What Iowa taught us about the 2016 Democratic nomination race

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Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has to win over more of the ‘Obama 2008’ coalition if he really wants to win the 2016 Democratic nomination. (Facebook)

Earlier in January, I gamed out what I thought would be the more toughly fought of the 2016 primary fights — that on the Republican side. iowa flagUSflag

By and large, my analysis held up — Ted Cruz and Donald Trump will both live to fight another day and a third candidate (Marco Rubio) will now have fresh momentum in New Hampshire to consolidate ‘establishment lane’ supporters.

Polls, in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses on the Democratic side, showed a very tight race between Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and, as of this post, she’s up by 49.9% to 49.6%.

It’s great news for Clinton, because the Sanders campaign always seemed best fit to states like Iowa (and New Hampshire,  where Sanders is currently projected to win by a double-digit margin).

But 49.9% in a race for a former first lady, New York senator and the 2008 presidential runner-up? Losing by a nearly 4-to-1 margin among young voters, the future of the Democratic Party? Weak tea.

So Iowa is, essentially, a tie.

The most valuable lesson that we learned is that the 2016 election is not just a rerun of the 2008 election, a theory that’s become popular among some commentators.

Very broadly, in 2008, Obama crafted a coalition of three sets of voters: African Americans and Latinos, so-called ‘wine track’ white voters (typically higher income and professional) and the young, while Clinton attracted women and so-called ‘beer track’ white voters (typically lower income). Demographics were destiny, so much so that you could plausibly predict a primary’s winner in 2008 on the electorate demographics alone.

Last night showed that 2016 is scrambling those coalitions. Sanders is winning a dwindling contingent of ‘beer track’ voters (many of whom are trending Republican), a handful of ‘wine track’ voters and the young. Clinton is winning women, minorities and a plurality of ‘wine track voters.’ For example, Clinton leads among those who make over $100,000 in income, Sanders less than $50,000.

Each candidate in 2016 is winning around 50% of Obama’s 2008 supporters and around 50% of Clinton’s 2008 supporters:

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That makes relatively ‘whiter’ states like Iowa and New Hampshire fertile ground for Sanders; it’s a different story in more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina, to say nothing of California or New York or Florida.

So his post-New Hampshire challenge will be to win over more ‘wine-track’ white voters and minorities.

Many voters still think Sanders doesn’t have the right experience to be president. But he has decades of legislative experience building relationships in Congress and, perhaps most importantly,  executive experience as Burlington’s mayor, where he governed as a pragmatic progressive, championing things like mixed-use housing, green space and bike paths — urban policies that seemed outlandish, perhaps, in the 1980s but are commonplace today. Sanders has left that record completely out of his campaign’s narrative.

Sanders has struggled to demonstrate his understanding, let alone commitment, to the priorities of the Black Lives Matter movement. But even in the second term of the first non-white US president, racial injustice remains stubbornly commonplace in American justice and economic systems, and Sanders must give racial inequities as prominent a role as income inequality if he wants to have any real chance at the nomination.

Saïd Bouteflika winning internal battle to succeed ailing brother in Algeria

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Saïd Bouteflika, the brother of Algeria’s ailing president, might emerge as the most powerful successor to lead the country if his brother resigns or dies.

When he was reelected to a dodgy fourth term in April 2014, Algerian voters knew that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now aged 79, was ailing.Algeria_Flag_Icon

Though he easily dispatched a former prime minister, Ali Benflis, who officially won just over 12% of the vote, most of the opposition simply boycotted the last vote. During the 2011 Arab spring protests and beyond, Algerians have generally been more willing to tolerate Bouteflika’s hold on power because of the stability that his regime brought after a decade of civil war.

Aides claim the president’s faculties are intact, despite a stroke three years ago that left him unable to speak. Nevertheless, it’s clear — and has been clear for some time — that there’s an internal struggle between Bouteflika’s camp and the Algerian military about his ultimate successor.

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RELATED: Bouteflika headed for controversial fourth term

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Last year, Bouteflika sidelined Algeria’s top internal security official, Mohamed Mediene, a move widely seen as a setback to the military’s involvement in Algerian domestic politics and, accordingly, any succession after Bouteflika’s resignation or death. It was a shock at the time, considering that Mediene, also known as ‘Toufik’ and commonly referred to as the Dieu de l’Algérie, or the ‘God of Algeria,’ had been a fixture within the country’s power elite for more than two decades as the head of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), the Algerian intelligence agency since 1990.

'General Touflik' had been at the heart of Algeria's military and intelligence services for a quarter-century until his abrupt removal last year. (Al Jazeera)
‘General Touflik’ had been at the heart of Algeria’s military and intelligence services for a quarter-century until his abrupt removal last year. (Al Jazeera)

Bouteflika’s next step came earlier this week, with his administration apparently set to reorganize the DRS altogether. If successful, Bouteflika will have dismantled one of the institutional pillars of the military’s power, thereby transferring the country’s intelligence apparatus, which plays a role in domestic as well as international affairs, from the military to the presidential camp.

