All posts by Kevin Lees

Schengen silliness

With French flags waving (as shown above) to the tune of La Marseillaise at a campaign rally in Villepinte on Sunday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the Shengen zone, calling for a French defense to the “European way of life.”

Don’t worry — you shouldn’t believe for a nanosecond that Sarkozy will ever take concrete steps to pull France out of the 25-member Schengen zone in a second term.

You should believe, however, that it’s the next logical step in a populist campaign to consolidate right-wing voters in advance of the first round of France’s presidential election.  Recall that Sarkozy opened his reelection bid with a call for a referendum on immigration.  Last week, he declared there were “too many foreigners” in France and called for the country to halve the number of immigrants permitted annually from 200,000 to 100,000.

The Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985 but which took effect in 1995, allows for free travel without internal border controls throughout the EU countries (except for Ireland and the United Kingdom), plus non-EU members Iceland, Norway and others.  Even the sovereignty-conscious Swiss are members as of 2008.

It’s the agreement that allows outsiders to visit any number of European countries (again, except for Ireland and the U.K.), while going through passport control and customs just once — at the port of entry.

Taken together with the EU Directive on services in the internal market, promulgated in 2006 with implementation taking effect in 2009, which aims to create a single market for services throughout the EU, Schengen is also the agreement that nudges freer movement of workers across the European continent, subject to the labor regulations of each member state.

In any context, Schengen must be counted as the chief achievements of the entire European project.

Continue reading Schengen silliness

Could Mélenchon endanger Hollande’s first-round victory?

It’s easy to forget in the battle royale between the two champions of the center-left (François Hollande of the Parti socialiste) and the center-right (incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy of the latest right-wing Gaullist incarnation, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) of the French presidential election, the first round ballot gives voters a choice of nine additional candidates.

From among those nine, the most well-known are Front national candidate Marine Le Pen, who is polling in third place and whose father finished second in the 2002 presidential election, and centrist Mouvement démocrate candidate François Bayrou, who finished a close third in the 2007 presidential election.  Perhaps equally well-known is former French foreign minister and prime minister Dominique de Villepin, whose presidential campaign in 2012 has yet to catch the imagination of the French electorate.

But creeping up slowly in the polls — with currently just under 10% — is the candidate of the Front de Gauche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The Front de Gauche is an umbrella group of various leftist political parties, the most prominent of which is the once-strong but now-atrophied Parti communiste français.  Continue reading Could Mélenchon endanger Hollande’s first-round victory?

Parti socialiste, the Stromae remix

Veuillez installer Flash Player pour lire la vidéo

Alors on flippe!

This one, a parody from the Canal+ French presidential election coverage, will be a little difficult to follow for non-French speakers, but delightful for Stromae fans.

Join François Hollande, Ségolène Royal, Lionel Jospin, Martine Aubry and the whole Parti socialiste gang flip out about blowing another French election despite leading the polls.

The language may be French, but the whistle-past-the-graveyard feeling is instantly translatable to any campaign that’s watched a once-formidable lead slip away in electoral disaster, especially when the campaign is riding high and has six weeks left until voting day. See Jospin, 2002. See Royal, 2007.

Sings Hollande in the parody:

en 2012 c’est mon tour [In 2012, it’s my turn]
faut qu’je passe le premier tour [I must make it beyond the first round]
sinon comme Royal et Jospin [otherwise like Royal and Jospin]
je vais passer pour un crétin [I will be taken for a fool]

The other West African presidential election this spring

As Senegal prepares for its presidential election runoff, now scheduled for March 25, and takes the correspondingly greater number of international headlines, West Africa’s next presidential election is just next door a month later on April 29 in Mali.

When you think about Mali, start with Senegal, its very predominantly Muslim and formerly French neighbor.

Then make it 6 times larger and move it inland without any coast and fill it with mostly desert.

Add just about 2 million more people, but shrink GDP per capita until it’s just two-thirds as wealthy (not like Senegal is so wealthy to begin with, even compared to its African peers).  This makes Mali one of the world’s poorest countries, although it has steadily grown at upwards of 5% a year since the 1990s following reforms instituted by the administration of Alpha Oumar Konaré, who served as president of Mali from 1992 and 2002 — in between the stagnant dictatorship of Moussa Traoré and current president Amadou Toumani Touré.

Then replace the history of tense, but steady, democratic norms with a history of unfair elections and coups through the first 30 years of its post-independence history.

While you’re at it, also add in a nationalist movement of the Tuareg people — a nomadic Berber group that has more in common with Libya and North Africa than Senegal and West Africa — in Mali’s sparsely populated northern region of Azawad, where tensions have also, unfortunately, recently re-ignited.

Got all that? Continue reading The other West African presidential election this spring

Will the Irish referendum stop the latest EU treaty?

It’s not as if the European Union needed to plan another landmine to explode the agreed “fiscal compact” from last December which, broadly speaking, would require EU countries to maintain a structural deficit of less than 0.5% of nominal GDP annually. 

With the anti-austerity candidate leading the polls in France and with Greek parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring, there is no shortage of political events that could cause yet another crisis in the eurozone.  And after so many countries (including Germany!) violated the 1997 Stability and Growth Pact’s budget deficit rule (no more than 3% of GDP) throughout the 2000s, you might remain skeptical that any country would hew for very long to a 0.5% budget rule.

So the last thing anyone in Brussels wanted to hear was Dublin’s insistence last week that the fiscal compact will require an Irish referendum prior to its ratification.

Yet last week, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that, on advice from the Irish attorney general, Ireland will be required to hold a referendum on the fiscal compact treaty.  It was previously thought (hoped?) that an Irish referendum might not be necessary.  Given that British prime minister David Cameron announced that the UK would veto the amendment of existing EU treaties, and the decision of the Czech Republic not to join the final version, the treaty is not a formal EU treaty, but an intergovernmental treaty among the remaining 25 EU members.

Under Crotty v. An Taoiseach in 1987, the Supreme Court of Ireland decided that any significant changes to any EU treaties to which Ireland accedes require an amendment to the Irish constitution prior to ratification, and therefore subject to a referendum.

Currently, polls indicate that 60% of Irish voters support the treaty, but the referendum date has not yet been announced and opponents will have ample time to mobilize.

If you look at the trajectory of the first-shot Irish referenda on various EU treaties, you would not necessarily be optimistic:

Continue reading Will the Irish referendum stop the latest EU treaty?

Hollande retakes the initiative

While campaigning in Bayonne over the weekend, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was ignominiously forced to take refuge in a local bar when Basque separatists and other protestors started throwing eggs at the beleaguered French leader, shouting in Basque dialect, “Nicolas kampora!” — Nicolas get out! 

A far cry from the start of the election, when Sarkozy seemed to take the initiative in the campaign and define the terms of the presidential race for the first time, buoyed by the confidence of European leaders across the continent, including German chancellor Angela Merkel.  In the immediate aftermath of his campaign announcement, Sarkozy also bounced somewhat upward in the polls — and as recently as last week, polled just 1.5% behind frontrunning Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande. Continue reading Hollande retakes the initiative

Bibi and the duck

Since the landmark 1996 election when Benjamin Netanyahu first became a world figure by defeating Shimon Peres to become Israeli prime minister, I’ve been fascinated by his ability to remain in the center of Israeli politics for nearly two decades — in his bellicosity and in his tenacity, he reminds me of Israel’s version of Richard Nixon.

Not to make light of the deadly serious three-way dance going on among the United States, Israel and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program (and the potential US and Israeli military response to it), which could have wide-ranging impacts on the politics of all three countries and the world beyond, I found this video fabulously hilarious, which mashes up Netanyahu’s speech yesterday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee with Daffy Duck.

File it alongside the Putin/Mr. Burns parody from last week.

BBC News explores the duck analogy in greater detail here.

We’re all a little loonie

Last week, the economic blogosphere lit up with a report from The Globe and Mail that Canada’s ambassador to Iceland would address the possibility of Iceland replacing its beleaguered currency, the króna, with the Canadian dollar.  When the story broke, the speech was cancelled, but economic commentators have been discussing the possibility ever since: should Iceland replace the króna with the loonie?

In a week when Iceland also opens an unprecedented trial against former prime minister Geir Haarde over the 2008 financial crisis, it perhaps goes without saying that finance and politics go hand in hand in the tiny nation.  When the crisis hit in 2008, Iceland realized how things could horribly, massively wrong in a global economy with a currency used by just 300,000 people in a country where every single bank has been wiped out virtually overnight. Continue reading We’re all a little loonie

Once more unto the breach

Reports from Venezuela today confirmed that Venezuela president Hugo Chávez’s tumor is indeed cancerous and that the Venezuelan president will remain in Cuba for further radiation treatment. 

Chávez appeared on television Sunday to acknowledge that the two-inch growth was indeed a relapse of the cancer for which he was previously treated last year. He denied that the cancer has spread to other parts of his body and denied rumors of having suffered a post-surgery hemorrhage. Continue reading Once more unto the breach

Official Iranian parliament results

Iranian officials announced the final results of last Friday’s parliamentary elections today, confirming weekend reports that conservative supporters of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have routed conservative supporters of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With reformers and moderates largely boycotting the election, Iranian conservatives were left to contest the 290 seats in Iran’s National Consultative Assembly. With 65 seats yet to be determined in a second round in April, it appears that Ahmadinejad has been sidelined as a lame duck with just over a year to go in his second and final term as president — term limits prohibit Ahmadinejad from running in the 2013 election.  Even Parvin Ahmadinejad, the president’s sister, failed to secure a seat in the parliament from the city of Garmsar, the president’s hometown.   Continue reading Official Iranian parliament results

Largest street protests in Moscow since the Soviet Union’s fall?

UPDATE (1:15 pm ET): Alexey Navalny (@navalny), a top blogger and critic of the Putin regime, has been arrested in Moscow.

Protestors are gathering on Pushkin Square in Moscow against widespread fraud in yesterday’s Russian presidential election for what could be the largest anti-government movement since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Former Guardian Moscow correspondent Luke Harding has called this moment newly restored President Vladimir Putin’s “Brezhnev moment,” the moment where Putin stops bearing any semblance to a truly elected leader:

Sunday night was Vladimir Putin’s Brezhnev moment. It was when he ceased simply being an elected leader and segued towards a lifetime presidency. Having neatly sidestepped the rules by doing a stint as prime minister (no Russian leader can serve more than two consecutive presidential terms) Putin can now go on and on. Brezhnev did 18 years, Stalin 31. Despite the whispers of revolution lapping at the Kremlin’s walls, who would bet against Vladimir matching Leonid?

Julia Ioffe has a thoughtful column in Foreign Policy today that sets forth the fundamental choice that Putin will have to make in the days ahead in response:

What Putin decides to do come March 5 is “the central question, not because Putin decides everything in politics on March 5 but precisely because he can no longer decide everything himself,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked on Putin’s 2000 presidential campaign but was fired by the Kremlin in the last year. “It’s become a very complicated scene.” The way Pavlovsky sees it, there are two possible paths: modernize and reform the political system or “play the tsar.” The first option is the more difficult one, but should Putin choose the second door, Pavlovsky predicts, “He’ll become a prisoner of his own system, completely out of touch with reality, locked in the Kremlin and with his minions ruling in his name. And this is the worst possible outcome.”

I would put it in even starker terms: if the protests gather the kind of momentum that’s being expected, Putin will have to choose between Iran 2009 and Tunisia 2011.  Putin can “play the tsar” (which is much the same in this context as playing the ayatollah) and use brute force to kill, imprison and scare away the opposition, but in doing so will only delegitimize his regime further in the eyes of the opposition, of the international community and within the Russian elite.  Putin can compromise with the opposition, but risks a slippery-slope that leads to his downfall (much like deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) or, at the very least, the kind of embarrassing electoral re-run that occurred in 2004 after the fraudulent Ukrainian elections spawned the “Orange Revolution.”

Either result would sharply reduce Putin’s current position of strength, which should make the next 12 hours fascinating for Kremlinologists.

In the meanwhile, as protests are scheduled to get underway, we have an indication of what the future might hold:

 

Merkel’s new Grand Coalition

Not to be outdone by Russia’s electoral shenanigans, Der Spiegel reports that German chancellor Angela Merkel has formed a broad coalition to oppose frontrunning French presidential candidate François Hollande.  The coalition includes not only British prime minister David Cameron, who most recently snubbed Hollande on a visit to London, but also Italian prime minister Mario Monti and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

Although each of the four European leaders is more or less of the center-right, the greater sin is Hollande’s opposition to the austerity measures underlying last December’s EU-wide fiscal compact, not his innate leftism.

With polls showing Hollande still the overwhelming favorite to defeat French president Nicolas Sarkozy in the second-round runoff in May, I wonder whether Monti and Rajoy, who are presiding over two countries with high employment — even before the bite of austerity has yet to show its full force — will still be singing from the Merkel hymnbook later this year. Continue reading Merkel’s new Grand Coalition

Official Russia results

Official results are in from Russia’s Central Election Commission, notwithstanding reports of massive fraud, as reported widely on Sunday — including the use of “carousels” of voters bussed from one voting district to another with the purpose of casting multiple votes.

To no one’s surprise, the results make clear that Vladimir Putin will be returning to the Kremlin after just the first round of the presidential election, and Putin tearfully declared victory in a Sunday night victory rally.  Putin’s campaign manager Stanislav Govorukhin said the election was the “cleanest in the history of Russia,” notwithstanding thousands of individual reports of fraud.

As previously noted by commentators inside and outside Russia, however, the key question was not the election result, but rather how the Russian populace responds in the coming days, weeks and months to the victory and how the Kremlin, in turn, responds to any protests.

The Moscow Times notes that protests against fraud in both Duma and presidential elections are likely to continue through the summer. It predicts that while President-elect Putin may keep his promise to appoint outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister, he could quickly replace him with former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who has threatened to form a new liberal party in Russia.  Such a move could be seen as a concession to reformers.  Although it seems unlikely that Putin would allow Duma elections to be run again, it is conceivable that he might permit the direct election of state governors, a practice curtailed in 2004 in favor of Putin’s appointment of regional governors in the name of anti-terrorism and state security.

In The Moscow Times live blog of the vote returns, it notes a turnout of 99.59% in Chechnya, the one-time breakaway province that’s been the subject of much brutal force directed from Putin and Boris Yeltsin before him.  Astonishingly, 99.73 of Chechen voters have supported Putin.

In Moscow, Putin was held to under 50% of the vote, with just 48.25% to Prokhorov’s 19.39% and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov’s 18.96%. Prokhorov threw a party in Moscow Sunday, and declared “victory,” but was remained uncommitted to attending any rallies in protest of the vote on Monday.

Putin 2018: Looking beyond Sunday’s election

The Economist‘s cover story this week features “The Beginning of the End of Putin,” with a thoughtful piece looking beyond Sunday’s election and a companion piece about how different Russia is today from the Russia that first elected Putin in 2000 — it is presumed that Putin will win, likely in the first round, and likely with some amount of electoral fraud, which was so comically and blatantly deployed in the December 2011 parliamentary elections to the Duma.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the election, there’s some doubt as to whether Putin will countenance any of the rising protests of the Russia middle class:

  • Putin is already making noises about running for reelection in 2018, which would keep him in office until 2024.
  • He’s refused to a re-run of the Duma elections from December, which were notoriously fraud ridden, sometime to comic effect, as shown in clips on YouTube.
  • News reports have placed in doubt whether current President Dmitri Medvedev, one time a proponent of more liberal reforms in Russia, will return to the prime minister’s office when Putin returns to the Kremlin.

All of which means that the popular response to Sunday’s vote matters more than the actual vote itself.

The fundamental question is not whether the inevitable Russian protests following the vote will grow, but whether the standoff will end like in Iran in 2009 or Tunisia in 2011. Stay tuned.