First Past the Post: December 10

A nice profile of Leoluca Orlando, the anti-mafia mayor of Palermo.

Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi suspends his controversial decree, but empowers Egypt’s army in advance of Dec. 15 constitutional referendum.

Brazilian authorities have arrested the former Turks and Caicos prime minister.

The government of Malta’s prime minister Lawrence Gonzi has fallen after the 2013 budget failed to pass by a one-vote margin (elections are scheduled for March 9).

Moldova leapfrogs Ukraine on Europe’s remaining to-do list.

Xi Jinping’s already differentiating himself from Hu Jintao.

The high price of a bailout for tiny Cyprus.

No major surprises during the second of three presidential debates in advance of South Korea’s Dec. 19 vote.  Another wrap-up here.

Former Tokyo vice governor Naoki Inose leads in the nine-candidate field competing in the Tokyo gubernatorial election on Dec. 16.

More Tory backlash on gay marriage rights in the United Kingdom (which Tory PM David Cameron supports).

Germany’s center-left Social Democrats formally nominate Peer Steinbrück as its candidate for chancellor.  He’s now on Twitter.

The Republican Left of Catalunya is edging closer to coalition with Artur Mas’s CiU.

French president François Hollande now has a 60% disapproval rate (35% approval).

Tzipi Livni is taking aim at… everyone in Israeli politics, including Labor, Yesh Atid and other opponents of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gujarati voters consider third decade of BJP rule as Modi looks to prime minister race in 2014

In Gujarat, the state where Mahatma Gandhi — India’s spiritual and intellectual founding father — was born, voters will go to the polls in two rounds on December 13 and 17 to elect a new regional government. 

Since 2001, however, Gujarat’s government has been headed by Narendra Modi (pictured above), the regional leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी), which currently holds 117 out of 182 in the state’s unicameral Legislative Assembly (Vidhan Sabha, ગુજરાત વિધાન સભા). In the previous 2007 elections, Modi’s BJP defeated the Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) by an 11% margin — Congress currently holds 59 seats.

Politics in Gujarat is largely a straightforward contest between India’s two largest national political parties and, as one of India’s most conservative states, it’s long been a for the BJP, which has held a majority in the Legislative Assembly since 1995.

Modi is a longtime veteran of Indian politics, and he is widely thought to harbor national political ambitions, though he’s a relatively polarizing figure within India, and opponents have dismissed him as more hype than substance.

He will be looking to poll at least as well as he did in the previous 2007 elections, when the BJP won 49% of the vote and nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Legislative Assembly, as a springboard into the 2014 national elections.  Although that contest is still a long ways off,  Modi remains the favorite to run as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister in 2014, though he may face intraparty rivals, including former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani.  Congress is expected to run under the candidacy of Rahul Gandhi — the son of Congress’s president Sonia Gandhi and the late former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the grandson of the late former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Although the state’s officials won’t start counting votes until December 20, barring a political earthquake, it’s a safe bet that Modi will emerge with a mandate for a fourth consecutive term in office.

In one of the world’s most novel twists on campaigning, he has turned heads by using a three-dimensional hologram avatar of himself to address multiple rallies in Gujarat simultaneously. Continue reading Gujarati voters consider third decade of BJP rule as Modi looks to prime minister race in 2014

Chávez officially names Maduro as anointed successor

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, only two months after winning reelection against his strongest opponent in 13 years in office, appears to have taken a turn for the worse in his ongoing struggle with cancer, has returned to Cuba for surgery. 

Before leaving, however, he indicated his express preference for his successor — for the first time — in the event that his health declines terminally.  That’s as close as any indication that Venezuelans have received from Chávez that he is battling terminal cancer, in a hasty address to the nation late Saturday night:

Unfortunately, comprehensive tests (performed in Cuba) found the presence, in the same area (previously) affected, of malignant (cancerous) cells. It has been decided that it is absolutely necessary and essential to undergo further surgery. This should happen in the coming days. Doctors even recommended performing the surgery yesterday (Friday) or this weekend at the latest.

Not surprisingly, Chávez anointed Nicolás Maduro (pictured above, left, with Chávez) as his favored successor, expressing openly what he had indicated implicitly in October when he elevated Maduro, formerly foreign minister, to become Venezuela’s new vice president.

Maduro, a former bus driver and trade unionist, has been part of Chávez’s ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) since its foundation, and he was by Chávez’s side in 1998 when the PSUV first won power.  He was a member of Venezuela’s parliament until 2006, serving as speaker from 2005 to 2006, when he was named as Chávez’s foreign minister.  As such, he’s a fairly well-known figure to Venezuela’s key allies and opponents alike, including China, the United States and Cuba, although observers are cautiously optimistic he would be a more moderate leader, more in the mould of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva than Chávez.

Chávez is set to be inaugurated for his fourth term on January 10 — if he were to die during his third term, Maduro would take over as president until January 10.  If Chávez dies after reelection, Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, would take over temporarily while new elections are organized.  Under Venezuelan law, a new presidential election would be required within 30 days of Chávez’s death or resignation during the first four years of his term (which is set to run for six years, through 2019).  Chávez’s announcement on Saturday makes it very likely that, despite Cabello’s presidential ambitions, Maduro would likely lead the PSUV in any such presidential election in the near future.

Venezuelans return to the polls on December 16 to vote for regional governments, including in Miranda state, where Chávez’s one-time challenger Henrique Capriles is facing a strong challenge from Maduro’s predecessor as vice president, Elías Jaua.

Capriles won 45% of the vote nationally against Chávez in October as the leader of the opposition coalition, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD).  If Capriles wins on Sunday in Miranda state, he will be well placed to compete in any future presidential election against Maduro.

Monti resigns as prime minister in light of Berlusconi’s political return

It’s been an incredibly fast-moving weekend for Italian politics — shortly after Silvio Berlusconi announced he would return to the leadership of his floundering Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) on Saturday, prime minister Mario Monti announced that he would resign as prime minister upon the completion of Italy’s 2013 budget, meaning that the next Italian election could come sooner than April 2013 as previously planned.

Monti’s resignation is not the incredible bombshell that it seems — it will still take some time to pass the 2013 budget, and the coalition that supports Monti, comprised of the PdL and the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), seem likely to provide support for that budget.  Earlier today, after the Italian stock market dropped and Italian bond yields crept upwards to around 4.8%, Monti reassured global markets and Italians alike that he would continue to govern through the next election.  Monti was appointed prime minister in November 2011 after Berlusconi’s government found itself in the throes of a crisis of confidence over Italian fiscal policy with bond yields of over 7%, not to mention the corruption and sex scandal that had enveloped Berlusconi in his final years in office.

Monti has spent much of 2012 passing budget cuts, tax increases and market reforms through Italy’s parliament — Monti remains well-respected in Italy, although his austerity measures in particular have become increasingly unpopular.  As such, the upcoming Italian election was always going to determine the outcome of Monti’s reforms, and it will fall to the next government to consolidate and continue Monti’s reforms.  Indeed, Italy had already started turning toward election season, and although Monti is not running in his own right, he has indicated he could return to lead a second Monti government in the event, not unlikely, of a hung Italian parliament.

The PD, together with a handful of smaller leftist allies, selected just eight days ago the broad center-left’s candidate for prime minister, the PD’s current leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, in a race that saw much of Italy cheering on the youthful, energetic mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi.  Although Bersani has emphasized the importance of stimulating economic growth and creating more jobs, he’s largely indicated he would continue Monti’s broad path of fiscal readjustment.

Earlier in November, a handful of business leaders formed a new coalition, Verso la Terza Repubblica (VTR, Toward the Third Republic), a centrist group that will run in the 2013 election for the express purpose of returning Monti to government.  Its leaders include Ferrari CEO, former Fiat CEO and former president of Confindustria (Italy’s employer’s federation), Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.  A handful of smaller parties are also contesting the election in their own right, ranging from autonomist parties in Italy’s north and Italy’s south, the remnants of Italy’s old Christian Democrats, and parties ranging from fervently communist to nearly neofascist.

So, at most, Monti’s imminent resignation will accelerate the Italian election to February.

In one sense, that’s good news for Berlusconi’s opponents — the less time that Berlusconi has, with his ample amount of money and media power, to attack Monti’s reforms and his leftist opponents, the less likely it is that Berlusconi can turn around polls that show the PdL in third place, behind the PD and behind blogger Beppe Grillo’s anti-austerity Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement).

On the other hand, the PdL was set to contest regional elections on February 10 and 11 in Lombardia (in northern Italy and home to Italy’s financial and fashion capital, Milan) and in Lazio (in central Italy and the region surrounding Italy’s capital, Rome), and losses in those elections could have been even more embarrassing in advance of a later spring vote.  In Lombardia, Roberto Formigoni, who has served as regional president since 1995, announced the dissolution of the regional legislature after one of his PdL allies was arrested on the charge that he bought votes from the southern organized crime organization ‘Ndrangheta in the 2010 regional elections.  In Lazio, the PdL’s Renata Polverini resigned as regional president after just three years in office after being implicated in a public expenses scandal.

Mahama wins reelection in Ghana over Akufo-Addo; parliamentary results still unknown

Despite howls of protest about fraud from the opposition, John Dramani Mahama (pictured above) has won reelection as Ghana’s president in what appears to be an impressive victory for the National Democratic Congress (NDC).

Although Mahama ascended to the presidency only in July upon the untimely death of John Atta Mills, his election victory against Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) exceeded Mills’s own victory against Akufo-Addo in 2008.

Mahama won 50.70%, giving him a margin of victory sufficient for a first-round victory and avoiding a potential runoff on December 28, unlike in 2008, when Mills defeated Akufo-Addo in an incredibly tight contest (and after Akufo-Addo actually won the first round).

Paa Kwesi Nduom of the Progressive People’s Party (PPP), who also ran in 2008, finished with 0.59% of the vote, much less than his 2008 total.

Akufo-Addo has not yet conceded defeat, however, and the NPP is considering legal action to annul the election result.  In particular, the NPP is charging that Mahama’s government manipulated the results of two constituencies, one in the north and another in Accra, Ghana’s capital, to deliver 25,000 extra votes to Mahama, and it has called for an audit of the ballots counted in the presidential election.  Although Mahama’s margin of victory was around 326,000 votes, balloting was extended from Friday into Saturday in some regions because of voting glitches.  So while it seems doubtful that Akufo-Addo will prevail, electoral irregularities are not necessarily outside the realm of possibility, and NPP supporters demonstrated outside Ghana’s electoral commission over the weekend in protest.

Akufo-Addo’s familiarity to voters and his status as a veteran politician made him an incredibly effective challenger, especially because of his seductive platform for improvements to Ghana’s primary education system and a promise for universal secondary education and health care for all Ghanaian children.  Ultimately, however, Mahama inherited a government from Mills that grew last year at a staggering rate of 14.4% — Ghana’s economy was already doing very well when oil was discovered in 2007 (and first extracted in 2010), and it would have been quite a feat for Akufo-Addo to have defeated an incumbent in a country that marked Africa’s highest growth rate last year.

The NDC, under longtime president Jerry Rawlings, stabilized Ghana’s once-disasterous economy in the 1980s and 1990s and set the stage for Ghana’s transformation into a democracy.

The weekend’s election marked the fourth consecutive free and fair election since Rawlings peacefully transferred power after the 2000 election to the NPP’s John Kufuor.

What’s more striking than the total vote, however, is the regional result (set forth below in an election map– red for Mahama, blue for Akufo-Addo).  Unlike in 2008, when Akufo-Addo won essentially all of the south of Ghana (except for the greater Accra region in the southeast and the Volta region that runs in a narrow strip along Ghana’s eastern border), Mahama made inroads in what’s been traditionally NPP territory.  It’s worth noting, however, that in the dense Ashanti region (the deep blue region on the map), the heartland of the Akan ethnic group (Ghana’s largest), Akufo-Addo won 71.2% of the vote to just 28.0% of the vote for Mahama, and in the Eastern Region (the only other blue region), Akufo-Addo won 56.3% to 42.6% for Mahama.  Within the greater Accra region, Mahama won a steady 53% of the vote to 46.2% for Akufo-Addo.

We don’t have the full results of the parliamentary elections, which were held simultaneously with the presidential election, but the current count shows the NDC with 84 seats and the NPP with 79 seats.  Ghana’s unicameral parliament currently has 230 seats and is controlled (narrowly) by Mahama’s NDC, but Friday’s election featured an expanded parliament with 275 seats.  Given the closeness of the election and the flexibility of 45 new parliamentary seats, there’s still a chance that the NPP could control the parliament, despite Mahama’s presidential win, an outcome that would be unique in Ghana’s political history.

Ponta’s ruling party extends control with absolute majority in Romanian parliament

Romanian voters, as expected, rewarded prime minister Victor Ponta (pictured above) with a resounding victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

Ponta, who became prime minister in May 2012 and promptly proceeded to govern with an aggressive posture — engaging in several fights with Romania’s constitutional court and organizing a constitutionally sketchy impeachment referendum against his ideological nemesis, Romanian president Traian Băsescu — has benefitted from Romanian discontent over the economy.

Despite only tepid growth in 2010 and a 0.4% contraction in 2011, the previous government of Emil Boc, an ally of Băsescu, became increasingly and staggeringly unpopular after implementing severe austerity measures, in part to secure loans from the International Monetary Fund and a €20 billion bailout from the IMF and the European Union in 2009 to stabilize Romania’s budget.

Ponta’s center-left alliance of three parties called the Uniunea Social Liberală (USL, Social Liberal Union), defeated Băsescu’s hastily-formed alliance, the Alianţa România Dreaptă (ARD, Right Romania Alliance) by a lopsided margin of 58.6% to 16.7% in elections for the 315-member Chamber of Deputies (Camera Deputaţilor), the lower house of Romania’s parliament (Parlamentul României), giving Ponta an absolute majority.

Two smaller parties also won sufficient support for seats — above the 5% threshold for winning seats in the Chamber of Deputies.  The Partidul Poporului – Dan Diaconescu (PP-DD, Popular Party — Dan Diaconescu), a newly formed party backing Diaconescu, a media figure that waged a nationalist and socialist campaign, won 13.5%.  The Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România (UDMR, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania), which represents the political interests of ethnic Hungarians in Romania, won 5.3%.

The simultaneous election for the 137-member Senate (Senat), the Romanian parliament’s upper chamber, saw nearly identical results — Ponta’s USL won 60.0%, the ARD 17.0%, Diaconescu’s party 14.2% and the ethnic Hungarians 5.4%.

Given Ponta’s overwhelming majority, the next step would typically be that Băsescu, Romania’s president, appoints Ponta as prime minister to lead a government.  But the bitter and toxic relationship between the two, however, has been the central narrative of Romanian politics in the past year, and Băsescu may refuse to appoint Ponta — perhaps by attempting to appoint as prime minister one of the other leaders of the parties that comprise the USL.

Despite valid concerns about Ponta’s dedication to the rule of law, if Băsescu doesn’t appoint Ponta in the face of the USL’s overwhelming electoral victory, he could risk triggering a constitutional crisis and, potentially, the threat of new elections, thereby frightening international investors and providing his opponents a new reason to seek his impeachment (again).

Nonetheless, the new government would have to work with Băsescu until 2014 when his term ends (unless Ponta attempts to impeach Băsescu).

Romania’s IMF funds will be exhausted next year, however, so the new government will have to work with the IMF and the EU to secure new budgetary funding.  With election season over, however, it seems almost certain that the next government, led by Ponta or otherwise, will be forced to adopt much of the budget-cutting posture of Romania’s previous Boc-led government.

Although Ponta’s government has restored some of the pensions and wages cut by the previous government, he hasn’t moved to cut the 24% VAT that Boc’s government introduced.