With so much at stake, the Algerian military may not simply accept such a sweeping adjustment of power, and its leaders may be biding their time to strike in a post-Bouteflika struggle. But it means that Bouteflika’s camp is very serious about controlling the post-Bouteflika transition in as orderly way as possible — and in a way that leaves the presidential regime, and not military or DRS leaders, in charge.

His brother’s keeper

The most likely successor? For now, it might be Saïd Bouteflika, who will argue that he represents the most seamless transition, thereby guaranteeing Algeria’s continued stability.

So what do we know about Saïd? Continue reading Saïd Bouteflika winning internal battle to succeed ailing brother in Algeria

Vietnam’s ruling Communists set to elect leadership after public power tussle

The general secretary of Vietnam's Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong (left) is seen to have fended off a challenge from outgoing prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung (right). (CTV)
The general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong (left) is seen to have fended off a challenge from outgoing prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung (right). (CTV)

Though we normally think of the Communist-ruled Vietnam as an autocratic country, it too has politics — and it even has elections.vietnam

Vietnam’s messy politics have been on a rare, full display over the course of the past month in the lead-up to this week’s 12th party congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam). Vietnam’s ruling party will elect a central committee of between 160 and 180 members, a smaller politburo of 16 members and, from among the politburo’s ranks, the party’s general secretary, Vietnam’s president and Vietnam’s prime minister.

It’s as if the United States were selecting, in one eight-day period, the American president, vice president, executive cabinet chiefs and congressional leadership, in a secret conclave of elite gatekeepers.

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RELATED: One reason for Americans to supprt TPP?
Absolving US sins in Vietnam.

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But it is also a series of elections among discrete actors with divergent interests, and that’s led to some high-stakes politicking in the last month. Though just 1,510 delegates are voting in the current party congress, they represent a membership of 4.5 million Vietnamese. That’s just a fraction of the 91.7 million people that comprise Vietnam’s population, but it’s notable that the selection process has left some room for surprise.

The most audacious, perhaps, has been the tussle for power at the top, with outgoing prime minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng gunning for the most powerful position — general secretary. The current general secretary, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, however, has been less than enthusiastic about ceding the role after just five years in the office, and international analysts had thought Dũng’s elevation as general secretary more likely than not throughout 2015.

Given that Dũng is essentially term-limited as prime minister, the only options for him seemed to be up — or out.

So after a series of internal machinations, Dũng seems now out of a job — and out of both of the central committee and the politburo after a decade serving as prime minister. An unofficial rule that Vietnam’s top party brass retire after age 65 means that both Trọng (age 71) and Dũng (age 66) were never likely to remain long at the top echelons of party leadership. But it’s a disappointment for a man that businessmen and global outsiders, in particular, had come to regard as the best of Vietnam’s ruling Communists.

In his decade as prime minister, Dũng developed a reputation as relatively reformist and pro-Western. His tenure coincided with a wave of liberalization both at home and in Vietnam’s international relations. Shortly after taking power in 2006, Dũng oversaw Vietnam’s formal accession to the World Trade Organization, and he has been a leading proponent of Vietnam’s participation in ongoing negotiations to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could bring greater economic development and middle-class job opportunities to Vietnam, a country that still depends on much of its income from coffee (it’s the world’s largest exporter), rice and cheap manufacturing.

Though the country also resolved a long-simmering border dispute with China, Dũng has generally improved US-Vietnamese bilateral relations in a bid to contain China’s influence, and Trọng himself even traveled to Washington for the first time since the two countries ended their bloody Cold War-era conflict in the mid-1970s. US president Barack Obama is even expected to visit Hanoi in May, one of the highlights of his final year in office.

Hard-line conservatives within Vietnam’s ruling party may be thrilled to see Dũng sidelined, which clears the way for Trọng’s reelection as general secretary, though even that is not certain until the party congress ends on Thursday. It’s reasonable to expect that Trọng may not serve until the next party congress expected in 2021, when he will be 76 years old.

But Dũng’s reputation as a reformer has always been somewhat less than consistent. Reforms during Dũng’s premiership did not extend to political liberalization, and internet censorship worsened with new regulations in 2013 forbidding online discussion of political events. While Vietnam today feels less like an authoritarian police state than North Korea or even the People’s Republic of China, Dũng’s government cracked down on dissidents and democracy activists in several high-profile incidents. Moreover, Dũng has championed large, public-sector behemoths that critics have argued facilitate widespread corruption within the party system — corruption that, they allege, also extends to the prime minister’s family. Indeed, Dũng’s star dimmed somewhat in 2010 after a state shipbuilding company, Vinashin, was nearly bankrupted amid allegations of profits being skimmed for personal gain.

But for a country as opaque as Vietnam, with one of the world’s few old-school communist governments, Trọng’s apparent resilience could be a signal for the country’s future policy direction. It may mean that Vietnam’s ruling elites believe even limited reforms under Dũng were too much and too soon, though TPP accession will require Vietnam to lock in its commitment to rule-of-law reforms and the kind of deeper liberalization and privatization that it has so far shunned.

Or it may mean that the delegates didn’t want to deliver too much power to a prime minister who’s been developing a growing profile for a decade as the country’s most respected leader abroad and who could wield extraordinary power as general secretary, thereby upsetting the balance in Vietnam’s government-by-consensus model.

Or it may mean that party leaders do not want to promote someone whose relatively hawkish tone on China has pulled Vietnam closer to the United States and away from their mutual Communist allies to the north. After all, China still wields significant economic influence over Vietnam.

Or it may mean that delegates and the central committee are eager to pass the leadership (including, eventually, the top position of general secretary) to a younger generation, just as Dũng’s rise in 2006 marked a transition to a postwar generation of party officials.

Or it may mean very little at all, other than a contest of personalities. Given the decades-long push to open Vietnamese markets on ‘Chinese-style’ state capitalist lines, the most likely outcome is that neither Trọng’s reelection or Dũng’s victory means much to Vietnam’s long-term trajectory.

One of four current deputy prime ministers, Nguyễn Xuân Phúc is expected to take the premiership later this week.
One of four current deputy prime ministers, Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, is expected to take the premiership later this week.

What we will know by the end of the week, when the party congress concludes on January 28, is the following:

  • the new members of the politburo, expected to see significant turnover due to the retirement of many of the current members now over age 65;
  • the new prime minister, perhaps another young reformer, though the frontrunner for now seems to be Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, age 61, a current (if low-ranking) member of the politburo, one of four deputy prime ministers and not particularly close to Dũng;
  • a new president (today it’s a mostly ceremonial role) to replace the retiring Trương Tấn Sang; and
  • whether Trọng will stay on as general secretary, though we will not necessarily know about any deals that could see Trọng step down between now and the expected 13th party congress.

Those appointments, which will be duly ratified by Vietnam’s National Congress later this year as a formal matter, will not necessarily tell us so much about where Vietnam may or may not be headed. But the extenuated tussle between Dũng and Trọng, far more open and public than any before it (and more public than any fight for the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, for example) shows that there is real political competition in Vietnam, even at its top levels.

Give PiS a chance: why the EU has to play nice with Poland’s new populist government

Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński and German chancellor don't always see eye-to-eye on EU matters. (Bartosz Bobkowski / Agencja Gazeta)
Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński and German chancellor don’t always see eye-to-eye on EU matters. (Bartosz Bobkowski / Agencja Gazeta)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice), is now as important figure in European politics as French president François Hollande. Poland_Flag_Icon

No one should be surprised that Kaczyński is now the de facto leader of Poland, and no one should have doubted that he would direct a PiS-led government to pursue its full-throated agenda of populist economic sops to Poland’s poorest easterners and socially conservative values, mixed with equal amounts of nativism, euroscepticism and paranoia.

But Poland’s fresh government is facing criticism at home and abroad that it is now dismantling many of the features of the country’s post-Cold War democracy. Notably, critics argue that the new PiS government is co-opting both Poland’s constitutional tribunal and its state-run media.

Andrzej Duda, Poland’s new president has refused to seat five judges appointed by the outgoing government to Poland’s constitutional tribunal. Though two of those judicial appointments were subsequently ruled invalid, the new PiS government pushed forward with five new appointments anyway, leaving three judges validly appointed and unconfirmed. Moreover, the new PiS government passed a law mandating a two-thirds majority (not a simple majority) for constitutional rulings. The new government has also asserted greater political power over the state-controlled media.

Barely three months into Poland’s new government, the European Commission is opening a formal inquiry against the PiS-led administration, headed by EC first vice president Frans Timmermans, to determine whether the new government’s actions amount to a ‘systemic risk’ to Poland’s rule of law, a standard that — so far — hasn’t been breached in Hungary or Romania.

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RELATED: Polish conservatives prepare to return to power after 8 years

RELATED: Poland election results: PiS sweeps to power

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Those concerns are legitimate, especially insofar as the new government is undermining judicial independence and press freedom, and some Europeans hopes that US president Barack Obama will even exert pressure, through the NATO alliance, on Poland’s new government. But the overwrought response from EU elites will only play into the hands of the PiS’s most eurosceptic leaders and, what’s more, Polish democracy is far too developed in the year 2016 to crumble as easily as many of Kaczyński’s critics fear.

