which it collapsed was very likely the same: Communism had been imposed by force on the countries occupied by the Soviet army since the end of World War II, and when the Soviets relaxed their hold, these countries shook off the Communist system one way or other. In Hungary Communism is probably gone for ever, as it is widely regarded as disgraceful and ridiculous. However, its heritage still survives in a large but inefficient and corrupt state sector, in an atomized, weakly organised society, and in people’s distrust of capitalism. Communism may have collapsed quickly, but we are still tidying up its ruins.

Dániel Kiss is a postdoctoral research fellow in classics at University College Dublin. His hometown is Budapest. 

2014 US midterms showcase rise of Asian Americans

CIMG9933Flushing, in Queens, is one of the most Asian neighborhoods in the United States.

Apparently, the swing among Asian Americans between the 2012 general election in the United States and the 2014 midterm elections was a staggering 46%:asia iconUSflag

Note the big swing in the Asian voting bloc, too. In 2012, strong support for the president among Asian-American voters was a surprise. Asian voters preferred the president by 47 points. In 2014, the (low turnout) group split about evenly. It was a 46-point swing.

That still translates to a fairly robust tilt among Asian Americans toward Democrats — just not the overwhelming trend that we saw in 2012 and 2008 and, even to some degree, 2010. Other exit polling shows that Asian Americans still strongly supported Democrats — in Virginia, they favored incumbent Democratic senator Mark Warner over Republican challenger Ed Gillespie by a margin of 68% to 29%, for example.

But why should Asian Americans necessarily lean to the left? The Asian American experience in the United States is extremely varied, and it’s a growing bloc of disparate cultures and experiences. In that regard, Asian Americans are just like Latin Americans, who come from an equally broad range of national and ethnic background. Mexican Americans in California may have different political views that Mexican Americans in Texas, to say nothing of Salvadorans in Maryland, Cubans in New Jersey or Dominicans in Florida.

The same goes for Asian Americans.

So what are we talking about when we say, ‘Asian Americans?’ Continue reading

Juncker’s first ‘scandal’ shouldn’t merit resignation calls

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I spoke with RIA Novosti earlier today about the revelations that Luxembourg’s government has been much more intimately involved in granting tax concessions to international companies.European_UnionluxembourgThose revelations come less than a week after former Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker officially took office as president of the European Commission.Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, eurosceptic Front national (National Front) has already called on him to resign.
My full remarks follow below:

It’s a very embarrassing position for Juncker, because he only took office as the president of the European Commission a few days ago, and he’ll take some perhaps well-deserved political heat for the matter, and it probably reduces his credibility on tax reform matters.

Everyone has, in the back of their minds, the example of the Santer Commission, which resigned en masse in 1999 over corruption. For now, the revelations do not appear to implicate Juncker in anything more than the kind of aggressive steps that state leaders sometimes take to attract foreign development and investment. If, for example, Juncker was found to have taken personal kickbacks in exchange for favorable treatment, it would be a much more serious allegation for himself, for the Commission, and for confidence in Luxembourg’s institutions. But there’s no evidence of that.

Meanwhile, the Commission is a professional regulatory body, and any investigations into Amazon or other companies that received state aid in potential violation of European law will be conducted by Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the EU commissioner for competition, who is a former minister of economic affairs and deputy prime minister. It’s helpful, from an ideological perspective, that Vestager comes from the Danish Social Liberal Party, which should give some comfort to the European Parliament’s leftists. Ultimately, this is less a ‘scandal’ than a valid policy issue, insofar as Luxembourg and other countries have long pushed the envelope in making their jurisdictions extremely favorable to international companies. Note the Irish government’s decision last month to revise the ‘double Irish’ structure so common in the taxation of intellectual property assets. So as the Commission and other EU (and even international) institutions look into these decisions, it will help clarify the line between permissible and impermissible in the future.

Marine Le Pen is hardly the best critic on the matter, because her party has long been in favor of lowering taxes and promoting the kind of economic nationalist steps that Luxembourg’s officials may have taken with many international companies. Her call for Juncker’s resignation isn’t credible, but it’s very important for her to maximize support among the eurosceptic French right if she’s going to have any credible shot at winning the French presidency in 2017, a task made much more difficult by the return of former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Latin America should stop worrying (about term limits) and start to love incumbency

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My latest for Americas Quarterly argues that the hand-wringing over the advantages of incumbency in Latin America is overwrought, and that term limits may actually hinder the development of sustained policy gains.brazil

In particular, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff each won their respective presidential contests since June. But two of those three elections were incredibly competitive:

Incumbent victories in Brazil and Colombia, the two largest economies of South America today, are also much more fragile than they appear. Rousseff only narrowly defeated challenger Aécio Neves, and her margin of victory was the smallest of any presidential election since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985.

Santos actually lost Colombia’s first-round vote in May to the more conservative Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had threatened to shut down talks between the Santos government and the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) that have destabilized the country for a half-century. More notably, the country’s March parliamentary elections transformed the Colombian Congress from a rubber-stamp chamber into a much stronger check on presidential power.

In both countries, democratic competition is on the rise. Even in countries lacking truly fair elections, such as in Venezuela, Henrique Capriles nearly defeated President Nicolás Maduro in April 2013, despite the widespread institutional advantages from which Maduro benefitted after over a decade of chavismo.

 

Read it all here.

Putin tops world power rankings

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It’s far from scientific, but less than 24 hours after Republicans appeared to defeat US president Barack Obama in midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, Russian president Vladimir Putin defeated him to the top spot on Forbes‘s 72 Most Powerful People in the World.USflagRussia Flag Icon

The rankings don’t really mean that much in the grand scheme of things, of course.

The Forbes rationale?

We took some heat last year when we named the Russian President as the most powerful man in the world, but after a year when Putin annexed Crimea, staged a proxy war in the Ukraine and inked a deal to build a more than $70 billion gas pipeline with China (the planet’s largest construction project) our choice simply seems prescient. Russia looks more and more like an energy-rich, nuclear-tipped rogue state with an undisputed, unpredictable and unaccountable head unconstrained by world opinion in pursuit of its goals.

Hard to argue with that, I guess.

But the rankings represent a nice snapshot of what the US (and even international) media mainstream believe to be the hierarchy of global power. Though I’m not sure why Mitch McConnell, soon to become the U.S. senate majority leader, isn’t on the list.

So who else placed in the sphere of world politics this year?

  • Obama ranked at No. 2 (From the Forbes mystics: ‘One word sums up his second place finish: caution. He has the power but has been too cautious to fully exercise it.’).
  • Chinese president Xi Jinping, who took office in late 2012 and early 2013, ranked at No. 3. (Tough break for the leader of the world’s most populous country!)
  • Pope Francis, ranked at No. 4, even though Argentina lost this year’s World Cup finals to Germany.
  • Angela Merkel, ranked at No. 5, third-term chancellor of Germany and the queen of the European Union.
  • Janet Yellen, ranked at No. 6, the chair of the US Federal Reserve.
  • Mario Draghi, ranked at No. 8, the president of the European Central Bank.
  • David Cameron, ranked (appropriately enough) at No. 10, the Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom, who faces a tough reelection battle in May 2015.
  • Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, No. 11, the king of Saudi Arabia.
  • Narendra Modi, No. 15, India’s wildly popular new prime minister.
  • François Hollande, No. 17, France’s wildly unpopular president.
  • Ali Khamenei, No. 19, Iran’s supreme leader, especially as Iranian nuclear talks come to a crucial deadline this month.

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What the world can teach the United States about DC voting rights

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A view of DC from the top of Anacostia in East Washington.

If you walk through parts of Brasília, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t modeled, at least architecturally, upon Washington, D.C. when it was built in the late 1950. But when it comes to the voting rights of its capital’s citizens, Brazil has looked beyond the American example.Washington_DC_IconUSflag

Last month, when Brazil held a general election, some 2.5 million voters in the Brazilian Distrito Federal voted for a new governor, eight members to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, and one of its three members to the Senate, its upper house. In that regard, Brazil’s DF is not unlike any other state in the country. Remarkably, with one deputy per 310,000 residents, that’s a better ratio of representation than the residents of Brazil’s largest state, the far more populous São Paulo.

It’s a typical and unremarkable arrangement around the world, and it’s not unlike Mexico’s Federal District (Mexico City), India’s Delhi Capital Territory and even places with a much more limited history of democracy, including Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) and Malaysia’s Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur.

But not in the District of Columbia.

The United States of America, otherwise a beacon of democratic rule for over two centuries, is essentially the North Korea of federal district voting rights, a clear outlier for democratic best practices across the world. As voters across the country elect members of the House of Representatives, District voters have nothing. Continue reading

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN