All posts by Kevin Lees

Germany could achieve marriage equality by week’s end

Germany is, by far, the largest and most important European country that hasn’t yet adopted universal recognition of same-sex marriage. (Adam Berry / Getty)

The last time that the Brandenburg Gate was alight in LGBT rainbow colors, it was to commemorate the mass shooting of 49 revelers at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

But there’s a good chance that, by the end of this week, it could be illuminated again when German legislators — quite suddenly — take up marriage equality in what will be a free vote of conscience for all members of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament.

As Friday is the final day in legislative session for the Bundestag, German chancellor Angela Merkel has acquiesced to the vote after facing pressure from each of the three parties that could coalesce with Merkel after the September 24 federal elections. Freed from the strictures of party discipline, many of Merkel’s conservatives are expected to join with marriage equality proponents on the center and left for an easy majority.

Within days — or even hours — the Bundestag is likely to legalize same-sex marriage. Just like that. Ehe für alle, marriage for all, will become a reality in the country of 82 million.

It’s a win-win-win. Merkel takes a long-contentious issue off the agenda for the election campaign, despite the fact that LGBT marriage rights are an issue that deeply divide her party. Merkel’s opponents can claim that their leadership forced Merkel into a retreat on the issue. Both sides see advantages for the campaign ahead. And, of course, for same-sex couples in Germany, their unions will finally be recognized on the same scale as other marriages.

For years, even as the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and the Nordics all implemented full recognition of same-sex marriage, Germany lingered in an odd limbo. Due to the socially conservative views of many members of chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), same-sex marriage hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of the German legislative agenda since Merkel took power in 2005. Many CDU politicians are still uncomfortable with LGBT marriage on religious grounds, and that’s doubly true for the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, Christian Social Union), which historically is highly influenced by social conservatism and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Continue reading Germany could achieve marriage equality by week’s end

Opponents force PPK to consider pardoning former dictator Alberto Fujimori

Peru’s president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski risks stalemate without the support of the Peruvian congress. (Facebook)

Every Peruvian president comes into office a lame duck.

Such are the drawbacks to a system designed to prevent presidents from seeking reelection. Each president has five years — at least by the standards of recent history (and with the exception of Alberto Fujimori, the authoritarian who ran Peru from 1990 to 2000).

That was always likely to be the fate of the 78-year-old Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who came into office at the end of a long career in both domestic politics and international economics and whose chief political skill was not being related to Fujimori.

But PKK (he’s known universally by his initials) only unexpectedly won the presidency last June. Investors cheered his narrow victory over Keiko Fujimori, the former president’s daughter, who waged an economically populist and right-wing campaign in her second attempt at the presidency.

But to what end?

With no working majority in Peru’s Congress, Kuczynski now faces a tough choice: cave in to political opponents to pardon the Fujimori (also 78 years old) on ‘humanitarian grounds’ or face four more years of gridlock. Plans for reforms to tackle institutional corruption and spur the flagging economy would come to naught.

Keiko Fujimori dominated the first round of last year’s presidential election. PPK, a former World Bank economist and Wall Street banker, narrowly made it into the presidential runoff last year, winning nearly one-half the votes that she did. He only narrowly eclipsed rising star Verónika Mendoza, a left-wing figure who won widespread support in the Peruvian south. An even more popular former official, Julio Guzmán, was disqualified under sketchy circumstances. PPK won the runoff by the narrowest of margins as the anti-Fujimori forces coalesced around his candidacy.

But with nearly 40% of the first-round vote, Fujimori’s showing was easily strong enough to win control of the unicameral, 130-seat Peruvian Congress, which was elected simultaneously in last year’s first round. Her party, Fuerza Popular (FP, Popular Force), holds 72 seats, an outright majority. By contrast, the fledgling movement formed in favor of PPK, the cheekily named Peruanos Por el Kambio (Peruvians for Change) holds only 17 seats, behind Mendoza’s socialist Frente Amplio (Broad Front), which holds 20.

It’s an unprecedentedly weak position for a sitting president. After the 2011 election, leftist president Ollanta Humala controlled 47 seats, the largest congressional bloc (if still a minority). Even in 2006, president Alan García’s APRA managed to win 36 seat, the second-largest bloc after Humala’s forces. Continue reading Opponents force PPK to consider pardoning former dictator Alberto Fujimori

Cuba is the perfect example of Trump’s shambolic foreign policy decision-making

Increasingly, the future of Cuba seems less in the hands of Americans than in the hands of Cubans themselves. (Kevin Lees)

One day, the Castro regime will end, and the Cuban people may have the right to decide which elements of ‘socialism’ they will keep and which they will jettison. It will be their decision, of course, not the decision of any American official sitting in an office in Washington.

Yet the Trump administration’s decision last week to roll back some (importantly — not all) of the changes that characterized the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba makes that day more difficult to see on the horizon.

After just over five months in office, US president Donald Trump’s decision on Cuban policy almost perfectly crystallizes the way decisions are made in his administration. Trump was all over the place on Cuba in his improbable 2015-16 presidential campaign but by the time of the general election, Trump was promising Republicans — including older Cuban Americans in electoral vote-rich Florida — that he would roll back the Obama administration’s overtures.

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RELATED: Why normalization with Cuba will be harder than advertised

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Dutifully, Trump went to Miami last Friday, flanked by Florida senator (and former presidential rival) Marco Rubio and others, to announce exactly that, denouncing the Obama administration’s ‘one-sided deal’ with Cuba:

But the golden rule of the Trump era is quickly becoming: don’t worry about what he says or Tweets, look at what he does. And behind the bombast about defending human rights or the rhetoric trashing Barack Obama, Trump is leaving the guts of the Obama-era opening in

In reality, Trump’s policy rolls back very little. The hallmark of the Obama-era, Pore Francis-brokered deal — reestablished diplomatic relations and reopened embassies in Havana and Washington — is unchanged. The direct flights that many US carriers now operate from throughout the United States will continue. Trump will not restore Bush-era limits on Cuban Americans to travel back to the island or send money back. US tourists who continue to travel to Cuba under the new regulations will still be permitted to bring home some of Cuba’s famous cigars and rum. Nor does Trump’s new policy reinstate the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy that the Obama administration ended on January 13, which previously permitted all Cubans who reached US soil to remain in the United States (while repatriating Cubans intercepted at sea).

It’s classic Trump — make a promise based on short-term considerations, back down in the face of facts and real-world constraints, then keep just enough of your promise to declare victory. Continue reading Cuba is the perfect example of Trump’s shambolic foreign policy decision-making

In naming son as Saudi crown prince, Salman skips an entire princely generation

In a stunning move, Muhammad bin Salman, the son of the current king, has been named crown prince of Saudi Arabia. (SPA)

Just a few years ago, Saudi Arabia and its oversized royal family faced a conundrum.

With the ascension of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the age of 79 in January 2015, it confirmed that the Saudis weren’t yet prepared to turn over the reigns of government from the legendary second generation of sons of Ibn Saud, generally seen as the founder of the modern Saudi state. Salman, the 25th son of Ibn Saud, ascended the throne, while Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, an even younger brother, became crown prince. Not long ago, it was conventional wisdom that Saudi Arabia had become a gerontocratic horizontal monarchy where power passed from brother to increasingly infirm brother, with no plan for transitioning to a younger monarch.

Salman, now 81, who effectively governed the country was rumored to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease when he ascended the throne. Today, however, he presides over a kingdom that’s taken a much more muscular role regionally, from a devastating proxy war in Yemen against Houthi rebels and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh(and, really, against Iran) to a deepening diplomatic crisis with Qatar over its alleged funding of Islamic terrorism (including  relatively pro-democratic groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood), despite the Saudi kingdom’s own funding of hard-line Wahhabists.

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RELATED: Why Trump’s outreach to Saudi Arabia
might not be so clueless

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But within three months, he had replaced Muqrin as crown prince from a member of the next generation — the revered interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, now 57 years old, the deputy crown prince who became a beloved Saudi figure among American policymakers in the 2000s and early 2010s for his effectiveness in Saudi counterterrorism efforts that proved largely successful (by either bribing and rehabilitating would-be jihadists or eliminating them).

In recent years, there were reports that Muhammad bin Nayef, who suffered ill effects from a 2009 assassination attempt, was in increasingly ill health.

That may have been an issue in Salman’s decision today in removing Muhammad bin Nayef, both as interior minister and crown prince. Instead, Salman’s own son, the 31-year-old Muhammad bin Salman Al Saud, who replaced his father as the Saudi defense minister upon his father’s ascension to the throne in January 2015, will now be elevated as crown prince. In the last two and a half years, Muhammad bin Salman’s star has been on the rise, just as Muhammad bin Nayef’s star has been on the wane. His tenure as defense minister hasn’t always been smooth, given the aggressive and sometimes over-hasty steps he took in 2015 to intervene in Yemen before his country’s security services and armed forces seemed ready to carry out his plans. But no one paying attention could have missed the ambition of the king’s son. Continue reading In naming son as Saudi crown prince, Salman skips an entire princely generation

With parliamentary majority, Macron now set to shake up French policy

French president Emmanuel Macron has the broadest political support in a generation or two to shake up his country’s economy. (Twitter)

France est de la retour,’ declared its new, powerful prime minister Édouard Philippe last week. ‘France is back.’

Ultimately, it wasn’t the coming of a new ‘Sixth Republic.’ Nor was it unprecedented in the political history of the Fifth Republic, nor did it exactly herald the death knell of France’s established political parties.

But the June 18 victory of French president Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche! — a party founded only last year as the vehicle boosting what was once a longshot bid for the French presidency — in the second round of France’s legislative elections is nothing short of an astonishing accomplishment for a brand-new party that brands itself as neither left nor right.

The elections leave Macron’s party, together with its ally, the Mouvement démocrate (Democratic Movement) founded by longtime centrist figure (and now Macron’s justice minister) François Bayrou, with 350 seats in the Assemblée nationale, the lower house of the French parliament. It’s one of the largest majorities since the dawn of France’s Fifth Republic in 1958, though it’s a victory tarred by a record-low turnout of just between 42% and 43%. (That compares to around 60% turnout in 2007 and 55% in 2012).

While the French electorate may be fatigued after four rounds of voting — two presidential rounds in April and May, followed by the first round of parliamentary elections on June 11 — it’s far lower than turnout in the 2002, 2007 and 2012 elections, all of which followed the same pattern, synchronizing legislative elections just a month after the presidential.

The most important lesson for Macron is that, while the French electorate is giving him a green light to push forward with aggressive plans to shake up the public sector, it’s not an irrevocable grant, given the depressed turnout. Continue reading With parliamentary majority, Macron now set to shake up French policy

What a DUP-dependent government means for the UK

Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and until January the first minister of Northern Ireland, may now play a key role stabilizing Theresa May’s government. (Facebook)

What seemed like a certainty in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, June 9, now seems far more treacherous nearly a week later.

British prime minister Theresa May may have assured nervous Conservative MPs Monday that she can steady a minority government. With contrition for her campaign missteps and the loss of 13 seats (and the Tory majority that David Cameron won just two years ago) and claiming, ‘I got us into this mess, and I will get us out,’ May seems to have united her parliamentary caucus, at least temporarily, behind her leadership.

But it may be even more difficult than May might have realized to secure and maintain a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with Northern Ireland’s socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Though a formal coalition was always unlikely, May will need the DUP’s 10 MPs to have any hope of a reliable majority in the House of Commons.

The deeply evangelical DUP’s hard-line stand on abortion, women’s rights and LGBT rights (its founder, Ian Paisley, once led a famous ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign) have alarmed many, including some leading Tories, such as the Scottish Conservative Party’s openly gay leader Ruth Davidson, whose newly elected bloc of 13 MPs may function as a liberal (and relatively pro-European) Tory bulwark in the new parliament.

Notably, in Northern Ireland, reflecting trends that began in the early 2000s and have only accelerated since, the DUP and the republican Sinn Féin each won record numbers of seats. Ironically, that benefits May in two ways. First, it gives her more DUP MPs to shore up a Tory-led majority; second, it means a smaller number to reach an absolute majority in the House of Commons. That’s because Sinn Féin, which advocates Northern Ireland’s ultimate unification with the rest of Ireland, refuses to swear an oath to a British monarch and, correspondingly, refuses to take its seats at Westminster. With those seven Sinn Féin MPs abstaining, it means May needs three less MPs in total for a majority.
Forebodingly, former prime minister John Major on Tuesday warned May against working with the DUP, even as May was engaged in negotiations the same day with DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy DUP leader Nigel Dodds to foster an agreement. (The pending Tory-DUP deal was, according to reports, set to go ahead on Wednesday, but has been postponed until next week in light of the deadly blaze at Grenfell Towers). Major joins a growing chorus of leading figures urging caution, including Jonathan Powell, the Labour chief of staff who helped negotiate with Northern Ireland between 1997 and 2007, and Leo Varadkar, the newly elected Fine Gael leader who became Ireland’s taoiseach on Wednesday.

Why everyone from Major to Labour is so wary of the DUP

Theresa May may need the DUP’s support to remain in 10 Downing Street, but leading figures in both the UK and Ireland are urging caution. (Mirror Online)

Major’s wariness comes, in part, from his own history.

After Major won an unexpected victory in the 1992 general election against Neil Kinnock’s Labour, the Conservatives lost their majority in December 1996 due to by-election losses and attrition, and Major turned to the then-dominant force in Northern Ireland’s unionist and Protestant politics, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). That arrangement lasted barely six months, coming right before the ‘New Labour’ landslide that swept Tony Blair into power in May 2017.

The UUP was, at the time, engaged in the negotiations that would two years later blossom into the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement. The UUP leader, David Trimble, shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with his counterpart John Hume, the leader of the republican (and largely Catholic) Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

While Major’s government leaned on the Ulster Unionists, the DUP in the 1990s was a far more right-wing and recalcitrant group. Indeed, the Tories have never formally turned to the DUP for support like May is now doing.

Founded in 1971 by Paisley, a Presbyterian fundamentalist preacher, the DUP bitterly opposed the Good Friday Agreement on the grounds that it allowed the republican Sinn Féin, a party with ties to the Irish Republican Army, to hold public office. By the early 2000s, moreover, the DUP had eclipsed the UUP as the leading unionist party in Northern Ireland, while Sinn Féin was itself eclipsing the SDLP as the leading party of the Catholic, republican left. Those tectonic changes in Northern Irish politics brought a halt, after just four years, to the widely hailed devolution in Northern Ireland, collapsing a power-sharing arrangement between the UUP and the SDLP.

Between 2002 and 2007, as internal unionist and republican politics were sorting in new directions, Northern Ireland reverted to a period of home rule through the Northern Ireland office. Eventually, the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to a new power-sharing agreement of their own, a step that more firmly enshrined the Good Friday framework under Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, on the one hand, and under the DUP, first under Paisley, then under his successor Peter Robinson and from January 2016 until January 2017, Foster.

McGuinness earlier this year bowed out of the power-sharing agreement over the botched Renewable Heat Initiative, a scheme hatched by Foster when she was Northern Irish minister for enterprise. The idea was to offer subsidies to businesses to use wood pellets and other renewable heat sources. But businesses instead abused those subsidies so corruptly that they ultimately received more subsidies than the total amount spent on wood pellets altogether, costing the Northern Irish government nearly £500 million.

A snap election in March did little to solve the impasse; Sinn Féin and the DUP essentially tied, and Sinn Féin came incredibly close to emerging as the leading party for the first time in Northern Irish history, as unionist parties lost their majority for the first time as well. McGuinness himself died days after the regional elections. When May called a snap election nationally, James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, prolonged the deadline to reach a deal until June 29, well after the general election result.

Under the Good Friday framework, the national government has an obligation of neutrality in helping various parties reach a power-sharing arrangement in the Stormont-based Northern Irish Assembly. Major and others worry that with the new Conservative government so dependent on DUP votes for its survival, that neutrality will be threatened. That’s doubly dangerous, first because it comes at a time when the power-sharing arrangement between the DUP and Sinn Féin is in danger of collapse after a decade and, secondly, because both unionists and republicans worry about the consequences of Brexit, with fears that the re-imposition of a genuine border could re-ignite tensions after EU guarantees and the Good Friday Agreement virtually erased it 20 years ago.

Moreover, a Tory-DUP deal might buy May just months, not years. In 2016, deaths, resignations and other matters resulted in seven by-elections for parliamentary seats. With the Tories now polling behind Labour in the wake of last week’s election, the DUP’s negotiating position would strengthen with every Conservative by-election loss, and a handful of by-election losses would render the Tory minority unsalvageable, even with DUP support.

So these are all legitimate concerns, of course, and it’s why May is wisely inviting leaders from all five major parties to discuss power-sharing in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin, on Thursday.

Reason to be optimistic about a Tory-DUP alliance?

Though Sinn Féin’s leader Michelle O’Neill seems unlikely and unwilling to join another power-sharing agreement with the DUP in Belfast, both unionists and republicans could gain from a Tory-DUP alliance. (Facebook)

While the stakes of a significant DUP role at Westminster are high, there’s nevertheless a strong chance that the DUP’s influence could ultimately benefit Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom more generally.

After all, if the late Martin McGuinness, a militant republican, could make a deal with the DUP, certainly Theresa May can too.

Deal or no deal, though, Sinn Féin seems unlikely to continue its power-sharing arrangement with the DUP so long as Brexit negotiations are ongoing, because signing off on a hard Brexit (or even a soft Brexit) would be so politically toxic for Sinn Féin. The DUP is the only party that supported Brexit last year, even though Northern Ireland backed ‘Remain’ by a margin of 56% to 44%. Sinn Féin’s voters overwhelmingly backed Remain, and they especially loathe the idea of re-introducing a border with the Republic of Ireland (which of course remains a full member of the European Union). Despite the incompetence of the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, it was always more a fig leaf for Sinn Féin than a genuine grievance.

Today, it feels like a near-certainly that home rule will become reality on June 29, and Brokenshire, the Conservative secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was always going to have greater unionist sympathies. That was true even when polls showed the Tories winning a 100-plus majority back in April.

Entering a period of home rule, Sinn Féin hopes (with some reason) to consolidate its growing position as the part of the Catholic republican left. Meanwhile, if it concludes a deal with May, the DUP likewise hopes to consolidate its own support by bringing more economic aid to  Northern Ireland as its price for floating May’s government. It’s a win-win situation for both parties, who see it as an opportunity for dual, perhaps fatal, blows to the UUP and the SDLP (and maybe the non-sectarian Alliance as well), all of which lost their remaining Westminster seats last Thursday.

It’s true that the DUP has an incredibly conservative position on social issues like gay rights, abortion and same-sex marriage. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where marriage equality isn’t the law of the land. But as even leading LGBT activists in Northern Ireland admit, the DUP’s stand today is far weaker than the Paisley view of the 1970s. Moreover, though it was Cameron who shepherded same-sex marriage though parliament in 2013, more Tories opposed it (134), including then-home secretary May, than supported it (126). So it’s not just the DUP that has had a tough time accepting LGBT rights and marriage equality.

Moreover, as the DUP and Sinn Féin have become the leading parties for their respective unionist and republican electorates, they’ve shed some of the harder edges of their pasts. The DUP is simply not the same today under Foster, who is Anglican (not Presbyterian) and who was originally elected as a member of the Northern Irish Assembly from the UUP before switching to the DUP in 2004, as it was under Paisley. Dodds, who has served as deputy leader since 2008, is a Cambridge-educated pragmatist and dealmaker.

The same is true for Sinn Féin, whose leader in Northern Ireland is Michelle O’Neill, a run-of-the-mill social democrat who was a child and teenager during the Troubles, and accordingly far less tainted by the legacy of the IRA violence of the 1970s and 1980s (unlike McGuinness and Gerry Adams).

To that end, the DUP is also reportedly rebuffing the Orange Order and hard-line Presbyterian demands to re-open a once-settled issue involving Ulster unionist parade routes designed to provoke Northern Irish republicans. That’s a responsible step, as DUP leaders have made clear their demands from May will be non-sectarian in nature. Though, as Major cautions, English and Scottish voters may well be annoyed at more funds going to Northern Ireland, even Sinn Féin, I suspect, will be happy to see more money from London, given that Brexit means financial support from Brussels will chiefly come to an end (unless funneled through Ireland, whose government, by the way, would balk at picking up the hefty tab that London currently pays, in the unlikely event of unification).

Though the DUP is pro-Brexit, it is in favor of a relatively softer Brexit that keeps Northern Ireland within the EU single market, and it also opposes restoring a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Given that the border issue is the most delicate and perhaps most intractable surrounding the Article 50 negotiations, the DUP’s input may be helpful. Though DUP officials are reportedly asking May for a pledge not to call a ‘border poll’ over the term of the next government, it’s not clear there’s anything like the sufficiently widespread support today (or in the foreseeable future) for Irish unification to justify May calling such a referendum under the Good Friday framework anyway — though it’s a matter that could arise following a hard Brexit. In the long run, a softer Brexit is far more important to stability and peace in Northern Ireland than any short-term turmoil related to the DUP’s role at Westminster. If both May and Foster exercise caution and restraint, the DUP could help nudge a better outcome for all of Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, the unionists (and Ruth Davidson) strike back

No Conservative had a better night than Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who won more seats than at any election since 1983. (Facebook)

It was the worst night for Scottish nationalism in over a decade — worse, perhaps, than the narrow vote against independence in 2014.

Though the Conservative Party lost its majority at the national level, thanks to a loss of 21 seats in England, it will stagger on as the largest party in the House of Commons thanks in no small part to a surge in support in Scotland, where the party picked up 13 seats, all at the expense of the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

Though the SNP still won a greater share of the vote and more seats than any other party in Scotland, it was a very bad night for the party, which lost more seats, in total, than the Conservatives nation-wide. It was the worst electoral performance for the SNP since 2010 — former SNP leader Alex Salmond lost his seat in Gordon, and deputy SNP leader Angus Robertson lost his seat in Moray. Other MPs, like Mhairi Black, the 22-year-old who is the youngest member of the House of Commons, were easily reelected.

It was a sign, perhaps, that Scottish voters are growing weary of the SNP’s focus on independence after first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to demand a second referendum on Scotland’s status after Brexit negotiations conclude in 2019. As all three national parties made gains in yesterday’s general election (including what amounts to one-third of the Liberal Democratic caucus in the House of Commons), it leaves Sturgeon and the SNP in a precarious position.

After becoming the indisputable leftist opposition to conservatism in Scotland, the SNP now faces the dual threat of a plausible Tory unionism to its right and a resurgent Labour under an equally left-wing Jeremy Corbyn.

The SNP’s Mhairi Black, at 22 years old, is the youngest and one of the most outspoken voices in British politics today. (Facebook)

Though Sturgeon won a fresh mandate in the Scottish parliamentary election last May (and will not face voters again until 2021), the SNP’s plurality in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh falls two seats short of an absolute majority. While the SNP and its allies currently command a majority in favor of calling a second referendum, the 2017 general election result may force Sturgeon to rethink that approach in favor of more quotidian concerns. Moreover, she will have to reorient the SNP approach after it has held power in Scotland since 2007, first under Salmond and, since 2014, Sturgeon. Not an easy task for a party that thought it could keep amassing outsized margins solely by demanding a second referendum.

Sturgeon herself admitted that the ‘referendum-or-bust’ approach may have backfired. Since prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, Sturgeon and the Scottish government have demanded a second referendum on independence for Scotland. The region’s voters narrowly chose in September 2014 to stay in the United Kingdom by a margin of 55.3% to 44.7%. The same voters, however, opposed Brexit in the June 2016 EU referendum by a margin of 62% to 38%, joining ‘Remain’ majorities in Northern Ireland and London.

Sturgeon has threatened that if the Brexit negotiations do not leave Scotland with access to the European single market (and a ‘hard’ Brexit would not guarantee that access), Scottish voters deserve the chance to seek independence again as one way to return to the European Union.
Continue reading In Scotland, the unionists (and Ruth Davidson) strike back

LIVE BLOG: 2017 UK election results

The Houses of Parliament at sunset. British voters are taking part in their likely final election as a member of the European Union (sborisov / 123rf)

Throughout the night, Suffragio will be live-blogging the results of the United Kingdom’s general election to elect all 650 members of the House of Commons on a constituency-by-constituency basis.United Kingdom Flag Icon

BBC Exit Poll
10:00 pm BST, 5:00 pm ET

Conservative Party — 314 (down from 330)
Labour Party — 266 (up from 229)

Scottish National Party — 34 (down from 54)
Liberal Democrats — 14 (up from 9)
UKIP — Zero seats.

If these results are true, the Tories are in for an awful night. Theresa May called a snap election to boost her majority. She’s not only lost seats, but this result would mean a hung parliament and, more likely than not, make Jeremy Corbyn the next prime minister. With this result, however, it is very unlikely that we will know anything about the composition of the next government anytime soon.

10:36 pm BST, 5:36 pm ET

Note that the UK pound has dropped from $1.29 to $1.27 upon news of the exit poll showing that the Conservatives have lost their majority. Spectacular. Feels much like Brexit.

This is all still way too close to call anything.

A 10-seat swing could mean the difference between government and  opposition.

On these numbers, though, it’s possible that neither Conservatives nor Labour could gain a majority (even if it means , which means a more unstable minority government or even a fresh election later this year (and it seems unlikely that May will stick around to lead the Tories — instead, foreign secretary Boris Johnson or Brexit secretary David Davis. Of course, a second 2017 election would take place as the two-year clock continues to tick from May’s decision in March to invoke Article 50, depriving the United Kingdom of precious negotiation time vis-à-vis Brexit when it will be focused on internal domestic politics.

If you add the Labour projection to the Liberal Democratic, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru and some of the republican MPs from Northern Ireland, it’s still difficult to see how Corbyn gets to a majority.

But it’s clear that some leading Tory figures, like home secretary Amber Rudd, could be in trouble. Though it was clear that May’s campaign stumbled, the final polls (save Survation) showed the Tories with anywhere from a 1% to 12% lead. This seems to indicate that youth turnout was higher, boosting Labour’s surge.

One question is how the Scottish National Party seems to have done so poorly — it’s set to lose 22 seats from the 56 seats it won in 2015. That’s even worse than the Tories. If that holds, I’ll be curious to see if the SNP lost to Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives or to a last-minute Labour surge. If the former, it means that Labour has done incredibly well in England.

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Newcastle upon Tyre North
11:06 pm BST, 6:06 ET

The first seat to report — and not in Sunderland! Note that this a constituency that swung to Labour in 2015, and it’s a predictably safe Labour seat in the northeast. It’s also a constituency that held wide appeal for potential UKIP voters.  What’s interesting is that the UKIP (and even the Liberal Democrat and Green) vote has collapsed from two years ago. So while Labour won nearly 5,000 more votes than in 2015, the Tories have also won nearly 2,500 more votes from the last election.

Labour — 24,071 (19,301)
Conservative — 9,134 (6,628)
LibDem — 1,812 (2,218)
UKIP — 1,482 (5,214)
Green — 595 (1,724)

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Houghton and Sunderland South
11:15 pm BST, 6:15 ET

Again, a reliable Labour seat, and Bridget Phillipson will hold onto this northeastern seat. But the Tory swing here is larger than the Labour swing. Not a great sign for Labour’s hopes tonight, because it seems to show that so many of those UKIP voters, some of which might have once voted Labour, have now switched over to the Conservative Party. In this constituency two years ago, UKIP placed second. Still too murky to know what, exactly, has happened today on a national (or even England-wide) basis.

Labour —24,665 (21,218)
Conservative —12,324 (7,105)
UKIP —2,379 (8,218)
LibDem — 908 (791)

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Newcastle upon Tyne East
11:58 pm BST, 6:58 ET

Opposition chief whip Nick Brown holds this seat, with a much improved margin. Labour will take solace in this result, the Tories less.

Labour — 28,127 (19,378)
Conservative — 8,866 (6,884)
LibDem —2,574 (4,332)
UKIP — 1,315 (4,910)

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North Swindon
12:00 pm BST, 7:00 ET

Tories are swinging up 3%, Labour is swinging up 11%. Conservative Justin Tomlinson holds the seat, but another data point in favor of a strong night for Labour. This is the first seat announced from southwestern England, so it’s perhaps more meaningful than the previous Newcastle and Sunderland results.

Conservative — 29,431 (26,295)
Labour — 21,096 (14,509)
LibDem — 1,962 (1,704)
UKIP — 1,564 (8,011)

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Washington and Sunderland West
12:10 pm BST, 7:10 ET

As in Sunderland Central and Newcastle Central, it’s a bigger swing to the Tories than to Labour.  Sharon Hodgson will still hold the seat with a strong majority, though. The regional picture seems to be showing that the Tories are taking more than their fair share of northeastern UKIP voters, even as Labour is improving on its 2015 showing. This is yet another seat where UKIP finished second (above the Tories) in the last election, and it’s still held onto nearly 7% of the constituency vote in 2017.

Labour — 24,639 (20,478)
Conservative — 11,699 (7,033)
UKIP — 2,761 (7,321)
LibDem — 961 (993)

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Kettering
12:30 pm BST, 7:30 ET

In the center of the country, Northamptonshire, Philip Hollobone has held this seat since 2005. Hollobone is a very euroskeptic MP, and while there’s a 6% swing to the Tories, there’s an 11% swing to Labour. So far, all holds. No gains for any party — yet.

Conservative — 28,616 (24,467)
Labour — 18,054 (11,877)
LibDem — 1,618 (1,490)

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Nuneaton
12:30 pm BST, 7:30 ET

UKIP is down 11%, now the Tories and Labour are both up 6%. Marcus Jones will hold this seat.

Conservative — 20,827 (23,755)
Labour — 19,016 (15,945)
UKIP — 1,619 (6,582)
LibDem — 914 (816)

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Broxbourne

12:40 pm BST, 7:40 ET

This is the first seat in the southeast, and it’s a great story for Labour (as opposed to the story in the north). The Tories, and Charles Walker, will hold this seat, but Labour will have seen a double-digit swing. UKIP came in second place here in 2015, and their collapse has helped Labour far more than Conservatives.

Conservative — 29,515 (25,797)
Labour — 13,723 (8,470)
LibDem — 1,481 (1,467)
UKIP — 9,074 (848)

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Darlington
12:57 BST, 7:57 ET

Well. Both the Tories and Labour are up 8%. This is a good result for the Tories, but not nearly the kind of result May needed for a landslide. UKIP, of course, is down 10%. Another seat in the North East in county Durham, and Jenny Chapman holds.

Conservative — 22,681 (17,637)
Labour — 19,401 (14,479)
UKIP — 1,180 (5,392)
LibDem — 1,031 (1,966)

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Wrexham
1:08 BST, 8:08 ET

This is the first result from Wales, and Ian Lucas will hold this seat. The swing here is just as much to Labour as it was to the Tories. UKIP didn’t field a candidate, so its 5,072 votes from 2015 were up for grabs. Notably, the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru has lost some of its vote share from 2015, too. So that means that UKIP voters have split between the two major parties.

Labour — 17,153 (12,181)
Conservative — 15,321 (10,350)
PC — 1,753 (2,501)
LibDem — 865 (1,735)

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Rutherglen & Hamilton West
1:18 BST, 8:18 ET

This is the first seat from Scotland, and it’s also the first Labour gain! Ged Killen here will take the seat from the Scottish National Party, in line with exit polling that shows it will be a very bad night for the SNP. Notably, though, while the SNP swing is down 16%, Labour swung up just 2%, while the Tories swung up 12%. That’s good news for both of the two unionist parties, perhaps, and it shows that the SNP is not only fighting a two-way race against unionists in Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives, but a four-way race with the Liberal Democrats and Labour as well.

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Tooting
1:27 BST, 8:27 ET

Tooting is the first constituency from London, and wowza. Rosena Allin-Khan has retained the seat from the 2016 by-election that Sadiq Khan vacated when he became London’s mayor. A big swing to Labour, nonetheless, from the 2015 election in a constituency that the Tories thought they might steal at the beginning of the election. The Liberal Democrats are doing better here than in 2015, too.

Labour — 34,694 (25,263)
Conservative — 19,236 (22,421)
LibDem — 3,057 (2,107)
Green — 845 (2,201)

* * * * *

Mhairi Black, the 22-year-old MP from Scotland, has won reelection.

Paisley & Renfrewshire South
1:32 BST, 8:32 ET

Mhairi Black, the youngest MP at just 22, will hold this seat, finally some good news for the SNP tonight.

* * * * *

Vale of Clwyd
1:44 BST, 8:44 ET

Here’s the first Labour gain in Wales. Chris Ruane will take back the seat he lost to James Davies in 2015 by a health majority of nearly 2,500. Again, the Liberal Democrats are down, Plaid Cymru was down 3%, and UKIP was nonexistent (after winning 4,577 in the last election).

Labour — 19,423 (13,523)
Conservative — 17,044 (13,760)
PC — 1,551 (2,486)
LibDem — 666 (919)

* * * * *

Putney
1:49 BST, 8:49 ET

Justine Greening, the sitting education secretary, has won her seat in Putney, another London seat. But whereas she won by a margin of 53.8% to 30.0% in 2015, she’ll only win by a margin of 44.1% to 40.8%. Notably, as in Tooting, the Liberal Democrats are winning more of a very reliably pro-Remain vote, and they will have nearly doubled their support from the last election. Another good data point for Labour in London. The Greens are also down sharply from 2015.

Conservative — 20,679 (23,018)
Labour — 19,125 (12,838)
LibDem — 5,448 (2,717)
Green — 1,107 (2,067)

* * * * *

Angus Robertson, deputy SNP leader, has lost his seat. (Facebook)

Moray
2:21 BST, 9:21 ET

This is a huge win for the Tories. After winning Angus, they have now won Moray from Angus Robertson, the deputy SNP leader. And it wasn’t close, a 16% swing to the Tories and a 11% swing down for the SNP. With 48% of the vote, Douglas Ross nearly won an absolute majority. A great night so far for the Tories, who have taken two seats from the SNP (and won a swing of 12% from the SNP in the third seat that Labour won).

Conservative — 22,637 (22,637)
SNP — 15,319 (24,384)
Labour — 5,208 (4,898)
LibDem — 1,078 (1,395)

* * * * *

Battersea
2:21 BST, 9:21 ET

This is another London constituency, and it’s a 10% swing to Labour. Jane Ellison, who easily won in 2015, has lost to Labour’s Marsha de Cordova.

Labour — 25,292 (18,792)
Conservative — 22,876 (26,730)
LibDem — 4,401 (2,241)

Three reasons why Corbyn and Labour are ‘surging’

It’s not exactly Corbynmania, but the narrowing gap between the Tories and Labour is due in large part to Labour leader’s near-flawless campaign, composure and a less-than-radical platform. (Facebook)

In a country where, two months after VE-Day, voters were willing to turf out Winston Churchill in favor of a Labour landslide, no one should have doubted the possibility that Jeremy Corbyn would, two days before the 2017 general election, be within range of overtaking prime minister Theresa May and the Conservatives.

That’s astounding, because when May called the snap election in mid-April, it looked like the Tories would win by the largest margin in a generation, if not their largest margin since the 1931 Tory landslide. One ComRes/Sunday Mirror poll gave May’s party a margin of 50% to just 25% for Labour.

Corbyn has, to say the least, had a difficult time since winning the Labour leadership in the summer of 2015. Despite the support of a majority of the rank-and-file membership (including many thousands of supporters that Corbyn himself recruited to the party) and the labor unions that form the backbone of Labour’s organization, Corbyn failed to win loyalty from among the center-left MPs that comprise the parliamentary party. Indeed, Labour MPs launched a fresh leadership challenge in the summer of 2016 after the failure of the ‘Remain’ campaign in the Brexit referendum, and Corbyn’s shadow cabinet has dwindled from a fairly wide cross-section of Labour to a group of Corbyn’s most avowed (and hardline) supporters — shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow home secretary Diane Abbott.

* * * * *

RELATED: Why Labour’s 2017 defeat could be much worse
than Foot’s 1983 disaster

* * * * *

But throughout the campaign — and especially after Labour’s manifesto release — Corbyn has clawed back into contention, confounding almost every prediction at the beginning of the campaign. What was supposed to be an easy victory lap for May and the Conservatives has turned into a genuine fight over the direction, not only of the Brexit negotiations that will ensue for the next two years, but of British economic policy, security policy and relations with the United States and the controversial Trump administration. One Survation poll from the weekend gave the Tories just a 1% lead; another ICM/Guardian poll taken between June 2 and 4 gave the Tories a 45% to 34% advantage. (No herding here!)

It’s believable that, after two terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and accusations on security by both sides, there’s more volatility in the electorate. If Corbyn has truly succeeded in motivating younger voters (and polls show that Labour leads among the youngest voters by as lopsided a margin as the Conservatives lead among older voters), polling expectations and weights may be incorrect. Moreover, after polling in 2015 failed to predict a Conservative majority, there’s reason to be wary.

At this point, it’s possible that May will increase her majority (currently just 12) to 30 or 40 and it will still be viewed as a ‘victory’ for Labour, because expectations were so high earlier in the campaign (a 100-plus Conservative majority). Moreover, if Labour can manage its way to a hung parliament, the arithmetic for a Labour minority government is much easier, because it will be able to look to nationalist parties in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales — and to the Liberal Democrats, potentially.

But as voters prepare to go to the polls tomorrow, there’s no doubt that Labour under Corbyn’s leadership is surging. Here’s why.

1. Labour’s platform under Corbyn isn’t as radical as expected 

Labour’s 2017 platform is more moderate than it looks — and would pick up many policies where the Blair-Brown governments left off. (Facebook)

Forget about the alarmist headlines — the promise of four new bank holidays, the pledge to re-nationalize Great Britain’s railways, some utilities and the post office, Corbyn’s ennui towards Brexit and the Trident anti-nuclear deterrent. When you strip Labour’s 2017 platform down to its nuts and bolts, it looks a lot like the Labour platforms under the Blair years — and what 13 years of government under New Labour looked like: a lot of spending on health care and education.

Of course, no Blairite or Brownite platform would pledge to increase corporate taxes as much as this platform does, or raise taxes on those who make more than £80,000. Nor would New Labour likely pledge to roll back tuition fees all the way to zero (though Blair introduced tuition fees, New Labour capped them at £3,000 — the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition controversially raised the cap to £9,000). But the New Labour project has been so derided as a neoliberal and neocolonial project that too many people forget the Blair-Brown governments were also social democratic governments in many ways. That’s especially under Gordon Brown as the 2007-08 financial crisis hit. Labour’s 2017 platform, in crucial ways, pledges to pick back up where the Brown government left off in 2010. Introducing tuition fees in the mid-2000s, moreover, made it possible to open more spots in higher education to working-class and poor students.

For all of Corbyn’s hard-left quirks, he’s waged a general election campaign playing to well-trodden themes that have won elections for Labour in the past. Corbyn certainly isn’t running as New Labour 2.0, but he’s also not running as Tony Benn or even Michael Foot, and  he’s shown that he can moderate his policy emphasis to appeal to a wider audience — not just his hard-core supporters, but all of Labour and potentially beyond.

That, more than anything, explains the rise in Labour’s polling numbers over the last three weeks and, especially, the rise in preference for Corbyn as prime minister over May.

Neither Corbyn nor New Labour grandees like former prime minister Tony Blair care to admit it, and Corbyn rose to the Labour leadership by denouncing Blairite policy, but the two leaders share far more in common than not. Since 2015, Corbyn has been defined by what he was against. That’s served to emphasize Corbyn’s presence on the fringes of the political mainstream (i.e. the anti-Semitism row, the friendliness with Hamas and Hezbollah, Hugo Chávez, certain militants from Northern Ireland, London mayor Ken Livingstone). Aside from the vague bromides during the pivotal Labour leadership election in the summer of 2015 (‘Jez, we can’) and from Corbyn’s ineffective and listless efforts during the 2016 Brexit referendum, no one’s judged Corbyn by what he’s for, and as it turns out, Corbyn shines far brighter in this position.

Also, say what you want about his performance as opposition leader, but Corbyn shines brightest when he’s on the campaign trail. That was true in both of his leadership campaigns in 2015 and 2016, and it’s true now in the general election.

2. A tighter race was inevitable 

Though the Scottish National Party and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon expect to maintain their support, the collapse in Liberal Democrat and UKIP support means that the two main parties could together win more aggregate support than at any time since 1979. (Facebook)

There was always a floor of Labour support that would invariably return to the Labour fold. Though Conservatives hoped a month ago that they might outpoll Labour even in Wales, that now seems ridiculously fanciful. A two-to-one victory for the Tories was always wishful thinking, not a possible reality. In 1983, Margaret Thatcher’s national margin of victory was 14.8%, in 1997, Tony Blair’s margin was 12.5%.

That seems clear enough from the polling trends. From the most dire to the most generous surveys, the Tories are winning anywhere from 41% to 45% of the vote, which isn’t far off from the level of support they enjoyed at the beginning of the campaign. The narrowing gap between Conservatives and Labour comes less from eroding Tory support than from winning back skeptical voters who are historically inclined to vote Labour. There’s some evidence that Corbyn’s surge comes too much from strongholds like London and Wales instead of those crucial English battlegrounds like the North East and the Midlands.

Notably, trends show that both parties will improve on their 2015 tallies because the United Kingdom’s third parties — excluding the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) — are all faring so poorly. For the first time since 1979, it’s possible that support for the two main parties will exceed 80%.

The Liberal Democrats, who hoped to rally ‘Remain’ supporters under their new leader Tim Farron, may actually win less support than the 7.9% they won two years ago. Farron spent the first half of the campaign distracted in questions about his personal religious views and LGBT rights. Many of their former supporters, certainly, will now support Labour. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has collapsed, with former leader Nigel Farage no longer around and with its raison d’être, Brexit, now accomplished. It will struggle to win even a third of the 12.7% it won two years ago.  Many of those UKIP voters, especially in the south, are boosting Tory support. Other UKIP voters, those crucial ‘Leave’ voters from the north, may be returning to Labour (though, perhaps, not all of them).

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has anchored her campaign to calls for a second, post-Brexit independence referendum, the SNP may nevertheless struggle to repeat its bravura performance in 2015, when it took 56 of 59 constituencies in Scotland. Local Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has adroitly consolidated unionist support and has emerged as the leading opposition to the separatist SNP, and the Tories expect to pick up at least a handful of seats in Scotland tomorrow.

3. May’s fumbles

Theresa May is seen to have stumbled throughout the campaign. (Facebook)

No one expected the three national party leaders in this election to have mastered campaigning at the national level, given that each of them (May, Corbyn and Farron) are each waging their first general election campaigns as leader of their respective parties.

As noted, Farron botched a promising position early on by spending the first weeks of the campaign bogged down over his personal views on LGBT rights, then betting too strongly that ‘Remain’ voters would vote entirely on Brexit and not on other issues. Corbyn, as noted above, has impressed on the campaign trail — so much so that it seems inevitable he will remain on as Labour leader, even if he loses seats on June 8.

It’s May, however, who has stunned with her truly abysmal campaigning skills. May refused to join the other party leaders last week in the sole debate and, when Corbyn decided at the last moment to show up, she looked weak and cowardly by sending home secretary Amber Rudd instead. May has waged an incredibly cautious campaign that has carefully managed interaction with regular voters. As several wits have noted, it was a mistake for the Conservatives to anchor the campaign in a personality cult for a leader who doesn’t have much of a personality. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who once had (and may still have) leadership ambitions of his own, would have shined in this regard.

Not May, who allowed Corbyn to outflank her on security earlier this week when he pilloried her for budget cuts in her six years as home secretary that reduced the total number of police.

Meanwhile, her claims of ‘strong and stable leadership’ have been derided with her u-turn over a policy that would have required some seniors to pay for their own social care — dubbed the ‘dementia tax’ by the press. If the initial policy seemed like bad politics (turning off the elderly voters than trend Conservative), her decision to abandon the policy made May look weak and panicky.

Now, even if May goes on to win a double-digit victory, she will not necessarily get the credit she deserves.

Varadkar wins Fine Gael leadership but may struggle with real voters

After capturing the Fine Gael leadership today, Leo Varadkar (left) is set to succeed Enda Kenny (right) as Taoiseach.

Today is a landmark for the rise and acceptance of openly LGBT elected officials, as the 38-year-old Leo Varadkar, minister of social protection, easily won the leadership of Ireland’s governing Fine Gael, defeating Simon Coveney, housing minister.

Varadkar will almost certainly become Ireland’s next Taoiseach — essentially, Ireland’s prime minister — next week. That will make him Ireland’s first openly gay leader, and as the son of an Indian immigrant (who, like his son, is a doctor by training), it will make him a Taoiseach with roots both inside Ireland and far outside its borders.

Varadkar will hardly have a honeymoon, however.

Partially, that’s because he was elected leader solely on the basis of his support among elected Fine Gael officials (members of parliament, senators and the like) and among local Fine Gael councillors. Together, those figures’ support account for 75% of the leadership in the party’s lopsided electoral college system that allocates most of the leadership decision-making to fellow officeholders.

* * * * *

RELATED: In Varadkar, Ireland may be
about to have its first openly gay leader

* * * * *

The other 25% in the Fine Gael electoral college reflects the support of rank-and-file party members and, among them, Coveney won around 65% of the membership, defeating Varadkar by a nearly two-to-one margin. If Fine Gael chose its leader like either the Conservatives or Labour in the United Kingdom, Coveney would have easily won. American readers should think of it this way — imagine the Democratic Party presidential nomination was determined 75% by superdelegates; that’s essentially how Ireland’s governing party chose its leader today.

Obviously, in a democracy like Ireland, that leaves Varadkar in an awkward position because he doesn’t command popular support even within his own party. While Coveney was expected to do better among party members than among party officials, Varadkar wasn’t expected to fare so poorly among everyday voters. That could severely weaken Varadkar’s mandate as Taoiseach, and it’s yet another sign that Ireland will go to the polls far sooner than the next scheduled election in 2021 — and that Varadkar may struggle to win a third term for Fine Gael, which now governs as a minority government after losing seats in the 2016 general election.

It’s still a wonderful milestone for Irish and European democracy that both an openly gay man and the son of an Indian immigrant will become Ireland’s head of government next week. It sets an example that gives hope to two groups that have been traditionally marginalized. With the 2015 referendum that overwhelmingly endorsed same-sex marriage, and with Ireland’s relatively welcoming embrace of immigrants from within the European Union and beyond, that may not matter so much in Ireland. But it’s a powerful symbol that will reverberate throughout European politics, no more so, perhaps, than in Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage is still banned, and where a majority of Protestant unionists voted for Brexit last June.

Within Europe, Varadkar will be only the fourth openly gay leader after Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel, former Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo and former Icelandic prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.

All of those officials, however, come from the political left and center-left, unlike Varadkar, who very much has Tory sensibilities and comes from the economic right wing of his party. From an international perspective, classical liberals and those on the right and center-right will cheer Varadkar’s rise, which shows you don’t have to be leftist to be gay and successful in politics. Progressives (especially those in the United States) will find little else to recommend Varadkar, who wants to cut taxes, cut spending and, earlier in the campaign, proclaimed himself the candidate for ‘people who get up early in the morning.’

But in domestic politics, the real winner from the Fine Gael leadership today might have been Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s more socially conservative right-wing party (as opposed to Fine Gael’s more socially liberal center-right orientation). Traditionally, the two parties have been fierce rivals, dating back to the days of the Irish civil war in the 1920s and its aftermath.

Under outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Fine Gael swept to power in 2011, largely because Irish voters were angry at the sharp recession that followed on Fianna Fáil’s watch, as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ gains of the late 1990s and early 2000s seemed to evaporate overnight. Much of Kenny’s premiership has focused on bringing Ireland out of its bailout program and then back to impressive economic growth (over 5% GNP growth, for example, in 2015 and in 2016). But Kenny stepped down earlier this year, in large part due to a widespread corruption scandal revealed years ago within the national police force.

Though Fine Gael won the largest number of seats to the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish parliament) in the 2016 election, Kenny’s party lost seven seats in the 158-member Dáil, and its preferred coalition partner, the progressive Labour Party, was nearly wiped out. Fine Gael now holds just 50 seats in the Dáil (with the support of seven independents that join the party in government), and it governs only with the support of a handful of independents and a ‘support and confidence’ agreement with Fianna Fáil. Varadakar’s official appointment as the 14th Taoiseach will, therefore, also require Fianna Fáil’s blessing.

While the two parties are currently tied in the polls — the two parties routinely trade places for first and second place, with the republican and left-wing Sinn Féin firmly in third place — Martin can now force a snap election by revoking his party’s support for the Fine Gael minority government. That, too, puts Varadkar in a precarious position.

Labour is still stuck in mid-single-digit support as Sinn Féin consolidates support on the Irish left, while Fianna Fáil will appeal to traditional conservatives who will look to a form of Irish conservatism steeped more in social protection than in laissez-faire economics. If Varadkar tries to pursue some of his more Thatcherite policies — making it more difficult for public-sector workers to strike, for example, or passing deeper tax cuts at the expense of social services — many of Fine Gael’s supporters might easily shift to Fianna Fáil. Varadkar feels like the kind of leader who will sell very well in Dublin, but who will also flop outside Dublin — even in Fine Gael’s traditional strongholds like county Mayo in the northwest (and not because of his Indian descent or because of his sexuality).

That Varadkar lost so many of his own party’s members will only encourage Martin and Fianna Fáil.

 

Genial former speaker Scheer wins tight contest to lead Canadian Tories

Former House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer narrowly won the Conservative Party leadership on May 27. (Facebook)

There will be no populist wave — for now — set to sweep Canada.

After flirting with the harshly anti-immigrant Kellie Leitch, reality television star Kevin O’Leary and Québec libertarian and party stalwart Maxime Bernier, Canada’s Conservative Party has elected a far more mild-mannered leader in Andrew Scheer, a genial 38-year-old MP from Saskatchewan.

Think of Scheer (pronounced ‘share’) as the love child of Brad Wall (the Saskatchewan premier) and Stephen Harper (the former prime minister), but with a better smile. An MP from Regina since 2004, Scheer is the first Conservative, Progressive Conservative or Canadian Alliance leader from the province since John Diefenbaker, prime minister from 1957 to 1963.

In a sense, Scheer is the smartest choice that Canada’s Tories could have made. He is an approachable and friendly Conservative who could serve as a relatively pragmatic foil to the popular Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau, whose still-high favorability ratings have slumped somewhat since his party’s landslide victory in the September 2015 election over the current budget, proposed alcohol tax increases and ongoing concerns about the state of the economy.

In Leitch, Canada’s conservatives might have tapped into a potent vein of economic anxiety and nationalist populism, though that has never traditionally been a style capable of winning a general election in Canada.

In O’Leary, at least before he dropped out, they might have tapped into a less vulgar version of Donald Trump — a novice and a showman with a fresh approach to Ottawa.

In Bernier, a former foreign minister, they might have tapped into a powerful new flavor of libertarian conservatism, from Francophone Canada, nonetheless, who was willing to put principle over surface-level popularity (as Bernier demonstrated time and again in his willingness to oppose the ‘supply management’ system that benefits dairy farmers, but which would also have lowered milk prices for consumers nationwide).

* * * * *

RELATED: As O’Leary exits race, Canadian Tories focus on a more conventional leadership race

* * * * *

But in a country where ‘nice’ counts, and where Trudeau glided his way to power in no small part due to his novelty, youth and optimism, Scheer is perhaps the best-matched opponent to take on Trudeau in the next election, due sometime before October 2019. When Scheer moves into Stornoway, the official residence of the opposition leader in Ottawa, he will do so as a father of five children and fully seven years younger than Trudeau, an approachable and pragmatic prairie conservative with a telegenic family. It doesn’t hurt that Scheer grew up in Ottawa, and so he is at ease in both French and English (unlike several of his English-speaking competitors and unlike even Bernier, who speaks English with a heavy French accent). Continue reading Genial former speaker Scheer wins tight contest to lead Canadian Tories

In Varadkar, Ireland may be about to have its first openly gay leader

Leo Varadkar now leads among TDs to win the Fine Gael leadership and, with it, Ireland’s premiership. (Facebook)

Among the European countries on the 2017 political agenda, Ireland figures relatively low. 

Ostensibly, Ireland may not hold its next general election until 2021. Irish politics have so far avoided the kind of xenophobic, hard-right politics that are roiling larger countries. Nor (other than the republican Sinn Féin) has the country succumbed to the kind of hard-left politics that have emerged in much of southern Europe in the aftermath of the eurozone debt crisis.