Throughout the European Union, the Greek economic crisis and lingering problems with the eurozone have undermined the monetary pillar of EU integration, while the deluge of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere, in greater numbers than at any time since World War II, have eroded the Schengen zone and the principle of internal European borders. EU leaders have far greater problems than allowing Kaczyński and the PiS into goading them into confrontation, especially as British voters focus on a 2017 referendum that could result in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
Continue reading Give PiS a chance: why the EU has to play nice with Poland’s new populist government

How Bernie Sanders blew an opportunity on health care reform

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Though Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is surging in some polls, the response to his universal ‘Medicare for all’ health care plan was mixed. (Facebook)

Bernie Sanders might just be the American version of Jeremy Corbyn after all. USflag

On the eve of Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Sanders, the Vermont senator with a self-proclaimed ‘democratic socialist’ charge to win the Democratic presidential nomination, released a more detailed plan for achieving universal health care. By its own terms, the Sanders plan would provide ‘Medicare for all,’ though it actually goes much further by eliminating co-pay and deductibles, adding to the sticker shock of a federal program that would cost $1.38 trillion annually. It also comes with huge tax increases that would give US citizens, in one fell swoop, higher tax rates than many ‘social welfare states’ in western Europe.

Many critics, including those on the left who should be sympathetic to achieving even more universal health care, have been skeptical.

Ezra Klein at Vox chides the Sanders plan for omitting details about how a single-payer system would be forced to deny many benefits and treatments, just as Medicare does today. Paul Krugman at The New York Times calls the Sanders plan an exercise in fantasy budgeting, arguing that it relies on wild assumptions about the savings it can achieve in health care spending through a single-payer system. Jonathan Chait at The New Yorker argues that the next president will invariably face a Republican-controlled House (if not Senate) and that introducing a single-payer system would be impossible.

All of these are valid, reasonable criticisms of the Sanders plan.

But if you really believe that president Barack Obama’s health care reforms are just one step on the way to universal health care and, like Sanders, you are committed to a single-payer system, there was always a much better policy plan:

Lower the eligibility age of Medicare from its current level (65 and older) to allow all Americans aged 55 or older to participate. 

It could have been, for Sanders, a beautiful political maneuver that would put both his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, and congressional Republicans on the defensive, all while having the benefit of being generally great policy.  Continue reading How Bernie Sanders blew an opportunity on health care reform

Photo Essay: Crossing the El Paso / Juarez border

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A view of El Paso, Juárez and the international border that separates them, as seen from the top of El Paso’s Camino Real hotel. (Kevin Lees)

Every day, thousands of El Pasoans and Juarenses cross from their relative sides of the city across an international border as part of their daily commutes. USflagMexico Flag Icon

No two communities along the 1,933-mile border between the United States and Mexico are more interconnected than El Paso and Ciudad Juárez — not San Diego/Tijuana and not Tucson/Nogales. Geography explains the difference in part, because El Paso and Juárez began as the same city, ‘El Paso del Norte,’ founded by Franciscan friars from Spain in the 17th century. Throughout centuries of Spanish rule, the more rapid development took place south of the Rio Grande (in today’s Juárez), with the northern bank a sleepy outpost still subject to Apache, Comanche and other raids.

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There are four entry points into Juárez from El Paso, only two of which are open to pedestrians. (Kevin Lees)

In 1824, upon Mexican independence from Spain, Paso del Norte was transferred from the territory of New Mexico to the state of Chihuahua — a crucial move for the area’s future. If it hadn’t happened, Paso del Norte might otherwise have remained a city intact within Mexican borders. Continue reading Photo Essay: Crossing the El Paso / Juarez border

Tsai rides green wave to landslide in transformational Taiwanese election

Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to lead a country in the Chinese-speaking world, won a landslide victory in Taiwan's presidential election Saturday. (Facebook)
Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to lead a country in the Chinese-speaking world, won a landslide victory in Taiwan’s presidential election Saturday. (Facebook)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the last time Taiwan’s pro-independence party won the presidency, it was something of a disaster. taiwan

Sixteen years ago, opposition leader Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) ousted the ruling  Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), the first time since the Republic of China (ROC) separated from the mainland in 1949.

Chen’s election came not long after Taiwan’s transition in the 1990s from one-party rule under the Kuomintang to emerging democracy. From day one, Chen faced a recalcitrant and wounded Kuomintang determined to throw roadblocks in the new government’s path. If Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) knew little about governing, the Kuomintang knew even less about serving as the loyal opposition.

Most of all, the Kuomintang still controlled Taiwan’s legislature, giving it the tools to frustrate Chen’s agenda.

Taiwan ultimately survived its first real test of democratic transition (and, perhaps most importantly, without causing hostilities with mainland China), but not without a few bruises.

Chen’s eight years in office weren’t without victories. Taiwan formally joined the World Trade Organization in 2002 and Chen’s administration handled the 2003 SARS epidemic adroitly. But Chen’s reelection campaign featured an assassination attempt (that the opposition claims was faked) and legal wrangling over the result in court after the election. Chen’s second term ended in a blaze of corruption charges, and he and his wife were convicted on bribery charges in 2009. Chen was released on medical parole only last January.

The DPP retreated to the opposition after the 2008 elections under the leadership of a soft-spoken policymaker, Tsai Ing-wen, who previously headed the Mainland Affairs Council in Chen’s first term from 2000 to 2004. A graduate of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, Tsai came to politics after a career as a law professor. Despite losing the 2012 presidential election, Tsai stayed on as the DPP’s leader, and she continued to rebrand the party in the post-Chen era, efforts that have now clearly paid off.

Channeling a wave of popular discontent with the Kuomintang’s growing efforts to tie Taiwan closer to mainland China, Tsai won a landslide victory today in Taiwan’s presidential election, as expected, giving the DPP a second chance to govern the country.taiwan16taiwan yuan

What’s more, the DPP (along with its allies in the ‘Pan-Green coalition’) for the first time in Taiwan’s history will control of the Legislative Yuan (立法院), giving Tsai an unfettered chance for political success.

From a global perspective, the DPP’s victory today, long expected, is important because it could create tensions with mainland China, where leaders have been ‘warning’ Tsai for months not to take a stridently anti-mainland tone to Cross-Strait relations, and state media reports on the Taiwanese election have ranged from patronizing to misogynist to downright insulting.

The DPP, in theoretical terms, still favors a formal declaration of independence from the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC).

But even the more fiercely nationalist ‘deep green’ Chen never attempted a universal declaration during his administration, and no one expects Tsai, who is generally seen as a highly pragmatic and ‘light green’ leader, to do so.

In her victory speech, she emphasized that she will seek to maintain the status quo with Beijing, just as she has worked throughout the campaign to reassure both Beijing and Taiwan’s allies in Washington and elsewhere. But more radical members of her party, newly empowered with a legislative majority, could try to push Tsai into a more confrontational relationship with the PRC.

Tsai faces in PRC president Xi Jinping (习近平) a strong-willed adversary expected to hold office through 2022. Xi has consolidated more power than any mainland leader in decades, and he has consistently disregarded political reforms, instead cracking down on Internet censorship and undermining long-promised free elections in Hong Kong next year. Home rule advocates will be watching the dynamic between Taipei and Beijing more closely than anyone.

Practically, however, fresh tumbles in the Chinese stock markets and a looming sense of broader economic trouble in the wider PRC economy mean that Tsai will spend far more time worrying about Taiwan’s economy than about Cross-Strait strategy.  Last week, PRC premier Li Keqiang admitted that the government’s ‘bazooka’ strategy of ever more government stimulus wasn’t working to turn around the fundamental problems with the mainland economy.

Taiwan still has one of the world’s most impressive economies, but it’s linked more closely than ever to the mainland Chinese economy. Fully 27% of Taiwanese exports now go to mainland China and another 13% go to Hong Kong. But GDP growth slowed to just 1% in 2015, and Taiwan risks entering a recession this year if the wider Chinese economy collapses.

Continue reading Tsai rides green wave to landslide in transformational Taiwanese election

Off to Juarez and El Paso

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I hope everyone’s 2016 is off to a great start. USflagMexico Flag Icon

Tonight, I’m on my way to El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to do some original reporting about U.S.-Mexican relations, Mexican immigration and the unique culture that exists in the borderlands where the two countries meet.

If any readers have any contacts who can speak to the interconnectivity of the two cities, or any good recommendations for food or otherwise, please do let me know!

Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

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Iran is looking forward to ‘implementation day,’ when its nuclear energy deal takes effect and global sanctions are relaxed, allowing it to export oil more easily. (Reuters)

In 2015, we saw how falling oil prices affected world politics from Alberta to Nigeria. Net exporters like Venezuela, Russia and the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are feeling the drop in revenues, and that could accelerate political agitation as oil prices force budget cuts. USflagIran Flag Icon

As Brad Plumer wrote yesterday for Vox, explaining the fall in oil prices is simple. Supply has outstripped demand, and while global demand is still growing, it’s growing at about half the rate that it was even in mid-2015.

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RELATED: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

RELATED: Could Norway benefit from the oil price decline?

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The difference between $30 oil (about the current price level), $20 oil or $50 oil could make or break incumbents seeking reelection — lower oil prices mean fewer goodies at election time.

In 2016, that means oil prices could affect Scotland’s May regional elections by dampening the economic case for Scottish independence and, therefore, the electoral support for the Scottish National Party. It means that Russia’s September legislative elections could engender the same kind of political protests (or worse) that met the last elections in 2011. Lower oil prices are already endangering Ghanian president John Dramani Mahama’s hopes for reelection in December, given how much Mahama has staked on Ghana’s oil potential. It could even push Venezuela’s opposition, newly empowered as the majority in the National Assembly, to seek chavista president Nicolás Maduro’s recall even more quickly.

More generally, it could make life difficult for Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari. Not only will lower oil revenues hurt his capacity to deploy resources across Africa’s most populous country, but Buhari must find a way to deliver to Nigeria’s impoverished Muslim north, where Boko Haram continues to pose a security challenge, and Nigeria’s southeastern Igbo population, including Rivers state and Delta state, where much of Nigeria’s oil reserves are located. The southeastern challenge is particularly precarious, in light of the fact that Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, the first president to come from Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast. A wrong step by Buhari could catalyze long-simmering demands for greater political autonomy or even secession.

On the demand side, the European Union (as a whole) imports more oil than any other country in the world — by a longshot. Lower prices could bring about the kind of truly robust economic growth that has eluded the eurozone for decades. That, in turn, could ameliorate the pressures of democratic backslide among the central European Visegrad Group, and it could goose economic activity in Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where no single political party has enough support for a majority government. That, in turn, could reduce support for radical leftist parties and bolster more moderate coalitions. It could, marginally, benefit incumbent governments in Ireland, Romania and elsewhere in 2016 and France in 2017. (The same effect, by the way, relieves a lot of pressure on faltering ‘Abenomics’ policy in Japan, too).

In his final state of the union address last night, even US president Barack Obama bragged about lower oil prices. If prices stay consistently low throughout 2016, it could marginally help Obama’s Democratic Party win the November general election.

Autocratic countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Angola, Algeria and Kazakhstan, could face popular protests.

So where are oil prices going? No one knows, but here’s what you have to believe if you think oil prices are going to rise substantially anytime in 2016: Continue reading Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

Corsican nationalists could achieve breakthrough status in 2016

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Jean-Guy Talamoni, the leader of the pro-independence Corsica Libera, joined forces with less radical autonomists in France’s December regional elections. (Facebook)

Forget Scotland or Catalonia. Forget Wallonia and Flanders. Forget the Basque Country or Republika Srpska.corsicaFrance Flag Icon

The hot separatist movement in 2016 might be in Corsica, the French-controlled island where Napoleon Bonaparte was born and which sits roughly 100 miles off France’s southeastern coast.

Corsica’s rising nationalist tide might this year outshine Catalonia, where a new regional government with a mandate to seek independence was sworn in last week, and Scotland, where the Scottish Nationalist Party hopes that local elections in May will boost its hold on the regional parliament and advance a fresh independence referendum.

For the first time, an explicitly nationalist coalition now controls Corsica’s regional government after it unexpectedly triumphed in December’s regional elections. That’s exactly one more region than the far-right Front national controls, despite the hype that Marine Le Pen and her allies could take power in up to six of France’s 13 newly consolidated ‘super-regions.’ A movement that has long been fragmented into myriad camps and ideologies, often violent, is now more united than ever and committed to political engagement.

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RELATED: Why isn’t separatism or regionalism more dominant in the politics of Bretagne?

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Once rooted in political terrorism, Corsican nationalism has now turned to a more peaceful approach that appears to be attracting larger numbers of voters. Though the origins of Corsica’s unique regional flag, featuring a Moor’s head wearing a white bandanna, may be lost to the puzzles of history, it is nonetheless as much a symbol of the Corsican nation as the Scottish saltire.

Shortly after regional elections, when a wave of violence against immigrants (including an attack on a Muslim prayer room) threatened to mar the new nationalist government, its leaders united to decry the violence, blaming it on the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Front national. Though the incident raised tensions between Corsican nationalists and prime minister Manuel Valls, who clumsily reiterated state’s control over Corsica and sent France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve to the Corsican capital of Ajaccio, the unrest subsided soon after the new year.

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Corsica’s new regional government will have two years to demonstrate that it can maintain its united nationalist front, provide capable governance and credibly advocate for greater Corsican autonomy. For the first time in years, Corsica’s status might even become an important issue in the upcoming 2017 presidential election.

Most importantly, if 2016 does become a breakout year for Corsican sovereignty, it will reinforce separatist trends not only in Scotland and Catalonia, but across Europe, catalyzing autonomy movements both familiar (e.g., Transnistria, Flanders and Kurdistan) and novel (Bavaria, Sardinia and Russian-majority parts of the Baltic States).

Corsica — a small island with a long history

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Corsica lies closest to the Italian-controlled island of Sardinia and, in fact, is closer to the Italian mainland than to France. (BBC)

Corsican sovereignty might not top the list of pressing European policy matters. But it’s an island with a long history, controlled by the Greeks, the Romans and many others from antiquity through the present day. For nearly 400 years from 1284, it was ruled by Genoa, the Italian city-state, until Corsican nationalists won independence in 1755.

Pasquale Paoli, who drove the Genoese from the island, established an Enlightenment-influenced government, with a written constitution, universal suffrage for men and women and parliamentary rule, and Paoli remains a Corsican hero despite the republic’s fall to France in 1769. France has controlled the island ever since, bringing it under the thumb of one of Europe’s most consistently centralized national governments. Compared to the United Kingdom, Germany or even Italy or Spain, the central government in Paris has long been reluctant to cede power to France’s regions, including one as idiosyncratic and sometimes turbulent as Corsica.

For Paoli’s descendants, the dream of an independent Corsica isn’t necessarily so farfetched. Poland, for example, lost its sovereignty for centuries — the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth collapsed in 1795, a short-lived Polish republic from 1918 to 1939 was soon overrun by Nazi Germany and a postwar Polish republic remained a Soviet satellite until 1989.

Corsica’s population of around 325,000 is about the same as Iceland and just a bit less than Malta. The island has its own indigenous language, Corsu, which is more closely related to the Tuscan dialect of Italian than to French and, indeed, Corsica lies far closer to the Italian mainland and the Italian island of Sardinia than to the French mainland. Only around two-thirds of Corsica’s population can speak Corsu, however, and the French language, universally spoken by all Corsicans, has long dominated official matters, education and public life.  Continue reading Corsican nationalists could achieve breakthrough status in 2016

Who is Carles Puigdemont? Catalonia’s new regional president.

Carles Puigdemont, a longtime proponent of Catalan independence (unlike his predecessor) will now serve as the region's president. (Elena Ramón / Expansion)
Carles Puigdemont, a longtime proponent of Catalan independence (unlike his predecessor) will now serve as the region’s president. (Elena Ramón / Expansion)

Ultimately, in the game of chicken between Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas and the handful of radical left legislators standing in the way of forming a new executive government, it was Mas who blinked, leading the way for another Catalan moderate, Carles Puigdemont, to take the premiership in an 11th hour drama Sunday night. Spain_Flag_Iconcatalonia

On Sunday, he finally gave in, offering to step aside for the sake of winning a majority for a pan-ideological coalition committed to pushing the region’s independence from Spain within the next 18 months. In so doing, Mas acceded to the  Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP, Popular Unity Candidacy), the far-left group that won around 8% of the vote in the most recent September 27 elections that otherwise delivered a strong plurality to the pro-independence front, Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes).

With six seats short of a majority, Junts pel Sí, dominated by two parties, the center-right Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia) and the center-left Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia) had agreed prior to the election, along with several other minor parties, that it would be Mas to lead any resulting government.

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Though the CUP also embraces independence (it also rejects membership in NATO and the European Union), it didn’t formally join the Junts pel Sí coalition. Antonio Baños, the CUP’s leader, steadfastly refused to support Mas’s investiture to form a new Generalitat, the regional executive government, because his party opposes the budget cuts that Mas introduced at the regional level during Spain’s economic crisis and due to longstanding allegations of corruption surrounding CDC governments dating back decades.

By stepping down, Mas made it clear that he wasn’t willing to drag Catalans to their fourth election in five years just to cling to power.

Mas’s replacement, Puigdemont, is another CDC veteran. Though he comes from the same moderate background as Mas, he has long been among the most outspoken advocates of Catalan independence, unlike Mas. For now, at least, that represents sufficient change for Baños and the CUP to support the independence-driven government.

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RELATED: Catalonia’s post-election future murky as Mas prioritizes power over secession

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Increasingly, Mas used the pro-independence fervor to maintain his own grip on power, to the point that it forced a split in the CDC’s longtime two-party governing coalition, Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union) in a bid to hold onto the premiership.

While CiU governed the region consecutively for nearly a quarter-century from the 1980s to the early 2000s, it took a markedly nationalist stand. But, for the most part, it always leaned more toward regional autonomy and not in favor of independence.

Not so with Puigdemont, however, who is much more of a true believer in the independence cause than Mas ever was. Puigdemont is a former journalist and an arts and cultural critic, but his major political breakthrough came in 2011, when he won the mayoral election in Girona, long a stronghold of Spain’s federal socialist party.   Continue reading Who is Carles Puigdemont? Catalonia’s new regional president.

Haiti reschedules presidential runoff for January 24

Supporters of Jude Célestin prior to the first-round vote in October. (Facebook)
Supporters of Jude Célestin prior to the first-round vote in October. (Facebook)

What if Haiti rescheduled a presidential election and no one showed up?Haiti

With outgoing president Michel Martelly due to leave office on February 7, the government last week rescheduled a delayed presidential runoff for January 24 — potentially the last possible date, according to government officials, to ensure a smooth transition from Martelly to a successor.

But the legitimacy of the new runoff isn’t assured. The first round’s runner-up has not yet committed to participating in the campaign, given doubts about fraud and unfairness from the prior round, leaving in question the January 24 vote’s integrity. The runoff was also set, after July and October voting, to finalize the composition of a new parliament after nearly a year of legislative vacancy.

The decision leaves banana exporter Jovenel Moïse, the winner of the first round, a political neophyte close to Martelly, as the only candidate running and, accordingly, even more likely to win the runoff. Under such dubious conditions, however, his presidential mandate will be virtually meaningless if the opposition’s supporters boycott the vote in a country where only about one-quarter of all voters even bothered to turn out in the first round in October.   Continue reading Haiti reschedules presidential runoff for January 24

Two years later, Bangladesh needs a real opposition

Bangladesh's prime minister Sheikh Hasina won an election boycotted by the opposition two years ago today.
Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina won an election boycotted by the opposition two years ago today.

On this week in 2014, Bangladesh’s prime minister Shiekh Hasina was enjoying a hollow reelection, with a supermajority in the Jatiyo Sangsad (জাতীয় সংসদ), Bangladesh’s unicameral parliament. Hasina had pushed forward with elections, despite breaching political trading by refusing to appoint a caretaker government and despite the opposition’s determination to boycott the vote as flawed.bangladesh flag icon

Nearly two decades prior, when Hasina and her Bangladesh Awami League (বাংলাদেশ আওয়ামী লীগ) were in the opposition and boycotted the 1996 elections, the two major parties worked out a compromise for a new vote four months later — a vote that the Awami League went on to win.

After her uncontested victory in January 2014, however, Hasina used the opportunity not to enter into negotiations with her rival,  Khaleda Zia, and other leaders of the more Islamist and more conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, বাংলাদেশ জাতীয়তাবাদী দল). Instead, Hasina has spent the past two years working to undermine not only the BNP, but the entire framework of Bangladeshi democracy, however fragile it had been since independence in 1971.

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RELATED: Zia indictment won’t help
solve Bangladesh’s political standoff

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Today, Hasina’s government has so marginalized the BNP that the seesaw of power between the two parties is far more lopsided than at any time in the past 30 years. Zia has been detained and placed under house arrest for much of the past two years, other top BNP leaders were imprisoned or exiled, the BNP’s hardline Islamist allies Jamaat-e-Islami (বাংলাদেশ জামায়াতে ইসলামী) have been virtually criminalized and some of its leaders, on trial for war crimes from the 1971 war for independence, executed. 

Fresh elections are due only in 2018, three years from now, by which time there might not be a robust opposition to wage much of a challenge at all. Continue reading Two years later, Bangladesh needs a real opposition

How I expect the 2016 Republican nomination race to play out

Donald Trump has dominated the imagination of the Republican contest in 2015, but can he turn enthusiasm into real votes in 2016? Maybe.
Donald Trump has dominated the imagination of the Republican contest in 2015, but can he turn enthusiasm into real votes in 2016? Maybe. (Facebook)

It’s not often that I write about American politics because there are already so many pundits doing it, and the comparative advantage of a website like Suffragio lies in deeper analysis of global electoral politics and foreign policy informed by that analysis. USflag

But we’re now just over three weeks away from the most competitive Republican presidential nomination contest in memory, and we’re six months into the era of TrumpismoFor what it’s worth, no one knows exactly how the spring nominating process will end because there are so many variables — and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says otherwise.

Still, we’re not on Mars and, while there are certainly new factors in 2016 that matter more than ever, there is deep precedential value from prior contests.

So here’s one perspective on how the race might ultimately turn out, based on observing primary contests for over 20 years. At the most basic level, the race for the Republican nomination is a race to win a majority of the 2,470 delegates that will meet between July 18 and 21 in Cleveland, Ohio.  Continue reading How I expect the 2016 Republican nomination race to play out

Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Henry Ramos Allup is set to become the next president of Venezuela’s National Assembly today.

Without a doubt, the victory of the anti-chavista opposition in the December 6 elections was one of the most improbable and most impressive wins in world politics in 2015.Venezuela Flag Icon

With a two-thirds majority that the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is still trying to defend from attacks from the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the opposition today took control of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), the legislative branch of Venezuela’s government. That will continue to be true, no matter if the PSUV tries to invalidate a handful of MUD deputies or if president Nicolas Maduro tries to create an alternative chavista-dominated popular assembly.

For the first time since 1999, the chavistas haven’t controlled the National Assembly. Naturally, it was a momentous occasion. For now, the Venezuelan people seem firmly behind the opposition, in the hopes that they can push Maduro toward reforms to provide economic relief after years of socialist policies and, perhaps more damningly, widespread corruption, handouts to socialist allies like Cuba and Nicaragua and mismanagement of PdVSA, the state petroleum company, which has only accelerated losses stemming from the global decline in oil prices.

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RELATED: Venezuela’s opposition supermajority must prioritize recalling Maduro

RELATED: No matter who wins, the December 6 elections will not be chavismo‘s last stand

RELATED: A primer on the MUD, Venezuela’s broad opposition coalition

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But that’s also why it’s so disappointing that the MUD coalition chose as the president of the National Assembly the 72-year-old Henry Ramos Allup, a longtime fixture on the Venezuelan opposition and a throwback to the ancien régime that proved so corrupt and incapable that it opened the path to Hugo Chávez’s perfectly democratic election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998.

Let’s start with the good news. Ramos Allup, it’s true, was chosen through a democratic process, an internal vote among the 112 MUD deputies. He easily defeated Julio Borges, another opposition figure close to former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, by a vote of 63 to 49 over the weekend. He’s one of the few figures within the opposition to have some experience of Venezuelan governance before chavismo and, truth be told, he’s a tough and wily character who will not easily be rolled. (Though, almost immediately after the new majority took power in the National Assembly, the chavista deputies, including the former Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, promptly walked out).

Then again, for an opposition that hopes to present itself as a fresh movement of good government and reform capable to bringing change to Venezuela, it’s a curious choice. Continue reading Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN