When Moon Jae-in (문재인) won his party’s nomination last Monday, news outlets across the globe immediately proclaimed that the progressive’s nomination all but assured Moon’s victory in the snap presidential election set to take place on May 9.
Nevertheless, the next 27 days promise to be some of the most tumultuous in the history of South Korean democracy, with former president Park Geun-hye (박근혜) under arrest on bribery and other corruption charges and with US president Donald Trump’s administration taking an increasingly bellicose line over North Korea’s nuclear provocations. Park’s removal from office brought forward the presidential election previously scheduled for December.
Last week’s primaries among all of South Korea’s major parties have effectively settled the presidential field. Almost immediately, though, Moon’s opponents started lining up behind another progressive alternative — former software engineer and entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수), who kicked off his general election campaign by taking a ride on Seoul’s subways. The hint wasn’t subtle: Ahn is an outsider who understands the problems of everyday Koreans.
It set off an election dynamic that polls say, all of a sudden, is now too close to call.
The sudden Moon-Ahn horse race elevates a long-simmering rivalry that’s defined the South Korean opposition for the better part of the 2010s. Moon and Ahn both hold relatively left-wing views by the standards of South Korean politics. But Ahn is increasingly viewed as more pro-American, given Moon’s skepticism about the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that North Korea and China view as an American provocation. While both Moon and Ahn previously opposed THAAD, which could deploy within weeks, the two candidates are now voicing at least qualified support for its deployment if North Korea’s aggression continues. But Moon has warned that THAAD’s deployment should be halted if North Korea resumes negotiations and freezes its nuclear weapons program.
More broadly, South Korean business elites like that Ahn comes from an entrepreneurial background. Idealistic voters, meanwhile, consider Ahn an untainted maverick who can break the cycle of corruption that’s dogged several administrations from both the left and the right and the ‘chaebol’ conglomerates than dominate the South Korean economy. (Notably, Samsung CEO Jay Y. Lee (이재용) was arrested in February as a result of the wide-ranging corruption scandal that engulfed Park’s presidency, accused of paying up to $40 million in bribes to Park in exchange for favorable treatment for Samsung).
With less than two weeks to go until the first round of the French presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is surging in the polls.
From a distant fifth place a month ago, Mélenchon’s strong debate performances and his appeal from outside the traditional political mainstream have catapulted him well beyond former education minister Benoît Hamon, the social democratic candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) — and in some polls, even leading former prime minister François Fillon, the center-right and scandal-dogged candidate of Les Républicains.
The latest IFOP poll gives Mélenchon 17%, just behind Fillon (19%), though still some trailing poll leaders Marine Le Pen (24.5%) and Emmanuel Macron (23.5%) — Hamon, who once led Mélenchon, now claims just 9.5%. Earlier this year, before Hamon’s nomination, I wrote about the nightmare scenario (for centrists and liberals) of a Le Pen-Mélenchon runoff.
But you should be skeptical about the Mélenchon surge, which might not be as large as polls currently show. Even so, Mélenchon will struggle to grow his support sufficiently to win the presidency.
Rise of the anti-elite left
Mélenchon is the candidate of the far-left Front de gauche (Left Front), an alliance of communists and other hard-left figures. Though Hamon won the Socialist Party nomination in January on a radically leftist agenda (e.g.,a business tax on robots, a 32-hour workweek, a higher minimum wage and new spending on social welfare), Mélenchon would go farther. Charismatic and acerbic in equal measure, Mélenchon also favors the 32-hour workweek, greater social spending (in the form of a €100 billion stimulus) and a higher minimum wage (€1,300 per month). But he would also levy a 100% tax rate on anyone making over €33,000 a month. He would also dismantle France’s nuclear power program, which supplies over 76% of France’s power needs (more than for any other country worldwide). While Le Pen wants to leave the eurozone and hold a referendum on ‘Frexit,’ Mélenchon wants to leave the European Union and NATO entirely, slams German chancellor Angela Merkel on the campaign trail and vows that he’s the only candidate ‘for peace.’
Mélenchon may sound like the ‘French Bernie Sanders,’ but his policy positions makes Sanders seem like a centrist in comparison.
French politics has seen this show before. Mélenchon, who ran for president in 2012, also saw a mid-April polling surge in the last election. One mid-April 2012 IFOP poll gave him 14.5% in that race, but he ultimately finished far behind in fourth place with 11%, under-performing every significant French poll in the days leading to the vote.
Five years later, anti-establishment sentiment is certainly much higher. There’s no doubt that Mélenchon is as anti-elite as it comes, even more so than the hard-right, anti-immigrant Le Pen, who at least finds common cause in the Catholic Church and other institutions that she believes support her view of traditional French values. Though Macron remains the frontunner to win a runoff against Le Pen on May 7, Le Pen still leads most polls to win the first round of the election on April 23. It’s been taken for granted for so long that Le Pen would win the first-round vote, but it’s still a landmark achievement for her and the Front national. The two candidates of the traditional parties are now polling less than one-third of the vote in an election season that eliminated both former president François Sarkozy and Bordeaux mayor and former prime minister and foreign minister Alain Juppé in the center-right presidential primaries, as well as once-popular prime minister Manuel Valls in the center-left primaries. It also forced an unpopular incumbent François Hollande to skip a reelection bid altogether.
Mélenchon continues to splinter the left, not unite it
Over the weekend, Hamon indicated that if Mélenchon does make the May runoff, his supporters should support Mélenchon. That’s the closest sign of any unity between the two campaigns. Just a few weeks ago, prominent Hamon supporters — including leftist economist Thomas Piketty — were hoping Mélenchon might drop out of the race in favor of a united candidacy around Hamon. Yannick Jadot, who had planned to run as the candidate of the Europe Écologie Les Verts (Europe Economy / Greens), dropped out in late February in deference to Hamon.
Now, many leftists are hoping Hamon will drop out. They add up the total support for Hamon and Mélenchon in polls, and believe that together, they would be a shoe-in for the runoff. But the reality is far more complicated.
Hamon, ironically, is more maverick than the ‘independent’ Macron (a Hollande protégé), and his nomination made the chances of a coalition with Mélenchon far more likely than had Valls won the Socialist nomination.
But Hamon was always swimming upstream as the official nominee of the Socialist Party. After five years of Hollande, the Socialist brand is toxic; after the perceived decades-long failures of Hollande, Sarkozy and their predecessors (on everything from employment to wage growth to immigration), the establishment brand is even more toxic. Moreover, many centrists within the Socialist Party responded to Hamon’s nomination by distancing themselves from a nominee who (1) seemed like a sure loser and (2) is far too leftist for their tastes, and many of those Socialist centrists now support Macron, formally or informally. Hamon has been poorly served by the Socialist Party since January, and there is a chance — however slim — that he might drop out of the race in favor of Mélenchon. (It would be too far late, legally, for the Socialists to nominate a new candidate).
The Hamon-Mélenchon talks failed not only because the two candidates are so far apart on policy (such as EU and NATO positions), but from the fact that they come from very, very different traditions. Think about the difference between, say, longtime French communist leader Robert Hue and former Socialist president François Mitterrand. Even if Hamon dropped out (very unlikely) and endorsed Mélenchon, the Socialist Party would never endorse him — in part, because Macron is already the unofficial Socialist candidate. Moreover, the Socialists also have a tough parliamentary election in June to worry about.
Mélenchon would hardly welcome formal Socialist backing. Just as Macron perceived (and as Hamon is learning), the party’s imprint is akin to a poisoned chalice. Nothing Mélenchon could do or say would more taint him as a ‘sellout’ to his supporters than to accept Socialist endorsement.
Indeed, the best gift Hamon might be able to provide Mélenchon is to drop out and force the Socialists to endorse Macron instead, who already has his share of ‘Socialist’ problems. Though he’s leading a new movement called ‘En marche,’ Macron’s experience in French politics comes from a Socialist background. A graduate of the elite École nationale d’administration and a former investment banker, Macron owes his political career to Hollande. He served as a presidential deputy chief of staff before serving as Hollande’s economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Like it or not, Macron is the status quo candidate in the race, for all his populist bluster about change. Former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë now backs Macron, as does Valls. Unofficially, so does Ségolène Royal and many others, including perhaps Hollande himself.
The rupture of the French left into a centrist Macron faction, a progressive Hamon faction and a hard-left Mélenchon faction isn’t likely to change after April 23. Even if the personalities leading those factions change, the divides might widen as the focus shifts to parliamentary elections. If Macron loses the presidency to Le Pen, moreover, the left’s fragmentation could magnify Le Pen’s ability to co-opt economic nationalism and reframe French politics on a nationalist/globalist line instead of a traditional left/right line. Unfortunately for the Socialist Party, the stakes transcend just one election cycle, and the party’s hegemony, at least throughout much of the Fifth Republic, may be finished.
The problem for Mélenchon’s growth prospects
Even while Mélenchon is shaking up the race, there’s a big difference between ‘shaking up’ and winning.
The question is where Mélenchon can go from here. A once-possible April 20 debate looks like it will no longer take place, denying Mélenchon one last chance to shine (ironically because he refused to join a debate just three days before the first-round vote). He led a well-attended rally in Marseilles over the weekend, but rallies are one thing — converting rallies to votes is another. Unlike Fillon, Hamon and even Le Pen, who have traditional party structures to help turn out the vote, and unlike Le Pen and even Macron, who has cultivated a large organization since last summer, Mélenchon is at a ground-game disadvantage. That’s perhaps one reason his 2012 showing was such a disappointment.
On the left, it’s hard to see where Mélenchon will pick up more voters. Hamon’s supporters must realize he’s a lost cause. But while Mélenchon’s polls began to rise after the first presidential debate on March 20, those Hamon voters are still not switching to Mélenchon, even though he has surged to a 2-to-1 advantage against Hamon in some polls. Maybe he could pick up voters from Macron, but it’s doubtful that the most pro-European centrist in the race would hemorrhage too many votes to an ardent eurosceptic communist. Even as the traditional parties weaken, a dwindling PS base still exists to support the Socialist nominee. Note the baseline support (at least 16% to 20%) that Fillon is still winning from center-right voters, even though police have essentially indicted him for paying public funds to his wife and children for fake jobs.
More fertile ground for Mélenchon might come from Le Pen’s supporters (one reason why he may have held his weekend rally in Marseilles, where Le Pen support runs strong). Like Mélenchon, Le Pen calls for radical change, is skeptical of Brussels and EU officials, and embraces the same economic protectionism as Mélenchon’s old-school leftism. So if he makes a breakthrough later this month, it could be at Le Pen’s expense, reclaiming votes in places like France’s de-industrialized northeast, where Le Pen won over disenchanted — and formerly Socialist — voters.
But another lesson from 2012 should cast doubt on that thesis. After the last presidential race, both Le Pen and Mélenchon ran for a legislative assembly seat in northeastern Hénin-Beaumont, an old coal-mining region. In the first round of that election, Le Pen won 42.4%, far ahead of second-placed Socialist Philippe Kemel (23.5%). Again, Mélenchon disappointed with just 21.5% of the vote. In the runoff (Mélenchon withdrew and endorsed Kemel), Le Pen only narrowly lost by a margin of 50.1% to 49.9%. Nevertheless, the lesson from that parliamentary race, at least five years ago, is Le Pen’s brand of hard-right protectionism was far more compelling than Mélenchon’s 21st century communism.
Le Pen’s support in the 2017 election, however, has universally been stronger than in 2012. So while there’s definitely a path for Mélenchon into the May runoff, it will be an incredibly difficult task.
It was an impressive bit of dinner theater for Xi Jinping last night at Mar-a-Lago.
Less than three months into his presidency, Donald Trump has already deployed American force, launching a barrage of missiles against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The attack wasn’t a disaster — it didn’t appear this morning to have killed any civilians, it didn’t accidentally hit any stocks of sarin nerve gas. The strikes were well executed, and that’s to the credit of the US armed forces, US defense secretary James Mattis and US national security advisor H.R. McMaster. The strikes, which took place while Trump was hosting a dinner in Florida for the Chinese president, should put Xi on notice that the same fate could befall North Korea if Chinese diplomacy cannot retard or halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. (Though it might also put Kim Jong-un on notice that he should be more preemptive in his approach to international affairs in the Trump era).
Though it’s difficult, set aside how you feel about Barack Obama, on the one hand, and Trump, on the other hand. It’s possible to believe that in 2013, the United States and its European allies stood down from Obama’s ‘red line’ rhetoric because doing so facilitated the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons uqest to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Obviously, by 2017, it’s clear that Assad either produced new chemical weapons or never fully turned over 100% of his stocks back in 2013 and 2014. Either way, there’s a rational basis for responding with more force, and American officials on both the right and left (and many more US allies) are lining up to support Trump’s strikes in retaliation for the chemical warfare — including his 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state. In some ways, Trump’s step was a throwback to the Clinton administration, which routinely and liberally deployed missile strikes to send messages from Sudan to Iraq, long before the restraint of the Obama era and the full-barrel bluster of the Bush administration.
That still doesn’t mean it was the right step.
The international community’s chief goal now vis-à-vis chemical weapons should be forcing Assad to hand over the remaining stockpiles of any chemical weapons. That means getting OPCW on the ground (despite an ongoing civil war) to inspect and remove those weapons. But with so many more Russian troops on the ground in Syria today than in 2013, and with Moscow unhappy with Trump’s new approach, that will make it more difficult for the OPCW to maneuver, not less. That’s without getting into the issue of whether this hurts the ongoing US goal of defeating ISIS (hint: it does). That’s without getting into the constitutionality of the strikes without congressional approval.
Moreover, what happens if Assad (or someone among the pro-Assad forces) decides to gas 100 more people next week? Or 100,000 people? Will Trump escalate strikes? If you’re as brutal as Assad, it’s worth losing an airstrip that Russian forces can easily rebuild in a month.
In short, it’s very easy to see how Trump could be forced to escalate, which could embolden North Korea. US military assets aren’t unlimited, and getting bogged down in Syria within his first 100 days as president would leave Trump far fewer military options (including not just actual force, but the threat of force) in dealing with the North Korean problem.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Lenín Moreno won election as Ecuador’s president on Sunday.
He came just a hair within winning the presidency outright in the first round of the election on February 19 and, even then, led his challenger, conservative businessman Guillermo Lasso, by double digits.
So if anything, his very narrow victory in the April 2 runoff was an impressive showing for Lasso and his supporters, even if it was not quite enough to prevent another five years of left-wing correísmo that will attempt to build on (or improve upon) the last decade of so-called ’21st century socialism’ under outgoing president Rafael Correa.
Moreno has billed himself as something of a more moderate version of Correa, under whom he served as vice president from 2007 to 2013. In some measures, Moreno will have to be more moderate — rising public debt, lower oil prices and a weakened economy will mean Moreno will have less freedom to pursue the same level of expansionary fiscal policy that unfolded under Correa’s administration. Moreno will also be working with a much reduced majority within the ruling Alianza PAIS in the Ecuadorian national assembly, which could also narrow Moreno’s governing path.
After elections of relatively center-right presidents in Peru and Argentina in 2015, and with Brazil’s social democratic president Dilma Rousseff impeached last year, Ecuador was an important test for the Latin American left, which has suffered increasingly across the region.
In some ways, however, though Correa started off on the populist left alongside fellow nationalists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, his government charted a more complex course. Under Correa — the longest-serving president of Ecuador in its history — the country maintained the use of the US dollar as currency, an important anchor against inflation. Despite standing up to Ecuador’s bondholders early in his presidency, Correa gradually wooed foreign investment from both China and the United States, and used the proceeds of Ecuador’s oil wealth to double social spending. In that regard, Correa’s approach to government looks no different than many of the center-left and even center-right leaders of Latin America, from Mexico to Brazil, over the last two decades. Ecuador after Correa fits more into the international mainstream than Argentina after the Kirchners or even, perhaps, Brazil after the crashing defeat of lulismo after 15 years (though lulismo may have an opportunity for a comeback in 2018).
Though he’s tried to cast himself as a slightly more conciliatory figure than Correa, Moreno campaigned on a pledge to increase social spending. Moreno may (or may not) truly be more moderate than Correa. Circumstances almost certainly mean that he’ll be forced to moderate and reform some of the excesses of his predecessor. Moreno will also deal with a staggering corruption problem — the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht paid over $35 million in bribes to officials in Correa’s government for special treatment in awarding Ecuadorian contracts. Jorge Glas, who has served as Correa’s vice president since 2013 and will continue as Moreno’s vice president, is himself one of the most compromised figures as corruption allegations compounded during the campaign.
Nevertheless, the more mild-mannered Moreno is an optimistic figure who spent much of the last three years working as a special envoy for the United Nations promoting access for the disabled (Moreno himself is confined to a wheelchair after muggers shot him in 1998). Perhaps the best model for Moreno is the former Uruguayan president José Mujica, whose personal story and everyman charisma allowed him to chart a decidedly progressive course in a way that punched well above its weight on the international stage.
For decades, presidential politics in parliamentary democracies were boring affairs — if popular elections were even held for the position, they typically featured technocrats or independents. Politicians, if they ran for what are mostly ceremonial presidencies, would be episodes that ended a successful political career.
That’s still generally the case in western Europe — presidents like former Labour firebrand Michael D. Higgins in Ireland, one-time foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Germany, and the charismatic communist Giorgio Napolitano in Italy all ended (or are ending) their political careers as figureheads.
But increasingly, in emerging democracies in eastern Europe, it’s becoming a power play for popular prime ministers to wage campaigns for a previously ceremonial presidency, using the ‘mandate’ of popular election as a bid to suffuse the presidency with far more than ceremonial power.
It is a gambit that’s worked in the Czech Republic and in Turkey, where presidents Miloš Zeman (since 2013) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (since 2014) have succeeded, to some degree, in shifting some power from the parliamentary branch of government to the presidential. The Czech Republic remains a parliamentary democracy, but Zeman, who is running for reelection in 2018, shrewdly took advantage of the country’s first direct presidential elections to carve a new role for the Czech presidency in domestic and foreign policymaking. Erdoğan not only won the Turkish presidency, but hopes to formalize constitutional changes to enshrine presidential power in a high-stakes April 16 referendum.
It failed in Slovakia, where sitting prime minister Robert Fico lost the 2014 presidential election to independent businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska. So it’s a power move that can sometimes backfire — Fico managed to remain Slovakian prime minister, but his center-left party dropped from 83 seats to 49 in the National Assembly in last March’s parliamentary elections after a swing of 16% away from Fico’s party.
There will be no such regrets for prime minister Aleksandar Vučić, who easily won a first-round victory with 55% of the vote among an 11-candidate field, cementing control of the Serbian government not only in the hands of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS), but, in particular, under the personal command of Vučić, who nudged incumbent Tomislav Nikolić to stand aside from a reelection bid in late February.
It will make Vučić even more powerful than Boris Tadić, a center-left and pro-EU leader who similarly dominated Serbian politics as president from 2004 to 2012. Though Nikolić narrowly defeated Tadić five years ago in a runoff, Vučić (and not Nikolić) held more sway over Serbian government over the last half-decade, increasing his grip on power over a series of three parliamentary elections between 2012 and 2016. Vučić’s presidential victory means that power is now likely to swing (once again) to the Novi Dvor, the Serbian presidential palace.
Over the next two months, as he prepares to take the presidential oath on May 31, Vučić, who remains prime minister for the time being, is likely to choose one of several cabinet members as his successor — leading names include two independents appointed by Vučić to his cabinet, finance minister Dušan Vujović or public administration minister Ana Brnabić (who would not only be Serbia’s first female prime minister, but its first openly lesbian one, too). Nikolić, over the weekend, hinted that he would retire from party politics altogether, which would seem to eliminate him as prime minister. Former justice minister Nikola Selaković, a rising star within the SNS, is also often mentioned. Continue reading Vučić easily wins presidential victory to consolidate power across Serbia’s government→
No one has more riding on the outcome of the April 2 presidential runoff in Ecuador than Julian Assange.
The Wikileaks founder has been shacked up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012. Officially, Assange is evading an extradition to Sweden to stand trial for sexual assault charges. Ecuador’s outgoing president Rafael Correa granted Assange asylum five years ago, a populist move responding to the eccentric Australian native’s fears that he might ultimately be subjected to the grips of US extradition.
If one-time frontrunner Lenín Moreno, Correa’s former vice president, and the heir to Correa’s self-proclaimed ’21st century socialist’ Alianza PAIS movement, wins Sunday’s election, Assange can rest assured that Ecuador’s government will not revisit that arrangement anytime soon.
But if center-right insurgent Guillermo Lasso has his way, he will evict Assange from from Ecuador’s protections within 30 days of taking office.
Though Assange’s fate is drawing global headlines, Ecuador’s election represents a fascinating showdown between two very different policy views for the country’s future outcome — and a referendum on Correa’s decade-long rule. The result will hold deep consequences for the country, its rule of law, its electorate and Latin America generally. A country of 16 million that, since 2000, has used the US dollar as its currency, Ecuador is today the eighth-largest economy in Latin America.
It’s the latest battleground in a series of contests in the mid-2010s that have generally brought setbacks to the populist left. A Lasso victory on Sunday could add pressure to Venezuela’s increasingly autocratic government, and boost conservative opposition hopes in Chile’s elections later this year and in Bolivia’s in 2019.
Former bankers do not typically make great politicians, but Lasso narrowly forced a runoff by holding former vice president Lenín Moreno to just below 40% in first round on February 19.
That gives Lasso a head-on opportunity to face Moreno without dispersing multiple opposition forces within Ecuador. Third-placed candidate Cynthia Viteri, a former legislator and a social conservative, has endorsed Lasso. Fourth-placed Paco Moncayo, a leftist who served as Quito mayor from 2000 to 2009, has refused to endorse either of the two finalists — a snub to Correa and Moreno.
Viteri’s support and Moncayo’s ambivalence have both boosted Lasso’s runoff chances, though it may still not be enough — Lasso finished more than 11% behind Moreno in the first round. Indeed, most polls give Moreno a slight edge over Lasso, a longtime president of the Bank of Guayaquil whose political experience is negligible — he served briefly as ‘superminister for finance’ in 1999 during the scandal-plagued administration of Jamil Mahuad, sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence in 2014 for embezzlement. In 2012, Lasso formed a new opposition party, Creando Oportunidades (CREO, Creating Opportunities) to back his presidential ambitions in 2013. Lasso finished a humiliating second place (with just 22.7% of the vote) to Correa, who won a first-round victory with 57.2% support. But that race put Lasso in position to consolidate support as the chief opposition candidate this year. Continue reading As Lasso rises, Ecuador could be next leftist LatAm domino to fall→
No sooner than Martin Schulz seemed to have captured political lightning in a bottle, his party fizzled in the first state-level test in the leadup to Germany’s autumn federal election.
In the southern state of Saarland last weekend, chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) not only won the election, but improved its support since the last election in 2012, giving the state’s conservative minister-president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has served in that role since 2011, a second term.
Headlines blared that the narrow defeat somehow marked a defining moment for Schulz, the newly crowned leader of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), which has pulled into a virtual tie with the CDU in opinion polls for the national vote in September.
It’s one of the smallest of Germany’s sixteen states, both in area and in population (996,000). Nevertheless, Saarland’s size isn’t the only reason its election results will have little impact on a federal election still six months away and even less predictive value. It’s true that the state election, the first of three such state-level votes this spring, showed that the CDU’s political power isn’t evaporating overnight. But Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose Christian Democrats led every opinion poll in the weeks and months preceding the vote, should have expected to win Saarland’s election.
Though the renegade Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine — one of the founders of what is today the democratic socialist Die Linke ran the state government from 1985 until 1998, when he briefly became Germany’s finance minister,Saarland before 1985 — and since 1999 — has always been friendly territory for the Christian Democrats.
Far more consequential will be the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany (with around 17.8 million people) and one of its most wealthy, on May 14 — and in Schleswig-Holstein a week earlier.
In NRW, Hannelore Kraft, a pro-growth Social Democrat who has often been mentioned as a future chancellor, is hoping to win reelection to a third term (she assumed the office of minister-president in 2010). Though the state is historically competitive, Kraft is a popular official, and the SPD has recently taken a meaningful lead since Schulz — who grew up in Eschweiler, a city on the state’s western edge near both The Netherlands and Belgium — became the party’s chancellor candidate. If the Social Democrats fail to hold NRW, it will be a far more depressing harbinger, for many reasons (a fifth of the German electorate, a longtime bellwether, popular SPD incumbent, Schulz’s home state), than the Saarland result.
It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years since the last election, but Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov’s center-right party won just about the same percentage of the vote that it did in 2014 — around 32.7%.
That performance was good enough for an 11-seat increase in the National Assembly (Народно събрание), making Borissov more likely than not to retain the premiership. It’s a remarkable turnaround after Borissov, dogged by allegations of corruption within his government and after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in last November’s presidential election, resigned earlier this year and triggered snap elections.
If he can form a governing coalition, it would be Borissov’s third non-consecutive stint as prime minister, his first coming in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2009. At a time when Russian president Vladimir Putin is working to undermine European democracy, top European leaders and EU officials alike view Borissov as a soothing center-right ally firmly devoted to European integration. EU leaders will certainly far prefer a Borissov government with Bulgaria set (for the first time) to assume the six-month rotating EU presidency in early 2018.
As both an EU and NATO member, Bulgaria is a key ally on the eastern periphery of the European continent. It’s a northern neighbor of the economically depressed Greece and the increasingly autocratic Turkey and just across the Black Sea lies a divided Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea. These days, it’s an increasingly tough neighborhood. Despite European anxieties about reliance on Russian natural gas, Borissov last year was already considering the resurrection of the on-again, off-again South Stream gas pipeline from Russia (talks began in 2006, but ended after Borissov won the 2014 election), even as the country’s new president called for better relations with Russia. While the number of ethnic Russians in Bulgaria is negligible (far less than ethnic Turks, which comprise nearly 9% of the population), a large majority of Bulgarians belong to the Orthodox church, sharing important cultural touchstones with Russia.
Earlier this year, voters seemed likely to punish his party, the center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, Граждани за европейско развитие на България) for years of economic malaise and widespread corruption. GERB’s presidential candidate last November, Tsetska Tsacheva, the former chair of the National Assembly, lost a second-round runoff by a 23% margin to Rumen Radev, an independent and former Bulgarian Air Force commander endorsed by Bulgaria’s center-left.
At the time, coming days after Donald Trump’s successful, if once implausible US presidential campaign, Radev’s victory was yet another incremental geopolitical victory for Russian president Vladimir Putin, given Radev’s call for closer ties with Russia. Indeed, Tsacheva’s defeat was the proximate cause for Borissov’s resignation.
Last weekend, Hong Kong’s residents were supposed to be enjoying universal suffrage for the first time in history.
Instead, pro-democracy activists, over months of protests in 2014, rejected Beijing’s attempt at introducing a ‘Chinese’ vision of democracy that would have permitted Hong Kong’s citizens choose from among several pre-approved candidates. Those protests, which culminated in the ‘Occupy Central’ movement (also known as the ‘umbrella movement,’ a nod to the ubiquitous yellow umbrellas that protesters carried), effectively halted the adoption of a new elections law. So, on March 26,the same panel of business and civic leaders that have elected the special administration region’s executive for the last 20 years also elected Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017.
The result? The 1,194-member Election Committee chose Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), an experienced bureaucrat who has for the last five years served as chief secretary for administration — the most senior official in the Hong Kong government after the chief executive. Lam enjoyed the heavy, if unofficial, support of the central Chinese government. Given that the business professionals who dominate the Election Committee have much to lose by alienating Beijing, Lam became in recent months the heavy favorite to win. Opponents almost immediately mocked Lam, an increasingly unpopular administrator, for winning 777 votes — the number ‘seven’ is Cantonese slang for an impotent penis.
Emmanuel Macron should not be such a difficult candidate to defeat in the French presidential election.
Set aside the weird personality cult that gushes over Macron’s youthful good looks, or the popular movement, En Marche! that shares the candidate’s initials (E.M.) and that translates to ‘Forward!’ — a schlocky political trick for an electorate that prides itself on sophistication.
Set aside that the 39-year-old rising star has never technically won an election to anything in his life.
Set aside the gaffes — going to Algeria and calling French colonization a ‘crime against humanity’ or criticizing the same-sex marriage law that he said ‘humiliated’ traditional Catholic voters.
Set aside the nasty rumors about his personal life or the wife 24 years his senior (and yes, they are out there).
Why Macron is far weaker than polls currently show
Though Macron is in a commanding position with a month to go until voters first go to the polls, he is the product of two of the most elite educational institutions, Sciences Po and the École nationale d’administration, and before entering politics, he was an investment banker at Rothschild. He represents a strain of neoliberal economic policy that commands lower support today than ever — the Atlantic right is moving toward economic nationalism and the Atlantic left is moving to more aggressive taxation and deeper social welfare programs.
Macron, for all intents and purposes, is the avatar of the French political elite, amid a global climate where voters are rejecting elites. That’s even compared to a former prime minister, François Fillon, the center-right candidate of Les Républicains, or to a former education minister Benoît Hamon, the social democratic candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).
When he was campaigning across India in the leadup to his overwhelming victory in the 2014 general election, prime minister Narendra Modi often proclaimed that development, more than Hindu nationalism, would behis government’s priority.
Indeed, throughout this spring’s local election campaigns in five states across India, Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) emphasized development, economic reforms and defended the November 2016 ‘demonetisation’ effort, all neatly summed up in the slogan — sabka saath, sabka vikas, essentially ‘all together, development for all.’
It worked: the BJP easily won elections in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, and it did well enough to form new governments in Goa and in Manipur. (In the fifth state, Punjab, the BJP has a negligible presence as the junior partner of a Sikh-interest party that last week lost a 10-year grip on power).
But the Modi brand of ‘toilets over temples’ seemed to change Saturday, when the BJP announced that Yogi Adityanath would serve as Uttar Pradesh’s new chief minister.
The 44-year-old Adityanath, a local priest who dresses in saffron robes, has been a member of India’s parliament since 1998, representing the Gorakhpur district in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
He will now lead a sprawling north Indian state of over 200 million people; indeed, a state more populous than all but five countries worldwide. Uttar Pradesh, sometimes marred by religious violence in the past, and it’s somewhat poorer than the average Indian state. In fact, its per-capita GDP is lower than every other state in India (except for impoverished, neighboring Bihar) and barely more than one-third that in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Though many of the BJP’s supporters are motivated by Hindutva — the idea of bringing Hindu nationalism and Hinduist morals and precepts into government, the Modi wave of 2014 (and 2017) rests on the idea that Modi can implement the kind of economic reforms and development policy to make Uttar Pradesh more like the relatively prosperous Gujarat.
To that end, many Indian commentators expected the BJP to call upon an experienced statesman to head the new government in Uttar Pradesh. Home minister Rajnath Singh, who briefly served as the state’s chief minister from 2000 to 2002, or the younger communications and railways minister Manoj Sinha, both of whom are among the most popular and successful members of the Modi government, typically topped the list of potential leaders.
By contrast, Adityanath doesn’t have a single day of executive or ministerial experience. He is a controversial figure, to say the least. In his first day as chief minister, he spent more time talking about shutting down slaughterhouses, a top priority for Hindu nationalists who believe that cows are sacred creatures, than about the nuts-and-bolts policy details, despite promising that development would be his top focus.
If anyone had doubts, it’s clear now that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has a clear grip on his country.
When Modi swept to power in 2014 by capturing the biggest Indian parliamentary majority in three decades, he did so by unlocking key votes in Uttar Pradesh. Ultimately, Modi owed his 2014 majority to the state, which gave him and the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) 73 of its 80 seats to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament.
Nevertheless, it was a surprise last weekend — even to Modi’s own supporters — when, after seven phases of voting between February 11 and March 8, officials reported that the BJP won over three-fourths of the seats in the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly. That’s a landslide, even in the context of a state where voters like to see-saw from one party to the next every five years. The BJP victory marked only the fourth time in history (and the first time since Indira Gandhi’s victory in 1980) that a single party won over 300 seats in the UP legislative assembly, and it bests the earlier BJP record (221 seats in 1991) by just over 90 seats.
A referendum on demonitisation
The victory in Uttar Pradesh, one of five state elections for which results were announced on March 11, amounts to a massive endorsement of Modi (less so of the BJP). Though the 2019 elections are over two years away, the victory will give Modi some comfort that he will win reelection. For now at least, the Uttar Pradesh victory shows just how far behind Modi the opposition forces have fallen.
With over 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in the country and, indeed, it’s home to more people than all but five countries worldwide.
In some ways, Modi’s staggering victory in Uttar Pradesh this spring is even more spectacular than his 2014 breakthrough. After all, Modi was defending a three-year record as prime minister that hasn’t been perfect. Despite winning the biggest parliamentary majority since 1984, the protectionist wing of the BJP has slowed the pace of Modi’s economic reforms. It was only last November that Modi successfully completed a years-long push to reform the goods and sales tax — a landmark effort to harmonize state levies into a single national sales tax, thereby lowering the costs of doing business between Indian states. Those obstacles still exist, as evidenced by the truckers lined up at state borders for hours or days on end.
For all the supposed benefits of the November 2016 demonetisation plan, its rollout was cumbersome, with the sudden removal of 500-rupee and 1,000-rupee bills from circulation in a country where 90% of all transactions are cash transactions, most of which involved the two ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes (equivalent, respectively, to $7.50 and $15.00 in the United States). Though Modi hoped the abrupt step would stem corruption and retard the flow of illicit ‘black money’ that’s evaded taxation, the move also inconvenienced everyday commerce and trade, as ordinary and poor Indians struggled to transition to the new system.
So the state elections — in Uttar Pradesh as well as Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa — were referenda on Modi’s reform push, in general, and demonetisation, in particular.
Modi passed the test, as voters gave his government the benefit of the doubt — and he did it on his own, with the help of his electoral guru, Amit Shah, a longtime aide to Modi during Modi’s years as chief minister in Gujarat and the engineer of the BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and, since 2014, the BJP party president.
So personalized was Modi’s campaign that the BJP didn’t even bother naming a candidate for chief minister. So the BJP won a three-fourths majority in India’s largest state without ever telling voters who it intended to serve as the state’s top executive. Speculation initially revolved around Rajnath Singh, the 65-year-old home secretary who once served as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh from 2000 to 2002 and who is himself a former BJP president. But But 57-year-old communications and railways minister Manoj Sinha, who was born in Ghazipur and represents the city in the Lok Sabha, is also a leading contender. Modi and Shah are expected to make a decision by Saturday. Continue reading Modi sweeps state elections in Uttar Pradesh in win for demonetisation→
One of the growing myths of yesterday’s poor showing for Geert Wilders and the is that, somehow, the Dutch electoral system is somehow responsible for Wilders’s poor showing.
Consider this paragraph from The Economist that cautions not to extrapolate too much from Wilders’s humbling collapse to just 13% support (good enough, in the current fragmented political context, for second place):
Mr Trump’s win could not have happened without the peculiarities of America’s electoral college. By the same token, the fact that Mr Wilders did not win does not translate on to Ms Le Pen. The Dutch political system is open and diffuse, with over a dozen parties in parliament and low barriers for new ones to make it in. The French system is more rigid.
I’ve seen this theme increasingly on Twitter today (especially on #MAGA Twitter) — somehow as if it’s okay to disregard the Dutch election result because seats in the Tweede Kamer are awarded on the basis of proportional representation or because of the Dutch parliamentary system, as if another system would have delivered a resounding victory for Wilders and the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom).
Imagine that Dutch elections were instead organized like American elections. You would see a primary on the right (much like we’ve seen recently in Italy, even though it’s more of a parliamentary system). In this hypothetical primary, Wilders would have campaigned against not only prime minister Mark Rutte, but against Christian Democratic leader Sybrand Buma and Christian Union leader Gert-Jan Segers and even Thierry Baudet, the head of a little-known group, the Forum voor Democratie (FvD, Forum for Democracy), a small right-wing populist and eurosceptic group that managed to win 1.8% of the national vote yesterday. If you extrapolate the results — that’s a little tricky because the Dutch voted for parties, not for personalities — it’s clear that right-leaning voters far preferred Rutte to Wilders.
That would have been true in 2012, by the way, and it would have been true in 2010 (the high-water mark for Wilders and the PVV). An American-style ‘primary’ in 2006? Former Christian Democratic prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende would have easily defeated both Rutte and Wilders. In a presidential-style ‘general election,’ Rutte would have faced off, perhaps, against Alexander Pechtold, the leader of the left-liberal Democraten 66 (D66, Democrats 66), with Wilders standing on the sidelines stewing over Islam or running a doomed third-party challenge. (Though of course sore-loser laws in the United States would have effectively prevented Wilders from running both for the Republican nomination and a third-party candidacy).
Imagine, too, a world where Dutch elections used the French system. Rutte and Wilders, as the leaders of the two parties with the largest number of votes in the 2017 election (again, it’s tricky to conflate votes for parties and votes for individuals) would presumably face one another in a runoff.
But it’s hard to see where Wilders would have picked up votes, much beyond the populist 50PLUS party or the FvD. That’s clear enough from the 65% (or so) of the Dutch electorate that supported moderate parties of both the left and the right that are generally pro-Europe and tolerant (if not always enthusiastic) of immigrants. Rutte, I’d be willing to wager, would win a French-style runoff by the same margin that centrist Emmanuel Macron currently enjoys against populist Marine Le Pen in polls forecasting the May presidential runoff in France.
Finally, consider the United Kingdom, where each member of parliament is elected in a single-member constituency by first-past-the-post voting.
There’s a reason that third parties fare so poorly in FPTP systems — they are unfairly disadvantaged.
See the map above from the 388 municipalities of The Netherlands. That sea of dark blue? It’s the wave of municipalities where Rutte’s governing Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) would have won on a FPTP basis. In a world where the Tweede Kamer was a 388-member parliament, the VVD would easily dominate it, followed (not particularly closely) in second place by the Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal), represented above in dark green.
By my count, the PVV won first place across just 23 municipalities. That compares with 13 municipalities where the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP, Reformed Political Party) won the highest number of votes (see in orange above) — a party that wants to run the country on ‘biblical principles’ and Calvinist orthodoxy!
The system — in this case at least — had no bearing.
Wilders has no one to blame but himself and his party’s vague and divisive message. It simply didn’t break through to many Dutch voters, and that lack of enthusiasm would have manifested itself in any number of electoral systems.
But as it turns out, orange is also the new bulwark for liberal democracy.
Mark Rutte’s governing center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) performed better than polls predicted in The Netherlands, and Rutte will now return as Dutch prime minister — perhaps through the end of the decade — as head of a multi-party governing coalition.
Conversely, Wednesday’s election amounted to a disappointing result for Geert Wilders and the sharply anti-Europe, anti-Islam and anti-immigration Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom), which blew a longtime polling lead that it had held from the middle of 2015 up to just a couple of weeks ago.
As Dutch voters took a harder look at the campaign, however, they turned away from Wilders’s populism and to the balmier vision of Rutte’s VVD. But they also turned to three other parties that ranged from conservative to liberal to progressive. Indeed, over 65% of the Dutch electorate supported parties that are, essentially, in favor of moderate policymaking, European integration and basic decency to immigrants.
Given that the Dutch election is the first of a half-dozen key European national elections in 2017, all of which are taking place in the dual shadows of last year’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, everyone was watching this vote in particular as a harbinger for European elections this year.
Mark Rutte, that is — the prime minister of The Netherlands who will almost certainly find his way to a third term as prime minister after tomorrow’s election.
Even earlier this year, when Geert Wilders’s hard-right Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) held a substantial lead, it was always virtually assured that Rutte would return as prime minister. Consistently, even as the PVV topped polls, Rutte’s center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) continued to follow behind in second place, leading the race among the PVV’s mainstream opponents. All along, Wilders’s goal was never forming a government, but the hollow victory of placing first among a half-dozen parties bunched together between 10% and 20% in the polls.
Over the last two weeks, even that has changed to Wilders’s detriment.
The VVD eclipsed the PVV in polls at the end of February, and one shock poll from Ipsos on the eve of the election showed the PVV sliding to fifth place. At a time when Rutte is embroiled in a high-profile diplomatic spat with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (over whether Turkish ministers should be holding campaign rallies in The Netherlands for next month’s Turkish constitutional referendum), Wilders still seems to be losing steam.
Both inside Europe and beyond, the Wilders threat was always smaller than the amount of coverage he’s received. Even when the PVV was leading, no other major party was willing to work with Wilders and the PVV’s toxic brand. Even with the highest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives), the PVV would fall far short of the majority it would need to form a government. Mostly, that’s due to the PVV’s hardline views on immigration, Islam and the European Union. But it’s also because Wilders proved an unreliable ally to Rutte when he withdrew the PVV’s support for Rutte’s minority government in 2012 over spending, forcing snap elections — a gambit that backfired when the PVV lost nine seats.
What’s very much true — and always has been true — is that support across all parties in tomorrow’s election in The Netherlands could be so dispersed that no party wins more than even 17% of the vote. It could usher in the most fragmented parliament in postwar history, and it will force Rutte to navigate coalition negotiations that include four or even five parties. Don’t hold your breath for the kind of quick deal that followed the 2012 election, the ‘purple’ coalition between Rutte’s liberals and the social democratic Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA, Labour Party).
Labour’s support has collapsed in the ensuing five years. Junior coalition parties are rarely rewarded by voters, but many Labour supporters believe the party far too willing to compromise with Rutte on spending after Labour waged a popular campaign against budget austerity. (It is still projected to win between nine and 14 seats in the election under a new leader, Lodewijk Asscher.)
If the VVD and the PVV finish first and second, respectively, as most polls still forecast, the race for third place is murkier. The conservative Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal), the center-left/liberal Democraten 66 (Democrats 66) and the leftist GroenLinks (Green Left) are all surging, and the CDA and D66 are widely tipped to enter government after coalition negotiations. GroenLinks is likely to make the strongest gains of any party (more even than Wilders) after the successful campaign of its fresh-faced 30-year-old leader, Jesse Klaver.
If there’s any consensus among the Dutch electorate, voters are choosing from a group of five or six parties, each dedicated to European integration, liberal democracy and moderate policy prescriptions — not fear-mongering xenophobia. No matter what happens tomorrow, Wilders will have a smaller role in shaping Dutch policy than, say, the more circumspect D66 leader Alexander Pechtold, who could become Rutte’s deputy prime minister in a new coalition. Pechtold may not have the international profile that Wilders has acquired with his ‘Make The Netherlands Ours Again’ histrionics, but he could be in a position to push the next government to a more pro-immigrant and pro-European orientation.
None of this, most especially the PVV’s apparent collapse, should be shocking.