But as Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister (known in Ireland as the Taoiseach) prepares to step down after more than six years in power, the country may have its first openly gay leader within weeks.

Leo Varadkar, a 38-year-old rising star and the son of an Indian immigrant (and, like his father, a doctor by trade) who represents the pro-market wing of the liberal, center-right Fine Gael, is now the favorite in the party’s first leadership election in 15 years. First elected to the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish parliament) in 2007, Varadkar immediately joined Kenny’s government in 2011 as transport, tourism and sport minister. From 2014 until last May, he served as health minister, and he currently serves as minister for social protection.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s housing minister, hopes he can come from behind to win the Fine Gael leadership on the strength of the party faithful.

His opponent is the 44-year-old (and openly straight) Simon Coveney, a scion of Irish politics, who got his start in politics at age 26 when, in a 1998, he won a by-election to replace his late father, Hugh Coveney. He has remained a fixture of the Irish parliament (or the European parliament — as an MEP from 2004 to 2007) ever since. Like Varadkar, Coveney has held three ministerial posts in the Kenny era — first as agriculture, food and marine minister, then defence minister, and currently minister for housing, planning, community and local government. Though Coveney is relatively pro-market, he has emphasized the need to combat rising inequality.

Varadkar is the flashier choice, a more radical figure with more panache, while Coveney is viewed as somewhat more wooden, though a policy whiz and a more seasoned official. While they will shy away from actively endorsing Coveney, both Kenny and the current finance minister Michael Noonan are likely to support Coveney.

If his lead holds, Varadkar would represent a far greater rupture from Kenny for Fine Gael. He has said he would re-christen Fine Gael as the ‘United Ireland’ Party, and he has promised a series of tax cuts, pledging that Fine Gael would be the party for people who ‘get out of bed early in the morning.’ Among his policy positions is a relatively radical step to reduce the ability of public workers to engage in strikes.
Continue reading In Varadkar, Ireland may be about to have its first openly gay leader

Why Trump’s outreach to Saudi Arabia might not be so clueless

US president Donald Trump made his first visit to Saudi Arabia over the weekend. (Mandel Ngan / Getty)

Most American presidents kick off their international schedule with a visit to neighboring Canada or Mexico.

US president Donald Trump, having picked fights in his first 100 days with both, instead chose Saudi Arabia, launching a five-stop tour that has now taken him to Israel and will also take him to the Vatican, Italy and Belgium on his maiden foreign trip in office. As many commentators have noted, Saudi Arabia was an incredibly odd choice for the leader of a secular democracy.

Nevertheless, Trump came to Saudi Arabia with a firm message of camaraderie. The Obama administration took a more balanced approach to the conflicts of the Middle East, measuring support on a case-by-case basis. While Obama-era policy didn’t exactly rebuff the Saudis, it did put some limits on the bilateral relationship (belatedly, on the use of US arms to kill civilians in the ongoing war in Yemen). Moreover, the Saudis were aghast at the multilateral deal with Iran over nuclear energy, given that it created a preliminary avenue of cooperation between Washington and Tehran, though no one should doubt that the United States remains much closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran, and that was always true during the Obama administration.

But Trump is returning to the previous approach — unqualified support for Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis its neighbors, especially Iran. In contrast to the Obama administration’s desire to stay out of the regional Sunni-Shiite conflict, essentially a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Trump has made it clear that he’s taking the Sunni side.

It’s a throwback to US policy, not in the 2000s under the Bush administration, but more to the 1980s under the Reagan administration. Unlike George W. Bush, who routinely spoke about human rights and democracy, Trump brought no value judgments to Riyadh, though the Saudi kingdom remains one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. Bizarrely, Trump’s daughter Ivanka discussed female entrepreneurship in a country where women do not have the right to drive cars. US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross marveled at the lack of protesters, in a country where freedom of expression is met with imprisonment — or worse.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh projected Trump’s face, alongside that of the Saudi king, Salman, on its facade.

It’s not clear, exactly, what Trump received in return. Trump handed gift after gift to the Saudis, in exchange for the royal treatment in Riyadh, with parades and pomp and little else, short of bold new promises to help rein in Sunni extremism, and the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.

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RELATED: One chart that explains Obama-era Middle East policy

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That’s clear enough from the $110 billion arms deal that Trump signed with the Saudis on Saturday, which will boost Saudi efforts to bolster Yemen’s president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in an ongoing and bloody war with nominally Shiite Houthi rebels that control Yemen’s north, and who are supported in part by Iran. In an uncharacteristically bland speech on Saturday, Trump embraced the Muslim world as an ally in the global fight against extremist ideologies — remarkable for a president who, during the 2016 election, called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States and who railed against the Saudis for funding the kind of extremists who planned and carried out the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Generally speaking, though, the consensus is that Trump got played for a sucker.

But there’s another interpretation worth considering. Continue reading Why Trump’s outreach to Saudi Arabia might not be so clueless

Christie and PLP swept aside in Bahamian landslide

Herbert Minnis, a doctor by trade who’s been in politics a decade, has become the new prime minister of the Bahamas. (Facebook)

If there’s one rule about Caribbean elections in the 2010s, it’s that you should bet on the incumbents being tossed out by restless electorates. 

It happened in Jamaica, where voters turfed out prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller in February 2016. It happened in Trinidad and Tobago in September 2015, when Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s government fell. It happened to Tillman Thomas in Grenada in February 2013, and it nearly happened in Barbados to Freundel Stuart in February 2013. (The one exception is the Dominican Republic, where president Danilo Medina, one of the most popular leaders in the Western Hemisphere, easily won reelection with nearly 62% of the vote in May 2016).

It has now happened in The Bahamas on May 10, when voters ejected the ruling Progressive Liberal Party of Perry Christie, who had served as the country’s prime minister since 2012 and who held power again between 2002 and 2007. The nominally center-left PLP faced the wrath of voters angry about rising economic and social problems that have worsened — not abated — under Christie’s government for the past five years.   Continue reading Christie and PLP swept aside in Bahamian landslide

Kraft steps down as NRW result gives boost to Merkel’s fourth-term hopes

Hannelore Kraft will step down as the regional leader of the Social Democratic Party in North Rhine-Westphalia after leading the state’s government for seven years. (Facebook)

There’s no way for the German left to sugarcoat Sunday’s regional election result in North Rhine-Westphalia.

It’s the clearest sign yet that after flirting with Martin Schulz earlier this year, German voters are coming back to Angela Merkel and the center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union).

North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany’s most populous state, and it’s one of the industrial and technological heartlands of Europe. It’s a relatively left-leaning state — since 1966, the only CDU leader to run the state’s government was Jürgen Rüttgers, from 2005 to 2010. Moreover, it’s the state where Schulz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate for this September’s federal elections, grew up. It’s home to 17.8 million of Germany’s 82 million-plus population. So four months before the national election, NRW has as more predictive power than you might typically expect for a state election, considering that its electorate equals just over one-fifth of the electorate that will decide the national government in September.

It’s too soon to guarantee that Merkel will win a fourth consecutive term, even with the decisive victory last weekend — the third and most important CDU win in three state elections this year. But the result is a clear sign that Schulz’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) is struggling to connect with working-class voters who are turning increasingly to alternatives from the anti-immigrant right to the protectionist left to the reassuring stability of the Merkel-era CDU. Indeed, the CDU campaigned throughout the spring on the notion that Merkel and her allies amounted to a ‘safe pair of hands.’ Continue reading Kraft steps down as NRW result gives boost to Merkel’s fourth-term hopes