Scotland sets a referendum date: September 18, 2014


Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, has set September 18, 2014 as the date for the referendum on potential Scottish independence.United Kingdom Flag Iconscotland

Polls have been relatively consistent, with support for independence at around 30% to 35% and with support for continued union with England at around 50% to 55%.

But the up-or-down vote will come in 18 months, and a lot can obviously change in 18 months, including the popularity of Salmond (pictured above) and his Scottish National Party, which won in 2011 the first majority government since devolution in the late 1990s.

Three quick things to keep an eye on:

Shetland and Orkney.  Shetland and Orkney, the groups of islands to the northeast of Scotland, could well stay within the United Kingdom if Scotland leaves.  That would complicate the Scottish economic rationale for independence, dependent as it is upon North Sea oil revenues.  It’s no surprise then, to see Liberal Democrats encouraging Shetland and Orkney to think of themselves as a unit within the United Kingdom than as just an appendage of Scotland.

Tory incentives. As Liberal Democratic deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has sharply noted, Conservatives do not have an incredible incentive to fight hard to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, given that they hold one seat.  It’s fair to worry that Tories actually have an electoral incentive to see an independent Scotland — though, because the Scots are just 8.5% of the UK population, it’s not as much as you might think.  Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s massive 12-point 1997 landslide was still a massive 10-point landslide within England proper.  In the 2010 general election, Labour won 28.1% in England and 29.0% nationwide, while the Tories won 39.6% in England and just 36.1% nationwide.  So it’s a boost, but not a gigantic one.

Europe.  Also, there’s some dicey choreography with the European Union too, because as the United Kingdom approaches prime minister David Cameron’s promised 2017 referendum on potentially leaving the EU, the more it could have a negative effect on the Scotland effort.  In fact, even with sluggish growth in the next 18 months, I think the anti-Europe tone in England is the biggest threat to the anti-independent forces in very much pro-Europe Scotland.  If Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) continues to make further gains in advance of the 2015 general election, it could well scare some of the pro-union, pro-European Scots toward the independence camp.

Despite what anyone in Brussels or Berlin or London or Edinburgh says, no one thinks that Scottish independence would leave it outside the EU for long.  Given that the Scots have implemented as much of the acquis communautaire as England has, it’s certain that the Scots would align independence with simultaneous Scottish accession to the EU.  That’s a non-issue.

Meet the new heir to Hugo Chávez: the feistier, populist Capriles 2.0


Just days after the death of longtime Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, his previous opponent in the 2012 election, Henrique Capriles, lost no time in taunting acting president Nicolás Maduro:Venezuela Flag Icon

Nicolás, nobody elected you president. The people didn’t vote for you, kid.

It was quite a bit out of character for Capriles (pictured above), who often campaigned against Chávez, then ailing with the cancer that ultimately took his life, with kid gloves — after all, Chávez remained the beloved champion of Venezuela’s poor, and Capriles himself pledged to retain the misiones that provided education and health benefits in the event of his election.

In fact, Capriles’s sneering and taunting attitude was more reminiscent of Chávez, who never lost an opportunity for a little name-calling.

Although Capriles is reported to have seriously considered boycotting the election, he announced March 10 that he would accept the presidential nomination of the opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) with the kind of intensity that critics claimed his previous 2012 campaign lacked.  In a fiery, nearly hour-long speech, he attacked the record of chavismo and pursued Maduro with a newfound aggression, challenging Maduro by his first name (¡Y tu, Nicolás…) and attacking the government’s handling of the constitutional succession and its performance since Chávez won reelection:

Maduro was hand-picked by Chávez as his new vice president and anointed as his preferred successor, and he has — for now — secured the support of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and much of the Venezuelan army, now sympathetic to the ruling chavista regime after 14 years of Chávez in power.

But from his newfound abilities in populist rhetoric and campaign aggression, it may well be Capriles who is becoming the true heir to Chávez.

For example, on March 10, in response to ‘homophobic’ slurs from Maduro, Capriles took the opportunity not only to deny them, but to make a full-throated attack on the machismo of the chavistas and to argue forcefully for social inclusion for all Venezuelans, no matter what their sexual orientation:

That takes a lot of brass — and perhaps it’s the kind of brass that comes from a campaign against Maduro that seems more doomed than the one last year.

The conventional wisdom is that Maduro will ride the wave of sympathy for Chávez to victory so soon after the funeral, and polls show that Maduro is leading Capriles, in some cases by a wider margin than the 11% victory Chávez won in 2011 (such as a recent Datanalysis poll that gives Maduro a 14-point lead).

Capriles has attacked the polls, too, arguing that the government are paying pollsters to show Maduro leading.  True or not, it’s a classic play from the Chávez playbook — disregard the facts, and turn a negative into a way to attack your opponent.

What it means is that Capriles is running the kind of offensive campaign that Chávez ran throughout his career, and Maduro is running the kind of defensive, hesitant campaign that’s typically been associated with the opposition.

But regardless of whether Capriles has a chance to win, he’s now free to run against chavismo without having to run against the charismatic commandante himself.

After a setback for opposition forces in the regional and gubernatorial races in December 2012 (Capriles himself won reelection only narrowly against Elías Jaua, a well-financed former Chávez vice president), a feisty loss in the April 14 presidential election would not only energize the opposition, but keep it united and prepare it to take on the PSUV in parliamentary elections due in 2015.

Even more slyly, one of the subtle themes of the Capriles campaign is simply, ‘Maduro is no Chávez.’

The subtext here is that, even if you supported Chávez, and perhaps especially if you supported Chávez, you don’t necessarily need to support Maduro, who doesn’t measure up to Chávez.  Capriles has argued that Maduro, in less than a hundred days as the de facto acting president during Chávez’s terminal illness, has already begun to dismantle the achievements of the Chávez era.

That’s one reason Capriles has been so aggressive in attacking Maduro’s February devaluation of the bolívar, Venezuela’s currency, which lowered its value by 32%.  Maduro doubled down this week, however, announcing a second devaluation that is expected to cut even more deeply into the value of the currency, and a new foreign exchange system to assist importers acquire increasingly rare U.S. dollars.  The devaluations are also designed to cut a budget deficit that swelled in 2011 and 2012 in advance of Chávez’s reelection, despite abundant oil wealth.

It’s also why Capriles has gone on the offensive about cutting subsidies to Cuba — it’s widely believed that Maduro was Havana’s preference as Chávez’s successor, hoping that Maduro’s election will secure the uninterrupted flow of oil subsidies, cheap credit and other goodies to the Castro regime.  Again, the anti-Cuba rhetoric is subtle way of reclaiming nationalism at the expense of Maduro’s relatively weaker position.  Capriles would never have been able to attack the nationalist bona fides of Chávez, the 21st century champion of ‘bolivarian’ revolution.  Not so with Maduro.

Consider, too, this television advertisement from the Capriles campaign yesterday — although it’s only a simple 21-second spot, it’s a harsh indictment of chavismo that lists five reasons for change: violence, power outages, expropriations, deficient hospitals and lack of water:

Capriles may well still lose the election because the wall of sympathy for Chávez was always going to be too high to surmount.

But make no mistake, Capriles is certainly waging a more spirited campaign than anyone every really anticipated — it may not be enough to win the election, but it may well make it a far closer run than the chavista regime would have liked.  That, in turn, will lay the groundwork for a future challenge if Maduro wins and conditions deteriorate in advance of parliamentary elections or before the next presidential election in 2018.

Pier Luigi Bersani has five days to build an Italian government

napolitano bersani

When elections were called in Italy late in 2012, the centrosinistra (center-left) coalition united around Pier Luigi Bersani thought, on the basis of polls that showed Bersani (pictured above, left) with a wide lead, that it was nearly assured that they would easily win a five-year mandate to govern Italy.Italy Flag Icon

Instead, they may have won just a five-day mandate to show that they can win a confidence vote in both houses of Italy’s parliament.

The leader of Italy’s Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Pier Luigi Bersani, will have the first formal opportunity to form a government after three days of talks between Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano (pictured above, right) and the various party leaders, including former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, who ran on a platform of extending his reform program; former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose centrodestra (center-right) coalition nearly outpaced Bersani’s coalition; and Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement), who himself did not run for a seat in the Italian parliament.

Napolitano, in a rare speech today, pleaded for a solution, arguing that institutional stability is just as important as financial stability.

Yesterday, Bersani called for a grand ‘governo di cambiamento,’ a government of change that would draw from all of the parties in the parliament.  It’s not immediately clear, however, what exactly Bersani would do with such a government or that the announcement would significantly shake up the coalition talks.

Bersani will have until March 26 — Tuesday — to show that he can pull together a patchwork vote of confidence.  Otherwise, Napolitano will conduct further talks with the party leaders in search of a Plan B.

In the February 2013 elections, the centrosinistra won an absolute majority of the seats in the 630-member Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies) because under Italian election law, the winner, by whatever margin, of the nationwide vote automatically wins 54% of the seats.  So Bersani commands a majority in the lower house, though he does so after winning a surprisingly narrow victory (29.54%) over Berlusconi’s centrodestra (29.18%) and Grillo’s Five Star Movement (25.55%):

Italy Camera 2013

The current crisis of governance in Italy springs from the fact that there’s no similar ‘national winner’s bonus’ for the upper house, the Senato, where the centrodestra actually won more seats than the centrosinistra.  That’s because there’s a regional ‘bonus’ — the party with the most support in each of Italy’s 20 regions is guaranteed an absolute majority of the senatorial seats in that region.  As Berlusconi’s coalition won so many of the contests in Italy’s largest regions (i.e., Piedmont, Sicily, Campania), however narrowly, he won the largest bloc in the Senato:

Italy Senate 2013

In the immediate aftermath of the election results, I argued that Italy faced essentially four paths for a government:

  1. A Bersani-Monti minority government. 
  2. A Berlusconi-Bersani ‘grand coalition.’
  3. A formal or informal Bersani-Grillo alliance.
  4. Snap elections (after the election of a new president).

Since then, we haven’t seen an incredible amount of action, because the parliament only sat for the first time last weekend, when it elected speakers to both the lower and upper houses.  None of those are likely to happen in any meaningful sense, but there are small variations on each that could keep Italy’s government moving forward, if only for a short-term basis to implement a narrow set of reforms (e.g., a new election law) and to elect a new president — Napolitano’s term ends in May.

So with the clock ticking for Bersani’s chances of becoming prime minister and leading a government, where do each of those options still stand? Continue reading Pier Luigi Bersani has five days to build an Italian government

First Past the Post: March 21-22


East and South Asia

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s first overseas trip will be to Russia and then, to Africa.

South Korea’s new nominee for defense minister offers to resign.

The PML-Q in Pakistan is falling apart.

Pakistan is still scrambling to pick a caretaker prime minister until May 11 elections.

Agitating for a presidential-style debate between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi?

Pro-democracy groups form a new ‘Alliance for True Democracy’ in Hong Kong.

Bangladesh’s president Zillur Rahman has died.

Thailand’s leadership encouraged to move beyond the shadow of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

North America

All about the 2013 Canada budget.  Québec is not happy. (When is it ever?)

Liberal Party leader frontrunner Justin Trudeau says ‘just watch me’ about his chances of defeating Tory prime minister Stephen Harper.

Greenland’s new government wants to ban Danish from its national parliament.


More problems in U.S.-Venezuelan diplomacy.

The country remains in a state of suspended animation.

Peruvian author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa says Venezuela faces a choice between populism and modernity.

Student protestors clashed with chavistas in Caracas on Thursday. [Spanish]

Corporate Brazil prefers Nicolás Maduro as president.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles dismisses polls after allegations of cash payments from the government. [Spanish]

Latin America / Caribbean

A second chance for Peruvian mayor Susana Villarán.

Will El Salvador end sovereignty?

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos is optimistic for a peace accord with the FARC by the end of 2013.

Sub-Saharan Africa


Taking Ethiopia to the next level.

The pardon for Nigerian Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha is a touchy issue.

Senegal’s president Macky Sall fights corruption.  [French]

Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir says he’ll step down in 2015.

Congolese war crimes indictee Bosco Ntaganda certainly seems headed to the Hague.

The ICC still seems set to proceed against Kenya’s president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kenya’s new National Assembly will sit next Thursday.


Italian president Giorgio Napolitano is set to likely give center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani the first chance to form a government on Friday afternoon.

UK chancellor George Osborne announced the new budget Wednesday.

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s colleagues were a bit wobblier on the 1982 war over the Falkland Islands.

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond announces the date of Scotland’s independence referendum: September 18, 2014.

Tobias Billström, Sweden’s migration minister, apologizes again over his ‘blonde, blue-eyed’ comments and won’t resign.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is charged with campaign violations from financing his 2007 presidential campaign and taking advantage of L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Cyprus will try to raise money through an Investment Solidarity Fund.

More on the Cypriot financial sector and its now likely demise.

Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem says a levy on Cypriot savers is unavoidable.

Brad DeLong uses the World War interregnum as a history lesson for today’s eurozone.

Malta’s new cabinet.

Germany won’t ban the far-right National Democratic Party after all.

Romania’s Party of Democrats-Liberals (PDL), the main opposition, chooses a new leader this weekend.

Macedonia holds local elections on Sunday.

Russia and Former Soviet Union

Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev thinks that both the EU and the Cypriot government are acting like a ‘bull in a china shop.’A key constitutional vote in Georgia’s parliament.

Middle East and North Africa

Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan called for a PKK cease-fire and withdrawal from Turkey.

U.S. president Barack Obama calls for the resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in the West Bank.

The Israeli take on the Obama visit.

Pro- and anti-Syria clashes in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Australia and Oceania

Kevin Rudd rules out any future leadership runs.